Complete Novel: The Inside-Out Woman

The Inside-Out Woman is a psychological thriller. A woman who had a leading role in a religious cult physically escapes the charismatic leader before he initiates a mass suicide. She starts a new life as a married woman with children in Indiana. However, she can’t escape the cult and the leader who lives in her mind almost as a real person. One day in June, with a tornado approaching, she finds herself battling with the leader for the very lives of her children and husband.

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The Inside-Outside Woman

The Inside-Outside Woman: The Complete Novel


Cleaning is normal.  Cleaning is the most normal activity there is.  Everybody wants to be clean, to live in a clean place.  It is true, an inalienable truth handed down by God Himself.  In the beginning, He created a clean world, pristine in every regard.  Eden was a world without garbage, and the creatures that lived in Eden, from the lowliest to man himself, were clean.  The bliss of it was no one or thing cleaned; no one or thing had to clean; no one or thing had to be reminded to clean.  There was no big-clean Saturday in Eden; all was naturally clean.

How long had it lasted? Iam wondered, flat on her belly, head and hands under Dominic’s bed, sweeping out his socks with her arm.  A thousand years?  A million?  Well, what did it matter?  How many times did He warn those two about the tree and its fruit?  What good had it done?  About as much as the constant reminders to Dominic to put his socks in the hamper when they were dirty and in the top drawer next to his underwear after she washed them, but never under the bed, or behind the door, or under his pillow.  If only he were like Dominica, neat and clean, a child who listened to and obeyed her mother.  While Iam knew it was truth that Eve defied His word, it also was inconceivable to her, unbelievable, as she fished the last of Dominic’s socks into bright daylight, that a woman was responsible for the need to root under a boy’s bed … for the need to be the servant of a man … of a man who claimed the devotion of a god.  Backing out, she shivered at the recollection of him and them.

She seated herself on the floor with her back against the bed, blocking the memories, as she had for years, directing her attention at the socks in the bowl of her crossed legs.  She smiled.  In his sloppiness, Dominic had managed neatness, for he’d matched each pair, folded each sock into the other to prevent strays.  She smiled against her anger, knew she’d forgive him, remind him, and repeat everything, probably as soon as next Saturday.  It was her way with Dominic.  Regardless of how much he ignored or defied her, her anger with him was always fleeting; she was always ready, even more, eager, to forgive him; she could not resist helping and pleasing him, or any man for that matter. 

She tossed a balled sock into the air, caught it, tossed once more.  Were the socks the only things underneath the bed?  She decided to check before running the vacuum under it; otherwise the infernal machine might suck up something, a sock, anything too large and too malleable, and the belt would jump its pinions.  With Billy in Knox County processing tornado damage claims, she’d have to waste a half-hour puzzling how to remove the housing and more time replacing the belt.  Best to check.

She pushed the socks aside and rolled onto her stomach.  She got her arms and head under the bed, muttered about a flashlight, marveled at how much dust and debris accumulated in June with the windows opened, wished Eve had denied the serpent and left that apple where she’d found it, and saw what appeared to be a box.  It was far back near the headboard, in the shadows, where she often missed with the clunky upright.  It was a small corrugated box, no more than a twelve-inch cube, easily overlooked in the dimness, situated, perhaps, so she would miss it?

She shimmied deeper, caught its edge with a hand, inched it forward, losing it twice before she was able to grip it with both hands.  With it in her grasp, she slithered backwards.  When she was sure she wouldn’t brain herself on the bed rail, she drew herself up onto her knees, lifted the box, and set it on Dominic’s bed. 

It was her box.  She’s stored it, hidden it really, in the basement.

The presence of the box in Dominic’s possession, by all appearances secret possession, shocked her.  It was her life, everything that remained of it preceding Sullivan, Billy, the children, and peace, laid bare, stolen from her.

Except for the contents of the box, she’d never owned anything personally.  When she lived with her mother, nothing was hers:  not the clothes she wore, the bed she slept in, not herself, nothing. 

She ran away at fourteen.  There was nothing to take or leave behind.  She ran blindly, hitchhiking cross country, taking stupid, frightening risks, landing in San Diego for no other reason than it was thousands of miles from her upstate New York town, because it was the farthest point she could get to with the money she’d stolen from her mother. 

A man found her curled into herself in an alley next to a restaurant dumpster convulsed by nausea, weeping in her own squalor, stripped of her childish protection of immortality, terrified by the certainty of death.  She was starving and had scavenged the restaurant’s garbage, gulping scraps indiscriminately, not slowing to chew any of it, until her body violently purged the putrid hash in solid, searing chunks.

He squatted and pulled her head back by her hair.  “Pobrecita, ¿Estás enferma?  You sick?” 

She mewled. 

He said he was Ricky, and he saved sick chavas like her. 

A week later she was recovered, living in a small apartment in El Cajon, healed and in love with her savior, with the man who insisted he was Ricky, solo Ricky.  Shortly, Ricky’s amigos came.  How many he seemed to have, and how generous he was to them with her.  In the beginning, she resisted.  He persuaded her by cajoling her.  He loved her.  Didn’t she love him?  He saved her.  Was she not grateful?  He cared for her, provided her shelter, clothing, and food.  He asked for nothing, except small favors for his amigos.  Could she deny him?  Burdened by her love and indebtedness, her reticence melted into concession.  But mortified and hurt after the third small favor to two amigos who inflicted themselves on her together, laughed at her struggling and beat her for it, she refused to cooperate further.  Ricky soothed her with understanding, endearments, and the cocaine she’d at first enjoyed and then craved.  He told her, finally, she was free to leave, to go as she had come, with nothing, no money, no coke. 

He was solo Ricky for the two years she was with him, along with a half dozen other whores—she freely acknowledged what she had become.  In the stable were three Mexicans, a black, and a white, a fragile redhead who almost died twice overdosing on heroin, her brother’s preference.  She was forever grateful to the redhead, and, begrudgingly to the memory of her brother.  It was the redhead’s distress that awakened her to the life she was living, to its deadly futility. 

One day she snuck away from solo Ricky, the false savior, fled to the trolley, and rode it to San Diego.  From there, she took to the road again, the Pacific Coast Highway, and hitched to Los Angeles.  She spent a week on the streets of Hollywood, sick for coke, selling herself, buying it, afraid of it. 

Then, people who professed to know the true savior proselytized her.  She said she once believed a savior had found her, and she wasn’t ready for another.  The boy and two girls smiled at her rejection.  They acted extraordinarily to her.  They treated her in a manner totally foreign to her, that she was incapable of understanding, until later; until she was cleansed, purified, and a proselyte to Pater:  they overwhelmed her with love, love bombed her they said later.

Still, staring at the box and peeved at Dominic for taking her only possession, her own son violating her privacy—still, even with Pater, nothing was hers.  Nothing in her previous life was ever hers, only the contents of the box.

She caressed the box for a long while before removing the lid; ostensibly to satisfy herself Dominic hadn’t damaged anything.  Though she hadn’t looked inside the box in years, not since accepting Billy Brick’s proposal of marriage, she saw instantly that Dominic had examined the contents, for everything was neatly organized, arranged in discrete stacks, the photographs, the letters in their pink envelopes, the yellowed newspaper clipping, and beneath, the precious Jasperware.  His penchant for classifying he’d inherited from Billy, who was a great advocate of order; she came to understand its value after years as Billy’s wife; but when she’d put everything that had meaning for her in the box, she’d been a jumbler, and pressed for time. 

Dominic had touched and scrutinized every item.  How much he understood, she couldn’t be certain.  He was an accomplished reader for nine, but meaning often eluded him; she doubted he would comprehend what he’d handled.  What concerned her was he might have questions … would have questions at nine.

He’d had the box for a week, or perhaps longer, for she noticed it by accident today.  He hadn’t mentioned it or its contents, but doubtless he would.  What would she say?  “Dominic, the box is Mommy’s and you did not have permission to take it or open it.”  Well, that would be an appropriate admonishment, but would not answer his questions.  “These are Mommy’s private things.  Do you understand ‘private’?”  They were a family, and a family shared everything.  At least that’s what Billy and she preached to him and Dominica. 

She wanted to rifle the photos, envelopes, and the news clipping, mix them like a salad over the rose Jasperware cup and saucer and oval box.  She couldn’t.  She was different.  Billy and the children had transformed her.  They had healed her.

She’d come to love her new life, the quotidian rhythm of her days with Billy, mostly nothing unexpected or startlingly eventful, apart from the extremes of Sullivan County weather, of course; and most of all, Billy’s chivalry, his endearing, steady self, his beautiful levelness, his sturdy reliability, his stoic strength; so reminiscent of Sir Wilfred; her own knight Willy in times of trouble, she called him. 

By contrast, the box was the past.  The past was forever a mess, regardless of what Dominic had done to order it.

She put aside the news clipping to avoid it.  She studied a photo of Aunt Margie, the composed, lovely, charming version of her in her favorite pink dress.  Below it, screaming, it seemed, to have the burden of Aunt Margie removed from her, was a photo of her mother, tailored, as she always was, in a pencil skirt dress, hair in a ratted bouffant, her face, though obscured, still sneering and bitter, an awful picture, as terrible as truth.  Who took the picture of the hospital, the granite edifice on the hill that loomed over the highway, under her mother?  She required no photo to remember it; the administration building they called it, where they administered much more than patient records.  She trembled at the sight of it and returned it to under her mother.  She touched the envelopes addressed in Aunt Margie’s hand, elegant, schooled loops on all save one; on that one, broken and twisted strokes very much mimicking disease bacteria; the bunch so beautiful she smiled while she thumbed them.  Finally, she found she could not evade the yellowed clipping folded to obscure everything but its short, harrowing headline:  MASS EXECUTION. 

She slammed the lid on the box and pushed it fiercely down on the bed, pushed twice, three times, attempting to reseal it and suppress again, she wished permanently, the past.  She wept at the impossibility.

“Well, Dominic,” she’d say, when he asked, “you opened Mommy’s Pandora’s Box, and now all the ghosts have escaped into our world.”

He wouldn’t understand a word of it, she prayed, not a word, as long as the specters did not descend upon the house on the outskirts of Sullivan, Indiana, to terrorize them all.


Iam sat indulgently alone in the foyer of Holy Redemption’s Parish Center at the end of a short row of metal folding chairs placed there by Father Chapas for the convenience of parents who arrived early for their children.  The doors separating the foyer from the cavernous hall were closed, but the happily excited voices of the children and teens working behind them leaked through to Iam.  Soon, she expected, parents would begin occupying the other chairs, and the peace of the moment would be lost.

Father Chapas, he was an oddity in Sullivan County, unmistakably Mexican, darkly complexioned, with pronounced mestizo features, barely taller than Iam, and susceptible to modest stoutness; he was also indisputably Midwestern, undeniably pious, hungrily gregarious, and, to Iam’s mind, urbane, perhaps too much so. 

He grew up a fortunate Mexico City orphan, brought up in Colon at Santa María de la Salvación.  He studied at St. Mary of the Lakes seminary, north of Chicago, drawn to it after years of choral missions to elicit donations from the wealthy and compassionate gringos.  He served for several years at a church on Chicago’s west side, developing into an activist who, it seemed to those in authority, relished too much the championing of immigrants, exceeding the bounds of priestly duties when he provided sanctuary to a family badly wanted by ICE.  For this reason, the archbishop searched for a suitably isolated appointment, to rekindle the priest’s vows of humility and obedience.  The archbishop of Evansville, desperate for priests, gratefully accepted Father Chapas on behalf of Holy Redemption, a parish squarely in the rural and conservative quarters of the diocese. 

Five years ago, Sullivan, Indiana, was an alien world to Father Chapas.  Its placidity, its conservativeness, its boredom, the very characteristics Iam prized, as well as its homogeneity, had engendered discomfort in him.  His first year proved miserable.  For Lent in his second year, he forswore, in addition to the beloved extravagance of his Veracruz cigars, his melancholy.  He adopted the virtue of acceptance.  Afterwards, he resumed smoking the occasional cigar in the privacy of his rectory, and came to view his parish in a new light.  He vowed to immerse parishioners in the reality of the world outside the boundaries of Sullivan County.

He began with Santa María, inviting the bothers to bring their fund-raising boys and girls choir to sing at Holy Redemption each year.  He adopted his former Chicago church as Holy Redemption’s urban sister, periodically leading adult and teenage parishioners to Chicago for weekends of repair work, branding these missions of sharing and education.  He initiated a Saturday evening mass in Spanish to encourage participation by Sullivan County’s sparse Latino population in parish activities.  His parishioners, in the spirit of fellowship he preached and practiced, responded well, and the Holy Spirit, Father Chapas believed, filled him up with contentment.

Iam waited in the hard folding chair in the name of Father Chapas’ fellowship.  Dominic and Dominica worked behind the doors helping pack boxes with food staples for distribution to county residents in need.  Father Chapas coined the program “Sharing Sullivan’s Wealth with Sullivan,” though today it was “A Hand Out to Knox,” a slogan he regretted after he’d spontaneously announced it.

Women entered in singles and pairs and soon no empty chairs remained. 

“How are you, Maryam?” and “Good to see you, Maryam,” they greeted, though everybody had seen and chatted with everybody else as recently as yesterday picking their children up from school.  Several asked, “What’s Billy say about Knox, Maryam?”  She replied Billy reported the situation pretty much what he expected, cars and pick-ups dinged by falling branches, two flattened by fallen trees, many houses stripped of siding, two sheered of their roofs, some businesses damaged, but no serious injuries, or, thank God, deaths.  In response, a few eyes drifted impatiently toward the doors.  Iam may have misread the meaning as politeness born of tedium, but saw no harm in adding, “Billy says those poor people will certainly appreciate what the children are doing.”  The women smiled and nodded and several of those seated brushed their jeans.  On second thought, Iam concluded, perhaps she’d been right.

At last, the doors exploded open, banged against their floor stops, and disgorged more than a dozen grade-age children exuberant over their morning of charitable work and anticipating an afternoon of freedom.  Behind them charged Father Chapas urging,  “¡Caminen niños!  Walk, walk,” to little effect.

Amid the pleasantries exchanged by mothers and children and Father Chapas and his ushering out of them, Dominic and Dominica regaled Iam with what they had done, how they had prepared boxes consisting of wrapped sandwiches and chips and fruit and juice boxes for children like them, except these were poor unfortunate versions who did not know where their next meal was coming from.  They went on and on, allowing time for Father Chapas to wish the departing families well, and position himself next to Iam and beam at her and her children.

“Dominic and Domincia did wonderful work, Señora Brick.  Hermosos niños, debe estar muy orgullosa.”

“Yes, I am.  Thank you, Father,” she said, curbing the urge to answer in kind that would encourage him to engage her, to dredge blindly and unknowingly her buried past with solo Ricky, with Pater’s L.A. crusade, with the Raisin City locals and pickers, with the ghosts in the box.  “And happy to hear they work for someone,” casting an eye on Dominic, who responded by examining his feet. 

Sometimes kindness was a mistake; sometimes you had to harden your heart.  There it was, too frighteningly vivid in her mind, a theological derivative of Pater.  “Marcella,” he would repeat as the apocalypse approached, “you must love with a hard heart.  To be of use to me, to my Father, to the Anointed People, you must make your heart impenetrable like armor.”  No, she could not believe such a thing, could not accept it, would not any longer allow herself to be wielded as a strong arm of the Universal One with this as a precept.  The memory was like talking to him, as if he stood next to her.

She blinked.  She felt her children’s hands tug hers.  She brought Father Chapas into focus, smiled at his attempt to dress casually, his black lace shoes and socks, his black clerical suit slacks, his bright blue polo shirt that emphasized the hillock above his belt.  Though, yes, there was truth in the idea.  In the case of Father Chapas, the occasionally hard heart was required as a barrier to a past she did not want intruding on her life, the best life she’d ever had, ever could have imagined.  It had been a mistake to comfort him with kind words in his own language his first year at Holy Redemption.  She’d done it in privacy, away from her children and Billy, after he’d wished her, as he had everybody, “Feliz Navidad.”  She’d responded that Christmas in Colon and the mountains of Querétaro must have been very different, very beautiful; that he must remember it fondly and with longing, especially during these interminably dark, cold nights; all spoken softly, kindly, compassionately in his language.  “Señora Brick, estamos de acuerdo,” he said, for he surely missed the land, the warmth, the love of his orphan brothers and sisters, the manifested kindness and love of God contained in them, and more, too, above a whisper, so she had to shush him, to say good night abruptly, hard, in English.

“Well,” Father Chapas said, “I must wish you a good afternoon.  Los jóvenes probably have filled the truck already and are asking, ‘Where is Father?  Sleeping on the job?'” 

Iam glanced at her children and said nothing.

“Okay, well, I will look for you at mass tomorrow,” he said, retreating through the doors.

In the car, Dominic whined he was hungry and wanted to stop at McDonald’s like normal kids.  Iam ignored him and made lunch for both and herself at home, tuna salad, a vegetable, an apple each, and, as a treat, a reward for their good work, pink lemonade.  It was from concentrate in the freezer with the vegetables.  She couldn’t recall buying it, never bought it because she preferred water and milk for the children; truly, though, she despised it for other reasons.  Billy might have picked it up at the market; but he wouldn’t; maybe it was her mistake.  She couldn’t say what possessed her to make it.  But that seemed an excuse for something.  For what?  She tried ignoring the question, paying attention to the children.

Eating, Dominic and Dominica playfully disputed the events of the morning, who packed more boxes, who earned more compliments from Father Chapas. 

Iam drifted, half listened, shifted her gaze here and there; she tried not to stare at Dominic. 

How did he find the box?  She was certain she’d hid it well, not for fear the children or Billy would discover it.  They didn’t know it existed and had no reason to search for it.  No, she hid it for fear the sight of it would compel her to look inside, as she had.  When she escaped Pater, when she satisfied herself that Billy was what she sought and needed, that Sullivan was her salvation, she spent an afternoon destroying nearly every remnant of her past:  childhood, mother, her time in El Cajon, her life in Universal One.  Yet, when she finished, links to whom she had been remained.  For an hour, they occupied the table, things alive, people in the photos weirdly animated, not in her mind, but as miniature beings on the table, Lilliputians parading about pleading their cases for survival.  I bore you.  I love you.  I will save you.  Each argument appealed to her.  If she destroyed them, everything would vanish and it would be as if she had not existed before Sullivan, that what Billy had professed would be the whole truth of her life.  “I don’t need to know anything you don’t want me to,” he’d said a week after rescuing her.  “It’s enough to know you love me.”  And, strangely, he was among them on the table.  Would nothing exist if she tore up these photos and clippings and dropped the pieces in the garbage, no past, no present, no future, no beautifully average tomorrow with Billy Brick?  No, she needed certain connections with her past.  For an indefinable reason, she knew she would be lost without some of it, extant though hidden.

“I like lemonade.  More, please,” Dominic said.

Iam poured him a second glass from the pitcher on the table and asked Dominica if she wished a refill.  She didn’t.

Dominic said, “You should get it all the time.”  He drank greedily, slurping. 

“Slow down,” Iam said, “you’ll choke.” 

This is what you provide for the son my Father recalls to life, a naughty, disobedient snot?  I vow to be a more pleasing son.  Without delay, Marcella, demonstrate you remember what I taught, the virtue of hard love.  Let him suffer the hard love of Righteous Wrath.  He will become the superior vessel worthy of the world’s salvation

“No!” she shouted, her thundering vehemence reverberating in the kitchen.

The children suddenly scraped back their chairs, perched on the seats, and stared at her, their eyes big with shock.

“What?” Iam asked.  “What?  Your father home?  What is it?”

“You’re mad, Mommy,” Dominica whimpered.

“Mad?  No, I was just thinking.”

“You yelled.  You hit the table,” she said.  “You’re mad at us.”

Iam turned her hand and studied it.  “Hit the table?  Me?  Angry?  No …”  Her red palm and its aching startled her.  She wrapped her other hand around it, rubbed it.  “I don’t know.  No, I’m not mad.  It was an accident.  Look, if you’re finished, why don’t you go into the yard and play.  It’s beautiful today.  Go on, go play.”

They slid off their chairs cautiously.  It wasn’t fear radiating from their eyes; it was concern, as if they were in the kitchen with someone other than their mother, not a complete stranger, not that foreign, but a new, frightening dimension of the person they loved.  It wasn’t that Iam never lost her temper with them.  Dominic afforded her ample opportunity to display her exasperation, like the current incident with the box; she was sorely tempted to extract the story of how he found the box, of why he assumed he could put it under those little microscope eyes of his, prying into the secrets of her life.  By what right? 

Anger!  Yes, Marcella, educate his smart ass with the very definition of angry.  Convince me once again of  your worthiness.  Play a song of love and adoration for me on the backside of that you have prepared for me.  Ensure nothing will turn the boy against us before the time, the time that is almost upon us.  Punish this despicable prier …. 

“No!” Iam screamed.

“Mommy, you’re scaring us,” bawled Dominica, mysteriously in Dominic’s arms, the two huddled, their eyes moist, tears on the verge of cascading down their innocent cheeks.

Dominica could irritate her with her passiveness, with her prissiness, and with her weepy meekness, her disgusting weakness. 

What weak meat.  Repulsive.  Mealy.  Our enemies will devour her like treats after she betrays us.  Harden the little bitch, Marcella.  Show her she can withstand any pain our enemies can serve up.  Visit upon her Righteous Wrath …

“No, no, no!” Iam cried, “Please, no.”

“Are you sick, Mommy?” Dominic asked, pretending courage though his voice cracked. 

“Sick?” she repeated.  “No, no, I’m not sick.  It’s just … just, for a moment … for a moment I thought of the tornado in Knox County.  Yes, I thought about it, and it frightened me.  Can you imagine?”

“Will it come here?” Dominica asked, trembling, Iam hoped, at the prospect of swirling up and away in a funnel, and not at her.

“Oh, no.  It’s all gone.  That’s why Daddy’s there.  He’s helping those poor people put their lives back in order.”

“And we helped, too,” Dominic said.

“That’s right, both of you helped.”

“You aren’t sick?” Dominica said, calming.

“Me, no.  Just there for a moment, you know, the sadness caused by the tornado.  Well, I guess your mommy is an old cry baby.”

The children released each other and rushed to their mother who was once again the person they loved, the same familiar person inside and out.  They hugged her waist. 

“No you’re not, Mommy,” Dominic said.  “You’re brave, like a boy.”

“Well, thank you very much for the compliment, Dominic.  I’ll tell Daddy you said so the next time he calls me an old softy.  Now, look.  It’s a beautiful day.  Don’t waste it in here with me.  Go outside.  Play.  Let me finish cleaning.”

Dominic ran out the slider, Dominica skipped behind him, and Iam breathed deeply several times. 

Clearing the table, setting the plates in the sink, she muttered, “It’s the box.  It’s getting to me.  Iam, you must forget the box.”  She saw an inch of pink lemonade in the pitcher and absently poured it into her glass and drank.

The taste froze her solid in her place at the sink.  Her vision blurred and the backyard and kitchen vanished. 

She’d been walking with her mother and her aunt throughout the grounds of the hospital, up and down hills, around bends that revealed lovely small ponds, thinking it was like a park, but better than the park at home, bigger, more interesting, filled with buildings and people, everybody dressed as they would on Saturdays for shopping in the city.  That part was pleasant, the walking, the surroundings. 

Next, she was in the small, suffocating room, the walls dingy green, a horrid, revolting, institutional bile.  That was it, she remembered; she hadn’t added enough water and the lemonade was sickly sweet, nauseatingly syrupy.  It was the lemonade she drunk with Aunt Margie back at the hospital, back years ago as a little girl no older than Dominic.

She was in the building containing the concession stand.  Oh, it was so incredibly distasteful.  It was not an actual building but a mere hut, a squat brick shed of a structure fit for not much more than storing things.  But it wasn’t the worst of it; nor was the cloying lemonade that clung to her tongue and exacerbated her thirst, or the black licorice Nibs that lost their taste in her mouth.  Not her mother, either, her sour face, her resentful tone, her barely disguised anger at being the only sibling decent enough to visit Aunt Margie. 

Aunt Margie was the worst.  Aunt Margie was crazy, and the woman knew it because Iam’s mother told her she was nutty, a lunatic; she said, right to Aunt Margie’s face, “You’re in the right place with all the other nutburgers in the county.”  Said this and more right to Aunt Margie’s face and Aunt Margie responded by staring at her mother and her vacantly.  “Look at her, Iam.  Why do I bother?  Tell me, Margie, why do I bother the least little bit with you?” 

It was horrifying, almost unbearable, knowing Aunt Margie was empty; that upon each return some doctors in the tower on the hill, the edifice of the county, had electrified into oblivion everything, good and bad, sane and demented, every memory, including of a girlhood like her own, every last shred of her humanity, every last thing Aunt Margie had been; and even more, every last hope, eventually, of ever existing as more than a lump of flesh that was … was there, present, and nothing else, a silent column of breathing, insensate meat.  And though this could not be, Aunt Margie whispered to her now:

I have come for you.  I am returned to help you, dear.

She was back in her kitchen, a sheen of sweat coating her arms and chest, chilling her, sending shivers through her, as she stared out onto her yard, at Dominic and Dominica playing, past them, out over the land blasted naked by tornados a decade ago and not fully restored. 

She rubbed her arms vigorously.  She couldn’t wipe away the chill.  She considered going to the closet for a sweater.  But a sweater in June, in a heat wave; it was ridiculous, insane … insane like her Aunt Margie who died in the winter a few years after that summer. 

It was an accident, said the hospital.  She’d been on the grounds, those beautiful park grounds, with a group of other patients and an attendant and for some inexplicable reason had wandered into a roadway unnoticed by everybody, including the driver of a van.  The call came at dinnertime, a night her mother served fried hamburgers to her sister and her.  She had just doused hers with ketchup, a thick, rich red layer of it, to hide the blackened meat, when her mother answered the phone, listened for a moment, mumbled for another moment, hung up, and shook her head.  Iam was about to slice the red glob with her fork, when her mother said, “Bad news, children.  Aunt Margie is dead.”  “Dead how?” asked Ruth.  “Run over by a truck delivering fruit of all things,” answered her mother.  Maryam looked up from her plate precisely when a smile flashed across Ruth’s face and vanished quickly into her usual state of solemnity.  “Let’s bow our heads and pray for poor Aunt Margie,” her mother said.  They did, and her mother concluded the prayer with the codicil, “It’s for the best, children.  Aunt Margie’s happy now, for the first time.”  Maybe, thought Iam, but now I can’t ever eat ketchup again, never, because on her plate she saw the fried hulk of what had been Aunt Margie after the hospital and the doctors and the electrotherapy and the truck driver finished with her; Aunt Margie cloaked in blood bright as her condiment.

Iam cried uncontrollably, silly, stupid gales of tears, when she confessed how she greeted the death of her aunt to the Anointed People and to him.  She loved Aunt Margie she wailed.  She loved her and pitied her and took refuge in her and all she could do at Aunt Margie’s death, while her sister burned up her rosary beads in sorrowful prayer, was fret that she could never eat ketchup again.  Pater understood.  Many times Pater understood before you yourself did, before you ever expressed what troubled you.  He possessed the power to enter your mind and soul and heal you with a few tender, consoling words.  “Filia, you were a liber.  Liberi always believe God created the world for them alone.  They resent anything disrupting it.  In your heart, you loved your aunt.  In your head, you were merely a child.  Today, you suffer guilt, and the ketchup reminds you of your guilt.  It is nothing but an association.  You have nothing of which to be guilty.  See for yourself.”  It was her second meal at the Worship Temple, hamburgers and hotdogs the fare, and Pater personally offered her ketchup for her burger.  She hesitated, but he urged her with his glowing, heavenly smile.  She accepted the bottle and squeezed out the tiniest dollop.  He shook his head.  She squeezed twice more until the blotch of ketchup covered the meat end to end.  He nodded affirmatively, gently.  She ate a bit of the burger with ketchup.  “And?” he asked.  “Delicious,” she said.  “And Aunt Margie?”  “I love Aunt Margie and I was just being spiteful,” she said.  “Be happy, Filia, with all God’s gifts.”  “I will, Pater.”

She found herself in the living room on the sofa.  Over her shoulders was the afghan she’d crocheted for Dominic’s crib.  Billy’s mother taught her and she’d crocheted a spread for Dominica’s, too, and the scarves the family wore during the bitter winters.  Dominic at six protested first about his afghan, that it was for a baby and he certainly wasn’t a baby.  Dominica followed his lead almost immediately.  Iam was too practical to discard the afghans and too sentimental about them to donate them to Father Chapas’ annual clothing drive for the poor unfortunates of the county.  Instead, she draped each over an arm of the sofa, where they stayed winter and summer. 

She shook under Dominic’s afghan.  She reached for Dominica’s, opened it over her chest, and still she shook.  She fastened her eyes on the ceiling.  It was the box and she was like Pandora awhirl in the phantoms of its contents.

“I should have destroyed it,” she said.  “I will destroy it now.”

She struggled to rise in the cold, when the phone rang.


“Iam?  Hello?”

She was hot now, and sticky, and preoccupied, shifting her gaze between the wall phone receiver she gripped and the kitchen wall clock observing her from over the slider, until the eyes in the clock’s face seized her attention completely and refused to release it. 

It was a dumb blue cat clock she and Billy had from the outset of their marriage.  Billy bought it on their honeymoon in Indianapolis a minute after she randomly and facetiously uttered, “Cute.”  Billy had a tin ear for sarcasm and she hadn’t the heart to tell him it repulsed her; its colonial blue feline body; its epicanthic eyes that moved in time with the stuttering sweep hand; the curved pendulum tail, dangerously sharp at the tip, that swung back and forth, clicking each second; and the mouth, the mouth that shouldn’t move, that had never moved, but that pursed exaggerated lips at her that very moment. 

“What?” she shouted at the clock.  “What?  What?  What?”

“Iam, it’s Billy.  Are you all right?  It’s one.  I said I’d check in at one.”

“Billy,” she said to the clock.  “It’s Billy.  That’s it, right?”

“Iam, what’s going on?  Are you and the kids okay?  Will you please speak to me?”

Into the receiver, Iam said, “It’s one-ten … no one-eleven.”

“What?” said Billy.

“It’s one-twelve, Billy, not one o’clock.  You’re late.”

“I’m sorry.  Hey, is something wrong?”

“Everything’s fine, Billy, fine and perfect here.  Peachy, I might say.”

“Peachy?  Everything doesn’t …”

Lowering the receiver, leaving him expectant, she mumbled, “What are you saying?” 

What had possessed her?  Peachy, it was an Aunt Margie expression.

“How are you today, Aunt Margie?” she’d ask on each hospital visit. 

“Peachy, Iam, peachy keen is how I am, dear.” 

Was it the absurd clock, the way it stared at her, seemed to speak to her?  But it was silent, except for its incessant, noisy flagging of life gone on by, second by second.

“No, Willy, we’re fine,” she said into the receiver.  “It’s just we miss you.  I miss you.  And the tornado striking so close to Sullivan, it’s kind of unnerved me.”

“Sure, honey, I understand.  Look, I know I said I’d be home by six, but it’s taking longer than I first thought it would.  The damage is more extensive than I expected.  I have appointments straight through the early evening.  I don’t think I’ll be done until late, maybe after nine.”

“Oh, good, Billy.  I’ll wait on the couch for you.”

“Honey, I wish I could get home earlier.  I really wish I could.  But it might be tomorrow if I run late, if the weather’s bad.  But if it’s tomorrow, it’ll be early, first thing in the morning.  I’ll call.”

“Billy, I miss you terribly.  I need you, Billy.”

“I miss you, too, Iam, and I want you.  I’ll try to be home sooner.  I will.”

“Please try hard, Billy.”

“I will.  I promise.  How are the kids?  They around?”

“Outside playing,” she said, and told him about school and Father Chapas’s hand out program.  He laughed and said he couldn’t wait to get home when he could wrap her in his arms in their own bed.  She said she couldn’t wait either.

She went to the slider by the kitchen, in the family room.  Billy described it as a technically; the space barely extended beyond the width of the slider.  The children used the area as their playroom.  He promised to expand the children’s play space, what he called it, and had installed the slider as a down payment on the pledge.  Family room was her joke, which he took as a reminder. 

She averted her eyes to avoid the cat clock reengaging her, and stepped onto the small deck she and Billy had spent a summer building; it had been a harmonious, beautiful experience, more evidence she had chosen well in Billy. 

She called to Dominic and Dominica.  They were on the far end of the property, the back acre of the two of twenty acres they reserved for themselves, the rest they let during corn season to Mr. Ben Wilson and Son, contract farmers. 

The children ran and skipped to her and sat on the step, a child on either side of her.  The news their father would be home past their bedtime disappointed them.  Iam assuaged them by promising a surprise later on.

“What kind of surprise?” Dominic asked.

“Oh,” Iam said, after a moment, “a big one.”

“How big?” probed Dominica.

The phone rang and saved her from hastily adding dimension to her vague promise.  She asked Dominic to answer, if he didn’t mind; she always requested, never demanded like her mother had, to teach good manners.  He raced inside because he liked the idea she trusted him to answer the phone politely.  In a second, before Dominica could pursue a better definition of the surprise, Dominic pounded onto the deck, exclaiming, “Father Chapas.”

“Father,” she said into the receiver, focused on the window, tracking the children with her eyes to avoid the clock.  But she could hear it; the seconds ticking louder it seemed, and faster, as if time had speeded up, or the cat clock was summoning her attention. 

“Por favor, Señora Brick, llámeme Mario.”

“Oh, sure, Father Mario.”  She disliked the informality, the friendship it implied, how it conveyed the false idea the priest was just folks, in it just like the masses, and perfectly able to understand your circumstances and emotions.  There was more, too, something unarticulated but sensed, something unsettling.  When she occasionally complained to Billy about the familiarity, he’d say, “Be grateful it’s not Father Bob, Father Carl, or Father Larry.  How creepy is Father Larry?”

“I am sorry for the confusion this morning, Maryam,” he said. 

“Not nearly as creepy as Father Chapas’s treacle, Billy,” she’d responded.  Immediately, guilt rose in her for, after all, he was kind and his intensions were good and pure, though she wasn’t entirely certain, detecting an undercurrent of worldliness in him; that, maybe, it was this indistinct something that unnerved her.

“I don’t remember any confusion, Father … Father Mario.”

“Lo siento, it was my confusion, Maryam.  I forgot to invite you to a little thank you celebration tomorrow.”


“I mean the children and you, Maryam.  And Mr. Brick … Billy.  It won’t be much, cookies and punch.  But I believe showing the children God rewards His people for benevolent acts is instructive.”

“Okay, sure, Father Mario.”

“Forgive me, Maryam, but more confusion.  I forgot to mention the eleven o’clock mass.  It’s a special mass for the victims of the Knox tornado and for those who helped, like Dominic and Dominica, and Mr. Brick, too.  It’s really the most important part of tomorrow’s thanksgiving.  I hope it won’t be much of an inconvenience.”

“No, none.  Actually, Billy might not be home until very late, so we’d probably be going to the eleven anyway.”

” Perfecto.  Hasta mañana, Maryam.”

No, on second thought, it wasn’t the clock ticking that distracted her.  No, it was a noise from within her, from the past.

It was the metal shell of the bus pinging in the hot summer sun on Pacific Coast Highway south of Carmel.  Pater had CBed the drivers of the three-bus caravan to stop.  Outside, with the ocean as his glorious backdrop, he thanked the Anointed People, and especially the five new converts, for a successful mission.  He preached that God had spoken to him and commanded he reward the Father’s chosen for their accomplishments.  Covertly in San Francisco, he had sent Iam and two others to a supermarket, where they bought cold cuts, bread, condiments, and beverages, everything necessary for a picnic. 

“God rewards his People,” he proclaimed.  “Let us enjoy His rewards for the next hour.” 

When Pater finished, as was his practice, he strolled among the People, touching shoulders, drawing some close to whisper a personal thank you, offer encouragement, or inspire them to strive for greater enlightenment.  To Iam, whom he’d come to trust and accept into the circle of leaders who surrounded him and on whom he had bestowed the Universal One name of Marcella, because she was indeed his mighty little warrior, he breathed, “Please, Marcella, go to my bus and wait for me.  I have a special gift for you alone.”

“No,” she hissed at the face of the cat clock, “I will not do this again.  I will not endure it again.” 

She closed her eyes, and purled, “Please.”

On the bus, she waited alone.  Lately, Pater had been entrusting her with more responsibilities, divulging secrets about the loyalties of Anointed People closest to him, and allowing her to glimpse his fears for Universal One and the world.  And now he was about to confide something new.  In the heat of the bus, she sat dizzy with anticipation.

“Marcella,” Pater said, sitting beside her, folding her hands into his.  How soft they were, as hands that healed must be, as hands dispensing hope and love should be.  “Marcella, are you devoted to your Pater?”

“Pater, you saved me.  Of course.”

“Sometimes, Marcella, being the Chosen Delegate of God is a tremendous burden.  It drains the very life from your Pater.  At those times, your Pater must beg help to replenish his physical and spiritual strength.”

His proximity, his fragrance of fresh-washed purity, his penetrating eyes—polished blue ice that reflected back her, that communicated a divine understanding of who she was, of what she was capable, of self mysteries she could not hope to unseal without his guidance—his closeness set her mind whirling with adoration, for she believed she must be in the present of God’s true representative, and that this true prophet was calling upon her for rejuvenation. 

She opened her mouth to speak and faltered.

He crinkled his eyes, smiled with them, and squeezed her hands to encourage her to overcome her nervousness.

“What do you need from me, Pater?  I will do anything for you.”

He pulled her hands up and she submitted them to his control with willing eagerness.  He guided the tips of her fingers up and down his cheek and over and under his lips.  How smooth he is, how warm, she thought.  He exudes care and love through every pore.  Yet, if she allowed herself to step outside the aura that seemed to engulf them, his actions were strange, reminiscent, a reminder of solo Ricky so powerful she finally muttered, “Que?”

He probed her eyes.  “What did you say, Marcella?”

“What, Pater?  I said, what, in Spanish.”

“Spanish?  You are Spanish, Mexican?  I didn’t know.”

“No, Italian, Cardinale, Pater.  Well, American really.  I picked up some Spanish, you know, living in San Diego.”


“A little more than some.  Enough to … to survive, I guess.”


“Get around, I mean.  Get by.”

A small laugh escaped from him.  “You truly are my little warrior, Marcella.  I named you correctly, little one.”

Iam nodded demurely, disguising her pleasure, not wishing to reveal in the presence of the Chosen Delegate of God her pride.

He returned her hands to her, placed them on her thighs and patted.

“Marcella, I would like very much for you to see my room.  Would that please you?”

“Yes, Pater,” she trilled, unable to restrain herself.

He led her to the compartment in the rear of the bus.  It was a small space, created by removing three row of seats.  In it was a letter table with a bench and a cot made up with a chenille spread in Pater’s favorite color, the white of the returning Lord.  Pater worked day and night on behalf of Universal One and its Anointed People and was always among them, ministering to them, and with them, as in San Francisco, recruiting hungry souls with his promise of meaning, fulfillment, and salvation.  His faithful built the space for him and insisted, against his protest, that he use it for his good, for his good was synonymous with that of the Church.

“It’s small,” she murmured, at once contrite for passing judgment. 

“It is more than I deserve.”

She sensed his modesty and his embarrassment at being granted such riches when others had only the seats in the coach or the floor for resting.

“There are times, Marcella, when I require more comfort than this meager room can provide.”


“What I mean is I need for you to comfort me, Marcella.”

“Yes, of course, Pater.  How, Pater?” 

“I must go to the People for a few minutes.  When I return, please be on the bed, Marcella, undressed.”

Iam stepped back from him, bumped the table, and reached behind to grip it both to steady it and herself.  She was unable to utter a sound.

“If you are here, I will know you are truly devoted to your Pater, to strengthening him, and to the mission of Universal One.”

Without lingering for her response, he left the cramped room, closing the door behind him.

Impulsively, Iam grabbed the doorknob, but it would not move in her hand; her surprise over Pater’s direction had atrophied the muscles in her arm.  She turned and stared at the bed, and she was not alone. 

“Heh, heh,” cackled solo Ricky, a miniature of him seated cross-legged on the pillow.  “Bueno, bueno, chiquita, sin duda eres popular entre los hombres santos.”

She screamed at the apparition, at the bed, at the loud, tormenting clock that insinuated itself into her memory, at its burning, relentless eyes, “Go away.  You are not real.  You aren’t.  I know you aren’t.”  She found distinguishing which of the two were real nearly impossible and shuddered with the long-held fear she’d caught, from years visiting the hospital, from hours in the bed in the attic, Aunt Margie’s penchant for delusion.

Ricky vanished, not leaving even an indentation on the pillow.  But the bed was there, a tangible object in a substantial hut of a room, like a frightful shed where she would drink pink lemonade, the taste of which would linger with her for hours, days, forever.

You do not have to do this, dear.  Walk off the bus, pretty as you please.  Go away from the imposter.

No, he was a true savior, the new incarnation of God’s promise, who saved her, who worked authentic miracles in the Los Angeles Temple.  How could she refuse Pater?  How could she do any less for God’s representative on earth than she had for solo Ricky’s amigos?  She belonged in the community of believers, where Pater and the People accepted and respected her.  And, after all, hadn’t Mary Magdalene comforted another incarnation of the Father? 

No, not anything remotely like the amigos; union with Pater would be sacred.

She undressed quickly and laid on the bed, first on her back, next shifting to her side, pulling up her knees and covering her breasts with her arms.  She thought it was cold in the little room, when will he return, why has he forsaken me, when can I dress?

It was an eternal ten minutes until the door opened and Pater entered.  He looked down at her, his face stern, as if her acquiesce displeased him, as if he’d tested her, presented her with a moral dilemma, and she had failed.

It wasn’t that at all.  He said, “I prefer you on your back.” 

As she obeyed, he unbuckled and unzipped his pants.  They dropped to the floor and she saw he was erect.  He climbed onto the bed, wagging like a dog she thought, and positioned himself between her legs, hooked his arms under her knees, lifted her, and thrust himself into her.  He finished in a minute, almost prematurely.  He put himself in order and consulted his watch.  “You have five minutes before everybody boards,” he said, and left her in the room.  She scurried off the bed and tossed on her clothes.  Before opening the door, she straightened the bed.  In the bus, she assumed her regular seat, and, shortly, the People, everybody in raucous spirits, piled on.

Pater climbed on last, accompanied by his wife Fidella and his number one aide Osma.  They preceded him to the rear.  He stopped at her seat and rested a hand on her shoulder.  “You rendered a wonderful service today for the Church,” he said kindly.  “I don’t want you under the impression we did not notice or appreciate your offering.” 

Elated, she watched him follow the two women to the back, and disappear into his room with Osma.  She understood how he had used her, but for the longest time she convinced herself she had succored him, el hombre santo. 

Now, what, she thought, another holy man needed her?

“Is that what you’re telling me?  Is it?” she bellowed, transfixed by the clock’s cat eyes. 

Suddenly she was cold, dripping with freezing sweat.  At the hospital on winter days when it was too cold to walk outside, they’d visit Aunt Margie in the great room on the first floor of her building, the Romper Room she’d overheard the attendants call it.  The room was always tropical, too hot to bear wearing a coat, but she could not remove hers no matter how many times her mother commanded her to.  She would sweat profusely, and the sweat would chill her, and in the hot room she would shake.  “Iam,” her mother would say, “you’re as crazy as these …”  Her mother would finish variously with idiots, nuts, loons, whackjobs, and sometimes with Aunt Margie, “You’re crazy as your aunt.”

Iam rubbed her arms, squeegeed the sweat off them, but could not warm herself.  She went into the front hallway closet, took her cable cardigan from the top shelf, and put it on, and laid down on the sofa.  She continued shaking and moaned, too, oblivious to everything but her desire to be warm again, and to forget, when a small faraway voice disturbed her.


Dear, you are in grave peril.  Please, for our sake, do not allow the creature to seduce you a second time.  I am here to help you, as I always have.  Allow me, dear.  Let me give you the fortitude to resist.

She lifted herself off the sofa and looked back into the kitchen, afraid she’d see the clock; that if she saw it, it would be the source of the warning; that the warning would be a trick; that this time the clock’s black eyes would absorb her and she would be lost for eternity. 

But the clock was out of view.  She flung an arm at the doorway into the kitchen, the entry to the clock’s universe; she jabbed a finger at the passage leading to a place she suspected was worse than Hell, fouler than the bowls of the devil.  “Ha-Ha-Ha to you!” she declared.

Dear, you know me.  Haven’t I always come to your rescue?  Believe me, dear, when I tell you that you are in the gravest danger.  It is within you.  You are not strong enough by yourself.  You must allow me to come to your aid.

Marcella, it is an old trick, a siren’s song.  Do not be deceived.  It is our enemy who appeals to you.  Recall your preparation, how I trained all the Anointed People to defend against our enemies.

She dropped onto the sofa and burrowed into it as if it were earth.  She buried her face in the crevice of the cushions, and she was transported, inhaling soil saturated with the cool dew of a Black Night morning. 

It was before sunrise in the final pall of night, though she could detect daybreak pearling the horizon at the edge of the field.  She was prostrate between mounds, furrows she had plowed with the others, and she laid flat in them with the others, head to toe, a seed crop of Anointed People aspirating dirt as they tried mightily to hide from the enemy.  It was the typical enemy this night Pater announced; hired goons of the giant corporate farmers who saw the faithful of Universal One as rivals, who hated that the Anointed People undersold them and outsold them from their stand on the highway.

“Our labor fulfills God’s desire, and it is dangerous work, my People.  Those who surround us are not farmers.  Don’t ever mistake them for farmers.  They exploit the real farmers.  They enslave los campesinos to cultivate and harvest their fields.  They are capitalists, my people, moneygrubbers, thieves.  They are worse than the dove sellers—imagine trading the symbol of peace; oh, they are low creatures, these descendants of the dove sellers my brother flung from the temple.  Like their antecedents who scorned my brother, these capitalists loathe me and us.  They endeavor to destroy us.  They can’t abide us.  Our goodness, our compassion, our generosity, it sickens them.  What did Mark write, my people?  They feared my brother; they feared him, because ‘all the people were astonished at his teaching.’  Yes, we sicken them because they see their profit, their idol that they raise above the true God who is a god of love and salvation, they see their golden idol jeopardized.  They fear our power, my People, and they will kill us, oh, they will, if we are not prepared.  So we are preparing.  We will shock them to their diseased, soulless core.  Their faces will turn ashen at the sight of God’s army, hundreds of us rising from our fields, rising as if raptured from our graves, rising with weapons in our hands, smiting them with our justice, clearing the ground for the fruits of peace and goodness to flourish.”

She rose from the furrow, rose in unison with hundreds of others, rose and brought her wooden pole, the substitute for the rifles Pater promised to provide soon, to her shoulder, and she boomed again and again, “pow, pow, pow” in perfect harmony with her fraters and amitas, their fusillade conflating into a fanfare for the impending bloody cleansing, continuing until Pater commanded her and them to cease their warrior serenade, informing that the crisis, after three hours, was ended, and they could remove their headbands, rest and take breakfast, a special breakfast consisting of their cultivation—cantaloupes, plums and prunes, grapes and raisins, and their exquisitely rare celebration cookies—before returning to the fields.

Except, she found herself on her knees on the sofa with empty hands, pointing at nothing, hearing nothing, save her breath, loud and ragged.  She flopped onto the sofa, pulled the sweater tightly around herself, squeezed her eyes shut and sweated and shivered.

Then a noise intruded on the silence.  Not a noise, she realized, opening her eyes, but a voice, Dominic’s voice, soft, concerned, asking, “Are you sick, Mommy?”

Caution, dear.  I urge you to be cautious.  Things are not rosy in you.

Marcella, an enemy lurks among us.  You know it is true, for it has happened before, many times.

Yes, many times, even from my first days on the blessed land, she remembered.

Hope and joy instantly replaced the doubt that had begun undermining her belief the day she passed beneath the makeshift gateway, the rough hewed poles, thick as tree trunks, spanned by a rusted metal rod from which hung the sign, “Feed the World,” and in a prominent eyebrow over the proclamation, “A Universal One Project Benefiting Humanity.” 

She had maneuvered for a role in the noble experiment.  Pater had fended off her involvement, insisting she was vital to the operation of the Worship Temple in Los Angeles, not on the Church lands near Raisin City.  She suspected he doubted her loyalty.  It was crazy, she knew, unjustified, and unsupportable considering her numerous responsibilities.  She sat on the Inner Council that debated and set doctrine.  She ran recruitment efforts, including the print shop, and the English and Spanish editions of the newspaper Universal Call, and the bilingual website.  She controlled issuance, use, and monitoring of cell phones.  She was a member of the Countervailing Committee that launched covert assaults on Universal One’s opponents.  And she was a privileged comfort partner, and had been since shortly after her time on Pater’s bus.  Here was the taproot of her suspicion.  Pater was a mercurial lover—moody, demanding, insatiable, perfunctory, tender, fierce, and occasionally brutal, though understandably so and mercifully temperate in this regard considering the weight of his responsibility and his frustration dealing with the imperfect.  Recently, he requested acts that perturbed her, including partnering with multiple comforters, and more troubling, with those outside the intimate circle.  She hadn’t directly refused, but she had feigned illness on the occasions when she knew, as a result of conversations with Osma and fellow comforters, several would be participating.  She’d had enough of these types of activities at the hands of solo Ricky, and she thought them unseemly for a man of God, in fact, God’s Delegate on earth.  Pater unquestionably, as he had demonstrated during services that he could read minds and heal from a distance too, had intuited her reluctance to please him fully.

However, she set aside all her doubts once she was in the camp and bunked in a barracks with the women from the Inner Council and several others as well.  The communal spirit and the powerful sense of purpose enthralled her.  Though the fieldwork was backbreaking, she did not complain.  On the contrary, she thrived.  The Church did mean community and salvation, and the experiment was as noble as she had hoped it would be. 

All was perfect, difficult but perfect in its hardness, until her fourth day.  The evening of that day a call to meet blared over the PA system.  It was Pater’s voice as she’d not heard it before, angry, panicked, and strained to breaking.

The several hundred people residing in the camp, the vanguard of the Church’s humanitarian crusade, assembled in the open-air dining and meeting pavilion.  Pater, in his white ceremonial robe, had ensconced himself in a lawn chair set on top of four picnic tables abutted to form a makeshift stage.  He occupied the stage alone, with the Inner Council surrounding him on the tables’ benches. 

Osma beckoned and Iam settled next to her.

She whispered to Osma, “Is the enemy planning an attack?”

“Shh.  Worse.”

Betrayal, she thought. 

“Mater,” intoned Pater, “present the offender.”

It was obvious whom Pater was addressing.  A woman and a boy stood hemmed in by four members of Pater’s personal guard, fervent young men blessed with the sacred responsibility of protecting him day and night wherever he might be, culled from the ranks of the Church’s warriors.  He named the warriors Swords, and formed the corps, and his squad of personal guards, at the urging of the Inner Council early on, before Iam’s time, after the first Temple attack, christened The First Black Night.  Since several Black Nights had followed, engendering Black Night drills.  The daily attire of the Swords consisted of either bright red or black T-shirts with a white sword emblazoned on the back.  Tonight his guard was in their hooded white dress robes that matched Pater’s, the difference being theirs had stitched in red thread over the left breast a sword and another on the peak of the cowl.  Beneath the robes, as everybody knew, they wore firearms.

The woman and child huddled together, rooted to the spot as if they had sprouted there like Universal One corn.

Pater raised a finger and the guard seized the pair and deposited them in front of Pater and the Council.

“Please, Mater, describe what occurred this afternoon in Raisin City.  Please, Mater, do not hesitate.  We are your fraters and amitas.  We love you, for if we did not we would not have taken you off the streets.  If we did not believe you are among God’s Anointed, we would not have invited you here to take part in this greatest of missions.  You must know our love for you is indisputable.  We embrace you and the child, Mater.  Embrace us with the truth.”

“My son disobeyed me, Pater.”

“Disobeyed you, Mater?  Can that be correct?  He disobeyed you?”

“Pater, I told him he could not buy candy in the store.”

“Did he disobey you by buying candy?”

“No,” she said, her voice snapping.

“But he had candy.  Others saw he had candy and ate it.  He ate it without sharing, too.  But I doubt if the other children would have accepted the candy from him, would they have, Mater?”

“No, Pater, they would not.”

“Of course not, if your child had been generous.  He is not a generous filius, though, is he?  Another fault, yes?”

“Yes, Pater.”

“How did the candy come into his possession, Mater?”

Quietly, she said, “He stole it.”

“Speak up.  Speak up that all might hear.”

“He stole it.”

“Louder, Mater.  Confess to all the people.  Shout your confession that God might hear it.”


“Who stole the candy?” Pater urged in his most reasonable tone.




“What does God’s seventh commandment forbid, Mater?”

“Thou shall not steal.”

“What did your filius do?

“He broke God’s law, Pater.”

“Yes he did.  He broke one of God’s ten bedrock laws.  You can’t, I don’t believe, do much worse than that.  Why, Mater, your filius may as well have spit directly into God’s face.  Oh, can you picture it, Mater, God’s face worthy of only adoration, my Father’s beautiful face, that face … DRIPPING WITH THE SPITTLE OF YOUR FILIUS.  But you’re shaking, Mater.  Don’t you believe God is merciful?  Don’t you believe in His infinite mercy, though your filius hurled a great insult at Him?”

Iam watched intently as the woman forced her son to his knees and knelt beside him, never relinquishing her grip on him. 

“Yes, Pater, I believe in His mercy, and I believe in your mercy, too.”

Pater, who had progressively leaned forward during the exchange, slumped back in his lawn chair.

“Sometimes,” he said, “mercy is difficult to grant.  Sometimes hardness is the best teacher.  Isn’t that true, Mater?”

Iam watched tears stream down the woman’s cheeks as she said, “Yes.”

“Your filius disobeyed you and he stole because you have not been hard with him.”

“Yes, Pater.”

“You have been soft and weak.”

“Yes, Pater”

“We, none of us, can tolerate weakness if we are to serve God in the manner He deserves and is His due.  No weakness.”

“No, Pater,” chanted the assembled, Iam as enthusiastically as the others, “No weakness.  No weakness.”

“What do we need here, Mater?”

She stammered, “Hard love, Pater.”

“Hard love.  Exactly.”

At this pronouncement, one of the Swords produced “Righteous Wrath,” which had been secreted under his robe the entire time.  He handed the long wood paddle punctured with two rows of four holes to the woman.  She accepted it and gripped it with two hands.

“Seven hard acts of love, Mater.  If they are not sufficiently forceful, I will ask a Sword to administer seven proper strikes after you have finished.”

The woman shouldered “Righteous Wrath” but hesitated swinging.

A murmur rippled the assembled as Pater perched forward on his lawn chair.  They quieted when he smiled benevolently. 

“Ah, Mater, I understand.  ‘Wrath’ is new to you.  You are afraid your first few swings will be ineffective.  You will inadvertently increase your filius’s penalty.  Am I not correct?”

A nearly inaudible, nervous titter swept the People.  Iam pulled back slightly.  She was silent.  Inside, she cringed.

The woman nodded.

“Of course.  God has granted your Pater the gift of seeing into the minds of his People. Mater, I am my Father’s son, and like Him I am merciful.”  He paused, indicating he wished her to acknowledge him.

“Thank you, Pater,” she said, with hopefulness.

“You hold ‘Wrath’ like a baseball bat.  Well, we all enjoy baseball.  I’ll wager your filius enjoys baseball, don’t you thief?”

Nudged by his mother, he nodded. 

Iam closed her eyes to the scene.

“Mater, you may take three warm up swings.  Please, proceed.  Show us what you have.  Go on.”

The woman swung “Righteous Wrath” three times, each harder than the last.

“Excellent.  Let’s begin.  Sinner, on her hands and knees.”

The punishment transpired quickly and fiercely, beginning with the boy whimpering and ending with him howling.

Iam did not open her eyes until Pater commanded a Sword to bring the wailing boy up to him on the picnic table stage.  She watched him hug and comfort the boy and assure the boy and the assembled that now everything again was right in the eyes of God.

Along with everybody, the mother and son included, Iam smiled, cried with joy, and shouted praise to Pater and the Father.  Iam could not witness God’s punishment with her own eyes, could not bear to see the infliction of pain on another, particularly a child.  She had problems with the concept of hard love the moment she saw the tenet applied in the Los Angeles Temple.  But, she understood the necessity of it; that, as Pater explained in Council meetings, we cannot run a movement without discipline; that God was a kind god and a wrathful god when required; that the Anointed People had to emulate Him if they wished to win the world for Him; and that was their mission, to win the world for their Pater and their God.

Something seared her forehead, drew across it like a flaming sword of revelation.

She cried out, “What?” swatting it away and burning her forearm as she did.

“Mommy, you hurt me.”


“Mommy, I only wanted to see if you were sick.”

She pushed up off the cushions and leapt from the sofa at him.  She caught him before he could flee her and gripped his arms to hold him fast.

“Dominic, why did you do it?  Why Dominic?”

“Mommy, I didn’t do anything.  I wanted to see if you were sick.”

She squeezed and shook.  “You’re a liar.  A liar.  Why did you steal from me?  Why did you hide what you stole under your bed?  Why, Dominic, why?”

Dominic twisted free of her and ran into the kitchen, to where the clock and the eyes were, to where Iam feared to go.

Marcella, you must.  You must banish your fear.  Nothing can harm you when I am with you.  Our enemy is insidious.  Do you not see how the enemy is turning the foundation of the resurrected salvation against us, how it tries to deprive the world of its prophesied jubilee?  Already, the little hothouse of renewal is a thief and a betrayer.  You must capture the product of your blessed womb.  You must visit upon him the full fury of the Father.  You must smite from him the heresy of the enemy and  prepare him for his divine destiny.  You must purify him for his mystical role.  He must be like Isaac, willing and pleased to submit.  Go, Marcella.  Your Pater commands you to speed to him.


A necromantic energy possessed Iam.  She flung off the sweater, sprung from the sofa, and tore into the kitchen, dauntless under the gaze of the surveillant cat clock.  She searched for Dominic, cast her eyes under the table, scanned the room frantically, not expecting him to be there, just acting, reacting, obeying, when she saw the remains of lunch on the sideboard, glasses, plates, and the pitcher. 

Then an urge compelled her to howl for Dominic, but she could not open her mouth.  She stopped and gripped the table.  She struggled to open her mouth, but it was sealed.  It was hot, unmovable, as if she’d shoved handfuls of tacky, flavorless black licorice into it and the heat of her temper had melted it into a sickly adhesive tar, and there existed no strength she could summon to break the caramelized lock.  Her breathing deteriorated to short, noisy, panicked sucks through her nostrils.  Spent, she sunk onto a chair.

That’s better, dear.  You know running in the kitchen is dangerous.

She twisted in the chair.  It creaked with her effort.  She darted her eyes here and there, and finished at the clock, at the eyes that shifted back and forth, at the mouth that should have been a painted slit, a mere curved inanimate line, but that was curled in a living smile, at once benevolent and loopy.

Dominic is a sweet boy.  He hasn’t misbehaved.  You understand, don’t you, dear?

Iam fixated on the pedantic clock, on the mouth that smiled and moved and instructed.

You know that, don’t you?

Instinctively, she perceived the clock would not leave her alone unless she acknowledged it.  She nodded, vigorously.

Good, dear.  Now, please, calm yourself.  Breathing deeply always helps me.  Try it.  Open your mouth and take deep breaths.

Tentatively, she parted her lips.  Gone was the molten seal.  She opened her mouth and gratefully drew huge, quick breaths.

Slow down, dear.  You don’t want to pass out.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself on the floor without a clue as to how I got there.  But you recall, dear, don’t you?

“Yes, I do,” she said to the clock, projecting into its face a lovely scene, the perfect Christmas snapshot of the family in a circle, the decorated tree the centerpiece, the group awash in a sea of shredded wrapping paper.  Lovely, yet, no one was happy, no one save Aunt Margie. 

She and Ruth were young, and Sammy was living, all close in age, borne by her mother in rapid succession to get the job done, to dispense with the nasty business, to be done with the hopping in and out of clothes and bed, ironically to be finished with her father and his urges, a revelation her mother let slip years later in a fit, when she was pregnant by a lover.  Sammy was discontented he hadn’t gotten the train set he yearned for.  Ruth received the wrong doll; she demanded to know how Santa could commit such a tragic error.  Iam was nauseous about portraying the virgin mother at the twelve o’clock mass; it was nothing more than a stroll up the aisle with Joseph and a baby Jesus doll, culminating in a brief tableau in front of the altar, but her mother had forced the role upon her, notwithstanding Iam’s hours of tearful opposition.  Her mother and father were sulky too; Iam thought at the time because the children were acting ungratefully, or because Aunt Margie had been living with them for two months and she knew how unhappy her aunt made her mother; though later she understood Aunt Margie was a small part of the reason; that her parents were so disaffected with each other it spilled from them to contaminate everything surrounding them, reducing the denouement of family occasions like Christmas to, at best, melancholia, and sometimes lashing displays of vindictive epitaphs.  Everybody was displeased, disappointed, or disturbed, save Aunt Margie.  She sat primly on the edge of a floral club chair in her shirtwaist with the outdated crinoline skirts neatly and demurely smoothed over her tightly clasped legs.  She beamed broadly and radiated such an intense pleasure that it warmed Iam and dispelled, for the intervals she glanced at her, the dread of the twelve o’clock mass.  In her lap rested her present; she stroked the four cartons of Kool cigarettes as if they were living pets.

“Such a thoughtful gift, children,” she said merrily.  “Are they your idea, dear?”

No, they were her mother’s, who wrapped them with the rest of the relatives’ and friends’ gifts two days before Christmas.  Iam helped, handing her mother the paper and ribbons, tape and scissors.  Her mother rewarded Iam by allowing her to affix a label from time to time, supervising closely to ensure Iam positioned them precisely, that she didn’t ruin the artful wrapping, guiding her with short, barked words as to where to place the glittering treasures under the tree as she finished with each.

“At least Margie’s easy to buy for.  Not like some of the others,” her mother said, gathering cartons and binding them with a green ribbon. 

“Smoking’s bad for you,” Iam said.

“It’s bad for you and me, but it’s very good for your aunt,” said her mother.  “It’s like medicine for her.”

“It will make her better?”

“Sure, Iam,” laughed her mother.  “Don’t you know what kills you cures you?”

Iam stared at her, surprised.

“Maybe I have it wrong.  It doesn’t matter.  These make your aunt happy, and you like seeing Aunt Margie happy, don’t you?”

Aunt Margie was the merriest person that Christmas morning. 

“Darling sister, would you mind very much if I excused myself and brought my gifts to my room?”  When she lived with Iam and her family, Aunt Margie stayed in a dormer room in the attic.  It was the only place in the house where she was permitted to smoke, and only if she opened the window.

“Sure.  Christmas morning’s over and I have to get the kids ready for church anyway.”

“Thank you, thank you for such a lovely Christmas,” she gushed. 

Later, everybody stood at the front door prepared to depart for church, save Aunt Margie.  Iam’s mother called up the two flights to the attic for her several times, but Aunt Margie didn’t appear, nor did she respond. 

“Iam, go see what’s taking her so long.  I’ll never forgive her if she makes us late, not on your big day.”

Iam ran up the two flights and knocked on Aunt Margie’s door.  Aunt Margie didn’t answer.  Iam turned the knob and peeked in through a blue haze, then threw the door back. 

Aunt Margie lay on the floor on her back, arms at her sides, skirts properly down over her thighs, legs modestly together, by all appearances relaxing. 

Iam went to her and saw her eyes were wide open.

Iam shook her.  “Are you all right, Aunt Margie?”  She shook and asked her if she was all right a few times, until her mother’s shouts brought Iam to the head of the attic stairs to yell down that Aunt Margie was sick.

Her mother was up in a minute.  She shook Aunt Margie hard, growing angrier with each shake, screaming in frustration and resentment, “You’re not doing this to me, Margie.  Not again.  Not today.”

Aunt Margie didn’t wake up, not even when the people from the state hospital came for her in the afternoon and carted her away.  Though Iam knew it was wrong of her, she was glad Aunt Margie had decided to lie down on the floor of her room and save her, intentionally or not.

Calm now?


Excellent, dear.  Poor Dominic, you frightened him terribly.  He ran outside with Dominica, and you know how she can be.  You should go to them and reassure them everything is fine, peachy fine.  I’ll be here, dear.  I’ll stay with you to help.  Go now.  And be kind.  Be understanding, dear.

She rose slowly and shuffled, like Aunt Margie had at the hospital, to the slider.  It was pushed aside.  She stepped through onto the deck and closed it behind her.  The afternoon sun renewed her. 

The children were nowhere in sight.  She looked over at the old faded red barn, where Ben Wilson stored a tractor and seed, though the seed was already in the ground and sprouted, a waving ocean of nascent emerald leaves clear to the far, scraggly tree windbreak.  The barn door was large, heavy, and locked; they wouldn’t be in there. 

She descended the stairs into the yard.  She should call the children.  She wanted to shout their names, but she’d frightened Dominic badly; she knew raising her voice would worsen matters; that the children might not respond and she would accomplish nothing. 

She walked to the edge of the house and turned toward the paint-pealed white work shed.  Billy stowed his tools and John Deere in the shed.  She kept her gardening tools and supplies in the garage, though plenty of room remained for them in the shed.  Billy had cleared space and built a bench for her, but she’d told him she preferred the garage.  The shed discomposed her; she saw it as a hut; she saw it as a box; she remembered a hot hut, a hot box.  When Billy pressed her to use the shed and not clutter the garage, explaining herself would have exposed too much of her past, a past she’d carefully edited.  She settled for claiming she was mildly claustrophobic.  It wasn’t completely a lie, for she did not like confined spaces, especially with names like shed.  Dominic and Dominica were forbidden to go into the shed by themselves, but they couldn’t have even if they’d wanted to; Billy secured it with a large Master Lock.  No, they wouldn’t be there.  She turned and walked to the garage on the opposite side of the house.

The garage had double doors hung on giant rusted hinges that squeaked each time she opened them to park the Dodge Caravan she drove, and nine-square panels of glass, which made the structure, and the entire farm, appear picturesque from County Road 25 that bordered their property and connected them to Sullivan five miles east.  The building itself was white, like the house, and the panels were trimmed in a deep green, also like those on the house.  Quaint was how she described the homestead, and she meant it in a warm, pleasing way that appealed to Billy.  Like the barn door, the children really could not open the garage doors; they presented a challenge to her, too, which was why the Caravan spent more time in the driveway than inside the garage.  They didn’t have to open the doors to enter, though.  There was a side door they could easily manage.

She approached the door and peered in through the green-trimmed panel of windows but could see nothing in the spotty sunlight.  She pulled open the door, stepped in, and switched on the light, illuminating the garage and her small storage and workbench space.  Apart from her area, the garage was a large, open, bare expanse without the cars present.  There was nowhere for Dominic and Dominica to hide and she was certain they were not inside.  Nor were they behind the garage, when she checked outside.

In the driveway, she tried the doors of the Caravan.  They were locked, as she knew they would be, but it did no harm to be sure.  She leaned against the van and scanned the property.  They had run outside, of that she had no doubt.  She saw the open slider; the clock told her they’d gone outside.  Though, of course, it couldn’t have been the ridiculous cat clock; clocks didn’t talk.  It was her head, her brain, her mother’s instinct about her children; that’s what persuaded her they were outside.  As for the rest, well, recalling Aunt Margie had upset her, nothing more.  She was fine, maybe a little lonely with Billy gone the past few days; maybe a little angry at Dominic for stealing and hiding her box; maybe a little disturbed by the contents of the box; but who doesn’t get a little unsettled when reminded of certain things in their lives, things they regret, wished hadn’t occurred, would have avoided if it had been possible? 

“I am fine, Iam,” she said, turning to her reflection in the big Caravan side window.  “I am fine, just fine, actually quite peachy fine now that I think about it.  When I find you two, I’ll say, ‘Everything is peachy keen, children, sweet and peachy like peach ice cream.  Now wouldn’t it be really nice if we had a some delicious peach ice cream?  Peach ice cream would be wonderfully soothing.’  First, though, I have to find you.”  Iam laughed at herself.  “How dumb of me,” she said to her laughing image.  “It’s hide and go seek.  Those kids, just like Mommy and poor, poor Sammy and Aunt Ruth, crazy for hide and go seek.  And don’t forget Aunt Margie, oh, such a big fan of hide and go seek we couldn’t find her for days, for weeks, for years and years.  Oh, and the best, Aunt Margie couldn’t find herself either.  But I’ll find you two.  I know where you are.  Oh, yes, I know where you are now.”

Iam ran across the gravel driveway, over the front lawn, to the walkway leading to the front entrance of the house, a closed-in three-season porch encased in panels of windows trimmed green, singing lightly, “Come out, come out wherever you are,” repeating the line dozens of times until it assumed the cadence of a mantra.

On the top step, she crouched, giggling, bringing a hand to her mouth to suppress her giddiness.  How she must appear from traipsing around the yard in the heat.  She combed her hair with her fingers.  She wiped her face with her hands.  What a fright she must be:  the great harlot, the whore of Babylon.

“A great whore prowls in our midst.  She has defiled herself and us,” thundered Pater.

In the door panels materialized the Council, ten women and two men, convened in the living room of Pater’s Los Angeles Temple quarters.  They, the most loyal and committed believers, sat cross-legged on the floor in a semicircle at Pater’s feet, comical in gold-toe black stocks.  He sat above them, staring down at them from his leather recliner.  Osma perched in a low chair on his left and Fidella, perpetually jittery, on his right.  They had been discussing, among other Church business, logistics for the weekend mission to San Diego, formulating a roster of members who would ride down in the Church busses to seek converts in Balboa Park, the Gaslamp district, and the Seaport Village shopping center.  It was midnight and they’d been laboring for five hours and were relieved to be nearing the end, their backs stiff, their minds worn and drifting, when Pater’s proclamation jolted and focused them on him. 

“Yes,” he declared, “a great whore is among us.  She is present in this room.  I have waited patiently for her to reveal herself, to explain herself.  She is tearing me apart.  She is hurting me inside and I can bear it no longer.” 

He moaned and leaned forward, almost as if he was about to tumble from his chair.  Osma and Fidella both grabbed his arms and eased him back.  Fidella stroked his brow and Osma offered him a glass of water, which he accepted, gracing her with a limp smile.  In the silent attention of the Council, he emptied the glass in a single swallow. 

He returned the glass to Osma.  He patted the hand his wife had ministered him with.  He turned his gaze on the faithful, his expression now placid and sad.  Then he raged, “Whore, you know who you are.  It is time to rise and confess your sin.  Confess now, transgressor, and I will show you mercy.  Force me to identify you, though, and I will rain harsh punishment upon you.  Stand, you great whore.”

The lull and abrupt change was a scorching, disorienting Santa Ana that swept through the Council ranks.  All eyes bulged.  Every head swiveled, seeking the sinner.  Each woman prayed she wasn’t the great whore. 

Pater’s flared eyes skipped from woman to woman, and settled on Iam, burning into her, until she was aflame and could no longer sit.  She jumped to her feet, swaying, bewildered, mad with fright and embarrassment as all eyes gaped at her. 

“Marcella, my faithful warrior, how have I offended you that you should pierce my heart with a dagger of infidelity?  My sacred heart bleeds,” Pater cried, tears in profusion spilling down his cheeks. 

“I am sorry, Pater,” she wept in sorrow and terror, “if I have—”

“IF?” he shrieked.  “IF?  You HAVE, Marcella.  You have.  Confess now to your fraters and amitas.  Now!”

“But, Pater,” she said.

“Your love, Marcella,” he ranted.  “You can love only one.  Put none before Him, it is written.  How could you betray the love of the only Delegate of God?  How dare you stand before me, before us, and deny it?  You are a great whore, Marcella.  A great audacious mother of whores.”

Tears and sweat shone on Pater’s scarlet face.  His beautiful pure black hair, always high and big and perfectly combed back on his head, hung forward in thick greasy ropes.  Osma and Fidella clasped his arms to calm him.  He shrugged their hands away and bellowed at the door, “Bring him in.”

The door behind the assembled opened.  Two men entered, a Sword and a young man christened Lukas in the Universal One tradition of renouncement and acceptance.  Pater dismissed the Sword.  He gestured, in the exaggerated manner of a gallant greeting a rival, for Lukas to stand next to Iam.

“Aren’t they the cutest couple?  Look, look everyone.  Aren’t they too adorable?”

As the faithful obeyed and directed their gaze on Iam and Lukas, Iam’s head spun; she was sure she would faint dead away.

“What do you say?  What?” he mocked.  “You two are such a cute couple.  Cute, cute, cute, too cute.”

In unison, the Council chanted, “Cute, cute, cute, too cute.”  At Pater’s urging, they recited it again and again, until he slashed the air and they fell quiet.

“Do not be deceived, my People.  These two are the whore and her whoremaster.  Cute!  They are transgressors.  They have broken the commandments of our beloved Church.  They have driven a searing knife into my heart.  I can hardly bear it.  Worse, the whore Marcella refused to come forth of her own and admit her offense.  She obligated her Pater call her on it.”

“Pater,” Iam begged.

He struck his leather lounger with a fist.  “Silence.  You have not been granted permission to speak.  Your time has passed.  Lukas, what is the law of Universal One on cohabitation?”

“It is forbidden,” he answered, “unless you have blessed it, Pater.”


“It is forbidden, unless you have blessed it, Pater,” echoing Lukas.

“And have I?”

“No,” they answered.

“No, I have not.”

Pater’s mood shifted abruptly again; he grew calm.  “It is late.  We are all weary from our work.  I will not burden all the People with your sinful antics.  You will be punished, after you describe your transgression in detail to the Council.  At tomorrow evening’s meeting, you, Marcella, are to produce an exact written account of every disgusting act between you and Lukas.  We want you to be explicit.  Leave out no prod or poke or lick.  Leave nothing out.  I will know,” tapping his head, “I see anything you try to hide.  Be thorough, Marcella, be thorough.  You will read your report to the Council.  That will be the first part of your punishment:  wallowing publicly in the shame of your sins like a sow in her muck.  Lukas, you will listen and affirm the veracity of her filthy behavior.  Afterward, I will ask the Swords to administer the rest of your punishment.  Now, the meeting is ended.  I am weary and disgusted and need to take solace in my room, alone.”

The Council members rose and filed from Pater’s quarters.  No one spoke or looked at Iam.  In the room she shared with three others, the women prepared for bed without speaking to her.  They believed something had happened between Lukas and her.  Nothing she could say would dissuade them.  After she wrote her report and read it tomorrow night, she would forever be branded a sinner, a betrayer of Universal One and Pater.  Worse yet, Pater probably would relieve her of duties she’d worked hard to earn and she would face a long struggle to win back her position.  The terrible injustice of it was nothing had transpired between her and Lukas, nothing but innocent friendship. 

An hour after her roommates were asleep, Iam lay on her bed, having scribbled barely a page of her meretricious confession and reluctant to manufacture the extremely lurid acts Pater would want to hear the next night.  She rested her head on her pillow and her eyes drooped, when a subdued knock came to her from the door as it opened.

“Osma,” she whispered.

Osma signaled her to leave the room.

“Pater wishes to see you,” Osma said, in the hall.  On their way to Pater’s quarters, she said, “How could you do such a thing, Marcella?  Pater trusted you.”

“Osma,” she said, “I did nothing.”

“Please, none of your lies.  I’ll hear everything I need to know tomorrow.”

In Pater’s quarters, at the door of his study, Osma said, “Go in.  He’s waiting for you.”

“Aren’t you …”

“No.  He wants you, Marcella.  Alone.  Don’t anger him further by keeping him waiting.”

Iam opened the door and stepped into darkness.

“Pater?  Pater, you asked to see me.”

From the distant blackness, he said, “Yes, Marcella.”

“The lights, Pater.”

“In a moment, my little warrior.  Marcella, I know nothing physical transpired between you and Lukas.”

“You do,” she said, a mixture of surprise and relief.

“Yes, Marcella.  You forget I am able to see into the minds of my people.  I could see your pleas of innocence about what happened between you two was the truth.”

“Oh, thank you, Pater.  It is.  It is.”

“But it was still wrong.  You know there can be no relationships without my permission, none of any sort.”

“Yes, Pater.”

“When you left, I heard your thoughts, Marcella.”

“You did, Pater?”

“You thought, ‘What am I to write?  That I talked to Lukas, I laughed with him, I was foolish, and I hugged him?  Pater will believe me, but not the others.  He will discern I am sincere.’  Weren’t these your thoughts, Marcella?”

She hesitated, for these were not precisely her thoughts.  But that she wondered what acts to describe, that was true.  “Yes, Pater.”

“Yes, I know.  I am in His image, quick to anger and faster to love, and I will help you write your report.  And what you describe will be truth.  The acts will be true, I mean, and your physical punishment will be forgone, and you will continue as my mighty little warrior, after a small penance.  Come to me, Marcella,” he said, switching on the light beside his chair, revealing himself naked, save for his funny gold-toe socks, in glorious erection.

They are inside.  You know I am right.  You must cleanse the boy of his bad ways and his repugnant heresy, Marcella.  He must learn acceptance to provide the seedbed for my salvation, for the salvation of the world.  In him will grow the fruit to save and to destroy.  You must ready the soil by weeding from him what the enemy has planted.

“No,” she muttered.  “No, no, no.”

Open the door, Marcella.

Her hand griped the doorknob.  At the command, she turned it and pushed through the doorway onto the porch.

“Found you,” she boomed at Dominic and Dominica, who crouched below the glass panels, invisible from outside.  They pulled back at her bellowing. 

“Where you playing hide and go seek with me?  Well, the porch isn’t a very smart place to hide, is it?  Is it, Dominic?  Speak up.  Is it?”

“No, Mommy,” he whispered.

“And why are you crying, Dominica?  Oh, sad your Mommy found you so fast?  Don’t like it?  Hide better next time.  Mommy knows how to hide, doesn’t she, Dominic?”

“Yes,” he whimpered.

“But not well enough for curious little boys like you, I guess.”

He blinked in surprise.  Dominica’s crying intensified.

“You, little miss, are annoying the living shit out of me.”

Dear, ladies do not employ scatological language.  It is from the gutter, dear, and should remain there.  Please, mind what you say.  Don’t forget:  everything is fine, peachy fine.

“I’m sorry—”

“Mommy,” sobbed Dominica.

Marcella, you are a warrior, and you are raising new warriors to carry on our crusade, not sniveling snots, not backstabbers who will defect to help our enemies destroy us like before.  I will not have my birthright taken from me again.  Never again.  You must punish the boy.  Hard love, Marcella, hard, hard love teaches obedience, and will prepare the boy for his sacred role.

She spoke briskly.  “Dominic.”

Sweeter, dear.  You’ll get more cooperation with honey than vinegar.  You know I’m right.

“Dominic, Dominica, Mommy’s not mad.”

“You are,” sniffled Dominica.

“I’m not mad at you, Dominica.  Or you either, Dominic.  No, Mommy is mad at herself.”

“Why?” asked Dominica, running an arm across her nose.

“I found something this morning.  It’s … it’s important to me.  A long time ago, I put it in a special place for safekeeping.”

“Like in a safe?”

“More like cold storage.”


“Dominic knows what I mean, don’t you, Dominic?”

“What, Dominic?  What?  Tell me,” Domincia urged.

“The basement, Mommy,” Dominic said.

“The basement is cold sometimes,” Dominica said.  “I don’t like it when it’s cold.  What was in the cold store?”

“A box,” Dominic said.

“What was in the box, Dominic?” Iam asked.

“Old stuff.”

“What old stuff?” Dominica asked.

“Yes, Dominic, enlighten us.  What kind of old stuff?”

“A cup and box.  But I didn’t break them.  And pictures mostly.  Pictures of people, that’s all.”

“What people?” Dominica asked.  “Mommy, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa, what people?”

“No, not them.  I don’t know.”

“Can I see them?”

“No,” Iam said.  “Nobody can see them.”

“It was okay for Dominic to see them.”

“No it wasn’t.  Dominic took them without permission.”

“I didn’t know,” retorted Dominic.

“You don’t know that when Mommy puts her things away that means she doesn’t want anybody snooping in her business?  Is that what you don’t know?” her tone gradually rising.

Please, dear, control yourself, and you’ll see the good in him finding the box.


Well, dear, I am here with you, aren’t I?

Marcella, you are listening to a crazy bitch.  This boy betrayed you.  He betrayed us.  He will rebel against his duty.  You know what to do.  Make him confess.  After,  punish him severely, before he betrays us on matters critical for the entire world. 

“Good?” Dominic said.

“Good.  No, taking Mommy’s things is not good, Dominic.”

“But you said—”

“No buts.  I should punish you, Dominic.  I’m not though.  All I want you to do is … is write me a report about what you did.”

“A report?”

“Just write down everything you did.”

“Like he went to the cold store?” Dominica said, dry-eyed and sniffle free.

“Yes, why you went searching for Mommy’s things, how you found the box, why you hid it, what was in it, that sort of thing.”

“Can I help?” Dominica asked.

“Sure.  The two of you can go to Dominic’s room.  But no nonsense.  I want a real report.  Okay, now upstairs, the both of you.  I want it in one hour.”

They ran into the living room and bounded up the stairs, leaving Iam to wonder what Dominic would say, what questions he might have, and how she could continue keeping the secrets of her life secret.


“Two weeks and look at it, a piece of shit.”

Billy surveyed the fire-orange Ford 250 pickup.  A long, thick tree branch had crushed the walls of the cargo bed.  It wasn’t pretty, especially on a new truck loaded with extras and prodigious chrome, but it wasn’t fatal. 

“The damage appears repairable,” Billy said, crouching, peering underneath the truck’s bed.  “Doesn’t seem to be any damage to the frame.”  He ticked his tablet PC; used its camera to record pictures of the damage; switched between the truck, the tablet, and the customer, claimant is what he thought.  “A week in a body shop and you’ll never know.”

“Easy for you to say.  Shit, I’ll always fuckin’ know.  Man, it was like … pristine.  I mean, Christ, like virgin pussy, if you know what I mean.  Like that.  Now, you know, it’s like the old lady in there.  Used.  You know.  Shit.”

And you’re such a prize, Billy thought, standing, rubbing the ache in his lower back, avoiding the man, the foul mouth, the rutted, bloated face, the belly protruding over the waistband, making an elaborate study of the tree’s exposed flesh where the limb had been attached.

“Could have been a lot worst, Mr. Pike,” though mister didn’t seem to fit the claimant.  Asshole seemed more appropriate.  Should have been worst, you asshole.  Should have flattened your precious dick truck like a pancake.  “Could have fallen on your home.”

“I could give a shit.  A piece of crap.  But my truck, my beautiful truck.”  Mr. Pike thrust his arm, hand fisted but for his forefinger.  “Fuck you, God, you miserable bastard.”

“Please, Mr. Pike, we don’t want to temp Him.  One catastrophe is more than enough for the week.”  Billy presented the tablet and stylus to him.  “Look it over.  Then sign here at the bottom and I’ll transmit your claim.”

Mr. Pike grabbed the tablet and stylus, stared obtusely at the screen, growled “Where?” three times, made his mark, and pushed both back at Billy.

Billy slid the tablet and stylus into the backpack he carried and removed a flyer.  “Here are a few Knox County body shops we recommend.”

Mr. Pike snatched the flyer.  “Yeah, sure.  Thanks for nothing.”

“You’re welcome, sir,” which stung like a canker, “and here’s my card.”  Another snatch.  “If Old Northwest Insurance and Casualty can be of further assistance, just call the number on the card.”

In his car, Billy wanted to pull the phone from his pants pocket and call Iam back, but who knew how long he’d be on the phone.  Better to save time and arrive home early to see firsthand what the problem was.  If he had any hope of leaving tonight, he had to keep moving.  Three more claims awaited him, each big, the next a house shorn of its roof and who knew what other damage, and certainly freighted with limitless emotion. 

Writing claims in profusion was tedious and tiring but bearable.  The emotion, the over abundant crop of suffering, of angst, of fright, of despair, these overwhelmed Billy.  His skills at assessing, analyzing, and calculating were superb.  Tears, sorrow, hopelessness, anger, resentment, spitefulness, and rudeness, these he found difficult to handle. 

Iam, early in their marriage, said the name Brick fit him.  When he objected, tried to show he was as warm as the next guy, she said it was an admirable quality.  He was her brick when she needed it, whenever she required something solid to lean on.  “Mr. Brick,” she said on their honeymoon, after they’d made love for the first time, the depth increased by the long deferral in deference to the rape she told him she suffered as a girl, “you’re my Sir Willy.”  After inquiring about the origin of Sir Willy and she reminding him she once had a loving aunt who mothered her, protected her, and read to her, she giggled, “Whenever I need a brick, I’ll call you Willy,” frivolous, but he also serious.

Didn’t she say Willy earlier?  He couldn’t recall.  It had been a bizarre conversation, the confusion over the time, the weird pitch of her voice, tight, as if her vocal cords had been winched; and then calm, normal, as if maybe everything was as right as she’d said.  She might be in one of her states, blackly sad for a period, then, suddenly, brightly happy, and then normal, a calm condition of reserve, or, sometimes he felt, restraint.  She classified these bursts “spells” that afflicted her from time to time; nothing serious she’d been advised, just residue from the rape.  That rape, it was a plague on them both; a horror, she termed it, too evil to recount whenever he offered to listen.  “Please, Billy,” she’d demur.  “Please.”

It couldn’t be Dominic and Dominica.  They were cooperative, obedient children.  She loved them.  She was a wonder with them, too; he witnessed that himself; his parents commented often to him privately at his luck marrying a compassionate, lovely, levelheaded girl like Iam; and they marveled in her presence about how artfully she managed the children, the house, and Billy, who sometimes could seem disconnected. 

His parents confided to her that when he was a boy and a young man they worried about him.  His mother called him a backward child.  Relating to women was difficult for him; he didn’t date; he didn’t attend his high school prom.  They feared he’d never meet someone.  Directed inwards, in other words, meaning he lacked social skills; he preferred being alone to work with his tools, on projects involving paper and computers and wood and the like, more than with people.  The impression was he was a social hermit. 

He knew his mother had discussed her concerns with Iam; Iam told him.  He was a little of that, she’d rejoined in his defense, and she loved his stoic quality.  Stoic.  He adored her characterization of him.  Stoic.  The word fashioned him in his vision of a real man, a John Wayne kind of guy, a modern Spartan.  She was adamant with his parents; he was the type she wanted:  a brick, a man who wouldn’t fall apart in dicey situations, a man who wouldn’t burden her with emotional displays, a man she could count on, a man who kept his feelings to himself and who knew to put them on display sparingly when necessary.  She’d experienced the other type, silly boys, Peter Pan men, and Billy was for her.  He was tender and understanding when it counted, when she needed him to be.

Hashing, mulling, analyzing, he drove to the house without a roof.  A few blocks away and easy to spot, it stood topless and forlorn amid houses the storm had capriciously skipped.  He parked across the street and observed a couple picking through the debris, lugging small items, clothing and furnishings, to a van parked in the littered driveway.  He muttered a brief prayer that the days had by now smoothed the sharp edges of the couple’s emotions, and noticed the woman hesitating letting go a box.  From it jutted photo albums.

Was it the box?  The box certainly raised questions in his mind, especially the pink envelopes and the newspaper clipping.  He didn’t read the letters completely, merely pulled a few from their envelopes, glanced at them when Dominic showed him the mysterious box, and puzzled at the one still sealed.  He devoted more time to the clipping, running his eyes up and down it, absorbing it.  The contents of the box troubled him.  He planned mentioning the box when Iam returned from her errands in Sullivan.  Then the tornado struck in Knox County and he asked Dominic to find a safe place for the box until he got home.  The box would be their secret until he had a chance to look over the items in it closely.  Why the box should be a secret, he didn’t know.

The troubling aspect was he couldn’t match up what she’d told him about her life preceding Sullivan and the contents of the hidden box.  The building, what was it?  He’d seen plenty of hospitals and it certainly appeared to be one.  But why save a photo of a hospital?  Was it where she was born?  Maybe where she was treated after the rape?  Who saved pictures of hospitals, especially a building as gloomy as the monolith in the photo?  And the women, who were they?  Maybe the worn photo of the woman, whose face was smudged into inscrutability either by time and handling or maliciously erased, was important to her.  Maybe the other in a pink dress, vintage in appearance and familiarly nagging, though at the moment he couldn’t place her, was the woman whose name he saw on the pink envelopes?  Margaret.  She never mentioned a Margaret, but perhaps it was her Aunt Margie?  If so, why wouldn’t she show him the picture of the woman who raised her?  Where were the pictures of her brother, her sister, her parents?  The cup and saucer, the small box, were they heirlooms?  Why wouldn’t she display them, if she cherished them?  Most perplexing, though, was the newspaper clipping.  MASS EXECUTION.  What would she find interesting in such a tragedy to save it?  What could it possibly mean to her? 

Nothing in the box made sense when laid against her life.  Her life was; well, truth was it was ordinary.  Actually, when he weighed it carefully, it was ordinary and extraordinary.  She’d had an older brother and a younger sister, Sammy and Ruth.  Sammy was smart, who had been an achiever, but also a pesky wise guy who teased her incessantly.  Ruth was a sweet little sister, who idolized Iam and emulated her big sister in every way.  Often, she annoyed Iam with her adulatory pestering.  But Iam loved her and Sammy regardless of their antics.  Her father was hardworking, an insurance salesman who became an independent broker and started his own small agency.  Iam didn’t seem to know anymore than the next person about insurance; however, what child would find insurance sales sufficiently exciting to delve into?  Dominic and Dominica, when they were older, would probably nod off if he went on about his job.  Her mother was beautiful and proper.  She took pride in nurturing her children, loved her husband, and kept an ordered house.  She devoted herself to it and the family, like his own mother. 

The family’s sadness, however, struck Billy as extraordinary.  Though he knew from his constant encounters with tragedy, some families suffered more than others, like the folks across the street, Iam’s bordered on unbelievable.  She assured him that, no, no, it was painfully true.  The family was taking him to his college located hours away in Maine.  They planned to stay the night in the motel in Vermont, break up the drive, and have a little family vacation.  Iam got sick and couldn’t go.  Her Aunt Margie took care of her.  Sammy had been a bit of a reckless driver; a typical boy, she said, who liked speed, who could be distracted.  Maybe he was driving too fast, or the family was excited and he was devoting more attention to them than to the road.  Whatever, nobody would ever know for sure.  He didn’t see the crossing.  It was night.  It was chilly.  The windows were up.  It was a rural crossing without lights.  It was the middle of the freight train.  It was as good as a phantom, and silent, what with the windows up and the family talking excitedly about the college they would visit the next day.  It didn’t happen often, but it happened from time to time.  He drove into the train, and Iam lost her family.  Extraordinary.  Iam was a young woman, just 36, with no family, no relatives to speak of, not even Aunt Margie, who’d raised her.  “Not really,” she said after their son’s birth, when he lamented her dearth of relations with whom to share their first joyful birth, “I have a family, Billy, the best family.  You, Dominic, and my beautiful in-laws.  It’s all the family I ever want.” 

Billy discovered himself focused on the windshield, on a few specks marring it, splattered insects, murmuring that he mustn’t forget to stop at a service station and wash it before heading home, when he noticed the woman cradling the box of albums staring at him.  She and, he assumed, her husband stood in a field of debris that miraculously, or oddly, littered no farther than the boundaries of their yard.  Reflexively, he waved, raised his backpack for them to see, and held up a finger.  “A minute,” he mouthed.  He checked his watch.  He’d been looking off into space for just a couple of minutes.  Nothing strange in that, merely contemplating the scope of the disaster.  He climbed from his car and toted his backpack over to the couple.  They were the same age as his parents.  They introduced themselves, the Benedicts, and he reciprocated, struggling to maintain a professional evenness.  The destruction devastated the couple and underneath their politeness their tension and bottomless sorrow was unmistakable.  Immediately, and for the time he was with them, he was uncomfortable. 

When it was over, after he’d inspected the house, scrambled over furnishings reduced to trash, stood in the open air of the second floor, scribbled and ticked and photographed and scrolled for what seemed forever, and they’d signed the tablet, the woman thanked him and said, “I feel very fortunate, Mr. Brick.”

“Yes, Mrs. Benedict?”

Through the entire ordeal of his writing the claim, she’d clutched the box, brushing aside her husband’s several attempts at sharing the burden.  Now, it appeared to Billy, she hugged the box.

“Yes, because the storm spared these.”

“Your photos, Mrs. Benedict?”

“My memories, Mr. Brick.  My memories of the house and my family, of my life, our lives,” she said, as Mr. Benedict draped an arm around her.  “It’s why I keep these, why I’m grateful, because they remind me of what is truly important to me.”

“Yes, Mrs. Benedict, I understand.  I really do understand.”

He left them like that, side by side. 

Starting the car and pulling away, he saw, finally, Mrs. Benedict allowed her husband to relieve her of the box and, almost imperceptivity, her shoulders heaved.  The scene was too much for Billy and he drove away a little faster than normal for him.

He slowed when he turned onto the next block.  He found he couldn’t concentrate on the road and parked.  His own box, Iam’s box, preoccupied him.  She saved the contents of the box because they were important to her.  They were precious memories.  She kept the box to not forget them, maybe to relive them.  But why hide them?  Why, when he asked about her life, she didn’t place the box in his lap and say, “These are my memories.  These represent what is important to me, Billy.  They are who I am.” 

“I don’t know you, Iam, not fully,” he said into the air, “but I will.”

He couldn’t wait until tomorrow.  No matter how late he finished, he would return home tonight.  He was desperate to leave, to find out what had upset her to distraction, and to learn who Iam really was, to understand why the box was such a secret.

But his obsession and determination weren’t sufficient for him to start the car, not just yet, not with the newspaper clipping fogging his vision, not with it consuming him.  By virtue of his ability, his “special gift” his mother called it, he vividly recalled each sensational revelation.  Each sentence brought a new mystery, a new question demanding an answer.  And there was the begging ultimate question he spoke to the windshield:  “What does this Pater and Universal One have to do with my wife, with Iam?”


In the rectory kitchen, Father Chapas hung up the wall phone, mildly flummoxed over his misconduct.  Como un colegial, he admonished himself.  Te comportaste como cuando los fieles visitaron Santa María.  Idiota, mintiéndote a ti mismo.  La verdad es un deseo tonto.

He went to the refrigerator, foraged in it, and decided he wasn’t hungry, at least not for food.  It was best to divert his mind from what it dwelled upon; it dwelled upon the inexorable prodding of the devil.  When el diablo tormented him by dangling temptation before his soul, prayer or work was his salvation, not indulgence. 

He crossed into the living room that also served as his office and knelt at the prie dieu he stationed in front of the picture window.  He inherited the kneeler from his predecessor, who had kept it in the second bedroom.  He moved it because he enjoyed performing his diurnal office of praise and thanksgiving gazing on God’s magnificent creation, in particular the copse of evergreens, three in a row, the two rows paralleling each other, that stood between the parking lot and the street, and not on a plasterboard wall in dire need of painting; at night, as he executed his nocturnal office of preparation for eternal life, he examined his reflected expression and demeanor to ensure his attitude was properly humble and yearning inside and out.

Now he prayed for strength.  He prayed to forget.  He prayed to banish the idolatry of his attraction to her from his body and soul. 

When prayer failed him, he stood and flexed his knees.  He followed with a few awkward squats.  “Espero que el ejercicio funcione donde el rezo no lo ha hecho,” he said to his desk, as he settled in his chair.  The job at hand was a sermon for tomorrow, a homily of gratitude to those who had given of themselves for the people of Knox County, for those like the Brick children, Billy Brick off assisting people in reconstructing their lives, and Mrs. Brick, Maryam, like Mary, a Madonna, such a pure and wondrous creation, a truly magnificent creature of God.

“Oh,” he murmured, pushing back from the desk, “esto no.”

He rubbed his eyes to purge her from them. 

“Otra cosa.  Ve otra cosa.”

Imaging himself in his pulpit in front of his congregation was another remedy for a trespassing mind.  Nothing like picturing himself before expectant worshipers enraptured by his interpretation and explication of the holy word to fix himself on the challenge.

The pulpit was a glorious perch.  Up high on Sundays as he spoke, his eyes flitting from face to face, engaging his parishioners, helping them appreciate the frequently elusive ways of the Lord, he felt like a god.  How it must be to look down on your creations, marveling and reveling in what you wrought.  One day, he believed, he would know.  Not just him, all would be revealed to everybody who believed.  The key was keeping God’s word, leading a life pure in thought and deed.

What he saw from up there!  What he saw when people deluded themselves with the illusion that no one would notice.  Like God, little escaped the capering eyes of Father Chapas from on high.  What he sought was faith in the eyes of his people.  What he found was … was lust.  Lust in the house of God!  ¡Oh Dios misericordioso, perdónalos, perdóname!  Es inocente, Padre, incoente.  But He knew, as did Father Chapas.  The idea was as real as the deed.  Sin did not require physical execution to be sin.  If your thoughts were evil and, especially, if evil set your heart racing with excitement and hunger, you were in a state of sin. 

Regardless, some behavior was laughable, and he tittered in the silent rectory at the vision of the men and boys.  Boys were a special case, bundles of raging hormones; he understood their roving, randy eyes.  He had been like them, overflowing with the urge to ogle and touch girls.  Even after his calling to the service of the Lord and his commitment to the difficult celibate life, the desire stalked him.  Innumerable nights he lay in his seminary bed imploring God to free him, to elevate him to the plane on which his religious teachers resided, impervious to the attraction of fleshy allurement.  Most times, the Lord showed him mercy.  But there were other times.

“Detente, diablo,” he said, rustling the still air with his demand.  “¡Detente!”

He tried again to concentrate on his writing pad.  Scrawled on it was “Knox County.”  He sighed at his meager progress and envisioned himself struggling through the afternoon with what should be simple.  The words should jet from him; they should leap from the compassion in his heart; they should resound in the church and raise all up, up to the heights.  They should contain such power that every man, every married man, with his wife on the right and his children on the left, in the presence of his Creator …

Men, with full knowledge of right and wrong, of sinful thoughts and deeds, they were quite another matter.  Such fools that they did not comprehend He, and Father Chapas, saw them behind the women, casting their eyes down, studying backsides and legs, conjuring images, unholy, disgusting and perverted scenes of entwined bodies, of forbidden fornication, of worse condemned acts.

“Diablo, estás en todas partes,” he muttered.

“Knox County” winked at him.  Deep in the night, Knox County would repeat itself on the page, on page after page, and he would assume his station above the congregation delivering an eloquent sermon consisting of Knox County pronounced over and over again, and look into the sneering eyes of the sinful men when they tired of their rump gazing, into the bewildered eyes of the children who would intuit his stupidity, into the amused eyes of the women, the benevolently amused eyes of the women who would sense his need, weakness, his desire to be cuddled in the valleys of their breasts.

“Knox County.”  He pressed the pen hard against the paper until it penetrated to the next sheet, not deterred by the tearing.  “Knox County,” he dug, “was a blessing.  We can’t always understand the mystery that is our God.  We do know God is good and He desires only good for us.  Embedded, then, even in the worse events, is God’s goodness.  We search for it.  We faithful find it.  From this week’s tragedy emerged …”

Nothing?  Did nothing emerge from the tragedy?  Much emerged, he was certain, much good, and it all eluded his pen.  If only he could look into the eyes of those who helped and read their feelings, fathom and absorb the lessons they learned, be kindled by their spirit, and be renewed by their sacrifices for the sake of others.  Writing the sermon would be easier if some who participated assembled before him in his rectory and spoke to him.  Imposible.

No, posible, whispered something from within him.

He swung his eyes to the shelf above his desk.  On it rested the Bible, several guidebooks to better homilies, a rites volume, a dictionary and thesaurus, and what he sought, the fruit of a year of labor, from conception to fulfillment, the first of what he planned to be a yearly chronicle of church life, the Holy Redemption Album of Parishioners.  All but a handful of members had sat for family portraits and nearly every family had purchased a copy.

He eased the album from the shelf and set it on top of the recalcitrant sermon.  He ran his finger over the leatherette cover and traced the gold embossed outline of Holy Redemption Church.  He opened to the first page, a letter from him in which he praised God, the lay leaders and volunteers, and the faithful who enthusiastically proclaimed their devotion to their Catholic Church by posing and agreeing to have their pictures included.  Instead of thumbing from the front, he flipped to the back and began perusing from the higher end of the alphabet.  Lovely families.  Beautiful children.  Such strength, unity, and love.  The album delighted him, as it always did, for it was a manifestation of the goodness of God, of what was deprived him, of what he dreamed until God summoned him to His service:  a strong family committed to God and earning His grace through their belief and their good works.

Here was the inspiration he sought.  Page after page of God’s spirit in the beautiful, beaming faces of his flock, each face lovelier than that preceding it, lovely, lovely, until he stared at the loveliest of all. 

“Señor, te excediste cuando creaste a Miriam Brick,” he whispered, unaware, a secret prayer escaping from his heart.

She sat on the stool provided by the photographer, a cushioned swiveling affair on chrome legs the man lowered and raised and upon which subjects turned this way or that at his direction.  She held Dominica on her lap.  Dominic stood to her right, straining to convince Father Chapas and everyone else who leafed through the album he was taller than he was.  Father Chapas couldn’t help smiling for he too wished to be taller.  Judging by his father, Dominic would be, unlike Father Chapas, for whom height was another unfulfilled dream.  Behind Maryam, behind the family, towered Billy.  His hands rested on Maryam’s shoulders.  Clearly, the pose declared to anyone who looked, to Father Chapas in particular, that he possessed her.  This, regardless of how hard Father Chapas tried to suppress the sinful emotion, always caused his heart to beat a bit faster and twinge with a small spark of jealousy. 

Father Chapas chuckled remembering the families.  How differently everyone dressed.  Most chose to pose in the clothes they wore to mass, neat, casual attire.  Some treated the session like a wedding, the men in suits, the women in cocktail dresses, boys in ties, and girls in party dresses; there were a surprising number of these.  Others believed it was an opportunity to make a statement about their lifestyle.  A motorcycle couple sported their Harley regalia; two farm families dressed as if Father Chapas had commissioned the spirit of Grant Wood to immortalize them.  One couple chose to proclaim their undying passion for their disco-era youth in the gaudiest rayon attire.

The Bricks, however, were the perfect representation of the American family.  While they dressed casually, they brought it off more skillfully than the others, especially Maryam.  She wore modest heels and pressed blue slacks.  Father Chapas couldn’t see Maryam’s shoes and only a portion of her slacks, but he’d been there, in her presence, and he could never forget them.  Her blouse was plain, bright white, with a mannish collar, heavily starched, high against her neck, contrasting in the most delightful way with her lightly tanned skin, lending her flesh a certain beckoning quality. 

There was another reason Father Chapas always found the Brick family photo startling.  No other family, no other woman reached out and arrested the viewer with her eyes as did Maryam.  Hers were black eyes, lustrous, like polished obsidian, inviting eyes that sparkled with life and love; eyes that more than spoke:  they sang a complex tune of understanding, compassion, delight, release, and fulfillment.

Father Chapas felt himself swelling.  His eyes bulged and scratched.  He realized he hadn’t blinked since coming upon the Brick photo, and he fluttered his lids rapidly to produce soothing tears, tears of contrition.  He had changed into his full clerical uniform; he wore it whenever he wrote a homily because, usually, it inspired him to scribe a stirring piece, at least by his lights.  Now the collar bit into his neck; it choked him to the point where he believed he might faint.  He undid it and it hung open on him like the disheveled necktie of a drunk.  His black pants were notched too tight, further restricting his breathing, bringing him closer to keeling onto his desk, onto the lovely photo of Maryam Brick, marring it.

He felt himself in a dream.  He floated.  His chair seemed to vanish from beneath him as he unhitched his belt.  The belt strangled him and he needed to be free.  Undoing the belt was nothing; it was an innocent deed; it was a necessity, simple human necessity; otherwise he would pass out. 

He felt compelled to massage his stomach.  Rubbing his belly was nothing more than therapeutic.  He rubbed and rubbed but relief eluded him.  He ached farther down.  His hand slithered in pursuit until it encountered the root of his affliction.

“Dios, Dios, esto es malo,” he cried, as he withdrew his hand that seemed a sentient creature.  “Dame fortaleza, te lo ruego.”

He exhaled sharply.  He covered his face with his hands, shielding his eyes from temptation.  It wasn’t possible, though; she lived in his mind; she had invaded every part of him; she possessed him:  head, heart … his personal godhead.  The sacrilegious name, what it demanded of him, how it attempted to overrule his reason and the principles of his life sent a shudder through him. 

“Ruega.  Debo rogar.  Debo rogar para tener fortaleza.  Dios dame fortaleza y guíame.”

He stood and started toward the prie dieu.  He staggered, tripped, and fell.  “Malditos pantalones,” he swore.  “Deberían ser mi armadura y me están matando.”  He pushed them down violently, as if they were his enemy, and they took his underwear with them.  He shrugged them off and crawled to his kneeler.

He kneeled and hunched forward.  He clasped his hands, a two-handed fist of prayer.  “Maryam,” he muttered.  “Maryam.”

And there she was, where the grass and the trees should have been.  There she was, a vision, an apparition, but not descended on a cloud; before him on a bed, his bed; before him not garbed in flowing robes, not veiled; before him as God had created her, as Eve had appeared to Adam, glorious, splendid, pristine.

“Maryam,” he prayed, hand griping hand, hands white with panicked effort, “excedes belleza.”

He prayed and wept and clenched his hands until they jerked in spasm and they forced him to release each other, convinced him they would break each other if he continued to restrict them.  To quell their rebellion and relieve the agony, he acquiesced.  He stoked his thighs with them.  His right hand strayed and happened upon the blasphemous godhead.  The throbbing was unbearable and he fondled it and he saw her fall back in response and he pulled and she smiled and he caressed and, finally, they moaned in unison.

Empty, relieved, he slumped on the prie dieu. 

When he looked up, he saw God’s earth, except he saw it differently; he saw it through the eyes of a sinner. 

He cried uncontrollably for a long while, shaking and gasping for breath.

When he cleared the last of the tears from his eyes, God seemed to have worked a miracle upon him, for he saw His creation just as he should, as he always had, better than he ever had, its beauty and immaculacy enhanced.  In that instant, he comprehended what had transpired as best as any mortal could.  God, wise, merciful, and infinitely mysterious, had bestowed a mission upon him, and it involved Maryam Brick. 

In his flash of revelation, he grasped that God had enlisted Maryam to make him aware of his human weakness, a weakness implanted and amplified in him by an evil spirit, a deadly weakness unperceived fully by him until God had compelled him to purge it from his heart and soul. 

There was more, for Maryam was a righteous woman; she could not be a temptress by her own will.  God, he convinced himself, was compelling him to help her.  If she was good yet bewitching him, he deduced, was she not operating under the misguidance of an evil scepter?  God had inspired the expunging of his sin to prepare him for his role in saving her.  It was a strange and mystical plan embodying as it did the opposites of evil and good.  The mission and the manner in which God had presented it to him were mysterious, as enigmatic as the Creator Himself.  He could ponder it for a lifetime and never comprehend it.  However, not a mystery, not a subject for interminable, unyielding deliberation, was that God required him to accept the calling on faith, and act.

He would begin with an offering to show Maryam God had a plan, yet to be revealed, for the two of them.


“What a mess.  What a terrible mess everything is,” Iam declared, surveying the condition of the living room, arms akimbo, rocking side to side, wagging her head.  How much of a mess Dominic would divulge shortly, she thought, folding her sweater, tidying the afghans and the room.  “I can’t have Billy walking in on a mess.  I’ll have everything spic … spic …”

“Everything is terrible mess, Aunt Margie,” Iam sobbed, gagging on the words.

Iam and Ruth laid on Aunt Margie’s bed with their heads in her lap, one on each of her thighs.  Aunt Margie alternately stroked their hair, ending each gentle brushing with little pat, pat, pat.  Sammy hung by the closed door, his ear fastened to it as if by suction, flinching as another dish or glass shattered, another chair clattered across the kitchen floor, another wretched, piercing, agonized scream issued from their mother, and their father responded with another awful, rude, insulting roar.

“Sammy, come away from the door.  Come over here with us.”

“I want to hear,” he said.

“There’s nothing to hear.”

“Are kidding?  There’s plenty.”

“A good boy like you shouldn’t be listening to bad things like that.”

Sammy shook his head and snickered.  He said, “Shit.”

Ruth’s head popped up.  She pointed at Sammy.  “He said a bad word, Aunt Margie.”

“It doesn’t mean we have to listen, Ruth.”

“You’re in trouble, Sammy.”

“Shit, Ruth.  Double shit.”

“Sammy, Ruth, please, behave yourselves,” said Aunt Margie.

“Like them,” Sammy said, adding, “Shit.”

“Please, Sammy, you’re the oldest, almost a young man.  Please, set a good example for your sisters.  I realize it may be a challenge, but couldn’t you try?”

“Sure,” he said, and under his breath let loose another, “Shit.”

Ruth laid her head back down.  Iam, who heard Sammy’s defiance, pretended she didn’t, earning her an extra stroke and pat from Aunt Margie.

“I am scared,” Iam whispered.

“You am, Iam?”

“Really, scared, Aunt Margie.  Really scared, not joking scared.”

“Of what?  Are they disagreeing for the first time?”

“They’re fighting, Aunt Margie.”

“Now, dear, I think of it as disagreeing.  When you look at it that way, you can see it isn’t quite so bad.”

“They are fighting.  It is bad.”

“If you insist, but is it the first time they haven’t seen eye to eye?”


“No.  And it won’t be the last.”


“Dear, they’ll be disagreeing at your wedding.”

“Mine, too?” piped Ruth.

“Goodness, yes.  Sammy’s, too.”

“Shit,” Sammy said, “I’m too smart to get married.”

“You think so?” asked Iam, disregarding Sammy.

“It’s like what actors do preparing for a show.  They rehearse.  This is nothing.  You just wait,” said Aunt Margie.

“But,” said Iam.

“But what, dear?”

“I’m scared of, you know, being alone.”

“They’re rehearsing, that’s all.”

“But what if they aren’t?  What if they … what if?”

“Well, if, and I’m not saying they will, but if, I’ll always be with you.”

“You’re not ever going away, Aunt Margie?” said Ruth.  “You aren’t ever going away anymore.”

“Well, I can see you girls don’t know much about being with somebody.”

“What do you mean?” asked Iam.

“I’ll always be with you here,” she said, touching a finger to Iam’s head, “and here,” moving to her heart. 

“Me, too?”

“You, too,” doing the same to Ruth.

“Sammy, too?” Ruth asked.

“If he’ll have me.”

Sammy ignored them, concentrating on the door, and the very prominent silence below them.

“Is it over?” asked Iam, now aware of the quiet.

“I believe it is.”

“It’s a terrible mess, I bet,” Iam said.”

“Well, how about we see, and if it is, how about we make everything spic and span neat and clean?”

“It’s really over?” asked Iam.

It couldn’t have been more over if her parents had burned down the house, had blown up the house, if a tornado had carried the house off into oblivion, she remembered, getting on with restoring order to the living room, then sinking onto the sofa, putting her feet up, closing her eyes, trying to avoid for a few moments what awaited her upstairs under the bed, then opening her eyes, unable to avoid it. 

Discovery of the box, the dreadful lunch, the exhausting hide and go seek romp with Dominic and Dominica, the empty, haunting aloneness, these left her drained, restless, tormented. 

“Forget it,” she said to the ceiling.  “I’m too tired to rest.  And it’s stifling in here.  Cold one minute and almost unbearable the next.”  The ceiling answered with images of fields and a shoddy encampment, of bedraggled people, of herself worn and overheated from labor, then spent and shivering under a thin blanket, uncomfortable on a foul, hard canvas cot, in a cramped hut, worse a shed too shameful even for tobacco road. 

Your son endangers the Father’s mission, Marcella.

“No,” she said, with all the evenness she could manage, squeaking with the effort.

You will see.  You will see.  The report will remove all doubt.  It always does.  You will see how the enemy is striving to win him to the work of the devil.  When you see, you will smite the evil from him and prepare him to obey and submit like Isaac.

“I buried you,” she cried.

And I am come again, as I prophesized to you.

Luxury at Feed the World had come to this for Iam:  hot showers with store-bought soap, heat to ward off the chill of the California night, laundered and pressed sheets, a bottle of forbidden wine, and privacy, of a sort.

“Marcella, how beautiful you are,” murmured Pater.  “Put down the towel and come to me, my little warrior.  I want you close to me.”

Iam descended onto the bed and slid next to him.

“Yes, close like this,” he said, snuggling with her.  “Do you know what I wish?”

“To unite as one, Pater.”

“You are a wondrous disciple of the word, little warrior.”

“Because I believe in the word, Pater.”

“It’s good to believe.”

“Yes.  Believing saved me, Pater.  Without you, I don’t—”

“Don’t worry, little warrior.  Tonight is not a night for worry.  I will always be with you.  You know I will.”

“But our enemies, they frighten me.”

“We have the Black Nights.  We are preparing.”

“Yes, Pater,” she waffled.

“You are not confident?”

“They have tried to hurt you so many times.”

“Assassinate me is what you mean.”

“I’ve seen the files, too, Pater.”

“Our enemies are legion, without question.  They are determined.  They are perfidious, devious, and ruthless.”

“Please, Pater, you’re scaring me.  Not tonight, like you said.”

“It is a glorious night, I agree.  And you have nothing to fear.  After all, God has granted us eternal life, and the chosen among us more.”


“Marcella, you have become very close to me.”

“I have,” she agreed.

He tightened his hold on her.  “I mean that I have tested you with many challenges.  You have earned my confidence, and I have rewarded you with many responsibilities.”

“For which I am grateful, Pater.  I wish to serve the divine principle of One.”

“Tonight, I believe, it is time for me to reveal something of myself to you, an aspect of my being known only to a handful.”

“Fidella, Osma …”

“Yes, and a few others, who have earned the knowledge as a result of their loyalty, belief, and meditation on the teachings of Universal One.  This information is quite incredible, and because it is, we confine it to a select group who appreciate and honor its volatile nature.  One day, perhaps soon, the world will be ready to accept it.  For now, though, should our enemies learn what I am about to reveal to you, well, you can imagine how they would turn it against us.  It would be a destructive new weapon in their arsenal against which even our Black Night drills might not protect us.”

“I swear I will never—”

He placed a finger against her lips.  “Marcella, don’t you know your pledge isn’t necessary?”  He traced the finger up over her nose to her forehead.  “I see in here, Marcella.  I am in here.  I was in here that first day when you wept over your aunt.  I will always be in here.  Always, Marcella.”

“I feel you, Pater.”

“Marcella … I have lived before … and I shall live again.”

“Pater,” she exclaimed, pulling from him to take him in, to judge the truthfulness of his revelation.  His deep blue eyes shone on her, reflecting delight at her surprise.  A hand extended and caressed a breast.

“Come closer,” he said, “push tight against me.  Melt into me.”  She obeyed.  “It is not as astounding as you are, Marcella, at this moment.”

“Pater, please don’t play with me.”

“It’s just … you delight me.  You lighten my burden.”

“I’m happy I do—”

“But you want to know more.  Naturally.  I have not only lived before.  I have lived lives of influence, of great merit.  And yet …”

“Yet what, Pater?”

“Yet I must live again and again until I accomplish the ultimate task my divine Father has bestowed upon me.  I must win every man and woman for Him.  They must believe in Him, obey and worship Him with the fierceness of the Anointed People.  Until then, my rebirths will continue.”

“Pater, you are like, like a myth, like a Sisyphus.”

He laughed.  “Please, no.  I am flesh and blood, as corporal as these charming nipples of yours.  Don’t blush.  They are charmers.  Sisyphus, no.  His task is impossible and eternal.  I pray that in my current incarnation to do what I have labored over for centuries, for time immemorial, you might say.”


“Who what?  Who was I?  Here, Marcella, is the most startling aspect of the secret.  Many, those who mistakenly believe they are reincarnated, will accept the possibility that I have lived before.  Few, though, will welcome the whole truth, that I was Zoroaster, Buddha, Lao Tzu, St. Paul, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, Luther, Joseph Smith, and, presently, Pater of God’s only true religion, Universal One.”

Iam fumbled for words to express herself properly; startled and awed, the best she could manage was a wide-eyed stare.

“Yes, all great parts of me, Marcella, and each, sadly, a resounding failure.”

“These men, these yous, I don’t know all of them, but I know some.  You changed history, Pater.”

“I did.  I will again.  I will now.  But I will not have served my Father as He wishes me to serve Him until every man, woman, and child welcomes Him as their Creator, devoutly believes in Him, sacrifices all in His honor, and worships Him unendingly.  This is my fate.”

“Pater,” she said, gliding the back of her hand down his smooth cheek, almost waxen, as if his skin weren’t real, as if she wasn’t touching flesh but something unearthly, ephemeral, the unblemished manifestation of an angel, “I … I …”  She wept softly.

Then the tears came harder and she heaved and gasped from the effort of crying, of trying to expel him.  Again and again she screamed at the ceiling, “I buried you.  I buried you.  I BURIED YOU.  Why can’t you stay in your grave?  Why has my own son betrayed me?”

On and on she raved, until the air in the room changed, until she sensed it turned denser, compressing her; until she realized she shared the room with someone. 

She bolted upright.  “Who’s there?  Who are you?”

“It’s me, Mommy.”

Dominic stood on the last step of the staircase, a leg dangling tentatively, prepared to bring him into the room.

“We heard you yelling.  Are you okay?”

In the back of her throat she felt something, a horrid epithet, ragged and sharp, cutting and hurtful, a second from flying from her.  She clamped a hand over her mouth and wiped her tears with the other.

“Are you okay?” he asked, setting a foot on the floor.

She pointed at him.  “Don’t.”

He jumped back onto the step.


Deep breaths, dear.  Nice and deep.  That’s right, deep, deep breaths.  Better, isn’t it?

“Yes,” she said, moving her hands to smooth her clothing.  “A rumpled mess.  I must look terrible.  A real fright.”

You are lovely, dear.  You are such a lovely girl.  And a kind girl.

“Yes, yes, I am kind.  Yes, I am.”

“Mommy!”  Dominic’s cry pierced her.

“Dominic,” she said, walking to him, running her hands over herself, up and down, making herself normal.  “Well, have you finished?”

“Finished?” he said, retreating a step at her approach.

“Your report.  Have you finished your report?”

“No, I—”

“No?  Well, you shouldn’t be here then, should you?”

He shook his head.

“Upstairs.  Go on, upstairs.  Don’t dawdle.”

“You’re okay?”

“Yes, Dominic.  What would give you the idea I am not fine?  I am simply peachy.  Now, upstairs with you.  The report, please.”

Cautiously, he reversed himself and climbed the stairs, tossing his head back twice to check for her.

Marcella, what sadness you burden your Pater with.  Since I’ve been away, you have become weak.  The boy will deny us.  Unless you discipline him severely, he will betray us, and, more important, the Father.  You must act.  You must act with haste.

Iam hunched and hit her thighs with her fists.  She beat herself and whimpered a long, mournful mantra, “I buried you.  I buried you.  I buried you.”

And I am come again, as I prophesized to you.

“No,” she spat, limping to the kitchen, “No.  I deny you.  I deny you.”

Look!  I cometh with clouds.


Iam switched to abusing her head and yanking her hair, as if she intended plucking it from her scalp to create exit holes for him.  She tugged viciously against the tenaciously stubborn follicles until she howled at their determination to remain attached to her.  But the tearing alone did the job, for at the entrance to the kitchen her agony seemed to have banished him.

“Oh, no.  No way,” she said, staggering at the doorway.  “There’s no way I’m letting you see me again, no way you’re getting to me again.  Damn clock.  Damn you clock.  The minute Billy gets home you’re history.  In the garbage with you.  You’re gone, gone, gone,” she snarled, retreating back, hunched and arched, jabbing a finger at what appeared to her the gateway to Hell.

Dear, it is merely an innocent clock, and cute, too.  The kitten is harmless.

“You don’t know,” she mumbled, clasping her aching head and spinning around.  “You just don’t know.  Nothing is as innocent as it appears.  Nothing.  I know.  Nothing.  Nobody.  Not letters …”

“But why?” Iam asked Osma.  “The story seems innocent enough.  Actually, in many places, he’s very complimentary.  Like here, where he talks about our drug rehab program, and our—”

“Please, no more,” said Osma.  “We have an assault to stop.  That’s why Pater assigned you to the Countervailing Committee.  He believes you are a warrior.  It’s why he granted you the name Marcella, why you’re starting at the college to study criminal investigation, and why you’re assigned to help me with this important and sensitive mission.”

“I’m just saying—”

“Forget it.  Pater’s word is supreme.  He decides who are our friends and who are our enemies.”

“It just seems, I don’t know, so innocent.”

They were in the basement of the Worship Temple seated at an old gray metal desk in a makeshift office crammed with file cabinets, three locks on the metal entry door and a hand-lettered sign in red marker taped to the outside notifying:  “War Room.”  Every cabinet, save one, contained dossiers on hundreds of Universal One members, the chief contents of each the extensive self-reports Pater required of all members upon their initiation.  Those beyond the initial reports described transgressions and consisted of confessions and penances.  In the lone nonmember cabinet were dossiers on individuals of interest to the Church; it was labeled in the same red marker used for the door sign:  “The Rat’s Nest.”

Osma snickered.  “How naïve are you?”

“I’m not.  I’m practical.”


“Yes, I am.  I mean, why alienate this reporter when he hasn’t written anything too bad about us?”

“Have you considered there is more to this than you suspect?”  Osma’s eyes were bright green lanterns that sparkled with the promise of secrets.

“No, I’m just going on what I’ve read—”

“I shouldn’t say any more, but the story is like an iceberg.”

“An iceberg?”

“Yes, an iceberg, Marcella.  Must I spell it out for you?”

“Something’s going on below the surface, you mean.”

“A lot, but I can’t say more.  Sufficed to say, Mr. Harlan Johnson is not a friend, and the only reason his attack is blunted is Pater.  Pater got wind of the real story and vowed to drag Mr. Johnson and his paper into court and prove them the liars they are.”

“Then why—”

“Mr. Johnson is a vicious, distempered pit bull and scandalmonger.  His mind is deranged and he has razor fangs that drip with the blood of his complacent victims.”


“You should hear Pater go on about Mr. Johnson.  He received the word Mr. Johnson is working on another attack article.  Not for the paper.  The paper won’t touch his lies, not after Pater persuaded them to back down.  It’s for a magazine.  Pater says it’s brimming full of the worst garbage you can imagine.”


“Is my repeating Mr. Johnson’s lies necessary?  Look, Pater was good enough to invite this devil to services.  He allowed him to speak with any Anointed People he wished.  Pater even granted him a personal interview and freely answered his questions.  I was present, Marcella, and some were disgusting, questions you won’t put to the scum crawling in the city’s sewers.  Pater answered them.  He set Mr. Johnson straight.”


“Why what?  Why is Mr. Johnson against us?  He can’t tolerate the truth, that’s why.  They’re cynical, people like Johnson, like the newspapers and television.  They can’t stand good, Marcella.  You can see that for yourself.  Everything they print, everything they show on TV, it’s about evil.  It glorifies evil.  You see that, don’t you?”

Iam nodded.

“You haven’t noticed a newspaper anywhere around the Temple, have you?  No televisions or radios?”

“No,” Iam said, “no books, either.”

“No, nothing from the outside.  Pater prohibits the Anointed from immersing themselves in the trash of the world.  The world is corrupt, Marcella.  It is as Pater teaches, a rotting corpse.  It stinks, Marcella.  After you’ve been in the Temple and step outside, oh, the foulness of it; it is like plunging into a pool of excrement and decay.  In the Temple, we purify people.  We live in the purity of the divine word, of the divine promise, of the divine presence of God in the flesh of our Pater.”

“I understand, Osma, I do,” Iam said, placating her in the hopes of sparing herself another of Osma’s endless harangues; Iam was a believer and didn’t feel she required regular rabid efforts of re-conversion.  “What are we to do?”

“We’re going to expose Mr. Johnson’s dirty little secret.”

“His secret?”

“Yes, Mr. Johnson is an adulterous pig.”

“He’s married?  He’s cheating?  That’s terrible.”

Osma shrugged.  “He’s a swine.  What would you expect?”

“Does he have children?”

“Children?  I don’t know.  Pater didn’t mention children.  Does it matter?”

“Cheating when you have children, it’s … it’s traumatic for them.”

“Hmm, you have point, Marcella.  I wish Pater had said.  But never mind.  I think we can work around the issue of children quite nicely.  I have an idea.”

“You do?”

“Yes, I do.  First, though, take this key and open the cabinet over there on the right.”

Osma indicated one of the three gray cabinets occupying the far wall.  Each reached the ceiling.  Each was deep, contributing to the claustrophobia of the War Room.  An oversized lock sealed each. 

After Iam opened the cabinet, Osma instructed her to bring her the paper in the cranberry box on the upper shelf. 

“Lock the door and let me have the key.”

Iam obeyed.

“Now open the cabinet on the left,” Osma said, handing Iam another key.

Iam did and pedaled back in surprise.

“I’ve told Pater we should use computers,” Osma said.  But he insists these are best for our purposes, at least for the time being.  He says they have more character and lend a bit more personal impact to our message.”

Iam gaped at four shelves of typewriters representing various brands and styles, from manual to electric, office to portables. 

“Let’s use the small blue one there on the third shelf down.”

Iam picked it up and brought it to the desk.

“You type?” Osma asked, extending a hand for the cabinet key.

Iam displayed her index fingers.

“I’ll expect you to learn to type.  It’s an essential skill for members of the Countervailing Committee.  You can practice on the electric in the Temple office upstairs.  You may use my old typing book.”

“Osma, why the different typewriters?  Why so many?”

“We don’t want our enemies tracing certain activities back to us.  Pater says it is best to keep our actions anonymous for now and that typewriters are like fingerprints.  We use them a few times.  After, we destroy them and acquire replacements.”


“There’s time enough for the questions.  Roll this in,” Osma said, handing Iam a sheet of the stationery.  “It’s time for toil and trouble.”

“I like the color and the border of little flowers.  It’s pretty, Osma.  It reminds—”

“A little too pink and frou-frou for my taste.  But it has just the right feminine feel for the job.  How fast are you with those fingers of yours.”

“Pretty fast.”

“I’ll talk and you type what I tell you.”

Iam positioned her fingers over the typewriter’s keys.

“Dear Mrs. Johnson.”

Iam tapped the salutation and looked eagerly at Osma.

“You don’t know me.  However, I know you quite well.”

Iam typed and when she finished, she said, “You know Mr. Johnson’s wife?”

“Never met the woman.”


“Harlan speaks of you often.  Iam, type.  Harlan speaks of you often.”

Iam punched the keys.

“Over the months we’ve been together, I’ve come to know you as a lovely person, a lovely woman who doesn’t deserve to be deceived any longer.”

“Osma, what are we doing?”

“We’re following Pater’s orders.  We’re striking an enemy a mortal blow.”

“But … but it seems like we’re … we’re making up at lie.”

“Do you want me to do the thinking, the talking, and the typing?  Do you want me reporting you to Pater, reporting you were more concerned about the enemy than Universal One?”

“No, please, Osma, no.  It’s just I don’t like lying.”

Osma’s green eyes flashed and she reached for the typewriter.

“Please, I want to,” pleaded Iam.

Osma withdrew her hands, fiddled with the stack of cranberry stationery, saying, “Okay.  I know Pater likes you, Marcella, and it is his desire for you to be more engaged in the most vital Church work.”

“He does?”

“Drop the childish pretense, Marcella.  I’m number two, behind Fidella.  I know everything.  Pater confides everything in me.  He values my opinion.  I told him you showed potential.”

“You did?”

Osma nodded.  “I hope I wasn’t wrong.  I’m usually not.  But—”

“No, no, Osma, you’re right.  You’re right about me.  I love the Church.  I love Pater.  Pater saved me.  I want to do what’s right.”

“Good.  You understand, Marcella, that sometimes right can seem … well, not right?”

“Yes, I think I do.”

“Killing is wrong, isn’t it?”


“Yes it is.  God forbid it.  ‘Thou shall not kill.’  It’s a commandment.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Yet,” Osma lectured, “the military encourages soldiers to kill the enemy.  In fact, they must kill the enemy.  Same thing with the police.  If a criminal threatens you, you are justified in killing him.  God’s commandment declares ‘You shall not kill.’  But circumstances sometimes dictate you must kill, and then killing isn’t wrong.  We accept this.  By we I mean everybody, not just you and me, but everybody in Los Angeles and California and the U.S. and the world.”

Iam stared at the words on the cranberry stationery and nodded stiffly.

“You don’t appear entirely sure, Marcella.”

“It’s just the army, the police, they have permission—”

“They’re authorized.  Is that what you’re getting at?”


“So are we, Marcella, so are we.  Except our right to defend ourselves comes from the highest authority, the authority over all men.  It comes directly from God.  It comes directly through God’s Chosen Delegate on earth, who is divine, who is a part of God, our Pater.  It flows from God into Pater and from him to us sitting here in the War Room.  We are linked directly to God, Marcella.  We are fulfilling God’s wishes.  We are defending the Anointed People of God from His enemies.  God’s enemies are our enemies, Marcella.  Do you see that?”

“Yes, Osma, yes, I do,” said Iam with stirring, quiet enthusiasm.

“God’s work isn’t always easy, Marcella.  God demands much of His chosen people, of the Anointed People, who, you know, are the only true defenders of God’s word in the world today.”

“Yes, I understand, Osma.”

“God challenges us, Marcella.  He tests us like he tested Abraham.  And like Abraham we must embrace our duty.  And if God decides another course, he will intervene, as He did to spare Isaac.”

“Yes.  Thank you, Osma.”

“Good,” Osma said, smiling graciously upon Iam, giving Iam the impression Osma was bathing her and the room in a comforting summery green light that cleansed dirty doubt.  “And you will be happy to know that Mr. Harlan Johnson is having an affair.”

“Of course he is.”

Osma’s smile broadened and her glow intensified.  “Yes.  Pater does not act rashly.  He meditated long and hard on Mr. Harlan Johnson.  His Father, our Father, too, spoke to Pater.  He revealed how and with whom Mr. Johnson broke His commandment of marital fidelity.  Pater told me God placed him into the mind of Mr. Johnson’ paramour with two purposes:  to absorb the details of the affair and to implant in the woman an abhorrence of the affair and Mr. Johnson, and a love of the offended wife.”

“It’s miraculous, Osma.”

“Yes, to be touched by God, well, I can’t put it into words.  And while in the mind of the woman, Pater heard her think of what she would say to Mr. Johnson’s wife should the opportunity present itself.  The words I am dictating to you come from her, Marcella.  They are not my words.  I am not plucking words from the air.  They are the woman’s words as told to me by Pater.”

“Thank you, Osma.  Thank you.”

“So, where were we?” 

“I’ve come to know you as a lovely person, a lovely woman who doesn’t deserve to be deceived any longer,” read Iam.

“Yes, I now regard you as a friend, and I realize Harlan is a deeply troubled man who might do either or both of us and those we love great harm to have what he wants.”

“The children,” said Iam.  “He would hurt his own children?  And she has children, too.”

“I’m assuming, Marcella.”

“But what if—”

“Please, focus on the job at hand.  It doesn’t matter.  She’ll fill in the blanks.”

“Is Mr. Johnson really dangerous?”

“The most dangerous man there is for us.  Now you’ve broken my train of thought.  Read it back from the beginning, without interruptions, please.”

“Dear Mrs. Johnson,” read Iam in a steady, strong voice of purpose, “You don’t know me.  However, I know you quite well.  Harlan speaks of you often.  Over the months we’ve been together, I’ve come to know you as a lovely person, a lovely woman who doesn’t deserve to be deceived any longer …”

Dear, how many times have I told you, you will grow into a lovely woman?  However, you must improve your posture.  Stand up straight, Iam, not bent over like a crone attending her caldron.  Up now.

Images of cabinets and typewriters and letters, of rats and witches and their nasty brew, vanished as Iam straightened.

You must feel one hundred percent better, dear.

“Not so better,” Iam muttered vaguely.

No wonder.  Utter nonsense clutters your mind.  Enemies, betrayal, letters, and that thing about innocence.  What a carload of nonsense, dear.


Yes, poppycock.  You have two innocents upstairs.  You must pull yourself together.  You look a fright.  Comb your hair, freshen your makeup, put your clothes in order.  After, go to them.  They need you, dear.

“This is ridiculous,” Iam said, examining herself in the oval portrait mirror over the sink in the tiny half-bath Billy had converted from a closet under the staircase.  “I am a fright.” 

She smoothed her hair and winced when her sore scalp rebelled at the effort.  She scrubbed her face and groaned at the coarseness of herself without makeup.  She pulled a drawer on the vanity under the sink.  There was a first-aid kit; two tiny tubes of toothpaste still in their boxes and toothbrushes still in their wrappers, compliments of the dentist; an unused adhesive lint remover, a Christmas gift from the drycleaner; a sealed package of bottle nipples; two well-worn binkies; a small army of dismembered toy soldiers; an assortment of batteries that might or might not work; but nothing to restore her to the woman she’d set out as in the morning.

“What crap.  What a load of shit.  Shit and crap,” she said, emptying the drawer in three scoops, pitching the lot into the hallway.  “Where’s my stuff?  Why can’t I have stuff?  Why can’t everybody leave my stuff alone?  Not even my box of stuff?  Not even that?  They have to sneak around looking here and there for Mommy’s things.  What can we take from Mommy?  Let’s play with Mommy’s stuff.  Let’s pry into Mommy’s life.  Let’s see if she has secrets.” 

The binkies arrested her eye.  In that instant, she didn’t know what to make of them.  They aroused the roots of feelings in her, maternal love, amusement, endearment, of understanding and forgiveness.

Marcella, you are a warrior.  Warriors do not weep over their enemies.  They do what is necessary.  Dominic must be taught, Marcella.  The girl must be dealt with.  There is nothing innocent about a potential betrayer.  There are no innocents outside the One.  You are a believer.  You know it to be true, Marcella.

Iam stomped the binkies.  She crushed them under her shoe like she would kill an insect.  She kicked them toward the front door and the staircase.

“Dominic,” she shouted, “you’d better have that report finished, and it better be terrific, stupendous, if you know what’s good for you.”

She plowed through the garbage on the floor to the head of the stairs.  “It better be good.  It better be very good, Dominic.  Or … or I’ll lay the Sword on you.  You won’t like that very much, I bet.  No you won’t, you little thief.  You little betrayer.”


Intoxicated with the word of God and contrite over the human manner in which he’d accepted it, Father Chapas knelt, scoured the site of the abomination with holy water and recited the rosary over the stain, purifying and sanctifying this patch of carpet that represented sin,  praying for redemption from wayward ways, freedom from evil control, and the enigmatic call of God to His work, no less worthy, in the priest’s fevered mind, of a scribe’s chronicling than the burning bush or the Damascus road or any other manifestation of God to sinful man.

Thus, cleansed, renewed, and invigorated with God’s absolution and with His mission in his heart, Father Chapas grabbed a pen and the tormenting paper from his desk and departed his rectory, praying that the Father, during the course of fulfilling his duty, would work a mundane miracle, granting him the golden words that would empower him to leap the barrier of “Knox County.”

In his car, he dropped the paper on the passenger’s seat and reached to turn the ignition, when it struck him that he did not know what sort of offering would be appropriate.  Flowers, while beautiful, seemed too …  He couldn’t bring himself to form the thought of the temporal suggestion contained in “flowers,” so repugnant to him was it now; so directly opposite of God’s wish for him and Maryam was it. 

What best would signal renewal of the spirit?  What best announced the end of spiritual starvation in favor of the nurturing of life?  He contemplated the Bible, always an infallible wellspring of divine guidance.  Bring forth food from the earth; and wine that makes glad the heart of man; and bread which strengthens man’s heart.  And woman’s, too, he amended.

He started the car and drove a short distance to the nearby liquor store.  There he puzzled over several gift baskets.  Too large would seem ostentatious and inappropriate.  Too small might appear niggling and cheapen the purpose.  Dios no quiere que sea un tacaño.  He purchased a basket containing two bottles of wine, a red and a white, a dozen varieties of crackers packaged in sleek boxes that attested to their superior quality, two cheese rolls and one of salami.  Give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to those who are bitter of heart. ¿Qué falta Chapas? he reproved, leaving the store totting his gift basket; siempre sobresaliste en los versículos de la Biblia.  Ah!  “When they drink, they will forget their misery, and think no more of their burdens.  Si, Señor,” he said

At the wheel, he sat with the gift basket in the passenger’s seat.  It occupied the entire seat.  Bright yellow cellophane encased the delicacies, cheery yellow like the season, like the maize that underpinned the Sullivan County economy, like the maize he remembered growing behind the Brick house the several times he’d driven past it. 

In his hand, he held a gift card.  At this, he stared. ¿Qué digo?  More words that did not come to him.  “Dear Maryam.”  No, no for obvious reasons.  “Dear Mrs. Brick.”  Wrong yet again.  “Knox” peeked at him from under the basket.  “Por favor, Señor,” he whispered and elongated like an elaborate devotional.  On the card, he wrote in his best orphanage hand, “Dear Brick Family.”  He paused.  No.  “Dear Familia Brick.”  Yes, an homage to her, just to her in honor of her kindness to a lost priest.  “For your good work, your participation in God’s work, and your help to me.  God sees the good in your heart and soul.”  It seemed to strike the right tone, fit the situation, and was sufficiently oblique that only Maryam, inspired like him, would fully apprehend God had a plan for them.  He signed off, “With my gratitude, Father Mario.”

He enclosed the note in the yellow envelope that came with it.  He attached it with the pin also thoughtfully provided by the fabricator of the basket.  Then he tugged at the sheet that held the two words of his homily.  ¿Por qué no vienes a mí tan fácilmente, demonio?

He drove off and blankly watched flat fields of corn, which rose against a pure blue sky marred only by clouds billowing in the northwest, replace the town.  His mind was clear and receptive; it anticipated the right words dropping into it.  But he arrived at the Brick house without a single word to add to “Knox County.”

He pulled into the Brick’s driveway and parked behind Maryam’s van, gladdened to see Billy had not returned early and that only she and the children were at home.  God had not yet revealed the particulars of his mission, but Father Chapas had no doubts He would, perhaps on the steps of the Brick house.

He climbed from his car and walked around to the passenger door.  He opened it for the basket as he would for a companion, for Maryam Brick.  Qué mala idea es esto.  “No te metas conmigo, demonio, o te enfrentarás a la ira de Dios,” he intoned softly, lifting and cradling the basket. 

He strolled to the house struggling to focus his thoughts on how he would greet her, on how he would explain God’s mission for them, but muttering, “Ah, Chapas, qué hombre hubieras sido.  Qué buen tipo.  Detente.  Está mal.  Sirves a Dios.  Séle fiel,” struggling to purge his mind as he climbed the steps to the porch door.

He tapped lightly.  When no one responded, he turned the knob.  After all, it was the entry to the porch, not to the house.  And, how could anyone be expected to hear his knocking over such a vast expanse, through a closed door no less.  Besides, he had to move quickly to avoid additional miscreant intrusions, to preserve the cleanliness of his mind.  At the door, a thump startled him.  Another louder thump followed and he pedaled back.  Next poured forth shouts, loud and harsh.  He heard Dominic called.  He heard Dominic warned.  Not warned.  Not warned at all, but threatened … threatened with a sword. ¿Puede ser esto?  ¿Esto?  ¿Una espada?  And the voice, surely it could not belong to Maryam.  Perhaps someone is in the house, someone who should not be there.  But, no, the voice was Maryam’s.  Yet, it didn’t resemble her soft and sweet and kind voice in the least.  It vibrated with loosened phlegm; rattled harshly; burst with frenetic, unbridled vehemence; frightened with malevolence.  And the sword?  Surely Maryam did not possess such a medieval weapon.  But she used the word with such conviction that he, for an instant, pictured her rampaging about the house, slashing madly, armored and ferocious like a demented, corrupted St. Joan.

“Chapas,” he chided himself, “¡Qué día para visiones!  Te estás acercando al límite.  Seamos sensatos.”

The sensibility was that children can sometimes be difficult, and even a person as good and holy as Maryam Brick might be tempted to raise her voice and issue extravagant, ridiculous threats.  Why, on occasion, he did it himself.  And at Santa María, did not the loving brothers sometimes allow themselves to scream and shout at disobedient children?  “Por supuesto,” he said in the direction of the door, “es natural.”

Still, he should check.  He had his offering to present.  He was a man of God, of peace and tranquility.  He could help Maryam regain her composure and see that Dominic was just acting as boys act, and that however he offended could not be very bad.  Boys can never be truly bad, not evilly bad to their cores like men, like men who stared, like those in the pews, like those quivering on prie …

He set the basket in front of the door and leaned close into it.  He placed his ear against it and heard nothing but the pounding of his heart.  Bueno, una buena señal.

He knocked timidly, and when there was no reply, he knocked as he would if announcing himself as a friend, which he was.  When still there was no reply, he applied himself to the task with greater force until he discovered himself in a frenzy, slamming the door with an open hand five times, each time with greater ferocity.

“¿Qué estoy haciendo? ¿Por qué estoy actuando como un loco?” were his remonstrations as he massaged his red and aching hand, alert all the while.

No response issued from inside.  Not a “Who are you?”  “Go away.”  “Stop it, or I’ll call the police.”  Nothing came from behind the door, except vexing silence.

He waited a moment more.  Then he heard a rustling, but saw it was from outside, where a breeze had kicked up.  The sky was thickening with clouds, and the beautiful Saturday was fading away.  He moved the basket tight against the door, thankful for the protection afforded it by the porch.  He returned to his car.

In the car, he waited another moment, staring at the house, tormented by the thought he might be like Peter, in his case, denying God’s mission when it seemed at hand. 

He prayed to God, asking if he should go back, if he should beat insistently on the door until Maryam opened it.  God, he believed, responded by reminding him of the promise in Isaiah:  They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagles’ wings. 

With the promise of God ringing in his head that this was not the moment, that the moment would present itself in wondrous clarity, he drove to his rectory.



Secrets of Cult Religion Revealed

Billy watched the headline spell letter for letter across the windshield exactly as they were printed on the clipping.  But the masthead hadn’t screamed Terre Haute Tribune Star or Evansville Courier and Press, or even Indianapolis Star.  The clipping had been carefully cut from the Los Angeles Times

California.  Three thousand miles from New York State, as far as a woman could get away without leaving the country; yet, foreign, too, news from a world completely different than Sullivan, from a land not quite foreign, but certainly alien; a state with the climate and soil and, not freedom, but unconventionality; seed ground spawning and nurturing all varieties of bizarre counterculture.  Staring at the windshield, at those splattered bugs he had to wipe off or they’d be a distracting obstruction tonight, at the letters laying over them, pulsing their message, he recounted many religions, cults, whatever a person wanted to call them, that had crept into his consciousness via the Terre Haute and Evansville papers, the radio, and television, like Manson and Jones, and the truly weird spacemen religion—is that right, religion?  Can you call it a religion or even a cult, or was it terrifying science fiction with real bodies?—Applewhite, a man who looked like a grandfather, a slight, kindly fellow a child could knock over with one good blow. 

Now, New York he could understand.  If the clipping had come from the New York Times or her local newspaper, he could understand, at least understand the location.  Iam said she grew up in upstate New York, in Dutchess County, in the country, on the Hudson, in a sensible place, like Indiana, where people behaved pretty much like Sullivan Hoosiers, not better, not worse, definitely not freakish.  Normal was how he characterized it. 

Los Angeles.  She never made it to Los Angeles.  He knew she left home when she was eighteen.  She said, “The minute I could get out, I got.”  She got to New York City, landed a job waiting tables—she waited part-time at home—in a coffee shop that opened at dawn and closed at two and left her time to sleep and sneak classes at CCNY.  “Too young and no money,” she said, “but tons of chutzpah.”  “I don’t just love you, Iam,” he said, “I admire you.  I do.  I could never have.”  She didn’t respond and he attributed her silence to modesty; she was consistently modest about herself; contained was the better word, as if she stored something in herself, something she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, release.  When he said, “You’re so smart,” because she was, smarter than the typical Sullivan women, she demurred, “I’m not very smart at all.  Look at me.  I’m here with a broken down car and a couple of boxes.”  “And no plates,” he said.  “Oh,” she said, chewing her lip, blinking, seemingly bewildered, “the paper blew away, I guess.”  He laughed, dazzled at her nonchalance over something that would have him craning over his shoulder until he’d replaced the document.  “You lost your registration.”  “It’s stupid, isn’t it?” she said.  “No,” he reassured, “accidents happen.”  Now he wondered if it flew out the window on purpose.

Her story was a cliché.  It wasn’t he who belittled what she’d endured; he couldn’t; she awed him; she did it herself.  She lived with a guy—”Please, Billy, don’t think less of me”; and he didn’t—lived with him for no better reason than he was nice to her; having a nice guy that loved her and was tender with her, it was a change for her.  “Johnnie was his name.  Not John.  Not Johnny ‘ny’ Johnny.  He was an ‘ie’ Johnnieee,” she said, laughing in a harsh way that told him she was deprecating herself, really admitting to being a fool.  Johnnie was a bum who transformed himself into an addict who grew increasingly desperate and who came to expect her to get out of the restaurant and onto the street and bring home some real money because, hell, they couldn’t live without real dough.  “He was a baby,” she said, “sweet at first, but vicious and ugly at the end.”  Joking at the pain, “He was Chuckie’s cousin.” 

She ran away, again.  She collected her stash of cash, lugged her boxes to Port Authority, bussed over to New Jersey, bought the cruddy car, and pointed it at California.  “It looked warm, and it was far away, and it was different” she said.  She broke down in Sullivan County and, she smiled, “An angel saved me.”  He loved and hated that part about the angel.  He squirmed each time she smiled, “You’re my guardian angel, Billy.”  Before Sir Willy, an angel.  He blushed and shucked, but only in public, in front of people, friends, and his parents.  At home he hugged her, squeezed her, until she wriggled from his arms, exclaiming, “Are my stuffings anywhere, Billy?”  And they married, they had Dominic and Dominica—”The names just came to me, Billy.  Aren’t they beautiful?” when he asked after she suggested their daughter’s name.  Yes, he agreed, beautiful and not very odd, not for the times—and they lived happily ever after. 

Until Dominic shared his find with him.  “Daddy, I found a treasure.”  He joked with Dominic.  An arrowhead, a coin, a chicken bone mistaken for a dinosaur fossil?—treasures from his boyhood.  Where did you dig it up?  What was your memorable treasure?  And, fatefully, “Can I see it?”  “It’s secret treasure, Daddy.”  “Too secret to show your own Daddy?”  Unfortunately, it wasn’t that secret, not a misplaced minor fortune the boy wanted to protect at all costs.  No, it was a box filled with questions.  More, it was the box bursting with the mystery, with Los Angeles, the place she never got to.

Her boxes, maybe the box of mysteries, were in his parent’s house for a month, until she started, slinging she called it, at the Sullivan Coffee Shop and found a small place for herself above a store.  He helped her cart a table, a bed, and a sofa from the local Goodwill store.  The apartment was sparse and she adored it.  “It’s mine,” she said, “all mine.  And guess what, Billy, guess?”  “What?” he laughed.  “I can be by myself, alone, Billy, alone for the first time in my life.”  That stung a bit and his hurt flashed across his face.  “Except for you, angel.”  Then the boxes disappeared.  He stopped one day shortly after they’d furnished the place and the boxes and their contents were no more.  “Gone?” he said.  “Everything inside them gone, too?”  “I’m wiping the slate clean, Billy.  I’m cleansing my soul, Billy.”  As if you could remove your humanness, your divinity, launder it like a T-shirt, and put it back on, fresh.  “It’s a new me.”  He hoped not an entirely new her; there were parts he’d hate to see go.  “Except for the good parts, Billy, those I’m saving for you.”

All the boxes where gone, except as Dominic revealed, except the most mysterious box, the Los Angeles box.  She saved that box.  She hid that box.  “It was buried, Daddy, buried in stuff in the basement, like a treasure chest, Daddy,” Dominic enthused, when he asked him where he’d discovered it.  Nothing, however, remains … interned; yes, that’s the right word, interned like a corpse.  Not even corpses remain interned forever.  He was on the verge of asking her to explain the box, when the tornado tore through Knox.  He wanted to know why she would save a clipping about mass murder, about a murderous cult, from a Los Angeles newspaper that to him, Los Angeles Times or not, seemed not very easy to lay hands on, not even in New York City, not even there, unless you were looking for it.  Or, unless you weren’t in New York City, but in Los Angeles, where it would be very easy to lay hands on.

Why the fascination?  What morbid reason, or pleasure, could she derive from saving the clipping?  Unless she had known someone involved in the cult.  Or, she’d had some connection to the cult and the events described by the team—so horrifying, so huge, it required a team of reporters to narrate it.

He asked Dominic if he could borrow the treasure for a little while.  “It’s mine,” said his son.  “For a few moments, only to read a little bit of it.”  “Don’t mess it up,” warned Dominic, and he noticed every item was arranged neatly; everything in the box was organized by type:  photos together, pink envelopes together, over the rose cup, saucer, and box, the clipping alone, on top everything, like a sheet over a body.  Dominic’s work, a proclivity for an ordered room, toy box, bathroom shelf; a boy possessed of a regimented mind, an inheritance from Dad.  “He’ll be an engineer some day,” Iam said.  “Hey, what about an adjuster?”  “Oh, sure,” she said, “you adjusters like everything in order.”  “Correction,” he said, “we adjusters restore order to everything.”  “Well, then, Mr. Billy Brick, restore Mrs. Billy Brick, because she feels mighty disordered.”  How he adored making love to her; how well she loved him; it was sinful.  Except they were married and it was sanctified.  Pleasure sanctified by the Church.  He smiled at the idea, even now, with the large black letters painted on the windshield, with each word indelibly etched his mind.

“Local police and the California Highway Patrol walked into a scene of terrifying portions, a scene of death beyond imagination, after crop pickers reported an odor emanating from a large, private farm on the outskirts of Raisin City, near Fresno.  The farm, authorities said, belonged to The Church of the Universal One, an organization well known in Los Angeles for its work among the city’s Latino and African-American communities, and for its flamboyant, demonstrative, and charismatic leader, Jim Smith Miller, called Pater, or Father, by church members and himself, who even insisted, in notable public displays, that the mayor and other city officials address him by his church name.  Pater Miller was among the dead, found next to a lawn chair on a platform consisting of four wood picnic tables drawn together, with a fatal bullet wound to the back of his head.  On the platform, which authorities characterized as a stage overlooking the gruesome tableau, lay a female with a .357 magnum revolver still in her hand.  Authorities identified her as Emily Jennings, and by her church name, Osma.  They surmised she shot Pater Miller before turning the weapon on herself.” 

Billy never ceased to marvel at his special gift, and others, too, commented on it.  His parents, teachers, his friends envious they had to struggle to memorize bits of information they’d never use; that would vaporize in their overheating brains the second they answered a test question, as if the information was consumed by the effort.  He was able to read a passage, glance at a formula, run his eyes over a procedure, hear a conversation, and these would belong to him forever, would be at his fingertips whenever he needed them.  “You should do something with it,” said everybody, except Iam, who said, “Great.  You won’t forget anything at the supermarket.”  What he wanted startled them.  He knew what they thought:  what a waste.  He wanted to help people when they needed it most; to lead a quiet life in a sensible place among sensible people; to have a family; and to remember everything that was important to them, like birthdays, and anniversaries, and groceries.  And he had it, as an insurance adjuster, with Iam as his wife, with their children, with the spread on County Road 25.  Or so he assumed, until the box, until he ran his eyes—”Geez, Billy, they’re cameras, not eyes,” said hundreds of times by dozens of people—ran his cameras over the clipping in the mysterious box, not bearing to go too deeply into the box after ingesting the story, sinfully, grateful, maybe, for the disaster in Knox. 

“Pater Miller died in the same manner as 144 of his followers, though authorities report finding packed suitcases in his quarters and suspect he did not intend perishing with his followers.  Most of them died in execution style, said authorities.  Many, including Pater Miller, wore headbands emblazoned with the symbol of winged figures in flight.  They estimated somewhat over 100 were shot in the back of their heads, many through the headband.  The positions of the bodies indicated they knelt with their backs to their executioners, submitting themselves to their own deaths.  Some, however, appeared to have had a change of heart and attempted to flee or struggle with their killers, deduced authorities from the positions of their bodies and the locations of the bullet wounds in their backs and chests.  One officer described the scene of mass death as ‘carnage, like in a war.’  Another said it was a ‘slaughter, pure and simple.'” 

He cringed at the columns of black text that seemed to leak ink down upon each other in such profusion as to momentarily render the words indecipherable, each word, each letter like the other, lumped as one, stripped of their individuality and their meaning, just like the people in the photo accompanying the story, a giant mural of horror.  The words, it seemed to him, were sufficient.  The photo was needless; it was sensational, portraying an agglutination of death, stealing from these people their distinctiveness, their dignity, and their humanity; reduced to commodities for public titillation.  He shuddered.  What had these poor souls been to Iam?  Something, or else why would she save the clipping?  And if nothing, what did the clipping say about Iam?  Either way was bad, because either way, he didn’t know Iam.

“You need help?” he said, the night he happened upon her stranded on the shoulder of County Road 25, what became their road, sitting on the hood of her wreck of a car, knees up, face cupped in her bare hands, shivering in the cold.  She spread her hands and he felt like a dolt.  Transferring her boxes to his car, he asked, “You in the habit of accepting help from strangers?”  She shrugged, “Everybody’s a stranger here.”  Driving, he asked, “What’s your name?”  “Iam.”  “Iam, what am?”  “What are you, anyway?” she asked.  “Me, right now a student.”  “Oh,” she said.  “Oh, what?” he said.  “I thought with your talent maybe you were something else.”  A second passed and he laughed, and she seduced him.  “I’m Billy.  William, actually, but Billy since I was a kid.  Can’t seem to shake it.”  “Maryam.  Iam’s my own fault.  I couldn’t pronounce Maryam until it was too late.”  Later, she told him she usually introduced herself as Maryam, that only family called her Iam. 

“She is my family,” he whispered to the weeping letters on the windshield.  “I know her.  I do,” he pleaded.  And they keened otherwise.

“The executioners were The Church of the Universal One’s paramilitary guard, the Swords, notorious for encasing Pater Miller in a phalanx whenever he ventured from the Los Angeles temple, dressed either in their red or black uniforms, berets and T-shirts emblazoned with their distinctive sword symbol, fatigue pants, and combat boots.  Asked why he needed protection akin to a praetorian guard, Pater Miller declined to answer, delegating the task to his spokespeople, all of whom went by Latinized names, as did most members of the church many labeled a cult.  The most frequently seen of them was Osma, Emily Jennings, who apparently executed her leader.  Her standard response to questions regarding the guard was, ‘Pater is the devil’s target in the form of numerous assassination attempts.’  These claims could never be substantiated, until Jennings apparently undertook the job herself.

“Guards did not spare themselves from execution.  Most, wearing what authorities said surviving members in the Los Angeles temple called ceremonial robes, were executed by other guards.  Some took their own lives.  A skirmish seemed to have erupted among some guards, probably toward the end, who resisted efforts of others to execute them, authorities also reported.  Police are searching for guards who fled.

“Authorities were in the process of finalizing their count of the dead, that might be higher than 144, and preparing a preliminary list of victims.  They expected to issue both by the end of the week.  They have sealed the Los Angeles temple and are sifting through church documents.  They said it might require weeks to make sense of the records, as the church was a proliferate chronicler of its activities.  They did divulge the church maintained files on members and stored these in a room in the basement of the Los Angeles temple.  The cult church called it ‘The War Room.’

“And this may explain why Pater Miller and members engaged in the largest mass killing in California, and among the largest on U.S. soil.  The Universal One church promoted a doctrine of impending apocalypse, and Pater Miller was reportedly agitated and increasingly paranoid in recent weeks.”

“Really, Billy, you belong on a poster.  Here is the typical Bible-ignorant Catholic.”  “I’ve read it,” he protested.  Under her skeptical glare, he backpedaled.  “Okay, Genesis.  Parts of Genesis.  The first couple of chapters.  Maybe just some of the good parts from the movie.”  “I find the Bible comforting, Billy.”  But what could be comforting about Revelation.  “Don’t you believe the second coming is comforting?”  Whatever, was his attitude; he’d get his Bible in small doses, from the pulpit on Sundays.  Now, though, against the backdrop of the shrouded windshield, her interest meant something, explained something, something that chilled him.

“The Church of Universal One is a great promoter of its beliefs.  They utilize a variety of methods to spread their message, from pamphlets and an Internet site to nationwide bus caravan crusades and recorded material.  Recordings are predominately of Pater Miller’s sermons.  They range from what most would consider typical homily material, to immortalized faith healing sessions, to fiery warnings of the impending end times.  It appears Pater Miller and his followers considered every word he preached worthy of preservation.  This, authorities said, probably explains why they found a two-hour recording covering the period leading up to the mass slaughter, including the death of Pater Miller and Emily Jennings and the confusion that followed.  Authorities have listened to the recording but aren’t prepared to release it in its entirety until they have identified all the dead and notified families.  Sources close to the investigation report that the tape already has been transcribed and they shared excerpts with the Times

“Pater Miller can be heard frequently warning people of an impending attack punctuated by gunfire.  The source said authorities don’t believe this initial gunfire harmed anyone.  That begins during the middle of the recording when screams drown out the frantic urgings of Pater Miller to accept swift, painless entry into heaven. 

“As the recording starts, Pater Miller speaks to the special quality of church members over the farm PA system.  Authorities said speakers were positioned throughout the grounds.  ‘We are the Special People.  We are the Anointed Ones.  We are led by the Chosen Delegate of God.  He is the one who hears God.  He is your Pater and God requires you to obey your Pater.’

“The source said there is much background chanting, often drowning out the words of Pater Miller.  At the outset, the chants are repetitions of Pater Miller’s phrases.  Later, they are what the source described as ‘frenzied screams.’  ‘God summons us.’  ‘Swords, conduct us to heaven.’  ‘Life is death.  Death is life.’

“‘Repetitive chanting, hyperventilation brought on by fear or excitement, fatigue, and ritual movement that might include overhead clapping, side-to-side swaying, and similar activities, which Universal One members are known to have practiced during services, can cause people to lose touch with reality, to enter into a new, and in this case, dangerous reality,’ commented Professor Ann Culton Morris, a psychiatrist at UCLA, who studies cults, has written extensively on the subject and consulted with the Los Angeles Police Department’s investigation of various such groups.  ‘Together, with a susceptible audience, these can be as potent as a drug cocktail,’ she said.

“When asked if behaviors heard on the tape could lead people to voluntarily submit to their own murders, she said, ‘Yes, it is possible.  It has happened before.  Though whether that is the case here remains to be seen.’

“‘Danger!  Danger!  The enemy is here.  Gather round, Anointed Ones.  Gather quickly.’ can be heard frequently, even at the very end.  This, said the source, had led authorities to believe some tried to flee, when they realized their fate, and succeeded.  They are using church records to seek out these survivors, some already identified and interviewed, and gain a clearer understanding of the events at the farm.”

“Enough,” Billy groaned.  The letters rushed on and on with the ranting of the Pater, the screams of the deceived believers like debris in a stream swollen to rage and fury:  distribution of headbands bearing the symbol of the ascending members; the Sword insignia etched into the grips of handguns and on the stocks of rifles; a last meal, a festival supper, shared before the chaotic end; a disciplined apocalypse.  The details were endlessly horrifying. 

He swiped at the windshield, scattered the letters, and saw before him once again the neighborhood perfect in everyway, as if he’d been transported somewhere else, away from the destruction he was here to ameliorate with assurances, and with his tablet and its estimated payments. 

But for the insects, he looked out a clear windshield.  He could see his way to his next appointment, and the one after, and then to his last sad family, and, finally, home to Iam and an explanation.


My dear, you are the grumpy pollywog this afternoon.  What a brash display of temper.  You’ll scare the pants off poor Dominic, unless you exercise a tiny bit more control.

“He deserves to be frightened.  You hear that you little thieving rat.  You deserve it!  I hope you’re shitting your pants up there.  Because you better if your report isn’t thorough, all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed.  You hear me.  Dotted and crossed.”

Dear, please, your language. It stings my delicate ears.  Why, you haven’t been so distraught for ages, not since … but it’s best left to rest.  Such sorrow, it is best left unspoken.

“That bastard.  That bastard.  When I get him … when I get my hands on him, I’ll strangle the wildness out of him.  You mark my words, mark them, Iam, and remember them if you get any ideas,” her mother fumed amid billowing cigarette smoke that lent the impression her head was combusting.

Iam had only one desire:  to escape into the attic room with Aunt Margie, close the door, climb into bed with her, draw up the covers, and pray they would be sufficient to block her mother’s current rage, and the worse rampage to follow when Sammy turned up with the car.

“What a fool I was, a goddamn idiot, not to hide the keys after that accident.  I have a good mind to call the cops on him.  See how he likes them pulling him over and hauling him off as a car thief in front of those friends of his.  Friends!  Hoodlums.  And he’s the leader.  I bet he is.  Well, see how he likes answering to the cops.”

But she didn’t notify the police he’d taken the car, again, without permission, against the admonishment never to take the car without her express permission, which she would never give.  Never, because she knew he’d crack up again or be down on Main Street trolling with the car packed with his kind, hoodlums, drunk hoodlums raising hell. 

He wasn’t cruising, though, and he was alone.  He parked the car on the street next to St. Mary’s Cemetery.  He was in the section of the cemetery where rested the priests and nuns who years ago, in the time of Iam’s parents’ youth and before, had served the parish.  The New York dioceses and town parish rewarded them with their own reserve in the cemetery, a secluded, quiet, contemplative garden for those few pondering a religious life, for those fewer who remembered the deceased, and for those fewer yet who fondly recollected and venerated these religious and their service.  Sammy sat among these blessed on business, and after to seek his own brand of transcendental spiritualism, his own temporary release from his mortal coils.  Business first:  counting the cash from clients who sought the same deliverance from their daily bonds as he.  He completed this to his extreme satisfaction in short order. 

Second:  his reward, the lustful powder that accounted for the brick of bills he secreted from mom but always fanned in Iam and Ruth’s faces, whispering, “The wages of sin are so, so sweet,” and laughed as Iam shook her head in disgust and as Ruth retreated, mortified, as if the devil manifested his evil self in each greenback—and not the freedom and power Sammy knew them to radiate—Ruth crossing herself, frenetically crossing and crossing herself.  He held back enough powder for himself and he cooked it in a spoon under the flame of a lighter he sheltered between his legs, and sucked the bubbling witches brew into a syringe and pumped it into a fresh, throbbing, famished vein; and slumped against the stone of a nun who certainly would disapprove of his business and his pleasure, until the moorings of his world vanished and the world itself drifted away as he entered his eternal, permanent refuse.

The phone rang in the middle of the night, waking Iam.  She crept from her room to the top of the staircase and watched her mother slip down the stairs, almost a ghost in her flowing white nightdress.  She heard the groggy hello and the stuttered, suppressed exclamation of shock, the settling of the receiver onto the cradle in interminable time, as if her mother could not bare to release it, as if letting go meant sacrificing a part of herself; and what followed, the soft weeping, the undertones of cursing and recrimination against God, and, more vehemently, Sammy, Sammy, another man who had betrayed her hopes and dreams for him, Sammy for a final time.  Iam did not need her mother to explain Sammy’s fate; it insinuated itself into her bones like the cold of a winter grave, and colder still, the frigid, desolate conclusion of its inevitability, it seeming to her to have been his desire and fate from birth. 

She tiptoed up the stairs, entered Aunt Margie’s room, and slid in next to her.

“Are we having a storm?” asked Aunt Margie, momentarily befuddled, as she was Iam’s constant comfort from her fear of thunder and lightning, despite Ruth’s assuaging faith that it was merely loud heavenly games played by the angels.

“No,” she answered.  After a pause, “Yes.”

“Yes.  My goodness,” she said, switching her bedstead lamp on, eyeing her Kool’s with aching need, but resisting them, “then you’ve come to the right place.” 

Aunt Margie said after a minute of silence, “My heavens, are we having a silent storm?”

Then a gale of wailing and swearing rumbled up the staircase and over them.

“Lands, dear, what is happening?”

“Sammy is dead.”

“Lovely little Sammy is dead?  How sad,” she said, the perfect picture of repose.

Iam snuggled close to Aunt Margie, wishing she could penetrate her flesh and disappear into her peaceful, stainless world.

“But, Iam, dear, shouldn’t you have remained with your mother?  You do realize, you are a great consolation to her.”

“I am not, and I wasn’t with her.  I was in bed.”

“Oh my.”


“Oh my, my, my.  And you knew.”


“How wonderful, Iam, how simply glorious.”

“But Sammy—”

“Very sad.  Very, very sad.  But you know, dear, Sammy wasn’t content here.  No, not fulfilled at all by life.  His passing is for the best.  That’s how we should look at it.  He’s gone.  It is for the best.  He is in a better place.  The best place of all.  But you knew, Iam, you knew.  dear,” Aunt Margie exuded, hugging her as if attempting to absorb her body and spirit, “you possess a special gift.”

“I do?”

“You have second-sight.  Yes, that is your gift exactly.  Second-sight.  You can see things before others do.  You can sense things.”

“I can.  I don’t think I ever—”

“Well, dear, there’s a first time for everything.  Oh, and to think you have come to me on yours.  Oh, what a delight.  You’ve paid me a tremendous honor, Iam.”

“I have?”

“I possess a similar gift.”

“You do?”

“I see people others don’t.”

Iam squirmed with discomfort.  “Isn’t that, you know, what Mom says, crazy?”

“It’s your mother who is crazy.  She’s crazy jealous she’s … she’s …”


“Ordinary.  Run of the mill.  Wonderless.  Yes, wonderless, I believe, describes her best.  My sister, your mother, lacks imagination, and always has.  We special people, Iam, we really must pity those who can’t see.”

“Can’t see what?”

“What?  Why pass themselves, Iam, pass themselves and what they take for reality, into their souls, Iam, and into others living and dead, and into the future.”

“You can do that, see the future?”

“Sometimes, yes, not always, but sometimes.”

“When you’re very quiet, scary quiet like you might be dead.”

“Dead.  Pshaw.  Dead, indeed.  I’m more alive those times.  I’m virtually tingling with life, dear.  Positively goosepimply all over with it.”


“Yes, gee is precisely the word.  Gee.  And you, my darling, you show signs of possessing the same divine gift.”

“I do?”

“Well, let’s review, what awoke you?”

Iam shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I felt something?”

“You felt something.  You sensed a disturbance.  You received a message something was amiss.”

“I did?  Who sent it?”

“You sent it to yourself.  The part of you that exists beyond the mortal world.  That self sent you the message.  You awoke to find your mother …”

“Going downstairs.”


“And I knew—”


“I sensed something was wrong with Sammy, that he was dead.”

“You see, Iam, you are a little, darling second-sighter.”

“A second-sighter.  Is Ruth a second-sighter, too?”

“Is she here?”


“No, she isn’t.”

“I feel bad she’s … she’s run of the mill.”

“Not at all, little one.  She possesses another gift, and it is a wonder in itself.”

“Better than second-sight?”

“No, not better, a miracle in it’s own right.  Can you guess what it is?”

Iam, resuming her attempt to merge into her aunt, said, “I can’t.”

“Ruth is a saint.”

“A saint like in heaven?”

“Well, dear, certainly not in heaven, yet, and probably not a full-fledged saint either.  But definitely a saint in formation.  Don’t you see the signs?”

Ruffling her brow, nodding vigorously, she said, “Yes, yes, I do.”

“Oh what a joyful, joyful night tonight is, Iam.”

“But, Aunt Margie, what about Mom?  What about Sammy?”

“Well, dear, you must sense that Sammy is at peace.  Don’t you feel his calmness in you?”

Iam closed her eyes and sure enough she saw Sammy in a white place smiling and laughing.  “He is happy, Aunt Margie.”

“As for your mother, scoot out of bed and go to her.  Console her, Iam.  And tell her, ‘Sammy is happy.  I saw him at peace.'”

Aunt Margie kissed Iam’s hair and forehead and eyes and nose and cheeks and her ears and pert mouth, and whispered into Iam’s right ear, “We are special, Iam, and I will always be with you, and we will be one some day.” 

Iam returned her kisses and skipped from the room, down the stairs, and found her mother in the kitchen at the table drinking from the scotch bottle she stashed in the cabinet over the stove. 

Iam embraced her.  Her mother patted the small arms encircling her.

“You should be in bed.”

“You don’t have to feel bad about Sammy, Mom.”

“Sammy?  What are you talking about?  How do you know about Sammy?  Have you been spying on me, Iam?”

“No, Mom.  It’s because I have second-sight.”

“You’ve got what?”

“Aunt Margie says because I knew Sammy died I’m a second-sighter.”

“You knew … what do you mean you knew?  The police just called minutes ago.”

“I knew when you answered the phone.”

“Goddamn you, Iam, you were spying on me.  You creepy little bitch.  Sammy kills himself, kills himself to spite me, the little bastard, and you’re creeping around in the dark spying on me.  And that bitch is upstairs in her throne room stuffing your head with all kinds of nonsense, and my life is shit, absolute shit, shit, shit.  Get out of here.  Get to your room.  Don’t even think about coming out again and spying on me, you little bitch, you little bitch-bitch.  I’ll take care of you later.  You better believe I will.  You’re going to get it.  And as for you up there,” she screamed.  “Yeah, you can hear me.  You’re headed straight back to where you belong.  You near me.  You hear me!”

Marcella, why do you hesitate, when the turncoat is above you operating under the duress of heresy to foil the sacred plan, the destiny decreed by my Father?  Do not be deceived by his benign visage, for our enemies are shapeshifters and liars, and his report will show how falsehoods have turned him against us.  Deal with him, Marcella.  Discipline him.  Rid him of that which possesses him and make him a lamb.  Time grows short. 

“Yes,” she seethed, “you little liar.  You little thief.  You little spy.  You little traitor, betraying me.  Betraying the cause.  Betraying the world.  You’re getting yours now.”

She grabbed the banister knob, prepared to launch herself up the stairs and eradicate the vermin corrupting her son, her ears attuned to any movement the invader might make, when a knock on the front door froze her in place.  Cautiously, she turned her head, focused on the door, trying to pierce it with her sight, with the second-sight she was said to have.  Then came a second knock.

“Oh, my God,” she breathed.  “My God, my God.”

In a flash, she crouched.  “Shush,” she whispered, and clamped a hand over her mouth to insure her compliance. 

A third harder knock assaulted the door, and she responded by tensing every muscle in her body, until every part of her retracted, until the energy contained in her screamed to explode in a fury of attack. 

“The enemy,” she mouthed, “the enemy is at the gate.  Pater, please.”

Five hard poundings followed with the reports of gunshots, concussive, rattling, booming blasts, magnifications of those she heard, no imagined, yes heard in her mind resounding through “Feed the World” on the day she’d saw coming, the day she’d ran from, the cursed day she had condemned all the beautiful, Anointed People to their deaths with her silence.

She drew in air rapidly, oceans of it fetid from the heat, from the rancid emissions of the kitchen, from the decaying residue of the pink lemonade molding on the counter, the poison of it in her, ravaging her, spinning the inside of her head like a mad top. 

” God!  Pater!” she whimpered, “how could I have missed their approach?  God, why have you forsaken me in this hour of my greatest need?  Why have you withdrawn your gift you blessed me with?  Why must I face the enemy as merely a lone woman?  Why, Lord?”

As she petitioned her God and her Pater, she envisioned the door vibrating under the enemy blows, and straining against its hinges, and pulsing in and out, and buckling, as if within seconds it would shatter under its own unnatural motion, failing utterly in the face of the merciless, relentless weight of the offensive. 

In the heat of the onslaught, she saw the sun recede and the room gray with its withdraw, and sensed in the increasing dimness that the time was approaching, that the end of time approached for her.

Suddenly, there came a complete reversal, as if the enemy and the devil supporting them had misgivings.  The blitz ceased and the door hung peacefully on its frame and the house rang with quiet.

Iam waited and gradually relaxed her body and steadied her breathing and wiped the wet fear from her face and listened.  She heard footsteps progress from the porch to the outside and onto the gravel of the driveway and a car start and crunch out onto County Road 25 and fade into the distance. 

She breathed thankfully, “It’s over.” 

It struck her as prudent to ensure the enemy was no longer at the door.  Slowly she stood and laid an ear again the wood.  She heard nothing but the echo of her agitated blood.  Carefully, as if the battered bulwark might fall from its hinges at her touch, she turned the latch and opened the door.  She peeked through the crack fully expecting to find the smoky whiffs of battle dissolving into the air.  Instead, at her feet stood a gift basket wrapped in yellow cellophane. 

DANGER!  DANGER!  My Anointed People, our enemies will use every trick imaginable to dishonor us, to destroy us.  We all, Council leaders and Swords and believers alike, must guard against their Trojan Horses.  How sweet and how deadly are their deceptive temptations.

Swords were excused from farm work.  They paroled the perimeter of the farm on ATVs and the living area of the compound on foot.  Their tools were their handguns and their rifles with their sword symbols emblazoned upon their stocks and blessed by Pater.  In the month she’d existed in “Feed the World,” she’d not witnessed a Sword so much as touch a farm implement.  When she noticed two approaching the pavilion, where the Anointed People had gathered for an emergency meeting, carrying shovels on their shoulders like rifles, she nudged Osma and pointed at the unusual sight with her eyes.  Osma touched her leg, a signal to disregard the Swords and direct her attention to Pater and the serious matter at hand.

Before the dais of picnic tables, Pater upon it perched on his lawn chair, his eyes large blue accusatory saucers, his face flaming with indignation, his voice choked with retributive fury, the Council members as intense, as consumed by the remonstrative urge, the assembly summoned so hastily that neither Pater nor the Swords wore their ceremonial robes, stood a man and a woman.  Iam recognized the woman as a long-time member of Universal One and knew her to be a faithful disciple.  The man was a stranger.

“Amita, I know who stands next to you.  I have looked into you and discerned what he once meant to you, how he opposed your desire to immerse yourself in the true word of God and serve his True Delegate.  He is more, Amita, more than you ever imagined, and I know how he has tempted you.  However, rather than speak further of him, I will allow you to tell the story for the edification of your fraters and amitas as a warning to always be on alert, why we as the special community of believers must always be on the highest alert, why our Black Nights are essential to our survival.  My People, attend closely on every word of our amita and come to understand the unseemly plots of our foes, exactly how they who cannot tolerate the goodness of my Father and His Delegate on earth, who is a son to Him, will stop at nothing to invade our ranks with the purpose of undermining us by learning, broadcasting, and exploiting our weaknesses—oh, yes, we have them; they afflict us in abundance; but we struggle every minute by our freely accepted labor and fervent worship to defeat them—and revealing our weaknesses to our enemies.  This man, this person, this thing practices an ages old tactic, an effective deception, but we are alert to it.  We are a united People, sworn brethren to the glorious work of the Father.  Our amita is an example of the golden ribband that cannot be ripped asunder by the mischief of our enemies.  Speak, Amita, we eagerly await your testimony.  Who is this … this thing, what is it to you and to us?”

The woman hesitated, mulling Pater’s words, considering her phrasing, and said, “It is my husband, Pater, and it is our enemy.”

Pater thundered, “The enemy, my People.  See for yourself the strength of the enemy.  See what they send against us.  What pitiable trash.  Look at it.  Sewer sludge, but, my People, but not to be underestimated; for like sewer effulgence, it is toxic shit.”

The congregated, among them the Inner Council and Iam, roared in unison.  They screamed long and loud, “Shit.”  They swiped their faces and their hands, as if cleaning firth from themselves and exhausted themselves with their effort. 

Pater inveighed, “What a creature!  It is a serpent.  Like a serpent, it should crawl on its belly.  Boo to the serpent that pretends to be like us, to be a divine creation of my Father.  Boo to the deceiver.  Boo, boo, boo!”

Iam could hear herself and the others vacuum wind into their expanded lungs and feel, as she did, her brain twirling in her head, thrashing every scintilla of reason, expelling vociferous booing in emulation of Pater; next mixing her booing, as they all did, with raucous laughs as a Sword kicked the legs from under Lucifer’s surrogate, and another Sword jabbed at it with his heavy boot until the serpent laid on its belly.

“Behold,” bellowed Pater, “our noble Swords know what an agent of the enemy deserves.  A serpent slithers on its belly.  It is God’s condemnation for its evil nature.  Well done, noble Swords!”

The People drew more air that was fragrant with Pater’s words, words that were a drug to them.  “Well done, noble Swords.  Well done!  Well done!” they chanted with their hands stretched high, reaching for the domed sky, to their promised celestial domicile.

“Go on, Amita.  We apologize for interrupting you, don’t we?”

“Yes, we apologize,” came the chorus.  “Forgive us.  Forgive us,” sung with hands lowered and extended to the woman, from whose eyes sprung tears.

“Don’t cry, beautiful one.  Receive the love of your People with joy.  Wipe away the tears and smile.  Smile, for you do the work of the Lord’s Delegate.”

Everyone surrounding her put their hands to their faces and with their fingers pulled up the corners of their mouths, men, women, and children alike, in a macabre mirroring of Pater that Iam thought, for a second, resembled, the ghastly grins of skeletons.

“He … my husband … it …”

“Please, Amita, let us not allow form to multiply your pain.  Call this snake your husband.  After all, are there not many husbands who also are snakes?” he laughed, with all joining in a hearty, detoxifying, roar.

“My husband contacted me last month through the Worship Temple.  Amita Fidella handled the request personally.”

Pater arched forward to Fidella who sat at his feet.  He gently touched her shoulder.

“Yes, Pater, the serpent professed a desire to reunite with our amita,” Fidella explained.  “I invited the serpent to the Temple for an interview.  The serpent had read many of our pamphlets and alleged an interest in further exploring the true path to salvation.  I granted the request.  The viper deceived me.”

Pater patted her shoulder.  “Deception is bred in the agents of the devil.  It is mixed in the sulfur they nurse from the devil’s tit.  Do not flog yourself, Uxor.”

Fidella brushed his hand with her cheek, prompting him to withdraw it swiftly. 

“Amita Fidella informed me of the accepted request.  I protested, Pater.  She told me, in her wisdom and kindness and desire to test if here was truly another of the Anointed, that she had prayed on her decision.  She prayed for a week, Pater, and the Lord, your Father, our Creator, told her everybody, even the worse of us, deserves a chance at amends.”

“Observe how the devil preys upon the virtuous heart, my People.  My poor uxor, your pain is a lesson for us all.  This enemy warrants no mercy.  No.  Smite without mercy is our battle cry,” said Pater, thrusting his fist to the heavens.

The assembled took up the cry, for several minutes chanting, “Smite without mercy.  Smite without mercy,” until their tongues numbed, when Pater said, “Please.”

“The serpent received a permit to spend a week in the camp, in the men’s quarters,” Fidella informed.

“As is our gracious way.  A weakness, too, sometimes.”

“Yes, Pater,” said the woman.  “I saw the serpent in the fields and at breakfast and diner.  After a week, it told me ours was the way and joined Universal One.  Joy filled me to bursting.  Last night, though, I saw the serpent sitting under a perimeter light writing in a notebook.  I thought at first it was reporting on itself, emptying itself of its errant ways to make a better member.  Later, more joy, when Amita Fidella told me the new member was getting on well.  I said it seemed so and he was reporting on himself.  Amita Fidella said nothing of her suspicion to me.  She had a Sword search the cabin the serpent occupied.  He found the notebook …”

“Yes, Amita, continue.  You have all of us on the edge of our seats.  Reveal what you discovered.”

“It hurts, Pater.”

“From your pain will emerge an invaluable lesson for our People.  Continue.”

“She said to me this morning, ‘The one who is your husband and claims to be one with us is an agent of the enemy.'”

“Who is this enemy?  Please, tell us, who is the diseased, foul rat who employs the scum on the ground, lower than a serpent, the shit of a serpent.  Who is it?” demanded Pater.

“Harlan Johnson,” she stammered, nearly collapsing on the last syllable of the name.

The People wailed in shared agony, Iam and Osma among the loudest, at the nightmare of Johnson’s inimical deeds, of the bullet he fired through the heart of Universal One, of the suffering he personally thrust through the sacred heart of Pater.  Their efforts had repulsed his assault but had not atomized him, and he was again engaged in his despicable prosecution. 

Pater, his heart surely bleeding, alone did not keen at the name.  He simply shook his head, conveying his pain and heavy sadness.

“It is a sign my People, a portend of the end, when an antichrist like Harlan Johnson can sneak a minion into the core of God’s chosen People.  Soon seven blasts of the mighty trumpet with announce the end.  And we, my People, we among all the inhabitants of the earth, will rejoice.  We will rejoice.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!”

The People, the woman, and the Council jumping up, caught in Pater’s excitement, danced in their own tight circles, clapping and singing, “Rejoice!”

“I feel good, my People.  Bliss fills me.  It is excites my bones, my heart, my head.  Therefore, I say to the Swords:  Swords, show the serpent God’s mercy, the mercy he would bestow upon Lucifer himself.  Take the serpent away, and let all of us go to our beds, rest for tomorrow’s work, and dream of reuniting with our Father.”

At Pater’s command, the People dispersed.  Iam, following the crowd to the cabins, saw the Swords, when leaving preoccupied everybody, kick the serpent several times, then hoist it roughly and push it out of the living compound.  She thought it deserved worse and should count itself fortunate Pater and the People were merciful.

Later, over the loudspeakers, Pater, as was his custom, signed on to pray a prayer with everybody and wish them a restful sleep, and added a preamble, “Tonight, my People, Harlan Johnson has done us a service.  Yes, he has, for he has made us even more alert, ever more alert for Trojan Horses.  The serpent who claimed to be the repentant husband was a Trojan Horse, for if its lies had reached our enemy, an army of terror would have responded to its hateful command and slaughtered us in our cabins.  Let us heed the lesson well, my People.  Pray with me.”

Iam prayed with her cabin mates and their voices and her voice and Pater’s voice over the loudspeakers raised a considerable din; and, yet, Iam thought she heard in the distance, in the east, away from Raisin City, deep in the fields, faint, almost too faint to register, seven pops, and, against her wish to believe it, she knew the apocalypse had arrived for at least one serpent who also was a man.

Iam kicked the basket aside, crouched and frog-walked to the porch windows, and satisfied herself the yard was empty; the first wave had spent itself and she was safe for while. 

She stood and turned her attention to the basket, and saw it alone was sunny yellow; the sky had clouded and the day was pearl, fast fading to gray; and she saw God furious with those fixing to harm her.

Terrible retribution approaches, she thought.


Marcella, the traitor infiltrating your gift to me and the world awaits the merciful, corrective hand of God.  You must apply it quickly.  You know what to do, as you have witnessed the treatment my Father warrants traitors and heretics.  Now, Marcella, thwart the Trojan Horse who oppresses us from above.  Turn the patch of thorns into an orchard worthy of bearing the fruit of my life.

Iam verged on flying to Dominic, when the envelope dangling from the yellow cellophane captured her attention. 

Danger, Marcella, danger.  It is a trick.  Do not touch the enticement.  Turn away from it, or it will steal your soul.  It will weaken your resolve and divert you from your righteous mission.

A vapor of malignant inquisition infected her reason, compelling her to disregard every distraction and devote herself solely to the mission; yet her eyes and heart continued coaxing her to reach for the shining, beckoning temptation, just to peek at its content, at what allurement the agents of evil had devised for her.  Did it not only make good tactical sense to fully comprehend the enemy, especially one backed by the wily devil? 

Unreason and emotion warred within her as, gingerly, she reached her hand for the envelope; withdrew her hand; reached again and came within an inch of it; withdrew again; closed her eyes against whatever horror might engulf her and snatched the envelope.

“So far, so good,” she whispered.

He swung her head right and left, reconnoitering the porch and the outdoors, the fear surging in her that the basket and the envelope were a diversion, and they might be sneaking up on her.  Just because she saw nothing meant nothing, for the enemy might be lurking, camouflaged, advancing like the enemies of a tragic majesty—this time lead by the serpent prince cloaked in the divine offering of her son—were wont to do.  She pricked up her ears to catch the rustle of clothing, the scraping of feet, the clicking of weapons, the supernatural advancement of a phantom forest.  Just because she heard nothing meant nothing.  The enemy was at the gates and the certainty of their presence glowed in the yellow caldron at her feet and burned in her hand.

“What is it you want of me?” she muttered, shaking the envelope.  “What bribe will you offer me not to undertake my mission?  We will see, won’t we?  We will see.”

She slid an unsteady finger under the flap and pried open the envelope cautiously, afraid of explosion, fearful of white powder, on guard for any sort of attack. 

She blew a long breath when nothing more happened than she exposed a folded note painted with a wash of white cartoon flowers reversed from a yellow background.  She went rigid at the sight of this subterfuge of cuteness, for beneath, compressed like a bomb, she imagined all manner of horrific consequences.

Well, dear, you’re familiar with the old saying:  “In for a pig, in for a poke.”  Shall we see what evil lurks inside the lovely, cheery, flowery card?

“Yes,” Iam said, fortifying herself with a gargantuan breath.

Carefully, as if cordite was woven into the fabric of the note and pulling it from the envelope would trigger an explosion, she extracted the note.  She released the forgotten breath, uttering, “Whew,” the way she did after laboring hours in the field under a sun that always seemed not in the sky but nested between her shoulders.  She ran a hand across her forehead to prevent the sweat from stinging her eyes, blinding her and rendering her defenseless.

Resigned to the danger it might harbor, he opened the note, and there, before her, appeared the trickery:

Dear Familia Brick,

For your good work, your participation in God’s work, and your help to me.  God sees the good in your heart and soul.

With my gratitude,

Father Mario.

“The priest,” she breathed. 

Simply delightful, dear.  Delightful and thoughtful.  Your Father Mario cares very much for you.

My Father Mario.  My Padre Chapas.  The man is a priest sworn to celibacy, and I am married to Billy Brick, and I am a mother, and he moons over me; he fawns over me because I spoke to him in his language once; and I made the mistake of doing it again, and again, and again; and now he pursues me.

Marcella, what self-indulgent schoolgirl pride.  I would have never expected such of my mighty warrior.  Chapas is an agent of the devil.  He is willing to betray his own vows for the demon’s promise of your flesh.  This is a deception sent here to sidetrack your mission.  Go.  Go immediately to deal with the infiltrator upstairs.

She spit on the unholy note and shrieked, “Chapas, tú cerdo.”  She tore the incarnate sin once, twice, three times, until she could rip no more.  She pitched the scraps into the air.  She yanked out the wine bottles in turn and smashed them on the floor, fanning the air against the sharp fermented flumes that smelled to her like gasoline spilled from Molotov bombs.  She kicked the yellow cellophane witch’s basket around the porch and stomped into oblivion what potions spewed from it.  When she finished, crushed boxes, shredded paper, crumbs, and cracker mud encrusted the floor in much the way she imagined debris marked the aftermath of a battle.

She was fierce as a loosened warrior charging up the stairs, vaulting two and three at a stride, marveling at her agility, energized to complete her mission with efficient speed. 

She burst into Dominic’s room, and halted dumbfounded in its vacancy.  She searched frantically with her eyes around a room as neat as she had left it in the morning.

She dropped to her knees at the bed.  She groped under it for the box.  It wasn’t where she had placed it, where Dominic had originally secreted it.

She sat and leaned her back against the rail and listened, and heard Dominica whimpering.  She thanked God for Dominica’s weak girlishness and understood why He had given her such an annoying weakness.

She tiptoed to the closet and pulled the door with such force it flew from her hand, bounced off the wall, and shut itself. 

She slapped the door and grunted, “Damn it,” and pulled it open again without another accident.

Dominic and Dominica huddled under the hanging clothes.  Dominic cradled the box.  On the box was a sheet of paper.

“Give,” she said, extending an arm and flapping a hand.  “Give, now,” she commanded, when Dominic sat petrified.

He clamped his eyes shut and lifted the box toward her.

“Not the box, the report.  Open your eyes, you little …”

He opened them, and handed her the paper.

She glanced at it.

“You call this a report?”  She read singsong, “‘Dear Mommy, I found your box.  I looked in it.  I put it under my bed.  I’m sorry.  Looove, Dominic.'”

It’s a sweet little apology, dear.  You can see that Dominic didn’t mean any harm.  He had no clue the box was precious to you.  After all, you practically tossed it in the trash by putting it in that damp old basement.  My, I don’t know if I much appreciate my photograph and letters to you in a dank old cellar.

“Mommy,” said Dominic, “I’m sorry.  I did my best, Mommy.”

Iam couldn’t hear him for Aunt Margie, though Aunt Margie never spoke much above a whisper.  Even when Iam’s mother ranted at her sister, blamed her for ruining what little life she had, accused her of stealing the affection of her children, condemned her as a nutburger, a raving lunatic, wished her dead and buried and out of her life forever, even in the face of these onslaughts of hate, Aunt Margie spoke softly. 

“Aunt Margie,” Iam asked many times, “how can you stand it?  I just want to scream at her.”

“Dear,” she answered in her gentle fashion, sometimes patting Iam’s head, or straightening a misplaced lock, or stroking a cheek, or employing any number of other customary motherly displays of affection and understanding, “what kind of little ladybird would you be if you raised your voice?”

“You can’t yell back ever to be a nice little ladybird?”

“My gosh, shouting and carrying on is simply awful behavior.  When you give in and yell, you’re admitting to the other party they are winning.”

“You are?”

“Most certainly.  And there’s another reason you should always maintain your composure no matter how badly you want to strike out at a bully.”

“Mommy’s a bully?”

“Now I didn’t say that, dear, though, you must draw your own conclusions on the matter of your mother’s … peculiarities.”

Iam had long before drawn her own conclusions about these.  She spent most of her time with Aunt Margie in the smoky attic room when her aunt was there and pined for her return when her mother banished her to the hospital, what her aunt called variously The Big House, The Lockdown, The Power Plant, or, most often, that Horrible Place Filled With Vile Creatures.

“What’s the other reason?” Iam asked.

Aunt Margie laughed deep down in her throat as if the laugh stuck on the way up.  “It infuriates the other party.”


“Yes, and they put on a simply delightful display.  Quite amusing, actually, superior to television, I think, and without those annoying commercial messages.  You know, like gorgeous fireworks.  Oh, I do enjoy those moments.”

It was years before Iam understood.  When she did, she discovered Aunt Margie was mostly right.  Iam didn’t take pleasure in another’s unleashing of rabid emotion, not as Aunt Margie admitted to; but she appreciated that people’s rage would usually consume itself, and when they stormed away, it did feel something like victory.

“Mommy, are you all right?” squeaked Dominica.  “Mommy?”

Dear, you are complementing me.  It is quite nice, isn’t it, to disappear for a while into your own world?  Personally, I can’t abide the past.  No, mine pains me too much.  I prefer my own little world.  It is beautiful, dear, beautiful.  It is everything I wished for.  Everything.  But now isn’t the time for me to be prattling on about myself.  You’re frightening these poor babies just standing there like a statue.  And Dominic, he tried very hard to please you, dear.  Why not be kind to him?

“Dominic, I’m sorry,” Iam blurted, springing alive, lunging for him.

“Mommy, no,” he cried, shoving the box at her and scurrying around her legs on his hands and knees.  “No, no.”

“Dominic, I’m sorry.  Please, I won’t hurt you.  Dominica, you know I love you, love you both.”

Dominica hadn’t moved, but had burst into loud, choking tears.

Dropping to her knees, Iam gathered Dominica into her arms and kissed her mangled hair, her tear-bathed cheeks, and her quivering mouth.  “No, what sort of mother would I be if I hurt my own children?”

She turned to the room and extended an arm to Dominic.  “I didn’t mean it.  I wasn’t myself.  I don’t know.  I don’t know what’s happened to me.”

Dominic edged to her and finally settled in the embrace of her arm.

“No, it’s not like me to race around the house like, I don’t know what.”

“It’s the box,” said Dominic.

“The box?  What about the box?”

“It did something to you.”

“The box?”

“Maybe it’s a monster, Mommy,” said Dominica, through snuffles. 

Iam released the children, picked up the box, and reseated herself between them under the clothes with it on her lap.  “Hmm,” she said, “I don’t know about that, Dominica.  Wouldn’t a monster jump up and roar if I shook it like this?”

It was an inconsequential shake, but still Dominica scooted back over shoes, under clothes, laughing tentatively when the box did what boxes usually did, nothing.

“Let’s open it, why don’t we?” said Iam, bringing them closer.

“There’s bad stuff in there,” said Dominic.

“No, Dominic, there’s nothing bad in here.  There are good things, like pictures of my favorite person.”

“More favorite than Daddy?” asked Dominica, mildly startled that anybody could be better than her daddy.

“No, Daddy is my favorite.  But I loved this person before I loved Daddy.”  Into blank faces, she added, “When I was a child, like you two.”

“I’m afraid,” she said, when Iam began lifting the top.

“‘Fraidy cat,” said Dominic.

“Mommy, Dominic’s making fun of me.”

“I—” catching himself.

“Let’s stop the teasing and settle down and have a pleasant time looking at the pictures.”

Iam removed the top and the yellowed newspaper clipping fluttered.  She removed it and placed it in the lid.  She flicked the lid into the room with her foot.

“We don’t need to see that ugly old thing.  Here’s what we want, and look how neatly everything’s organized,” she said, glancing at Dominic, noting his fleeting expression of discontentment, the same look he used whenever Dominica disturbed his neat arrangement of toys or books, or anything they shared.

Oh dear, oh dear, someone has tampered with Dominic’s delightful handiwork.  Well, that must disturb his little engineer’s soul.  And I suspect we know who tinkered with it, don’t we?  Control yourself, sweetie, be your charming self.  Smile.  Deep breaths and self-control.  Remember, composure.


“Mommy,” asked Dominica, “why are you breathing funny?”

“I’m excited, honey, very, very excited.  I haven’t seen these since before you were born, before Dominic even.”

Very good, dear, you and I are quite similar.  Two peas in a pod, we are.  I am very pleased with you, pleased as pink punch that you delight in simple things.  And see how wonderfully the children respond when we are our natural happy selves.

“Mommy, when everything was black and white?”

“That’s just old TV,” said Dominic.  “The world was in color.  Right, Mommy?”

“Sure it was.  See, she’s in color, isn’t she?”

“She’s funny, Mommy,” said Dominica.

“Funny how?”

“She looks funny.”

Dear, I must take strong umbrage with her characterization of me.  Disparagement is no fun.  No, none at all.  Well, I must say, you would have never said anything as hurtful.

“Christ, Marge, I don’t ask much for what I do for you.  Can’t you at least wear one of the outfits I bought you?  I mean wake up, will you?  It’s not the fifties.”

“I’ll have you know I am perfectly comfortable and quite fashionable.  Don’t you agree, dear?”

Iam took her hand and nodded.  “I like the way you dress, Aunt Margie.”

“Thank the Lord for someone with fashion sense.”

“She’s a kid, Marge, not a fashion critic.”

“My experience is that children, not kids; she’s not a goat, you know; you aren’t, are you?”—to which Iam vigorously shook her head—”Excellent, you may hold my hand then.  No, I’ve never been partial to animals; no, not even fluffy little cats.  Sorry, dear, you’re kitten enough for me, aren’t you?—to which Iam nodded affirmatively—”Am I cat enough for you, dear—”

“What are you rattling on about anyway?  Let’s get moving or we’ll be late for church.  Come on, Ruth; take my hand.  Where’s Sammy.  Goddamn … Sammy!”

“As I was saying, in my experience, children are often the best judges of fashion.”

“Where the hell were you?”

“Around,” Sammy huffed.

“Straighten yourself up.  What I need is another man skipping on me.”

“Children are born with an innate sense of what a lady should wear and how she should present herself.”

“Enough.  I want to be in church before the goddamn gospel, if you don’t mind?”

“Must you always be so profane?”

“Yeah, Mom, shit, we’re going to church.”

“Enough from you, you little hoodlum.”

At church, during mass processing back and forth at communion, and afterwards, greeting the priest and milling in front on the steps, Iam noticed people pointing and staring at her aunt.  Later, in the attic room, of Aunt Margie lying on her bed dressed as she was for church, blowing clouds of Kool’s smoke, Iam asked, “People think you dress funny?”

“Well, you’ve taken me by surprise, dear.  How can you say such a thing?”

“They look at you funny.”

“Climb up here next to me, dear.  Good.  Get close.  As for those people, they are admiring me and they envy my style.  That’s why they stare.”

“I don’t understand.”

“No?  It’s simple, dear.  They wish they could dress like me, but, alas and aleck, they simply could never bring it off with any degree of finesse.”

“Mommy says you dress like a lost Mame somebody.”

“Your mother probably refers to the marvelous Mrs. Mamie Eisenhower.”

“I know who she was.  President Eisenhower’s First Lady.”

“You are quite the bright little girl, dear.  I am proud of you,” she said, squeezing Iam’s shoulders.  “Mrs. Eisenhower, Mamie Geneva Doud by birth—remember that and surprise your teacher—Mrs. Eisenhower was such a gracious lady.”

“You knew her?”

“Oh no, I was a girl when Mrs. Eisenhower set the style for the country.”

“Set what style?”

“Why, the correct way women should dress.  She had such exquisite taste in fashion.  People admired her and tried to copy her.”

“Did you?”

“Copy, dear?  Heavens no.  No, I embody Mrs. Eisenhower.”


“I am Mrs. Eisenhower.”

“You are?”

“Certainly.  If we stood side by side this very minute, you couldn’t tell us apart, except, of course, I am considerably younger.”


“No, indeed, young lady.  If you asked us to speak a few words, we would sound alike, and our words would probably be the same, or very similar.  When we talked, you’d exclaim, ‘My goodness, Mrs. Eisenhower, I didn’t realize you had a twin sister.’  And in the Ladies Room
—you know, dear, that’s were we ladies freshen up our makeup and hair and straighten our clothing to ensure we are always picture perfect—but where was I?—Oh, yes, in the Ladies Room, Mrs. Eisenhower would say to me, ‘Why Miss Margaret Anna Maria Andolini, you are more me than I am myself.’—I would, naturally, curtsey, and thank her politely for the high compliment.”

“You’re funny, Aunt Margie, and I love you.”

“Iam, I am a tad amusing, aren’t I?  And I love you too smithereens.”


“Huh?  I said funny, Dominica.  Sorry, I was remembering her.  Yes, I suppose by today’s standards you could call her appearance funny.  But when you’re a big, grown woman with grandchildren, they might say the same about you.”

“I’m gonna be like Grandma?”

“You’ll be yourself, honey, an older you.”

“Will I look funny when I’m a grandma?”

“You’ll be a beautiful grandma.  Your lady acquaintances will remark, ‘Oh my, I don’t believe for a moment, not a single moment, you are sixty,'” Iam pretended, pursing her lips and touching an index finger to her cheek.  “‘My goodness, no.  Evangeline, don’t you agree?'”

“What a funny name, Evangeline,” Dominic laughed. 

“Well, I think Evangeline is quite a lovely name,” Iam said.  “You know, Evangeline was a favorite of the lady in the picture.  I think because she loved the poem, Evangeline—”

Oh, dear, dear, dear girl, I do love it so.  Remember:  “She, too, would bring to her husband’s house delight and abundance, Filling it with love and the ruddy faces of children.”  Oh the tragedy, the heartrending end, the ghosts … I can’t bear it, dear.  I weep for it.  Thank you!

“What does Evanjaline say about me, Mommy?”

“Haven’t I explained, Dominica, interrupting is impolite?  You, too, Dominic.  Haven’t I?”

“Yes,” they murmured, the replies colored with the timbre of caution.

“Sorry.  I simply want both of you to grow up to be polite people.  We need more polite people in this old world of ours, don’t we?”

“Yes,” they said, settling again.

“It’s Evangeline, and she holds your chin like so,” Iam said, lips pursed once more, lightly taking Dominica’s chin between her thumb and fingers, turning it slightly right and left, “and says, ‘Mmm, mmm, mmm, forty, not a day more, and I am a remarkable judge of age.  Oh, yes, dear, renowned throughout Sullivan County and, if I am not exhibiting excessive pride, the entire state of Indiana.'”

The children bent over laughing.  Dominica said, “More, Mommy, more.  You’re funny.”

“Iam, I am,” she said, “‘Why, beautiful lady, Erma—”

“Eeweu,” they exclaimed.

You are such a card, dear.  You always were, you know.  Erma, my goodness.  Please don’t spoil our good time with another unladylike burst of pique.  Erma, what would I say of such a name?

“Well, we all can’t be blessed with beautiful names like Dominica and Dominic.”

“Why not?” asked Dominica.

“Why not?  Well, I suppose there aren’t enough beautiful names to go around.  I mean, imagine if everybody were named Dominica and Dominic.  Imagine if all the mothers in the world called all the children in the world to supper at exactly five o’clock.  My goodness, what confusion.  Children popping up in the wrong houses.  And in school, why when a teacher called on Dominic to answer a question, all the boys would rise.  My, my, that wouldn’t do.  Not at all.”

“That’s funny, Mommy.”

“So, Erma it is.  ‘Why, beautiful lady,’ Erma says, ‘the Sullivan Corn Festival Committee for the Honoring of the Most Perfect, Most Tender Ears of Corn depends on Evangeline to select the best examples of young, sweet, delectable, scrumptious Sullivan corn.’  ‘Indeed,’ Evangeline adds, ‘and as we all know, we grow simply the most spectacular, heavenly, desired corn right here in Sullivan County!’  To which anyone eavesdropping would certainly cheer, ‘Hear!  Hear!'”

“And right in our own backyard,” Dominic said.

“‘Indubitably, young man.  You, my young sir, know your corn.'”

“Evangeline talks funny,” Dominica said.

“Yes, I suppose she does.  Well, maybe everybody will talk her way where you’ll be in the distant future.”

“You’re silly, Mommy.”

Iam smiled a beaming smile that shot from her heart directly to her face, so big her face couldn’t contain it and it leapt to the children, who beamed back smiles as bright, as pure, natural and easy, and peaceful, and they were free, for an instant, of the past, the present, and of any dread of what might be coming, of what might be lurking in the phantom forest.

Iam breathed with a calm she hadn’t felt since Billy left, maybe forever, “I love silliness.  Phew, I love it.”

“She’s a pink lady,” said Dominica.

“Pink is a girl’s color,” said Dominic.

“Pink,” Iam said, “was her favorite color.  She always wore something pink, even if it was only a pink ribbon in her hair.”

“Was her bedroom pink?” asked Dominica.

“No, I’m afraid not.  But she did keep the pink cup and saucer and the small box in the bottom,” she said, showing them the Jasperware.  “She kept them on her nightstand and sometimes a vase with pink flowers in it.”

“She was a very nice grandma, I bet,” said Dominic.

“Oh, no, she wasn’t my grandma.  She was my aunt.”

“What’s her name?”

“Was.  She passed on many years ago.”

“Is she in heaven, Mommy?” asked Dominica.

“Absolutely.  I have no doubt she is sitting next to Jesus at this very minute and enjoying our fun.”

“And telling Jesus nice things about us, too?”

“Without a doubt.”

“Did she have a beautiful name?”

“The most beautiful name of all.  Margie.  Margaret, really, but everybody called her Margie most of the time.  Aunt Margie.”

Dominic and Dominica agreed that Margie was a beautiful name.

“You know, Aunt Margie was like a mother to me.”

“She was?” said Dominic.

“You had two mommies?” said Dominica.

“No.  Well, yes, in a way, I suppose I did.  You see, children, Mommy was almost an orphan.”

“Really?” Dominica said with unbridled awe. 

“You mean like Father Chapas?” said Dominic

“Yes, but I didn’t live in an orphanage like Father Chapas.”

“Father Chapas makes it sound sad, and fun too,” said Dominica.

“I’m sure if Father Chapas had a choice, he would have preferred a mother and father.”

Marcella, your Pater warned you about the power of this necromancer, but like the wife who defied God’s commandment, you surrendered to weakness and looked.  Now your warrior’s resolve is as pitifully weak and ineffective as a sword fashioned of salt.  You have permitted a sinner, a violator of vows, a sacrilegious disciple of Onan—your instinct confirms it—to divert you from your mission.  Marcella, my return waits on you.

“Mommy, are you sick?” asked Dominic.

Dear, I love when you say I was a mother to you.  I do believe I would have made a model mother, if I’d been blessed with you.  You say yourself I was a splendid mother to you in my—our, I should say, in our little world.  I am so very grateful to you, dear, for, in a manner of speaking, providing me the chance I missed.  Let’s be happy, darling, not angry like some old grump.  I can’t imagine why you … well, I lay it at the feet of my sister.  There was a woman who simply did not have a motherly bone in her body.  Sometimes I wonder about the good Lord.  I do. 

“I’m fine, Dominic.  It’s the darkness, dear.  The sun’s gone, and the darkness worries me a bit, what with your father …”

“I’ll protect us, Mommy.  I know what to do in a tornado.”


“There’s nothing to worry about, Dominica.  It was such a beautiful day and now it’s cloudy.  Mommy’s just silly.  That’s all.  Now what … yes, I was almost an orphan, like Father Chapas.  I was lucky, though.  I had Aunt Margie.”

“What happened to your Mommy?”

“It’s a very, very sad story.” 

Billy said similar, when she revealed her story over wine in her new apartment.  She had to tell him something, she reasoned, and the story was less tragic than the truth.  “Oh, my God, Iam, it’s too sad for words,” he said.  “I don’t know how to console you.”  She resisted telling his parents but couldn’t avoid it when she accepted Billy’s proposal.  His father said nothing, simply nodded, which she appreciated.  His mother was effusive with disbelief and regrets and even suggested a second of silence at the wedding mass in remembrance of them, and it required enormous effort on both Billy and her part to dissuade her.  And, after the birth of Dominic, finding the story too sad still, Billy made her promise not to tell Dominic, and later Dominica, until they were older; but they never settled on how old was old enough. 

“I don’t know if this is the best time.  Why don’t I read you a letter Aunt Margie wrote to me?”

“Tell us, please,” they clamored, with Dominica adding, “I promise I won’t cry.”

“Okay, but no tears.  It is sad in parts, but it does have a very happy ending.”

“Like a fairytale?” said Dominic.

“Exactly like a fairytale.  Ready?”

“Yes, Mommy,” they chimed.

“Well, I grew up in a wonderful place.”

“More wonderful than Sullivan?” said Dominica, as if such a place couldn’t exist, except, perhaps, in fairytales.

“Nearly as wonderful.  My family was almost like ours.  I had a brother and sister, a mommy and a daddy.”

“But your mommy wasn’t very nice,” said Dominica.

“No, my mommy was nice most of the time.  But, you know, mommies can get upset about things.”

“Like spilling drinks at dinner,” said Dominica.

“Yes, but how about you let me to finish the story, otherwise we’ll be in this closet the rest of the day.”

“Okay,” said Dominica, timidly.

Iam noticed, and stroked her hair before continuing.  Most of the time, everybody was nice to each other and happy.  My brother was the oldest.  I was in the middle, and I had a younger sister.”

“I wish I had a sister,” said Dominica.

“No, a brother,” said Dominic.

Iam ignored them, lost in the telling.  “We were like you.  We were smart children.  We did very well in school.  My brother was the smartest of all and when it came time for him to go to college, well, he won a scholarship.”

“A what?” said Dominica.

“A very big college admitted him for free.”

“Wow,” said Dominic.  “I’m going to get a scholarship when I go to college.”

“Your father and I hope both of you do.  I was a young girl when he went to college.”

“Like me?”

“I was older, around fourteen.  So, the big day came, the day the entire family was to drive my brother to his college, when I got sick.”

“Real sick, like missing school sick?” asked Dominic.

“Yes.  So sick, the doctor said I had to stay in bed.”

“Were you sad?” said Dominica.

“I cried when my mother told me, and that she’d stay home with me.  Then, guess what?”  She held up and flapped Aunt Margie’s photo.  “She came to the rescue.  She told my mother she would nurse me back to health and to go, go and not miss my brother’s big day.  So the whole family got in the car and accompanied my brother to his college, and my Aunt Margie stayed to care for me.”

“That’s sad and happy,” said Dominica, but by Dominic’s expression of disappointment, he wasn’t in agreement.

“I wish, Dominica.  But no.”

“What happened?” asked Dominic, his interest renewed.

“My brother drove.  He was a very good driver.  My father taught him.  He was a safe driver, always kept his eyes on the road, followed all the rules, but …”

“But what?  I know, somebody shot him because he was going to slow,” said Dominic.

“Really?” said Dominica.

“No.  But it was very bad.  The car hit a train.”

“A train?  Wow,” said Dominic.

“Where they okay?” asked Dominica.

“I’m afraid not.”

“When a train hits you, you’re dead,” said Dominic.

“Dominic, please.”

“Sorry, but it’s true.”

“Why?” asked Dominica.

“Why the accident?  You know the lights that flash and the stick that warns you a train is coming?”

They nodded.

“Some crossings don’t have them.  It was nighttime and very dark, out in the country.  You know how dark it gets around here.”

They nodded again.

“It was that dark.  When the middle of a train is crossing, it’s hard to see.  They had the windows up.  My mother got a new hairdo for the big college trip and she didn’t want the wind mussing it.  They didn’t see or hear the train.  My brother drove right into it and they all died.”

Immediately, tears gushed from Dominica’s eyes.

“It was years ago, honey.  You don’t have to be sad for me.  Most of the pain’s gone.”

“It’s why I’ve got only one grandma.”

“I suppose you’re right.  But there’s a happy ending.”

Dominica wiped her eyes and sniffled.  “I like happy endings the best.”

“I like the good guys to win.  That’s happy,” said Dominic.

“You both get what you want, because two good girls won.  Aunt Margie made me feel better, and she got to be a mother like she always wanted to be.”

“She was your mommy” said Dominica.

“She wasn’t my real mommy, but she was a very good second mommy.”

“You miss her?”

“Yes, I do.”

“That’s sad.”

“No, not sad.  I’ll see her again one day.  And she is always with me.”

“She is?” said Dominic.

“Yes.  Here,” she said, touching her heart.

“She’s inside you?”

“Well … yes, yes, I suppose she is.”

Marcella, do you forget?  “There was given unto the beast a moth speaking great blasphemies.”  You allow a witch, a necromancer, a sorceress, an agent of Satin, to stay you from your mission, from the fulfillment of your promise, from the resurrection of God’s Chosen Delegate on earth?  Oh, the anguish I feel, Marcella.  Osma, who I loved and would bear me, betrayed the promise.  And now my mighty warrior abandons me yet again?  No!  I will not have it.

Then the idea possessed her to push Dominic and Dominica out of the closet and into the room, without a word uttered as to the reason for their offense, as to what they should do after she pulled the door shut on them.

The children cried, “Mommy, what’s wrong?  Are you sick?  Mommy, don’t leave us.”

In the dark, she dropped into the rankest confinement, worse than a prison cell or a dungeon chamber, and the irony, the sweetly bitter mockery, was that the Anointed constructed the hut on her suggestion based on a scrap of cinematic history uttered to participate, to demonstrate loyalty, to convince the Council she too understood the persuasive power of cruelty. 

“And were you surprised, little warrior, to discover yourself hoisted, as they say, on your on petard?  Better than the fate of Monsieur Robespierre, don’t you agree?” 

Pater could taunt; Pater could dispense cruelty so lovingly; Pater could teach so spiritually and physically; to him there could be but one response:  “Forgive me, Pater.  I beg your forgiveness and your blessing and the strength to execute your will.”

Here it was again as it had been in every torturing detail:  the pungent, foul smell permeating the cell, and it blazing with oppressive heat as if it sat on the fires of Hell; and the walls closing in on her and the roof bearing down on her and the walls and the roof and the floor ringing like tin drums; and the enclosure stinking of punishment. 

Then it was as if she had been there hours, days, a week, and the tears flowed freely and her only thoughts were of absolution, of Pater’s gentle caress, of the promise, of fulfillment, and of renewing the life of God’s Chosen Delegate on earth, His second son; and from her poured the mantra repeated for hours until her voice failed her and her scratching had to suffice.

On the other side of the door, in the neat room she had cleaned short hours before, in the darkening and cooling afternoon, in the wake of happiness, her children cried for her:  “What’s wrong, Mommy?  Are you sick, Mommy?  Mommy, please, please.”

Iam answered with curdling shrieking:  “Forgive me, Pater, I will create the vessel of God.  Forgive me, Pater, I will create the vessel of God.  Forgive me, Pater, I will create the vessel of God”; accompanied by terrifying pounding and scratching, as if the door was sealed.

And in those moments the darkened sky blackened and the air tingled with electricity, and lightning streaked across the sky and cast the room in white light that bleached the color from every object and from the children, and the thunder rumbled and rattled all the things that had been rendered in the blankness of death, Dominic and Dominica foremost among them who took refuge in a corner hugging each other, away from the window and far from the closet door and the cries and clawing of a woman who didn’t seem like their mother of hours earlier who had waited for them at church, had served them lunch, and had treated them to pink lemonade as the silly, cute cat clock watched, waited, and ticked what had begun as an ordinary Saturday afternoon into oblivion.


It was late Saturday afternoon.  Lust in its heathen rawness consumed her, as, from the corner of her eye, Iam watched Fabian converse with the Sword.

She bent low; her hands plucked the prolific and virulent weeds; her arms levered them up and into the sack that slapped against her right thigh as she advanced.  The strap stretched from her left shoulder across her breasts, cutting through them, pinching them every few seconds, causing her to pause her work frequently to adjust it, and stare at Fabian as she fiddled. 

She was repositioning the strap and observing as Fabian and the Sword concluded their conversation.  Each clapped the other’s shoulder.  They exchanged hearty laughs and the Sword departed in the direction of the encampment. 

Two young men talking and slapping each other playfully wouldn’t be noteworthy, but it occurred at “Feed the World” with a Sword.  Swords rarely fraternized with the people, not even Council members.  They had a difficult role in the community and everybody understood it was best accomplished if they were apart from those they watched over, sleeping, eating, and washing in their own compound set off from the main cabins and the gathering pavilion.  Iam knew many of the People harbored a deep, unspoken fear of them, though everybody understood Swords were present to protect the People and to enforce the doctrines of Universal One and the divine word of Pater, and not to harm them.  She also knew many more pitied them, for Swords, burdened with their unique duties, could not fully partake of “Feed the World’s” joys, the praise sessions, sharing of treats, enjoyment of group meals, and the fulfilling work of raising food for the encampment, for sale in support of Universal One, and, eventually, for distribution to the poor of the nation and the world who desperately clamored for it.  “They beg, they plead, they implore with their tears, with their distended bellies, with their starving young held up to me in my dreams, so close, so close I smell the stink of their impending deaths,” declaimed Pater, when he saw they wearied.  “And I cry for them, my People.  I bawl like a newborn over their suffering, and not just for them, but because it is in our power to relieve their agony by working, my People, by working longer and harder, by staving off our enemies long enough to complete our mission on earth, before He calls us home.  It is there, my People, where we will rest for eternity.  We work to feed the world and earn our eternal peace.”

Repositioning the strap, pulling the weeds, wiping sweat from her brow, Iam took these trials as her contribution to the fulfillment of Pater’s promise.  “My Anointed People,” Pater proclaimed, after the People trudged in from their day in the fields to their meager meal, “your labor is hard, and each droplet of your sweat enriches the earth, the People’s own sweet soil; each is glorious praise of the Father, not empty Sunday words, not tired platitudes, not outright lies; yours is sincere, loving, physical glorification that flies from your fingertips to give life to His great earth; and He hears and feels you, my People; He hears you loud and clear, He thrills at your every touch as if you are caressing Him; and He tells me to thank you, to thank you, to thank you, His Anointed People; and that very soon, through your labor, through His good graces, through the guidance of His Chosen Delegate on earth; through these the earth will yield up its riches; and this bounty we, everyone of us, will deposit directly into the yearning, clamoring mouths of the neglected and starving poor of the world.” 

Each time Pater exhorted them, the Anointed would sing hosannas to him, and he, the benevolent, loving leader Iam knew him to be, would raise his hands up, up to the home of his Father, and into the microphone, conducted by the loudspeakers throughout the land of the One, he would sing in his mellifluous, entrancing voice, “All praise to Him, to Him, to Him!” 

Just the thought of such performances had her wishing she could straighten her back, toss up her roughened hands, and shout praise to a father who would grant the world such a son as Pater.  She yearned to dance like an unbound Pentecostal, like a tent convert, like a backwoods mystic, all jumbled in her mind as a single mass of hallelujah-screaming believers with her in the middle.  She ached to stomp with joy under the crystal blue sky, so like Pater’s mesmerizing eyes she could feel them upon her, so like she imagined God’s eyes gazing upon her efforts with unrestricted love; she burst to shout, “Praise to Pater.  Praise to you, Lord.  Praise to the work you bestow upon us.” 

Instead of yielding to her desire, though, she looked to her work, and looked to Fabian, who also sacrificed to the task of producing a miracle for God.

Fabian’s difference from the other single men of “Feed the World” had attracted her to him.  As a Council member, she read about his background and his introspective, metaphysical self-reports.  He was Canadian, Paul Mackenzie—”Mr. Smith goes to Raisin City,” she teased; he smiled, twinkled was how she saw his expression in the dusk under the tree, and replied, “Of all the Mackenzies in the Canada, you found me.”  He was born and raised in Toronto, educated as an agriculturalist at the University of Saskatchewan, who had been in a graduate agriculture program, plant pathology, at the University of California, Davis, when Pater sought expert advise on growing crops for sustenance, cash, and donations.  Fabian was a seeker of a cause, of meaning, of a life with purpose, and of God, and God’s plan for him.  He discovered the answers and the life he sought in Pater, The Church of the Universal One, and, especially, in “Feed the World.”  It wasn’t long before he joined the Church, dropped out of the graduate program, and took up residence in the encampment; he renounced his other-world name and assumed the more fitting name of Fabian, and became Pater’s chief of agriculture, though no titles existed in the Church, and the position was purely de facto.  Fabian advised but also worked in the fields like everybody else in the true egalitarian ideal of the One.

Iam knew more of Fabian than what appeared in his dossier; she knew him in a manner forbidden by the laws of the Church; she knew him intimately; she knew him in the very fields they cultivated; it was passion in spite of consequences. 

It began innocently during her second tour at “Feed the World” on her first day in the fields.  Frustrating herself with failed assaults on weeds that refused to yield to her hoe, she didn’t hear him approach her from behind.  She jumped when he spoke.

“Pater is right asking everyone to work in the soil.”

Her heart beat wildly when she turned and saw him, tall, lean, bronzed, his hair bleached blond, his face shaved smooth as the Church required, his eyes the brothers of God’s and Pater’s, smiling at her efforts.

“‘Everyone dirties their hands to cleanse their souls,'” he quoted Pater, reaching for her hoe. 

It sounded liked something else to her, something powerful, something strong enough to stir her soul, something she desired.

“My hands are certainly dirty, but I don’t know about my soul.  I don’t seem to be making much progress here.”

“If Pater asked me to work in the office like you do, I don’t think I’d make much progress either.  But, fortunately, he understands how we can best contribute, and what we need to strengthen ourselves for the Lord’s mission.  I am here to help and teach.  Let me show you.”

He demonstrated the proper technique.  He watched her.  She made mistakes.  He wrapped his arms around her and placed his hands over hers on the hoe.  By the end of the day, she cleared weeds with the best of the workers.  Returning to the encampment, he walked with her and complimented her.

“Pater is right about you,” he said.

“He talked to you about me?” she said, surprised.  When Pater spoke privately to you about another, he always ended with the command to hold the conversation secret.  If he discovered you breached his confidence, a punishment followed. 

“Not in words, Marcella, in deeds.  You must have special qualities.  You’re on the Council.”

“Now I’m a field hand.”

“Something wrong with field hands?”

“No, I didn’t mean it that way.  I just meant I’m anything but special.”

“It’ll make you a better leader.  You’ll know what we all do, what the purpose of the mission is.  You are special, and after a few weeks with us, you’ll be more special.”


“You don’t like working in the fields with me?”

She was tempted to say she loved it.  “I guess I’m not very good at saying what I mean today.”

“You don’t have to.  I can see what you mean.”

“Tell me what it is.”

“You’re in love with your work,” he said at her doorway.

Fabian walked her back to her cabin each night for a week and she did say what she meant, and, finally, was able to say the best part of the day was its end with him next to her. 

“Do you have a Council meeting tonight?” he asked a few days later, as the crews returned to the encampment.

“We don’t meet on Saturday nights.  Pater wants us to mingle among the people.  ‘Listen, learn, report.’  Of course, we listen, learn, report all the time, but Saturday everyone is relaxed.  We have the band, the singing and dancing.  We hear more.”

“Come with me tonight and listen, learn.”

In the twilight, he guided her across the fields to a western windbreak.

“The Swords,” she cautioned, as he gestured for her to sit under a tree.

“You know as well as I do, Marcella, they patrol closer to the encampment on Saturdays.  But maybe you’d like to go back.”

“No,” she said, lying under the tree.  “No, I like it here better.”

Words were unnecessary and would have been as encumbering as the clothing they shed.  They made love savagely, like pagans, she thought, like creations free of rules, of prying eyes, wordless animals that still communicated by licking, pawing, nudging, grunting, and howling. Santos hombres, she heard solo Ricky rattling deep within in her.  Aye, ¡santos hombres … si tan solo me hubieras dicho, habrías ganado una fortuna para mí, mi amor! 

At his braying, she clamped a hand over Fabian’s mouth and shushed him.  He licked her palm, her arm, her neck, her breasts, fell at her side, and nuzzled her ear. 

“You taste delicious,” he whispered.

“I bet I do,” she giggled, embarrassed by her foulness.

“Moist, salty, and fragrant.  It’s the taste and perfume of hard work.  It’s what I love, Marcella.”

That was a month ago and they’d been secreting themselves in the windbreaks every Saturday since, and would again tonight.  After the first time, Iam slept restlessly, worried someone, an ambitious Sword, a member taking a break from the festivities, or someone returning from the toilets, would spy them entering the encampment late.  But the next day everything proceeded normally, and did so each Saturday following. 

Now, in anticipation of the night, watching Fabian, passion, not detection, preoccupied her.

When the Sword had shuffled a considerable distance from them, Fabian came to her, his face distorted in an exaggerated attempt at pouting disappointment.

“What, I’m doing something wrong?”

“A message from Osma.  She says you’re to go to the cabin immediately.  Pater has called a special meeting of the Council.”


Fabian gilded his face in extreme shock.

“You know what I mean.”

“I do,” he said, like a mooning groom, and she wanted to crown him with her hoe.

“I’d better go, or she’ll be quizzing me about why I took so long.  Osma can be as suspicious as Pater.”

Iam went directly to the cabin without a thought to her condition.  She wasn’t ever the type to dwell on her appearance, but she always, at the least, showered before meeting someone or attending a function, until “Feed the World.”  The showers were communal by sex.  Women showered in the morning, men at night.  The exception was when Pater summoned her to his cabin; there she used his private shower and the cosmetics he kept for her, Osma, and a handful of others whom he dubbed the Vestal Virgins, young women, girls younger than she, with appropriate names, Arva, Lotta, Nessa.  She, nor Osma she suspected, were supposed to know about the youngest ones, but she did; even before the night of the Trinity; they left traces of themselves in the bathroom. 

Iam had barely closed the door when Osma said, “You are so obvious, Marcella.”

“Obvious.  About what?”

“You really believe we wouldn’t discover your Saturday night betrayal?  Especially you, Marcella, a Council member, head of the Countervailing Committee, and a Resurrection Receptacle.”

“Osma,” she said, “I’m sorry.”

“No.  You will be sorry.  I sacrificed for you, Marcella.  I gave part of him up to you.  I did it for him, because he wanted you, because he said you were like insurance that would carry him on, because the end is coming, is almost here.  No.  You will be sorry.  Pater consulted me on your punishment, Marcella, and I told him, I said, ‘Pater, I love the little warrior as you do and her pain will be my pain, but even so, you should send her to Hell.”

“Osma, please.”

“It’s done, Marcella.  You’re going to Hell.”

“Not Fabian, too?”

“This is why you are condemned to Hell.  Fabian.  Fabian is lucky Pater values him.  Fabian will answer for his sin in front of the People with you, and write a self-report.  He’ll torment himself writing it—yes, I’ve read every one of his reports, just like you—and that will satisfy Pater.  Outside.  They’re waiting.”

Iam opened the door on Fabian flanked by robed Swords.  Two other Swords seized her and, with her group leading and Osma in the rear, the sinners and the righteous marched into the pavilion already overflowing with the People, murmuring, speculating, expectant like thirsting plebian spectators.  Pater perched on his lawn chair draped in his robes, his expression benign, until he saw the phalanx processing to the foot the of picnic table stage.

“My People, attention,” he bellowed into the microphone in his hand, “your attention, please.  First, my deepest apologies for delaying the music.  I assure you, my industrious People, you will have your entertainment tonight.  Tonight, my People, it is a double bill.  It’s like the old days of cinema, my People, the days of the double feature.  First the serious dramatic film and second the gay party movie.  And what a melodrama we have for you this evening.  It’s the best, my People.  It is turns on disgusting carnal lust and abysmal fornication.  And see, here are the players, the Fornicators.  Bring them forth, Swords.  I present The Fornicator, played by Fabian.  Take your bow, Fornicator.  Piteous.  What a timid doffing to the assembled.  Please, deeper, deeper, deeper.”

As Pater spurred them, the People instinctively chanted in the right places.  “Fornicators” rolled through the crowd and off the lips of all, including the children.  “Deeper” rocked the pavilion roof to the extent a few gazed up to ensure themselves it wasn’t coming down upon them.

“Excellent.  Now for the distaff player, the Fornicatee, shall we call her?  Beautiful, isn’t she?  Jezebel was beautiful, too, and Salome and Delilah, and all the whores of Sodom.  And she is the great whore of Babylon, is she not?  Does the Fornicatee not come to us with a history of … oh, I wish to describe her sin in all its ugliness, but I can’t, my People, I can’t offend you further.  I will simply say she can’t keep her legs together.  She is a Whore Against the Cause.  You whore, you great, great WHORE.”

The chant went up and carried on and Pater allowed the word spoken by hundreds thousands of times to whip Iam with its five barbs, flaying her until a Sword had to support her.

Pater stood and raised his hands to quiet the spectators, who now were rabid for blood.  He smiled down upon them.  “My People, I appreciate your sentiments.  Here are two members who have enjoyed privileges.  Why?  Because your Pater is a fallible incarnation.  He placed his trust in them, and they betrayed him.  But no more of this,” he cried, his face shiny with tears; “it hurts too much.”  He clawed his face, as if ripping off a mask, and instantly presented a bright countenance.  “No more delay.  We have an evening of celebration ahead of us.  I have asked our heavenly kitchen brigade to prepare extra treats for us tonight.  From the fruit of our land they bring us cookies and sweet corn bread with raisins.  I have requested our band to play louder, rousing tunes for our delight.  I’ve implored our tuneful sisters to dig deep into their soprano reservoirs and get us jumping with their liveliest renditions.  I’ve requested these things of them because you have earned them with your hard work and your undeviating devotion to your Pater and our mutual cause, and because this unsavory proceeding has delayed our Saturday festivities.  And for one more reason involving the Fornicators.  So they might hear how the good People, the Special People, the Anointed People enjoy themselves.  Not wallowing in the mud like rutting animals.  Not like Sodomites defying the word of God.  Not like sacrilegious sinners who spit in the face of God’s Chosen Delegate on earth.  No, but like good, obedient followers of the true word, in pure play.  We can have fun, and our fun is Clean Fun.”

And the chant of Clean Fun went up and it served to lacerate Iam further, and Fabian too.

“Fabian, forward.”

The Swords released him and he stepped from the group.

“You disappointed me, Fabian.  However, you are a man and Jezebels and whores have led men astray for eons, since God put them on the earth to test our fortitude.  Since this is your first offense, we ask you to write a detailed report of your sin.  Be explicit.  You will remain in your cabin at your task for one day.  You will read your report to the assembled People with the chastened whore at your side, when she returns from her punishment.  Swords, remove him to his cabin.”

Pater and the People, their eyes on her, remained silent until the Swords returned from their duty.  For these several moments, Iam felt the minds of the People weighing upon her, judging and condemning her.

“Whore, for I cannot address you by your name, you have so offended us.  Whore it will be, until you are again purified and in the good graces of the Church.  Forward, Whore.”

The Sword pushed Iam in front of the makeshift stage, at the feet of Osma and the other Council members, who cast their eyes down; except for Osma, who stared at her, her lips curled almost imperceptibly in a sneer.

“I will speak no more of your sin, it wounds me to that extent.  Nor will I further insult the ears of my People with your sin, for they deserve better than you.  To expiate your sin, you will spend a day and a night in the Hell you created.”

At his reference to her part in creating the chamber, delivered by Pater in a mocking lilt, she winced.

“Hopefully, a taste of your eternal destiny if you remain a whore will redeem you.  After your release, you will return to your cabin, where you will write a detailed report of your sin.  Compose it well in your solitude.  You will present it to the People at the side of the one you corrupted.” 

Assuming him finished, the Swords reached for Iam.

“Swords, please, stay, for there is more.  Whore, you will be stripped.  You will serve your time in Hell naked as you entered the world and as you will depart it, and as you will burn in the real Hell if you fail to thoroughly repent your sin.  You will not wear the simple dress of the People until you have completed your reporting and the People agree to forgive you and accept you back into the fold.  Now, Whore, remove your clothing and reveal what a temptress your are to the gathered.”

In silence, with hundreds of eyes searing her, with tears flushing the grime of the day from her cheeks and evaporating on the heat of her embarrassment, she slowly removed her clothing, to stand hunched, small and naked.

“Swords, remove the whore, and we will pray God will return us our Marcella reborn in faith.”

Iam bowed under the judgmental glare of the People, as the Swords seized her arms. 

Pater roared a thunderous laugh.  “Now my people, away with the glumness.  Strike up the band and let us enjoy some of our good, Clean Fun.”

Leaving under her guard, she heard the band begin, and turned to spy Pater rise and wave to the People; see him sway to the first measure of the music; see Osma leap from the bench, raise her hands, clap, dance with joy, and stare intently at her, into her, with the vicious pleasure enjoyed at defeating a rival. 

They’d built the chamber at Iam’s suggestion, and they located it near the encampment, also upon her advice.  Months earlier, after the lands were purchased and Pater and the Council were laying out the “Feed the World” encampment, Pater requested suggestions on new and cunning methods of enforcing discipline on chronically under-zealous members.  Iam and the other Council members understood his meaning perfectly.  These were members who had sudden changes of heart and tried to flee the Church.  They were members who doubted and, worse, the gravest of sins, transferred their uncertainty to others.  They were members who, for whatever reason, a misspoken word, an effrontery of improper deference, or some otherwise trivial irritation but that it occurred at a bad time, offended Pater.

Council members seemed at a loss.  After all, they had at their disposal Righteous Wrath, the Great Silence, Baby Talk (some called it the Idiot Treatment), extended bathroom cleaning duties, the Longest Day (know also as the 24-Hour Drill), and, of course, the surefire standbys, the public indictment, the detailed self-report, and the public reading.  Then Iam, Marcella, the mighty little warrior, recalled a movie she’d seen.  Or it might have been Sammy who saw it, since it was a war movie and he enjoyed them.  It was about war prisoners who cooperatively built a railroad bridge for the Japanese, but not until their leader spent time in a metal box in the hot jungle sun.  She described it as a small hut heated by the sun, a natural oven.  Pater blurted, “Hell on earth.”  And, thus, Iam birthed her own hell.

Pater rewarded Iam by allowing her to supervise the construction of the chamber.  She directed it built a third in the earth of corrugated metal fastened to log poles, panels on the outside and mates on the inside, and the same doubling for the roof.  The entry was a small door through which sinners scooted on their rears.  The interior allowed for sitting only, with legs drawn up to the chest and head lowered.  The position began as uncomfortable and progressed to excruciating as time passed and unused muscles cramped.  At night, it was cold.  In the day, it was stifling.  In addition, the metal amplified the sounds outside of all the encampment inhabitants.  It was punishment that tortured every sense.  Pater declared it delightful, and it was but a day old when it accommodated its first sinner.

At the entrance, a Sword unlatched the door while the other held her, as if she was in a condition to escape, as if there was anywhere she could escape to. 

Oversized Masterlock, rustproof, pickproof, bulletproof; she remembered the advertising on the blister pack when she purchased it at a True Value in Fresno; foolproof, she thought when she paid for it.

She backed in on her rear and pulled her legs up, rested her chin on her knees, and shivered in the chill, and in the stink of those before her, as a Sword locked the door.  She sat.  She suppressed her gagging.  She heard the music.  Next she heard the silence.  Then she heard the scratching against the metal walls, and the clicking of small feet on the roof; and next she sensed she was not alone in the pitch blackness, and her bottom, legs, and arms tingled as things crawled on them, and they burned as those things pinched and bit her.  It was then she began to scream and pound on the metal and tear at herself and cry until she was hoarse and worn, and she whimpered like a lost soul in an asylum, in a room, in a corner, the center of another existence that whirled around her.  And finally it was daytime, and deep gray replaced the black, the rising heat drove away the chill, soaring until she baked in the box.  At last, it was Hell and her mumbling transformed into soft pleading and prayers for forgiveness, mantras of cleanliness though she hunkered in her own waste; she pledged to sin no more, to be true to Pater, to be pure forever, to serve her purpose, to be his faithful mighty little warrior, to deliver up to him a son, to present to him the Resurrection Vessel decreed to him by God.

And when the Swords dragged her from Hell, Iam continued to moan, “Forgive me, Pater, I will be pure to create a pure vessel for God.  Forgive me, Pater, I will be pure to create a pure vessel for God.  Forgive me, Pater, I will be pure to create a pure vessel for God.”


“Mommy, Mommy, open the door,” begged Dominic, across from the door on the floor, his back against the bed, legs pulled tight to his chest, embraced by a shivering, teary Dominica hunkered on legs tucked beneath her.  He stared at the door, and listened to his mother, puzzled and frightened by her rhythmic thumping and runic screaming. 

“I’m ‘fraid, Dominic.  Make Mommy come out.”

“It’s a bad storm, Mommy.  Please come out.  Please,” Dominic called in his loudest voice.

My dear, you’ve really tumbled down a rabbit hole, haven’t you?  What a mad hatter your Pater is.  Honestly, dear, how you suffer the beast befuddles me.  It certainly does.  Though, I must accept a tiny bit of responsibility.  Yes, for I should have returned to you sooner.  You’ll forgive me, dear, won’t you?  You, more than anyone, appreciate how delightfully absorbing my little world is.  None of your Pater’s nonsense there, I can assure you.  Oh, twiddle-dee, water under the bridge, as they say; I’m here now.  Please don’t force me to be stern with you, dear.  You know I despise playing the disciplinarian.  It simply doesn’t suit my Mamie personality.  I’ve always been the sunnier, brighter, more delightful, more desirable sister.  She hated me for my disposition, you know.  I mean, poor sis, who wouldn’t?  Be that as it may.  To the task at hand.  Stop your crying, dear.  Dab dry your tears.  Gather up our babies.  They are terrified darlings, and with good reason, for if my ears aren’t deceiving me—and I assure you I’ve always been blessed with acute hearing—the heavens are about to open.  Release yourself now, dear.

“Mommy, Mommy,” Dominic and Dominica shouted in a chorus of relief and jubilation at the sight of Iam’s foot pushing open the door.

They scurried on hands ands knees to her and reassumed their spots on either side of her, mindful not to disturb the box she balanced on her knees.

“Dominic, please get the lid.”

He obeyed and retrieved it in a doggie dash.  Iam removed the newspaper article, placed it on the contents, and covered everything with the lid. 

“We’re done with the box for a while.  How long have I … have you waited for me?” perceiving considerable time had elapsed, perhaps an hour, maybe more judging by the lit bedstead lamp and the darkness outside the window.

“Lots,” answered Dominica.


“A long time, Mommy.”

She pointed at the window.  “How long has that been going on?”

“Forever,” said Dominica

“After you closed the door, it started raining.”

Wind moaned around the house, snapped direction, bumped the house siding full on, rattling the windows, vibrating the floor, shifted again, resuming its moaning encircling.

“That?” referring to the flash of lightning and boom of thunder.

“It just started.”

She felt as if she had revived from an enduring, disturbing, draining nap.  Every part of her hurt from immobility, leaving her body like stone, rigid, heavy, and anchored to the floor.

“Dominic, Dominica, help me up.  We’ve got to get downstairs,” she said, placing the box next to her and shoving it into the blackness of the closet.

She gave them her arms and they tugged her forward valiantly and, at last, she pitched onto her knees, and stood up.

“Follow me,” she said, first stumbling from the room, next awkwardly walking to the stairs, limber again as she descended, and downstairs restored, all the while with the children clutching her on either side.

“What happened?” said Dominic, as they slogged through the mess outside the half bath.

“An accident,” Iam said.  “It’s nothing.  Don’t be afraid.”

“I’m not,” said Dominic.

“Me either,” said Dominica.

“Dominic, turn on the lights.  And, Dominica, switch on the TV.  Let’s see when the storm is supposed to end.”

She sat on the edge of the couch with Dominica searching stations for a weather report.  “Daddy’s coming home?” she asked, working the remote.

“Sure, honey, storms don’t stop Daddy.  There, hold on Dominica.  If he finishes his work, he’ll be home tonight.”

A summary forecast appeared in a scroll at the bottom of a stockcar race as Dominic joined them on the couch. 

“Okay, well, it isn’t as bad as it sounds.  Severe thunderstorms and a tornado watch ending around midnight.  It’s just a watch.  We know they never mean much, don’t we?  I think we can make it to midnight okay, don’t you think?”

They nodded, Dominica timidly.

“We’ll have some dinner, watch a fun movie—”

“‘Cinderella,'” Dominica said.

“‘Toy Story,'” Dominic said.

“Well, let’s see what time it is.  Maybe we an watch both of them before bedtime.”

“Mine first,” said Dominica.

“Dominic, find something you and Dominica can watch before we put the movies in and I’ll see if it’s time to start dinner.  It sure feels like it.  I’m hungry.  How about you two?”

“I am,” said Dominic.

“Me too, me too,” chimed Dominica.

Well, what a relief, dear.  I’ve never been a fan of thunderstorms.  They’ve always frightened me to death.  And you know, electricity doesn’t agree with me.  I’m always the worse for it.  Your mother, it never troubled her in the least.  She had a notion electricity was the best remedy for me.  I believe she would have enjoyed watching me electrocuted, if they’d allowed it.  I can’t recount all the times I saw her—I imagined I saw her lollygagging in the corner munching popcorn, snorting.  Oh, that nasty laughing through her nose.  My, the thought of her piggy snuffles, it disgusts me. 

“Hmm, I’m thinking meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  Doesn’t that sound perfect for a stormy night?”

Why, dear, you read my mind.  At this precise moment, I was saying to myself, “Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and gravy would be scrumptious tonight.”  Don’t forget the gravy, dear.  Thick brown gravy is our favorite, not the red stuff.  The red stuff gives me the willies.

“Yes,” they said, as she rose and Dominic found a cartoon appealing to them both.

“With brown gravy, too.  We can’t forget the brown gravy,” she said, heading to the kitchen.

With the children settled, Iam entered the kitchen consumed with meatloaf, enumerating the ingredients, worrying if she had breadcrumbs, how she might concoct a proper meatloaf without them, remembering yellow, a temptation, a note, the priest, the consideration, vaguely her rage, a mess to clean up, attend to it while the meatloaf baked and the potatoes boiled, forgetting, glancing at the clock to confirm her suspicion she’d spent a couple of hours in the closet, in Hell, wondering, too, if Billy had finished, hoping she was right and the storm would not prevent him from coming home tonight, glimpsing the pitcher, whiffing the rank hut, recalling Aunt Margie never made a meatloaf, bounding from thought to memory, back and forth, when the cat’s eyes seized her and would not relinquish her and commenced to expelling everything from her mind and filling the vacancy with letters it formed with each swing of its big blazing eyes and click of its resonant curved scimitar tail, until her whole world reduced to the two words forming in the air before her, giant, unmistakable letters throbbing cruelly on children’s building blocks, each letter a vivid color, pulsing as if living, as if liquid, undulating as if a bizarre blood coursed through them, animating the letters so they levitated from the blocks, where airborne they united and transformed into a whole monster, a terrible slithering serpent with raven hair and piercing blue eyes and a blinding red maw, and darting from the gaping, sour hole a split deep ruby tongue that flicked at her, preparing to devour her, then enwrapping her and pulling her into itself, into blackness, absorbing her into the reality she had run from; and spelled on the glistening skin of the serpent, the only image in her head as she dissolved into the creature:  Resurrection Vessel.

She had dropped into her bunk an hour earlier dirty and exhausted, grateful Pater cancelled the Council meeting.  Now a hand rocked her gently.  She awoke slowly, her eyes glued shut by sweat, with a headache forming, and for a moment she forgot where she was.  It was the fragrance, sweet and fruity, like raspberries or strawberries or berry blue, not natural, though, but manufactured on a base of alcohol.  In a moment, she recognized it as the perfume Pater keep in his cabin for the girls she wasn’t suppose to know about.  Unsealing her lids, she looked into Nessa’s eyes smiling down upon her, and next to hers the pair belonging to Lotta.  The two were like their names and they moved with the stealth of sylphs.

Sitting up and rubbing her eyes clear of the gunk, she asked, “What time is it?” and like a mother, “You two should be asleep.”

“It’s midnight,” Nessa whispered.

“Pater kept us up,” Lotta hummed.

“Pater needs you, Marcella.”

“Osma is with him.”

“We woke her.”

“We took her to Pater.”

“We were going to wake you, too.”

“She said let you sleep.”

“Yes, let Marcella sleep until she knew what Pater desired.”

“Osma cares for you very much, Marcella.”

They giggled, two girls bursting with a secret they were bound not to tell.  “It’s a special night.”

“Special?  What are you talking about?”

“Come on, Marcella, come on and see.  Pater needs you, and so does Osma.  Come on,” they trebled low and sweet.

Iam dragged herself from her bunk with the aid of their ethereal tugging.

“I know the way, girls,” she said, when they insisted flanking her and guiding her.  “Get to your cabin.  Get some sleep.”

“Pater excused us from work tomorrow,” Nessa said.

“He said our work was done—”

“Shhh, or you’ll break our oath to Pater.”

“Oath?  What is up with you girls tonight?”

“Sorry.  We promised,” Lotta said.

“All right, we’re here.  Now, to your bunks, the both of you.”

It occurred to her, tapping on Pater’s cabin door, and entering when he summoned her to “Come,” that she never was a girl, never really innocent, not like Nessa and Lotta, who were brought up in the Church and weaned on its moral code.  The highest order of angels granted to him by his Father, said Pater; seed bearers of faith who would sprout a new, stronger Universal One; seraphim who would propagate his future.

The air conditioning, like the heater, a privilege Patter allowed himself as he worked around the clock and often met with Council members in his cabin, chilled her.  Pater reclined in bed covered by a sheet up to the mound of his rounding belly, sipping burgundy from a crystal goblet.  On the edge of the bed, sat Osma, naked but for the brilliant white towel she dried her hair with.

“Are you enjoying your time in the fields, my little warrior?”

“I am learning much, Pater.”

“Yes, I hear you are.  The experience will strengthen you.”

“Thank you, Pater.”

“I have a new mission for you, Marcella,” he said, moving over to allow Osma to slip under the sheet and nest beside him.  “But, first, into the shower with you.”  He reached under the sheet, touching himself.  “Don’t forget to cream your hands.  They must have toughened in the fields.  Hurry.  Nothing can be revealed or begin without you.”

“Yes, hurry, Marcella,” Osma snickered, accepting a goblet from Pater, into which he poured a generous serving of his prized burgundy. 

In the bathroom, Iam leaned against the closed door.  Pater had trapped her.  He had broached the subject with her a few times in the Los Angeles Temple.  He said he wished to share himself with his most faithful and valued Council members.  She didn’t understand him, reminding him they shared much already, including each other intimately.  He proposed a different, more elaborate sharing; he wished to share with Osma and her together the fluid of perpetual life only he carried in him.  More, he said he wished for the three of them to merge as one, as his Father was the merging of three parts.  He offered her the chance at divinity on earth, before the great calling, which he sensed nearing with the velocity of a descending holocaustic thunderbolt.  Sharing a sexual trinity with her Pater and Osma would prepare her for another and unique role in Universal One that he would disclose to her soon.  She’d resisted, wounded by the assault of solo Ricky’s amigos.  Now, Pater had robbed her of choice.

She went to the shower and ran the hot water until steam billowed from the stall, transforming the bathroom into an oven.  She stepped in and the water nearly scalded her, but she didn’t lower the temperature; instead, she allowed the scorching water to raise the red on the surface of her browned skin, like hellfire forcing past, present, and about to be sin into the open for ablutionary consumption.  When she finished, she stood before the mirror, cleared the condensation, and examined herself.  She dragged her hands across her chest, between her breasts, over her stomach, trying to peer below her flesh, like she did when she was a little girl.  What she sought was gossamer; perfectly transparent when pure; translucent when impure; black when withered from abuse or neglect.  To her sorrow, she discovered hers was past withered, not even a black kernel.  Hers was vanished:  she was soulless.  She suspected back at the Los Angeles Temple the night of Pater’s proposition.  Her foreboding intensified when she came to “Feed the World” the first time.  It abated with the appearance of Fabian.  But here it was, the truth, undeniable; that what she believed her salvation, what had been her salvation, was the source of her condemnation; it was the reason her soul had deserted her.

And so what waited for her in the room meant nothing; it couldn’t hurt her; she would find her consolation in Fabian, and she would return to the Los Angeles Temple resolved to respond to the crisis of her missing soul in her familiar fashion:  she would run away.  She hoped she would, at least, for if this was not sufficient impetus, what would be?

She hung the towel on the hook behind the door and entered the room naked, more naked than Pater and Osma could imagine.

“Come, little warrior, come on my left side.”

He raised the sheet for her.  She settled in next to him.  He draped an arm over her and his hand wandered down to her breast and cupped it, as his other hand did Osma’s.  He smelled sweet and sour, of wine and sweat, of pleasure and labor, and the blended odor struck her as sulfuric. 

“Can the two of you picture us?” he asked.  “Can you picture the scene?”

Iam and Osma lay silent, sharing between them a glance of questioning.

“We are like a holy work.  We are like a religious triptych.  We are like a church fresco.  We are like men envision the Trinity.”

As he spoke, a glaze descended over his eyes, and Iam and Osma, locking their eyes, realized he was no longer aware of them, didn’t feel them next to him, for they knew from experience he was elsewhere; he was off on an astral flight, flitting who knew where.  And in that embracement of eyes, what Iam saw in Osma, Pater’s right hand, shocked her.  Osma possessed the very core of being she’d lost.  Osma possessed a soul, a stained, withered black dab.  But it was there, and, defective as it was, still it served as a compass for Iam, pointing to something she didn’t recognize until now, something Osma understood, accepted, nurtured in for who knew how long; that Pater was a blasphemer, a manipulator, a user, a solo Ricky.  The difference, the fountainhead of his control, he was educated, charismatic, and adorned in the white robes of ersatz belief; and, chilled by a draft of air conditioning or the cold hand of fate, she couldn’t distinguish, she glimpsed rampant paranoia underneath the ceremonial robes and golden sashes of Revelation

“We are the Trinity on earth,” he said, between them again.  “But for weeks, visions have plagued me.”  Both murmured, consolation from Osma, dread from Iam.  “These men of today, they see what I am about.  They understand how my growing power, the kingdom of my Father it is my mission to establish on earth, how I will use these to pry apart their greed infected grip on God’s people.  I feel, my most faithful, I feel the enemies of my Father and me marshalling against us.”

“We’ll fight them, Pater, as we always have,” Osma said, forever the fervent right hand.

“Your name truly fits you, God’s servant,” he said, caressing Osma’s breast and tracing a circle around her nipple.  “I have to say no.  They are too strong to resist with arms.  Our Swords are brave and skillful, but outnumbered.  No, our resistance that I plan will be different.  It will be monumental in its boldness.  It will be a rising up of the Anointed People, an astounding testament of belief that will eclipse anything the world has yet seen.”

No, Iam realized it wasn’t the artificial cold that sent shivers through her, that paralyzed her chest and held her breath fast in her, that dropped a veil of red terror over her eyes; it was a prophecy delivered centuries ago, a fantasy to some, but scripture, law, destiny to Pater; it was the calling up.

Osma put words to it.  “Pater, are we rapturing out?”

My God, thought Iam, an exit represented on the Black Night headbands, the people of the One with angel wings flapping them upon Pater’s command for the Home Chant and ascending in redemption red squadrons to the heavens where they would enjoy unfathomable rewards to the envy of the world-bound.

Pater laughed.  “We’ll talk of coming events another time in a meeting of the full Council.  Tonight, I’ve begun preparing for my departure.”

“Departure?” Osma pried.  “Where are you going?  For how long?”

“You’re filled with wonder, my faithful servant?  You know better than all what’s happening in Los Angeles, how our enemies, the newspapers, the television reporters, the Federal authorities, and who knows who else, are working overtime to trump up offenses they can use against me.  The true word, the acceptance of it, our growth, it is driving them insane.  They are resorting to desperate measures.  I don’t want to frighten either of you, but you should know … oh, how I wanted to avoid revealing this to you on such a special night … but you must know … my assassination may be imminent.”

Osma, startled, said, “No, it can’t true.” 

For the first time in a long while, a real prayer wriggled up from Iam’s girlhood; she prayed it was true, that this time, not like the dozens of other claimed attempts, this time it would come to pass.

“Sadly, it is.  Armand himself alerted me.  You know our Sword commander has informants in the LAPD.  He informed me last week, and we’ve been formulating plans since.  Not religious, governance, or business plans, or you would have been involved.  You both are my most valued advisers on those matters.  No, these are … let’s call them logistical plans.  Soon, you’ll hear the details.  I’ll say only that Armand believes if I disappear for a while our enemies might shelve their plans.  Others have disappeared and returned the stronger for it.  Look no further than Jesus Himself.  Off to the desert, tested by Satan, returned a man with a focused purpose.”

Iam saw Osma melt against Pater, relief washing the concern from her face.  “The house.  I am so happy you received the inspiration to buy it.”

Pater occasionally left the Los Angeles Temple for short retreats.  Several years earlier, when Iam was new to the Council, she accompanied Pater and Osma to the Baja with the mission of locating a suitable site for his retreats.  They settled on a small house in Ensenada with a view of the ocean and La Presa and bought it immediately with cash Osma carried in her purse.  The swiftness of the purchase and the pile of bills surprised her, but as she involved herself more deeply in Church business, she saw the practice was typical; the Church paid cash for nearly everything, and Osma served as the banker.  That trip was the first and last time Iam saw the house, though Osma mentioned in passing over the years several trips she took there with him.

“Yes.  So, you see, there’s nothing to worry yourselves about tonight.  Tonight we celebrate.  Tonight I will reveal to you joyous news.  Tonight you will believe the promise that Universal One will go on regardless of our enemies’ intentions.  Destroying Universal One is an impossibility.  Our Church is a continuum, my lovely servant and warrior.  It stands on a foundation of everlasting life, my everlasting life, past, present, and future.  You know by your faith that I have lived in the past and will live in the future.  And, as with everything, you will assist me.  You will be instrumental in my perpetuation.  You will be my instruments, the primary receptacles of my Resurrection Vessels.”

Resurrection was nothing new to Osma and Iam.  Christ resurrected.  People of all sorts believed in their personal resurrection and elevation to life everlasting; it was an impeachable tenet of most religions.  Pater, however, over the years, added a new dimension to the concept by blending it with reincarnation.  When he spoke of resurrection, specifically his personal perpetuity, he meant by way of reincarnation into another temporal life in the whole form of himself, incarnated after resting and renewing in his Father’s house.  Pater’s continuum would go on until he accomplished his Father’s mission of returning all the people of the world, who had been led astray by the sin of Adam and Eve and the incessant evil of the devil, to Him. 

Osma and Iam naturally assumed Pater would die and return as a newborn somewhere on earth.  He would then start again to wage his father’s earthly battle of universal unity and salvation.  But exchanging glances, Osma’s eyes communicated to her that Vessels was a codicil she alone comprehended.  Osma beat Iam in asking the question they shared.

“Pater,” asked Iam, “what do you mean by Vessels?”

“God’s servant and my little warrior, I’ve have preached on my origins.  I am from my Father.  What do you suppose I mean by that?”

“God gave you life,” Iam said, instantly, like the brightest girl in class impressing the teacher.

“God gave you life, and you, too, Osma,” he said, squeezing both their breasts, eliciting murmurs from them.  “God gave life to everyone one of the Anointed surrounding us in our great monument to His goodness, and to all the good and bad—innocent and pure from God’s fingertip, let us not forget, and bad through their own devices and their willingness to accept the devil as their Baal—to all the world’s inhabitants.  No, God did more for your Pater.”

He fell silent, seemly lost in another reverie, or off on another flight. 

Iam closed her eyes, let escape a murmur of satisfaction as they burned pleasantly against her lids.  But Osma, herself dreamy, though not with sleep but with the pleasure of the wine and the man to whom Iam knew she was devoted, asked, “Pater, what blessing did God bestow upon you?”

Revived, he said, “Well, in the beginning, the first incarnation was familiar.  Like my brother, God placed the seed of me into a specially selected woman, the Prime Receptacle.  She possessed the faith and love in God to understand her good fortune and mission.  She nurtured me until I matured and took up the work of my Father, the very work that has engaged me for thousands of years.  It is a difficult undertaking, my two faithful believers.  People prefer to be consumed by their own petty lives than by the life God has waiting for them.  Many times, innumerable times, I have perished, always by the efforts of men who cannot tolerate God’s good word, God’s power, who abhor the very thought of a kingdom opposing their own.”

He trembled and sweated and gripped Osma and Iam hard, until their pained cries calmed him.

“Please,” he said.

Osma handed him his goblet of wine.  He drank it off in a long, loud gulp.  “Blood of the Father give me strength.”  Osma took the goblet.  “Thank you,” he said.  “You have always known what I need.  I am grateful for you, God’s servant.  Come here.  Let’s settle down.  I promise to be a good Pater.  Okay, there, where … It infuriates me.  Several times I’ve come close to fulfilling the mission God blessed me with only to be foiled by agents of the Great Nemesis.  If it were not for unbelievers like that vindictive worm Harlan Johnson.  He has been my crucifier.”

“I’m sorry, Pater,” Osma said.  “We’re sorry.  We tried.”

“Yes, don’t worry yourselves.  Don’t let it spoil our evening.  You’ve turned away many of our enemies.  Even the best earthly creatures can’t bat a thousand.  Ted Williams couldn’t.  No, Johnson is a worm and a cockroach, slippery and filthy, and it’s near impossible to kill either of them.  At least, thanks to your efforts, his discomfort supplied your Pater with a delectable consolation.”  His eyes blanked and he laughed softly, and this vision both could see; that of letters streaming to Mrs. Johnson, and, the consequence, Harlan Johnson miserable in the efficiency until he’d convinced his wife they were a cruel ruse.  “Well, your solace is the jealous trait of women.  I’m sure she’s watching him like a hawk.”  He chuckled.  “My Father has always blessed me with wives who understand I am for all the people.  Fidella is yet another.  Praise you, Father.”

“We are grateful to the Father for you, Pater,” they chanted, Iam rote to Osma’s fervency.

“Please, kiss your Pater.”  Together, they arched up and kissed his cheek.

“Such delightful innocents,” he chuckled, hugging them.

“The Vessels,” Iam said.  “You were explaining them.”

“The Vessels will be from you, Osma and Marcella.  You are my primary receptacles.  I will plant in you the seeds of my next life.  Once the seeds germinate in you, you will carry and give birth to them as males, and they will be my Vessels.  Residing in my Father’s house, I will oversee the maturation of these Vessels.  When the time is propitious, I will select the best one among them.  I will descend from my home, forfeit the love and hospitality of my Father, and enter the fray for God’s souls once again.”

“But,” Iam asked, “what will become of the child?”

“Marcella, for a warrior, you process such a tender heart.  I know it is your gender.  The Father designed you to care and nurture.  It is a glorious design and like most of His gifts the enemies shit on it.  It is simple and necessary:  I will subsume the Vessel and it will be me.  To the amazement of all the world, the boy will be a whole man in a child, and they will refuse to believe it; they will not comprehend such a thing could happen, not in the modern world of logic and science; they will be no different than the temple doctors who marveled at my brother.  What a glorious event, remember?  ‘And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.’  What a scamp, sneaking off from his parents and setting up shop in the temple with the learned doctors.  He was a daring fellow, for sure.  Smart, too.  ‘And all that heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.'”

“What of the child?” Iam asked, catching the spark of love in Osma’s eyes, but wondering if maybe she was wrong about her; that maybe she, in addition, believed, or wanted to believe so hard, to fortify and justify her love.

“He will go.  Science is correct about that, at least.  You can’t have two bodies occupying the same space simultaneously.  Science understands the simple things, but not the complex.”

“He will die?”

“Marcella, what is with you?  Mortal life ends for everybody, and then we all are raised up and born into a heavenly life.  We, the true believers, never die; we live forever and ever.  He will return to his heavenly home and live for eternity.  And he, and she who carried him and prepared him for me, will enjoy a special place in Heaven, close to my Father and to me, when I return.”

“What a glorious reward,” Osma said.

“You see, Marcella, Osma understands.  The spirit possessed her.  In Heaven, we’ll be a big, happy family.”

Osma stirred and laughed softly and pushed against Pater as if she wanted to jump inside him.

Iam said, “Yes, it is a glorious reward.”

“That is our purpose tonight.  You will deliver Vessels, and yours will be the cream.  The Father has imbued me with special strength and vigor; He has multiplied the seeds in me; and as His good farmer, I have begun sowing them tonight.  I will continue His work steadily for several weeks.  At the end of that time, we will test all the receptacles and determine which ground has proved most fertile.  After, secure in the certainty of continuity, we will deliver our powerful message of faith and promise to all the world.”

Pater directed them.  Osma first, always the right hand first.  A rest.  Libation.  Iam second, treated more brutally, as a warrior wishes and deserves.  As he mounted behind her and Osma knelt in front of her, she saw the excited eyes of Nessa and Lotta and others like them, and she wanted to cry, and she did when he yanked her hair in his passion and thrust her into Osma.

Afterwards, Pater fell asleep.  Osma and Iam took turns showering.  Iam could not clean herself no matter how vigorously she scrubbed and left only when Osma urged her, “Hurry, will you.  It’s almost morning.  We can sleep while he sleeps.  Hurry up.”

On their way out, Osma said, “Wait.  Let me show you something.”

She pulled a box from under Pater’s bed, beckoned Iam to her knees, and opened it.  She gazed on bright packages of pregnancy testing kits. 

“When any of us begin to feel the Vessel inside us, we are to come to Pater for one of these.  I intend to be first, Marcella.  I love you, but I will be first.”

Iam hugged Osma.  “I pray you are,” she said.


“What we need,” Cornelius O’Connor intoned, rocking to and fro on his giant Chesterfield throne, a man who by his expansiveness, Billy judged, knew his corn, and consumed plenty of it.  “Give it a second crack at us, and maybe it’ll do real damage.  Give me a chance to collect on those premiums.” 

Corny—he’d obliged Billy to address him as Corny after several Mr. O’Connor’s—laughed and the power of it animated his legs and his feet, and a wayward foot encased in a wingtip thrashed the desk, and he laughed harder at how the wham of the strike punctuated his good nature.  He’d explained, “The Kernel hates it, the belly laughing and the banging.  That’s K-e-r-n-e-l.  Her name’s Katherine, the wife, but she’s been the Kernel since we got into the corn storage and transport business.  Corny and the Kernel.  Doesn’t care for the Kernel, but tolerates it.  ‘You look like you have ants in your pants.’  I look around for the ants and smash ’em.  She shakes her head.  Yeah, I’m incorrigible, but I’m lovable, and a simple Hoosier.”  Billy liked him.

“Okay, kidding,” Corny said, retracting his feeble insurance joke.  “No, I feel pretty fortunate.  Lose a little patch of roof over the office; a big puddle, it’s nothing.  I’ve seen plenty worse.  You, too, I bet.”

“Yes,” Billy said, “worse is my business.”

“Looks like rain this time.  Just a good old summer downpour.  Haven’t got far to go, I hope?”

“No, a few visits left.  I’m a little early.”

“CK efficiency for you.  Me and the Kernel run a tight ship.  Well, you’re welcome to hole up here.  No sense sitting in your car when you’ve got all the comforts of home right here at CK.”

Billy was about to thank Corny and beg off, when the newspaper headline intruded.  “I think I’ll take you up on your offer, Corny.”

“Sure.  We’ve got coffee in the break room, and the Kernel baked a basket of corn muffins, it being Saturday, and we’re here.  Makes it feel like the house, sort of.”

“I appreciate it.  Is it possible to set me up at a desk with an internet connection?”

“No problem.  Use mine.  Get right around here,” he said, standing and proffering the throne.  “You know our secrets, anyway.”  He laughed and the chair swiveled under his grip.

“I don’t want to inconvenience you.”

“Not a bit inconvenient.  You’d be saving my life.  I need a break, and the Kernel’d swat me for my inhospitality if she didn’t see you in my chair.”

Billy sat and the chair engulfed him.

“Comfy, yes?  Give me a minute to get your coffee and muffin.”

Waiting for Corny, Billy swung to the window.  Sheeting rain had transformed the late, sunny afternoon into an undulating gray mass of buildings and cars and flaring lights.  There was little wind, for which Billy was grateful.  It was nothing that would hold him up.  He figured he’d easily arrive home by midnight.  He decided to put off phoning Iam, though.  No sense disappointing her if the situation changed.

“Here you go.  Homemade muffin from Indiana corn, and a mug of coffee.”

Billy smiled.

“My idea,” Corny said of the mug that featured a green husk handle and a wrap around Mack sporting the CK logo, two corn cobs in overalls and gingham Billy assumed represented Corny and the Kernel.  “Watch the corn, though.  You’re not careful it could get you in the eye.  Say goodbye on your way out.  I’ll be in the Kernel’s boudoir.  That’d be accounting, so don’t worry about interrupting anything.”  He left with his hands shoved in his pockets, laughing.

Billy sipped the coffee, sampled the muffin, savored its grainy sweetness, and devoured half of it immediately, going to the Los Angeles Times as he did.  The “Feed the World” mass execution story was too old to show up in his site search.

He switched to Goggle and the search yielded thousands of citations for “Feed the World,” Universal One, mass killings, pornography, and a couple for Jim Smith Miller, including a write-up on Wikipedia.  He clicked Wiki. 

In an instant, Jim Smith Miller, the Pater, captured Billy with piercing blue eyes, eyes that seemed possessed of hands; eyes that lurked and stalked from under a canopy of jet-black hair, a thick, perfectly combed confection that shined as if caramelized and over which hovered, to Billy’s eye, a twinkling star, the reflected light of the camera’s flash.  He tried several times to scroll down the page but discovered he could not break away from the eyes, from the taffy face, from the beckoning expression that promised solace, purpose, and happiness.  He muttered, “Father Jim,” and admitted that, yes, it fit. 

His coffee had cooled and the remnants of his muffin had lost its moisture when he finally scrolled past the headshot.  He saw the photo from the newspaper not far below it, and beyond several more photos; of the Los Angles Temple marked with banner signage; of Jim Smith Miller as a baby, a doughy schoolboy, a slim college graduate; of Pater Miller preaching from a raised pulpit under his topping of styled hair, in a white robe, arms reaching for the congregation as if in the next moment he had leapt into their midst and embraced the invisible masses; of Pater Miller under a roughhewed “Feed the World” sign, pointing up and back to the squat compound in the distance, radiating joy and excitement; of Pater Miller on the makeshift stage of picnic tables, on a lawn chair, holding forth, bitter-faced; of Pater Miller in his tipped lawn chair, eyes wide open and blank, his hair melting into a pool of crimson.

Billy jumped to the top of the article and started down again, this time running his eyes over the words, absorbing them without thinking about them, storing them for retrieval, for analysis, for interpretation later. 

At the end, Billy scanned the citations and noticed a documentary about Universal One and the massacre.  He clicked and landed on YouTube.  Someone had uploaded the complete documentary titled “Harvest of Death” in ten parts.  He consulted his watch and it said he couldn’t spare an hour and half to watch.  He skipped the first several parts.  He clicked the ninth.  It recorded the last days in the compound and incorporated home footage shot by a member.  It showed Pater Miller on his stage in various acts of exhorting the members, chanting with them, slumping in his lawn chair and cradling his head, receiving consultation from a young, slight woman.  He focused on the woman and, though the film was jittery, grainy, and blurred, he breathed a sigh of relief. 

His index finger was about to close the site, when he decided another minute wouldn’t make him any later.  He opened the fifth part for no other reason than it was the middle.  It covered the years when Pater Miller earned the accolades of community leaders and politicians for Universal One’s work among poor African-Americans and Latinos.  Included were food distribution and drug rehab programs, and political organization on behalf of the disenfranchised.  It seemed every important city and state politician of the period had curried the favor of Pater Miller.  Billy pulled the slide button through the segment without pause, until a third from the conclusion.  Pater Miller spoke from a podium on a real stage.  Behind him sat a line of people.  Many were older men and women who Billy assumed were politicians and officials.  But together toward the end, almost cut from the frame, sat two women.  Both were young, girls he thought, thin, gangly, like high schoolers.  One looked like the girl in the ninth part, perhaps Osma, whom he remembered from the newspaper, Emily Jennings, Pater Miller’s executioner.  The other was familiar but she was indistinct.  He crept the button forward, hoping the poster included the end of the presentation, when everybody usually glad-hands with the speaker.  And there it was, brief, a blink before the dignitaries engulfed him, of Pater Miller handing his notes to the Jennings girl and she, in turn, passing them to the other girl, who clasped a satchel to her chest.  For some reason, the person filming attached importance to the papers and focused in for a close up, along the way gliding over the face of the bag girl.  The frame Billy froze was badly tiled, but he could see he was looking into the determined child-like face of his wife.

“Whoa, sorry.  I didn’t know you were still here.  Hey, what’s wrong?  Bad news?  Or you poked your eye with the corn handle.  I warned you.”

“No, I’m fine,” Billy said, closing the site and the browser.  “Tired, I guess.  Ready to go home.”

“Pretty ugly out there.”

Billy stood and turned to the window.  A brisk, erratic wind had kicked up and blew the teeming rain in cascading sheets and the flood in the streets into angry waves that washed over the curbs like ocean water over sea breaks.

“A Hampton’s two blocks from here.  Might be a good idea.”

“Thanks, Corny.  But, you know, the worst.  I’ve got to leave.”

Twenty leaping steps to the car and Billy climbed in drenched, and the moment he’d squeegeed his face with his hand the storm retreated to a drizzle.  He started the car, switched on the wipers, observed as they cleared the windshield with syncopated steadiness, and allowed the thought that he would not have to clean away insects to seep into and occupy every corner of his mind, to the exclusion of everything, until he couldn’t retain the image any longer, and Mrs. Billy Brick filled every space, every iteration of her:  the happy child, the raped girl, the waitress, the stranded waif, the young bride, the pregnant wife, the mother, the lover.  He believed he possessed a complete map of Iam, through time, her form and flesh, her heart and mind.  More, he believed they were one, just as the priest had said when they married, two into one.  That was his desire, to be one with her, to be merged into her, to be absorbed by her, and she by him.  When they made love, still, he pushed tightly against her, pressed his full weight onto to her, thrust as deeply as he could, never deeply enough, though, with the idea that it was insufficient to be on her; that he needed, obsessed to be in her from head to toe to such a degree an observer would not distinguish two bodies on the bed, that it was a new breed of human, the fulfillment of two into one.  And while he understood it was impossible, he believed he and Iam had come as close as any two could; until Dominic showed him the box; until YouTube showed him he might not know her; that he might be married to a counterfeit.

How he arrived at his appointment, he could not say.  Thankfully, he found minor damage, and the same was true of his last appointment.  The activity of nosing around, however, tapping the stylus on the tablet, chatting with the claimants, devoured time but also preoccupied his mind, holding in abeyance the disturbance throbbing for release, quelling the mad restlessness in his legs to dash to the car, tromp the gas pedal, and race home like a reckless maniac.

He finished and left in the gloaming, under a light mist, with the idea that there must be an explanation, with the hope that maybe he’d been wrong, with the counteracting, poisoning despair that, no, he’d been right; that the home in New York, the family, the rape, Johnnieee in New York City, none was real; that he wasn’t close to uniting with her; that he was, in fact, a million miles from her; or, worse, that he was nearly one with an alien.

And when he demanded himself to stop it, stop dwelling, give her a chance to explain herself, he discovered himself slamming down the pedal and rushing up to Sullivan County like a besieged lunatic. 

It was the returned rain, huge, thick, impenetrable washes of it, like an tsunami falling on him; it was the wild wind buffeting the windshield and forcing the car to claw a path forward through the sea, next pounding the car sideways toward the shoulder in an effort to shove it into the culvert, then cutting underneath the car, lifting it up until Billy couldn’t steer; it was his fear that forced him to break, pull over, and succumb.

Words, images, and speculation sprang to life in him, and as he sifted and studied and weighed what he’d read and seen, the question he strained to answer; that, in spite of his effort, went unanswered was:  how were Iam and Jim Smith Miller, the Pater, connected?

In the rivulets of rainwater, he recounted the sketch of the Pater’s life, his church, and the destruction he’d wrought.  He was born in Las Vegas as the modern Vegas itself was birthing.  Mom was at turns nurse, showgirl, nurse again, an early feminist who didn’t take kindly to the yoke of domesticity; she was constantly busy, but not with Little Jim.  Dad was a mediocre mechanic, next a mediocre blackjack dealer, finally nothing when he mistakenly flattered himself a very slick operator.  Little Jim grew up in a neighbor’s house, and the neighbor was a Pentecostal, who went by the name of Sister Jubilee.  He was a precocious child.  He read at four.  He spoke in fluid syntax at six.  He thought big, and what obsessed him was, “What’s it all about?”  Sister Jubilee and her Pentecostal partners inculcated their beliefs and practices into him, and for the rest of his days, his life was about getting to another place, the better place, even if that place was null.

However, the trip wasn’t easy, for life was nothing less than an epic war fought on temporal and spiritual planes, and these membranes of existence continually crashed into each other.  Jim’s enemies were anybody or anything that stoked his feelings of insecurity, assaulted his need for love and unity, and fanned his pernicious paranoia. 

Among Sister Jubilee’s enthusiastic worshipers, he ascended to stardom at ten.  He’d read the Bible thrice over by that age and committed whole swaths of it to memory.  He didn’t comprehend most of it, but he could regurgitate it with a vivacity, often in a frenzy, the Pentecostals fed upon.  That his father was a murdered no account; that his mother nurtured, generally, by showing up in time to tuck him in; it mattered not, for he had a family, and they believed he piped the way to their salvation. 

Life twisted brutally for Little Jim when his mother forswore her showgirl career and resumed nursing and fulltime feminism.  She wasn’t a secularist, but neither was she religiously flamboyant.  She was a plain, middling Catholic, and the displays of zealotry, glossolalia, dancing, discernment, and healing, of which Little Jim proved an integral part and polished practitioner, offended her.  More, that he expressed his desire to don ministerial robes frightened her straight into action.  She severed his connection with Sister Jubilee, cut back her activities at work, toned down her feminist endeavors, and became his mother.  The first months were difficult, akin for Little Jim to drug withdrawal.  He pleaded; she denied him; he writhed; she swabbed his brow; he ran away; she found him; he feigned illness; he nursed him; he threatened suicide; she hid the cutlery.  He conceded.  Over the years what neither conceived possible came to pass:  they grew devoted to each other, and forever after Pater Miller required women surrounding him to care for him, to protect him, to heal him, to satisfy him, and, as his mother came to, to deify him. 

As a boy, Jim excelled in school.  He earned a scholarship and attended the University of Nevada/Las Vegas.  He studied business and graduated with honors.  He launched a sales career and succeeded in providing well for his mother and the young woman he’d courted and married in college, Carol Simmons.

Carol was the bookend of Jim’s mother, a woman who desired independence but who bowed to his needs; who gained satisfaction from helping people and graduated a nurse; and who, the daughter of a Methodist minister, practiced religion reservedly.  It wasn’t Catholicism, but neither was it Pentecostal theater, so when Jim began spending Sundays with Carol at her father’s church, and ate Sunday supper in Carol’s home, and genuflected to the Reverend Simmons’s theological tutelage, learning from the elder the meaning and the nuances contained in the Bible, his mother didn’t object.

Seminal experiences may retreat into abeyance, but hardly ever do they vanish, and Jim’s simmered for years and boiled over and scorched him with vengeance.  He went to bed a super salesman in a large track house in Vegas; he awoke the reincarnated child of God—in Universal One creed, The Awakening—armed with a stewed theology to which he would add ingredients that appealed to him or advanced his mission, for as the Awakened One everything was a mission to him.  In a chaotic week, he sold his house, gathered up his wife and goods, and drove to Los Angeles in a U-Haul—another Universal One landmark, The Hegira—fleeing the new Sodom, migrating to where the poor and downtrodden, he believed, awaited a savior from out of the desert who would build them an empire on earth and raise up a golden ladder to Heaven.

He rented a storefront in Hollywood, painted “The New Church of the Fundamental Truth” on the window, swung open the door, and nobody walked through it.  He placed a sign in the window advertising “Free Breakfast,” and handfuls entered, half listened, and left after eating.  More failures followed, three months of them; none dampened his spirit.  He used his time wisely to refine the theology, which he thought of as his unique selling proposition, of his new church.  He attended services in churches throughout Los Angeles, participating in those that encouraged congregants to express their love of Jesus.  His childhood skills returned to him and he preached and discerned and healed like no one the storefronts and local Pentecostals had seen in their lifetimes. 

He gained a reputation that drew people to his storefront to hear the word directly from the man who called himself Pater.  They flocked to witness miracles, and he provided them aplenty with refined, stealthy legerdemain worthy of his home town:  deformed limbs straightened and jigged upon, cancers expunged and exhibited in glass jars, mental demons expelled and equanimity restored, secrets exposed and hearts reconciled, not to mention discernments—exposing what a person carried in his pocket, what she kept in her medicine chest, what he hid in the bottom of his dresser draw—that convinced many Pater possessed ESP, second sight, and, maybe, x-ray vision; or that, as he claimed, he truly was touched by the hand of God.  Los Angeles hadn’t seen such a gifted, controversial preacher and healer since Aimee Semple McPherson had captivated the town and erected the Angelus Temple.  Even the Temple recognized him and invited him to preach on several occasions.

Pater started as a Pentecostal boy; he succeeded as a salesman; and he merged the two to create a sizzle believers and those who needed dearly to believe could not resist.  As he worked at attracting attention and membership to his church, he evolved a theology and ritual he layered onto traditional Christianity.  He fed it to the expanding congregation after the show.  “Oh, we’ve sizzled today.  Oh, we’ve been on fire, brothers and sisters.  Oh, yes, the Lord is with us today,” he preached.  “And now it’s time to sit at His table and eat the steak of unity.” 

His theology was simple and appealing and he preached it with palpable conviction.  “Our purpose is to unite as one, to work as one, to care and provide for each other, to do nothing to harm another consciously or unconsciously, to put into daily practice the espoused values of the great religions ignored by those religions and the masses.  Moreover, our purpose is to carry the joyful, saving message of unity to everyone, to bring all the deserving into the fold of Universal Unity.”

He re-christened his church The Church of the Universal One.  He enhanced the value of membership with a claim of exclusivity.  Certain, special people, possessed of qualities discernable to him through a clear vision placed in his heart and mind by God, could be members and no one else.  He called members the Anointed People.  Upon acceptance into Universal One, in the initiation ritual of Personal Hegira, new members received a membership card and a new name.  Members renounced their former lives.  They accepted Pater as their direct link to God and salvation.  They swore allegiance and obedience to the higher power of Pater and God.  They bound themselves to the laws of the Church, though Pater assured them that these laws were patterned on the best practices of civilization throughout history, of the United States, of the best socialist ideal, in particular egalitarianism and communalism.  And, as the symbol of their new life and a manifestation of the Church’s theology of equality, members cast off their birth names in favor of new Latin names.  In Universal One, there were no whites or blacks; no Americans, Mexicans, Africans, Canadians, Germans, Poles, or Asians; no Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindi; no northerners, southerners, or westerners; there were only the Anointed People, everyone equal in the eyes of the Church, and in the eyes of God’s Chosen Delegate on earth, the Pater.  The purpose of life was salvation.  The promise was the Anointed People would be saved and raised up to Heaven when the end came.  And the end was coming sooner than anybody imagined, and all save his special flock would be caught unaware and sinful, and the punishment for ignorance and self-indulgence would be damnation.

Under the storm, darkness had fallen quickly.  Billy peered through the windshield into a blackness so dense he couldn’t see the rain, only heard it drum on the car.  He squeezed his watch light on and saw he’d been parked for an hour.  He slammed the steering wheel.  He started the car, toggled on the lights, the brights, and shifted to drive.  He eased onto the road.  He accelerated to thirty, held his speed for a couple of minutes, and when his nerves couldn’t suffer it any longer, he moved cautiously to the shoulder.  He didn’t want to wait, but he had no choice.  He hadn’t called her from CK, and now he realized he should have.  He reached for his cell phone and fingered in the number.  He listened as the house phone rang six times and shunted him to voicemail.  Iam, Dominic, and Dominica, in a singsong chorus, informed him they were busy and would return his call if he left a message.  He didn’t, and he couldn’t say why he didn’t.

He stared at the windshield, at the sheets of rain spotlighted in the headlights, and thought about flooding.  The big storm and tornado earlier in the week and this drenching.  He’d be back in Knox County, Monday probably, handling flood claims.

He didn’t get it.  There was the lying.  Why she was compelled to lie to him, he couldn’t understand.  Maybe the way they met, the ordained collision of like spirits, too perfect to allow corrosive facts to rot the serendipitous union.  Sure, she was afraid of what he would think of her.  A cult member.  A person of weak mind susceptible to patent absurdities.  A man who claimed to be a step below God, perhaps God himself; a divine who possessed the secret to eternal life.  She may have been right; he couldn’t grasp it.  How could she not have seen through this Pater, not recognized him for what he was:  a charlatan?  Worse, he was a psychopath.  Anybody who would commit murder was sick, the worst kind of sinner, who would take God’s gift of life and throw it away.  This Pater went to the extreme; he took one hundred forty-four lives, maybe more, with him. 

It wasn’t as if his intensions were a secret.  The article, what did it say?  Pater demanded blind alligeance.  He built a closed society, where members worshiped and socialized with each other to the exclusion of relatives and friends, unless these people also were accepted into the Church, which, along with statewide and cross-country missions, was a common Church recruitment technique.  Egalitarianism; that translated into giving your money and possessions to the Church, signing over your welfare and Social Security payments.  It was the most severe form of tithing Billy, who rankled at the Catholic Church’s ceaseless drumbeat for money, ever heard of.  In exchange, the Church promised to care for you, for your physical and spiritual life, forever.  And what about the form of that care?  Ultimately, it meant hard labor on an ill run farm near a place called Raisin City, followed by death.  No murder; it was murder, calculated and horrendous.  And premeditated, too, of that there was no doubt.  From the beginning, this Pater was working toward his own version of Armageddon, of Revelation come to life, of prophetic fulfillment.

What a stigma being a former cult member.  What are you, a lemming?  Maybe her first impulse about him had been right.  He wouldn’t have understood.  Falling into a cult was illogical.  A sane, rational, intelligent person, meaning himself, would never, not in a million years, fall for the distorted, demented rap of a guy like Jim Smith Miller, a fellow who had the audacity to call himself Pater, who resorted to voodoo, black magic, circus to win over the weak minded.  Maybe she had been right to lie; otherwise, he might have dismissed her as one of the imbeciles.

The rain was unending, violent, and a conspiracy, something orchestrated from the grave by Pater Miller to keep Billy in his place, to deprive Billy of the smallest distraction, to concentrate Billy’s attention on … on the social practices of Universal One.  Billy recognized his nomenclature as pure euphemism, unadulterated avoidance, purposeful evasion; no, he couldn’t stall forever and, the conspirator realized it, as if the conspirator lived at the very moment, as if the conspirator’s wacky proclamation of physical rebirth might have substance, as if the conspirator prowled in the backseat.  Billy turned hesitantly, just to confirm the idea was crazy, relieved nonetheless to see nothing, expelling the breath he’s held, for who could be absolutely certain, because there were articles of faith in his own religion, a real, two-thousand-year-old bedrock of … not certainty … of faith, but better stuff then the conspirator’s, tried and true stuff accepted by millions and millions.  And the conspirator, the bastard, the Pater, he won.  Billy could resist no more.  He focused on what the Pater wanted him to focus on:  sex.

Iam had been raped.  She had lived with a man she didn’t much care for.  None of her past, the past he knew of, bothered him.  He loved her from the moment he rescued her on County Road 25.  But this new past, if it were true, he wasn’t sure.  It was different in a way he couldn’t quite define at that moment in the car with the discovery of her secret past life a fresh wound in his mind. 

“It’s not the sex,” he said, as if he’d been wrong, as if the conspirator was indeed in the backseat, in his vestment, with his hair glistening, with his eyes bright like blue stars, illuminating the dilemma in a ghastly light.  “It’s not even your perversion of sex,” he said, and regretted it, for the images of it unreeled on the windshield, of partners trouping in and out of Pater’s quarters, of Iam on the production line, young women shuttling along on a conveyor, dropping onto Pater’s bed, hopping off and going around again.  “It’s not, you bastard, no matter what you want me to think.”  The rain, Billy saw, was abating, but not the noise.  It was a different noise, though.  It was a laugh.  Not the robust, honest Hoosier laugh of a Corny or himself; it was a snickering laugh, a snide laugh, an accusing laugh.

And there it was, what the conspirator wanted him to confront the entire time.  Billy shook his head.  He saw the box.  He saw the girl that was his wife on the stage, accepting the words of the Pater for safekeeping in a satchel she clutched to her chest, to her heart.  He envisioned her in Pater’s bed, Pater on her, like himself, pushing hard, deep, in an effort to absorb her into him, to make her part of him and him of her.  Two into one.  And the plaguing question, the tormenting idea, what the conspirator wished him to contemplate was:  had Pater succeeded where he had failed?  Had Iam loved the charlatan?  And did he still possess her?  Did she love him to this day, right now, in their home in Sullivan, on County Road 25?  Would she forsake him, and Dominic and Dominica—those Latin names, so different, so cute, she said, so like daggers in his heart now—if Pater came back?  That Pater couldn’t; that no mortal man could rise from his grave; Billy knew this.  But what if you never laid a person to rest?  What if eternal life was nothing more than memory and history?  What if … if she had loved Pater, and still loved him? 

Billy sat frozen.  The rain had slowed to a drizzle.  He could easily drive home.  Yet, he couldn’t take his hands off the steering wheel.  He gripped it with such force his arms ached in protest, screamed for relief as he pulled the wheel toward himself and pushed it away, as if he were a man possessed, as if a ghost had insinuated himself into him and permeated his mind with thoughts of deception and hate and betrayal.

Suddenly, she broke through the miasma to purify his mind, broke through with love and need, with the words she’d uttered on the phone, with her call for help, as good as crying, “Billy help me.  Billy save me.  Billy, I love you only and you love me.”

“No, Willy,” she’d said, “we’re fine.  It’s just we miss you.  I miss you.”  Nothing was fine, and we miss you, yes; but we need you; we need you to save us.  That’s what she meant by Willy.

“I’m coming,” he muttered, throwing the car into drive, tromping on the gas pedal, and racing to her like a maniac.


“Will you look at it, Father?” said Mrs. Diddleman, steadying herself with the handle of the upright vacuum, surrogate for her trusty three-footed cane. 

Mrs. Diddleman rolled with a pronounced limp, the result of a car accident caused by a drunken driver.  Her husband had been the drunk, and her injured hip had scared him into sobriety.  Mrs. Diddleman confided to Father Chapas, when she first volunteered as the rectory’s cleaning lady, that she thanked God every day for the accident.  Without it, she figured her poor husband, a loyal mate, a good provider, and a model father to their three daughters, all grown and happily married with children of their own, would be dead today, if not for God’s merciful intervention.  Father Chapas had mused aloud whether God would inject Himself into a person’s life in such a violent and debilitating manner to effect good; to which she retorted unhesitatingly, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”  Yes, Father Chapas had agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment.  The Lord, among His many qualities, absolutely was cryptic.

“The Lord is showing His wrath today.  Pity the poor devil on the getting end,” she said, crossing her self three times, kissing her fist, clenched as if on a rosary, after each signing.

On any other day, Father Chapas might mumble vaguely, allowing Mrs. Diddleman to draw her own conclusion about what he thought.  Today, he had reason to agree with her, as he was intimate with the poor devil in question.  Unlike Mrs. Diddleman, however, the storm did not rivet his attention.  Father Chapas had eyes only for the patch of carpet to the left of Mrs. Diddleman and her vacuum.  Even in the muted yellow lamplight, the irregular circle appeared pronounced to him, as if scorched by a blowtorch.  Upon his return, he had intended to take another swipe at it, to rub away any vestige of his … he saw the word, a terrible word he could not bear to acknowledge.  Less than priestly behavior, he thought instead, even though at the behest of the Lord.  The reminder remained because upon his return there had been Mrs. Diddleman sheltering on the stoop under the small overhang, her legs and half her skirt soaked, teetering on her cane, imploring him with a gesticulating arm to hurry, let her in, to save her from the savage storm.

“Well, we can’t be worrying over the poor devil.  That’s the Lord’s concern, and we got our jobs to do.  Me, the cleaning, and you the writing,” she said, nodding at the paper Father Chapas held.

“Would you like to switch today, Mrs. Diddleman?”

“Go on, Father.  I can’t write a note to my daughters.  I can talk okay on the phone, but no writing for me.  When I get to purgatory, they’ll have a little table there for me and a stack of papers and pencils, and they’ll tell me to write about all my sinful ways.  ‘You can’t budge, Annie Diddleman, without a couple of pages of words on those papers.’  ‘I’ll be here for a thousand years,’ I’ll say.  ‘There’s no lack of time here, Mrs. Diddleman.’  I’ll say, ‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’  Nope, I’ll stick to the vacuuming and leave the writing and homilizing to you, Father.”

“You’re sure?”

“I can take a hint, Father.  Stop yakking, Mrs. Diddleman, and get the job done, I’ve got work to do.  I’ll just get the carpet here and be out of your hair, Father.  Five minutes,” she said, switching on the vacuum, hobbling back, setting her heels on the scorched carpet, and staggering forward and around the prie dieu.

She stopped at the front of the kneeler and stared down at the spot.  She scuffed it with her shoe. 

“Father, what have you been up to?” she said.  “You’ve been a naughty boy, I can see.”

Father Chapas loosened his hold what he had of his Sunday homily, the two taunting words, “Knox County,”; the meager start “…was a blessing.  We can’t always understand the mystery that is our God.  We do know God is good and he desires only good for us.  Embedded, then, even in the worse events, is God’s goodness.  We search for it.  We faithful find it.  From this week’s tragedy emerged …”   The battered sheet slipped from his hand.  It seesawed to the floor.  His impulse was to drop to his knees and implore her forgiveness, to beg her not to think any less of him, for he was a man, just a man, and Mrs. Brick, Mrs. Brick, Oh, Mrs. Diddleman, ella es hermosa.  Está más allá de lo hermoso.  Su alma, Mrs. Diddleman, es pura.  Pero yo, Mrs. Diddleman, tengo el alma de un pecador.

“My daughters looked sheepish, like you Father, when they were bad girls.  They could never hide anything from me.  Can’t now, either.”

“No, Mrs. Diddleman,” he mumbled.  “No.”

“You were sneaking a coffee while you were praying.  Am I right, Father?”

“Mrs. Diddleman,” he said, bending, as if supplicating himself, and rising dizzily with the shred of a homily

“God don’t mind, Father.  He knows you’re a good man.  Taking a little coffee while you praise Him, He won’t mind.  I’ll clean it up later, after I get the bedrooms and the kitchen.  Two minutes, Father, and you can get to your writing.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Diddleman, thank you,” he said, collapsing onto his desk chair.

He took a pen from the cup.  He squared the paper on the desk.  He centered himself in front of it.  He poised the pen over the paper.  He listened to the whir of the vacuum.  He noted the rise and fall of the motor and pictured Mrs. Diddleman’s location in the room, and calculated her progress.  He studied the pattern of lines on the paper, traced with his eyes the looping, graceful at the top, rough at the bottom.  He studied the creases cut into the paper as if they were abstract art.  He felt the weight of the pen in his hand.  Then he simply stared and everything but the air before him became background, until the Mrs. Diddleman silenced the vacuum.

“I’ll be leaving you to write in peace, Father.”

He thanked Mrs. Diddleman and reversed the paper.  He set the tip of the pen upon it with a blank mind.  The pen moved and composed in perfect orphanage ascents and descents and lines and loops and spaces, and he marveled at the script. 

“Dear God,” wrote the pen, “is it true?  You don’t mind.  You know I am a good man.  I am devoted to You.  I have given my life to You.  I love You.  I can love no other as I love You.  God, my love for You consumes me.  It lives in every cell of my body and most strongly in my heart.  My heart is Yours, Your Son’s, Your Spirit of wisdom’s.  I cannot express my love because You have not blessed me with the power to put it down on paper or to speak it in the eloquent words it deserves.  I can only communicate it to You in my deeds.  I offer up to You, Dear God, all I do as honor to You.

“Yet, Dear God, I have betrayed my love for You and the gift of Your love for me most grievously.  To think the deed is to sear my heart with unbearable pain.  But I must think of it to confess it to You.  I must think it.  I must.”

For these moments, Father Chapas sat in a meditative fortress in which existed only the pen, the paper, and the words forming on it.  When the lightning flashed, the heat of it incinerated the walls to dust, and the thunder shook the rectory, and the shock shot through the legs of his chair and lifted him straight up.

“Father,” cried Mrs. Diddleman, her voice ahead of her lopsided charge into the room.  “Father, did you see it?”

“I felt it, Mrs. Diddleman.”

“I was minding my own business, wiping the sink in the bathroom, Father, wiping, and looking out the window at the storm, and thanking the good Lord for the sanctuary of the rectory, when … when BOOM, it blew up and burned.  It burned, Father, burned like Moses’s bush.  Brighter than the Sun.”

“What burned, Mrs. Diddleman?”

“The tree, Father, the tree in the parking lot.  Come, see for yourself,” she said, hopping past the prie dieu and planting herself on the sorrowful blemish.

He paused at the sight, her heels like daggers in his heart.

“Come on, Father, while it’s burning.”

He came up beside her and joined her in gazing at the copse of evergreens, beautiful, tall trees he regularly thanked God for from his kneeler and admired each time he left and returned to the church and rectory.  The last flames were dying on the center tree on the lot side.

“Burned to a cinder, Father.”

“Yes, but thankfully, the good Lord spared the others.”

“Thanks be, Father.”

“Well,” he said, stepping around the prie dieu. 

“It’s a sign, Father.”

“A sign, Mrs. Diddleman?” he said, dragging a finger along the kneeler’s leather bolster, hoping to gain from it the strength of his innumerable prayers, but instead cringing from the prick of his sin, and the pain of his doubt.

“He’s sending a message, Father.”

“Yes, we shouldn’t—”

“No, I mean a real one, like he wants somebody to listen.”


“A sinner passing by?  I’m not God, Father, so I guess I can’t say.  But I hope whoever saw it, for all our sakes.  Won’t want to lose another tree, would we, Father?”

“No, Mrs. Diddleman, you are correct.”

“Back to work,” she said, hobbling toward the bedrooms.

Father Chapas lingered a moment.  He stared at the skeletal tree and touched his hand to his chest.  He pulled it away and examined it.  It appeared unnaturally blanched, as if diseased.  He looked back to the tree and touched his chest again.  His hand appeared restored when he brought it to his eyes to study it once more.  The passage in Exodus about the staff of Moses sprang to his mind, stiff one moment, transformed into a serpent the next, and back into something useful. 

He sat at his desk and took his pen in hand.  It was an ordinary pen, an inexpensive office supply pen, a black stick, like a miniature staff.  He felt called to scrutinize it, and as he did the color bleached from it and it was white, and soft, and alive in his hand.  Startled, he dropped it on the desk.  It slithered like a worm onto the paper so much a trial to him.  It curled into itself and seemed to sleep for a moment, and then transformed into a moth; a creature ravenous from its brief gestation, it commenced to nibble the edges of the paper.  He crossed himself, kissed his fist three times, all the while rummaging Psalms for the precise passage, muttering it imperfectly upon locating it, “You correct me for iniquity.  You make her beauty melt away like a moth.”  The moth transfigured under the dominion of his prayer and morphed into a majestically iridescent black and gold butterfly that fluttered back and forth to his amazement.  It alighted on the simple stick pen and disappeared into it.  Again he took the pen into his hand and said, “Mi cayado, la herramienta de mi expiación.  Gracias, Señor.”

“Dear God, what I feel for You is sacred love.  It is like gold, bright and precious, of the highest value, and forever and ever.  My feeling for Mrs. Brick is … I can hardly think it, let alone write it, Dear Lord.  I confess it is lust.  Lust is a sin, and I have sinned.  And from lust springs more sin, and the actuation of sinful thought.  I confess I masturbated to the vision of Mrs. Brick.  I masturbated to a graven image.  I put another before You, my one and only and true divine love.  I compounded my sin, dear Father, not by will, no never by will, but by misunderstanding You, or by the deception of the Evil One.  I went to Mrs. Brick like a love-struck schoolboy.  You presented me with an opportunity to prove my love for You, and I made an offering to Mrs. Brick.  When she refused me, I fled.  I deceived myself into believing I was doing Your work.

“Sin builds on sin until we are not even aware we are sinning.  I am guilty of sin upon sin.  In my weakness and my loneliness and, I confess, my misbegotten sense of forsakenness, I allowed the serpent to seduce me.  Mrs. Brick is a good and kind woman, and the serpent used her to separate me from Your divine love. 

“Father, like the sisters are, so I am wedded to You in spiritual bonding.  I have betrayed my vows and pledge and love for You, and Yours for me.  I beg Your absolution, Father.  I believe in faith Your heart is big and loving and forgiving, and You have and will absolve my most grievous sin.” 

Father Chapas leaned back in his chair and saw he had covered half the sheet with his plea for expiation of his sin.  He glanced over at the prie dieu.  He stood, walked to the kneeler, and lowered himself onto it.  He crossed himself.  He began the “Our Father,” looking through the window, past the steely dense storm, to the wounded copse, to the Trinity facing the church, to the center where the Creator sat, at the hurt hulk, the victim of his sinfulness.  He stared until he completed his prayer.  Next, he began the “Hail Mary,” and he cast his eyes down to the scorched blotch on the carpet.  He blinked his eyes in amazement and a mystical ecstasy sprouted to life in his heart, spreading, suffusing and overwhelming him with joy; and it was all he could do to still his hands, to prevent them from flying skyward in praise, to finish his prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the great interceder.  The mark of his sin had faded.  It was a sign.  His Father, his Maker, his true Love and Lover, forgave him his most lamentable transgression, for spilling what was rightfully His for a graven idol in the fleshy, transient form of Mrs. Billy Brick, and for the corruption of His mission for him. 

But what of Mrs. Billy Brick?  How could another creation of good, so beautiful, so kindly, so obviously pure of heart turn him from his true love and compel him to sin in a most dreadful way?  How, unless …

Possessed of a possible answer, Father Chapas looked up into the gray wall of the storm, through the flash of pure white lightning, to the copse, to the middle tree in cinders.  “Es la Trinidad,” he said, “y se quema mi Creador y amante.”  His heart thumped, thickness welled in his chest and neck robbing him of breath, and tears streamed down his cheeks.  “Dios me está diciendo como ganarme su perdón.  Alabado sea Dios,” he whispered, with the deepest conviction and gratitude.

He rose from his prie dieu and stumbled to his desk, inebriated and soaring on love and forgiveness and a personal quest communicated to him by God in fire, true this time, he true to it this time.  He took up his staff and wrote to his God.

“Father, I have received your message.  I thank and praise You for absolving my misunderstanding, my transgression, and my betrayal of our mutual love.  I renew my commitment to You and vow never to stray, to recognize the work and agents of Lucifer, to allow them to deceive me never again, and to strike them down with the power of our loving bond. 

“I know that Mrs. Billy Brick is a good and kind creature of Yours who loves You with an intensity that matches mine.  She would not sin of her own volition.  She could never willingly be an agent of the Great Nemesis.  I know, through Your graces, Father, that the devil or a cohort of his under his command has possessed her.  God, Father, Forgiver, I will exorcise the foul creature in Your name, for Your glory, and at Your command.  I will free Mrs. Billy Brick.”

“Father,” Mrs. Diddleman said, “I don’t mean to disturb you, you being deep in thought on the homily, but I’m leaving.  The mister’s here and I’m going.”

Her words grew like the tempo of a symphony, and he turned and jumped from his chair.

“Why, Father!”

“Just happy, Mrs. Diddleman.  Just relieved and very, very happy.”

She saw the sheet of paper behind him covered top to bottom with a fine scrawl.

“You wrote your homily, Father.  It’s a miracle, Father, in all this racket.”

“It is as you said, Mrs. Diddleman.  It is God sending a message.”

“That’s the Lord for you.”

“It certainly is.”

Over the thunder and the steady beat of the rain, a car horn reached them and yanked Mrs. Diddleman into the storm, leaving Father Chapas to turn his promise into action.


“Mommy, is time yet?” called Dominic.

Iam blinked.  My God, is it his child?

“Is it, Mommy?  I’m hungry,” chimed Dominica.

Another.  Two for him?

Wake up, dear.  These are our children, our babies by your marvelous and kind husband, Billy Brick.  Rise and shine; everybody is hungry for our delicious meatloaf.  They’ve been little darlings waiting and watching their film.  But you know children.  Wake up, dear.

Iam, distant, hearing and speaking through a tunnel of time intermittently electrified by white light and deafened by a thunderous turbine answered, “In a little while.”

“We’re hungry now, Mommy,” whined Dominic.

She blinked.  “I’ll bring you a snack.  Give me a moment.”

She opened her eyes wide as another flash of light transformed the kitchen into a black and white landscape of towering cabinets filled with furniture suitable for giants.

“What?” she muttered, stirring, discovering herself curled like an animal on the floor hard against the slider, asking herself:  why?  Answering:  to escape the cat’s eyes. 

She looked up into the dim afterglow, at the pointed tip of the ticking cat’s tail.  She rolled up tighter.

Sometimes you can be the silliest little goosy girl.  It’s a clock, nothing more than a silly clock.  Remember, Billy bought it for you on your honeymoon.  I love a man who’s thoughtful.  I adored him the moment he found us.  What a gallant fellow, rescuing us from our unpleasant predicament. 

“The children,” Iam said, “the children are Billy’s?”

Of course, dear, who else?  My great goodness, you don’t mean to say you?  But you do, don’t you?  Oh my dear, what claptrap.  You were having a bad episode, nothing more.  The beast is haunting you.  My, yes, you would be right to flog me, dear.  Yes, you should, and I would welcome it, too.  It was terrible of me to have remained in the background and allowed you to be seduced by … that animal.  I really do hate to speak ill of anyone, but I will make an exception in its case.  Lunatic.  Why, that beast is an insult to lunatics I’ve known.  Most have been rather charming people, not bombastic demigods like that tin messiah.

“But the clock, it wants to—I sound stupid, I know—it wants to control me, force me to remember things, force me do things.”

It’s nothing more than a harmless blue cat clock.  Cute, you called it once.  Perhaps it is a smidge gauche, but Billy’s heart was in the right place; he does have a big heart, doesn’t he?  Please, dear, ignore the cat.  It will no more hurt you than I will.

“I’m afraid, Aunt Margie, I’m afraid.”

Dear, how insensitive of me.  Naturally you are frightened, just like when you were a little girl and you cozied with me in my bed when the storms came.

“I loved your bed, Aunt Margie.”

Well, thank you, dear.  I loved having you in it, and I will welcome you again.  But now is not the time.  We must be a mother now.  We have to feed and comfort two famished birdies.

“But the clock?  I can’t.”

You most assuredly can, dear.  Do what I do when something troubles me.

“I will, Aunt Margie.  I will fall asleep and when I wake the storm will be gone and Billy will be home and everything will be beautiful again.”

No, dear, sleep is quite inappropriate at the moment.  Later you will have oodles of time to rest and dream, to watch the world, and even make up your own wonderful version, just like I did for years.  But now we have to care for our kittens and guard against that abominable creature.  When I suggested you do as I do, I meant you should ignore the clock.  Simply turn your back on it and act as if it doesn’t exist.  And before you know it, it won’t.  How do you suppose I survived growing up and existing with your mother?  Such an insufferable busybody, ever so jealous of me, you know, and hideously, despicably malicious.  There’s a word for her kind, but it is too un-Mamie-like.  No, I can’t utter it, dear.  But, oh, I am steamed.  Oh, I could blow my lid.

“You were the beautiful one, Aunt Margie, inside and out.”

Thank you, dear.  How kind and considerate you are.  You do know how to appeal to my vanity.  I could hug you.  But, enough dillydallying.  Let’s attend to business.  Stand up.  Ignore the clock.  Busy yourself with the well being of our babies.

Iam pushed herself onto her knees, and hoisted herself into a tottering stand.  She steadied herself, reached back, patted the wall, and switched on the light.  She walked to the counter, keeping the clock squarely behind her.

“What a mess.  Why didn’t I clean up earlier?” she mumbled.

Snack, dear.  Put everything in the sink and prepare the snack.

Iam stacked the dishes, glasses, and pitcher, sweetly rancid from the dregs of pink lemonade, in the sink as Aunt Margie directed.  After, she edged to the refrigerator backwards to ignore the clock behind her.  She reached back, opened the door, turned and bent low into the frig, shielding her sight with the door.  She removed a bag of cubed cheddar and milk.  She turned, she hipped the door shut and walked to the table.  Next, she backed to the cabinet, where she kept the dinnerware.  There, she turned quickly, tucking her head to her chest.  She opened the cabinet and selected dessert plates by touch.  She shifted to another cabinet, her head down, and removed two glasses.  She turned fast, ran to the table, and set everything on it.  With her head still tucked, she backed to the pantry near the slider.  With her back to it, she opened it and turned quickly, guarding against the clock with the pantry door, but too fearful to raise her head.  Fortunately, the crackers were at eye level.  At the table, she lifted her head.  Standing straight, with the clock behind her, she assembled the crackers and cheese on the plates, and poured milk into the glasses.

She studied the plates and glasses, puzzled as to how she might carry them without a tray.  She stored the trays in the cabinet over the stove.  She would have to reach for a tray.  The clock might catch the corner of her eye. 

She called, “Dominic and Dominica, snacks are ready.”

Excellent, dear.  Ignore what you don’t like and it won’t harm you.

The children dashed in for their snacks.  Iam cranked her face, eyes and mouth, into an exaggerated beaming smile that slowed the children to a wary creep.

“Mommy,” asked Dominica, looking from Iam to Dominic and back, “can we eat and watch TV?”

“Please?” added Dominic, verging on tremulous.  “There’s less thunder and lightning in the living room.”

With eyes shot red, skin sallow and glistening, lips pulled up and stretched painfully, baring her teeth to the gum line, Iam asked, “What are you watching?”

“‘Toy Story,'” said Dominic.

“It’s okay,” said Dominica.  “I like the toys.”

“Good, good, good,” Iam said.  “Very good.  Yes.  Take napkins with you.”

“Will you watch with us, Mommy?” asked Dominic, more worried formality than invitation.

“In a few minutes, after I clean up the kitchen.  We wouldn’t want Daddy coming home to a dirty kitchen, would we?”

The children treaded with deliberate care into the living room.  Iam shut her mouth and exercised her jaw to relieve the lingering tension of the artificial happy face. 

Roll your shoulders, dear.  I’ve found rolling my shoulders relieves the tension beautifully and helps me relax.  I practically purr.  Hmm, feel it?

Iam rolled her shoulders.  She began to twist her neck to the right to touch the tip of her shoulder with her chin.  She stopped.  The cat stalked her from behind, eager for her to slip up. 

What we need, dear, is a cup of hot tea.  A cup of hot tea is just the remedy for a stormy night teeming with demons.

“Demons?” muttered Iam.

The Tetly’s, dear.  You always buy the Tetly’s because you know it is my favorite.  You have always been a respectful and insightful girl.  Always.  Even when you were a tot, a little darling, no bigger than Dominica, you were kind and compassionate.  You loved your Aunt Margie, didn’t you?

“I love you still,” Iam said, again tucking her head snug against her chest, backing to the stove to fetch the small red kettle she kept on a rear gas burner.  She carried it to the sink.

You never have to say you love me, dear.  I am able to feel your love.  It envelops me.  It nurtures me.  It is a cocoon.

“Like a sack, like an embryonic sac.”  Iam swiveled the faucet away from the pitcher and closed her eyes and pinched closed her nostrils as she filled it.

Embryonic sac.  Yes, exactly, dear.  Why, it is as if you are blessing me with a new lease on life.


Iam snapped the lid on the kettle and backpedaled to the stove.  She felt behind herself for the small burner, set the kettle on it, and switched on the gas.  When she heard the burner pop and felt the warmth of the flame, she shuffled to the table and sat.

My, dear, I think reincarnation is too … too Eastern, that’s it.  The creature stuffed your head with that nonsense, I’m sure.  We’re Catholic.  We attend mass on Sundays, and the children are in religious education in the afternoon, and Dominic made his first communion last year, and what a handsome young man he was, though we should have dressed him in a white suit, not the brown you chose, but I understand tastes change.  All these years, why I believe I’ve been in Limbo.  The Lord placed me there because, you know, I went before I should have.  My place wasn’t prepared.  He put me in the family to help, and that mother of yours, from spite, would not permit me to help.  When I did manage to teach poor Sammy a lesson, why she made such a terrible stink.  Oh, it infuriates me even this very moment.  Oh, I am desperate for a cup of hot Tetly’s, dear, in my gorgeous rose Jasperware.  It was so, so precious to me, my cup and saucer, my lovely oval box.  I can’t express how joyful I am you saved them for me.

Iam stood, tucked, and backed to the stove.  She dropped her hand to the oven pull and grabbed one of the dishtowels she hung there for utility and decoration.  With the towel in hand, she lifted the kettle gingerly.  Before returning to the table, she snatched the other towel.  At the table, she used the towel as a trivet, setting the kettle on it.  She backed to the pantry and grumbled that she should keep important items like the Tetly’s on a lower shelve.  She reached up, strappado style, and picked the Tetly’s on the third try.  Her shoulders ached.  With her head tucked, she rolled them as she returned to the table.  She backed to another cabinet, groaned, again raised her arms in strappado fashion for a cup and saucer.  At the table, she dropped the Tetly’s teabag into the cup and poured in the hot water.

She sat and watched the tea steep in the midst of open cabinet doors, an open pantry, a blue flame sputtering on the stove, and a sink accumulating dirty dishes, and it was like home had been, in disarray, when her mother carried the child—girl or boy, Iam never knew—who died, and when little Sammy caused all the hubbub. 

She hated their house.  The yard was overgrown.  Two large evergreens, that had been there forever, were brown, half dead and shedding needles in great heaps.  They flanked the front and blocked all the windows; the front rooms were perpetually dark and gloomy.  The land in the back of the house dropped off sharply into a still creek cove dense with algae.  The miserable house was odd inside, too, not like other girls’ houses.  On the first floor was a kitchen and what her mother called the backroom.  Two small bedrooms and the sole bathroom were on the second floor.  The front room was her mother’s.  She, Ruth, and Sammy shared the other bedroom.  Up top was the attic room, where Aunt Margie stayed when she wasn’t away.  She, Ruth, and Sammy usually played in the backroom, but not that summer afternoon. 

Her mother reclined on the daybed.  Aunt Margie was with her, sitting on a kitchen chair she’d dragged into the backroom.  She sat erect and prim, with her back to Iam’s mother.

“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup,” Aunt Margie said, her voice loud, tense, her words clipped. 

Iam and Sammy played a board game, Chutes and Ladders, on the kitchen floor.  Ruth watched.  Iam allowed Ruth to move her piece.  They heard their mother and aunt clearly.

“You can’t see the heat’s killing me?”

“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”

“You’re driving me mad, you know that.  You want me up there with you, because that’s where I’ll be if you don’t stop it.”

“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”

“Who except a nut drinks hot tea on a hot day?”

“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”

“Jesus, you’ve got two good hands.  You know how to boil water.  Make it yourself.”

“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”

“Goddamn, Margie, can’t you see I’m pregnant here?  You think I’m having fun?”

“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”

“Look at me, will you?  Get off your ass and get your own tea.”

“I cannot and will not look at you.  Furthermore, I do not appreciate in the least your vulgarity.  Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”

“Fuck you, Margie.  What, I won’t do your bidding so you’re punishing me with your compulsive bullshit?  Fuck you again, Margie.”

“You realize you are in your condition because of your liberal exercise of that disgusting word, and, of course, because you are by nature an indiscreet person.  Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”

“Exactly what does that mean?”

“My statement requires no elaboration.  You understand my meaning perfectly.  Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”

Iam, Ruth, and Sammy had been listening to the escalating exchange since Aunt Margie had entered the room a half hour earlier to ask for a cup of hot Tetly’s and had been refused.  Angry after the third request, Aunt Margie turned her back on their mother.  Ten minutes later, Aunt Margie stalked into the kitchen for the chair.  Ten minutes after that, Iam put the kettle on the stove and retrieved Aunt Margie’s Jasperware cup and saucer from the her attic room.  When the tea had steeped to Aunt Margie’s preferred strength, Iam ventured into the backroom, to Sammy’s consternation at the interruption of the game he was winning. 

“I made your Tetly’s, Aunt Margie.”

“How many times have I told you to stay away from the stove?  You want to burn the place down?” her mother yelled.

Iam always thought the prospect vastly superior to having the house slowly collapse around them, and responded with her customary perfunctory smile.

“You are an angel, my dear.  Come here.  Come.”

Aunt Margie hugged her and kissed her forehead and pecked her red bud lips and stoked her silky hair.

“I am glad someone knows how to treat a guest, dear.”

“Margie, goddamn, you’re no guest.  You’re deadweight.  Nobody wants you; that’s why you’re here.  I’m the dumb shit; that’s why you’re here.”

“Dear, harken on the truth your mother speaks.  Now, help me return the chair to the kitchen, and sit with me while I take my tea.”

In the kitchen, Sammy complained, “But I’m winning.”  Ruth wailed over not being able to move pieces anymore.

Aunt Margie busied herself at the table adding a level teaspoon of sugar and a dollop of milk to her tea.  She ignored Sammy and Ruth.

“Iam,” he pleaded, fending off Ruth, who cried and tried to snatch the pieces.

“Stop fighting in there, you pests,” screamed their mother.  “I’m trying to rest.  Nobody gives a shit about me.”

“Children, pay no attention to that vulgar thing.  Sometimes, I admit, I’m ashamed she is my sister.  As for you and your game, Samuel, your sister and I will be twenty minutes.  Surely you can spare twenty measly minutes for your aunt.  Perhaps you and Ruth can occupy yourselves outside.  Play in the backyard, perhaps.”

Iam snickered at Sammy rolling down the embankment and crashing through the skim of algae, but frowned when she saw he would drag Ruth with him.

“I’m going upstairs,” he said, pouting and angry.  “Don’t touch anything.  I know where we are, so don’t even try to cheat.”  He tromped up the stairs to ensure they understood he wasn’t accepting his banishment with any degree of aplomb.

Ruth sat as if stunned for a moment.  Iam bounded from her chair.  She grabbed Ruth before she could scatter the game pieces to avoid having Sammy inflict his wrath upon them both.  She sat Ruth next to her on the chair.

“Boys can be such nuisances,” Aunt Margie said, sipping her tea.  “You make a very pleasant cup of tea, dear.”

“Thank you.  Boys are a pain,” Iam said.

“I’ve always found your assessment to be true.  And men, oh my gosh, dear, just beasts.”


“Well, there is an excellent question.  No one knows why.  Yes, it is a great mystery.  Solve it, my dear, and the world will be yours.”

“It will?”

“Absolutely.  All the women of the world will praise you, dear.  Yes, and there will be a day—what day is your favorite?”

Iam shrugged.

“How about one of my favorites.  How about November fourteenth?  Yes?  November fourteenth officially declared Maryam Beatrice Maria Cardinale Day.  Flows mellifluously, doesn’t it?”

“Me, too,” said Ruth.

“Hmm,” Aunt Margie said, “We’ll make June first Ruth Cardinale Day.”

“My day, Iam.”

“Good, and I’ve got my own day, too.  We’re lucky girls.”

“I get presents on my day?” Ruth asked.

Iam nudged her.  “Quiet.  It’s pretend.”

Aunt Margie smiled and sipped her tea. 

“But,” Iam asked, “why are they terrible?”

“Who, dear?”

“Men.  Why are they terrible?”

Aunt Margie knitted her brows, indicating she was plumbing the mystery. 

“Well, as I said, I can’t explain why, but I can tell you how.”


“Men like to control everything, dear.  They especially like to control us.”

“Like how?”

“Well, like Samuel, for instance.  He demanded you finish the game instead of enjoying a few moments with your aunt.”

“That wasn’t nice.”

“No, it wasn’t.  Then he became peevish and left in a huff.  Typical loutish male behavior.  They either leave and you’re distraught, or they stay and you’re miserable.  Better they leave, I think.”

“Like Daddy?”

“Precisely like your Daddy, and you know who else,” indicating the backroom with a nod of her head.  “It is gospel, you know, what is said about the cow.”

“What cow?” Iam asked.

“The cow that dispenses her milk free of charge.”

Iam shook her head.

“Quite elementary, dear.  If you give away the milk, why would anyone in his right mind pay for it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Neither do I.  Well, I must say, dear, as always, you have been simply delightful company.  You, as well, Ruth.  Such a charming little girl.  Now I think I will take a page from your mother’s book and have a short lie down.  Shall I send the little man down to you?”

“No.  Let me wash your cup and saucer.  I’ll bring it upstairs.  I’ll get Sammy when I’m done.”

“How considerate you are, dear.  Thank you.  On second thought, the tea has given me hot flashes.  I believe I will retire to the toilet first to refresh with a splash of cool water.”

After Aunt Margie left, Iam said to Ruth, “Go sit with Mommy.  I’ve got work to do.”


“No, Ruth, go to Mommy,” and she did.

Iam handled her aunt’s Jasperware with extreme care.  She set the cup and saucer on the sideboard.  On her tiptoes, she rinsed each in warm water.  She was drying the cup, when her mother dragged into the kitchen with Ruth in tow.

“I told you not to wait on her.  She expects it, and it’s your fault.”

Iam shrugged, as her mother got two glasses from the cabinet and thrust them at her.

“Cold as you can get it.”

“Brrr cold,” Ruth said.

Iam ran the water for a minute, filled the glasses, and passed them to her mother and Ruth.  Her mother gave the water a test sip.  Ruth imitated her, even her approving nod.

With a cup in one hand and a saucer in the other, Iam said, “I’m going upstairs.”

“Yeah, sure,” her mother said, trundling into the backroom, followed by Ruth.

Iam climbed the first flight of stairs, walked down the landing, past the bedroom hallway.  The bathroom was just before the stairs leading into the attic.  She heard Aunt Margie’s voice and paused.  It was soft and low, and melodic, as if she were singing to herself.  Iam pictured her aunt in front of the mirror combing and arranging her hair, doing it repeatedly, never quite satisfied with it until she’d fiddled it into several styles.  Those times her aunt invited her to watch, Iam sat in fascination, commenting, “I like it, Aunt Margie,” and “I love it, Aunt Margie,” endlessly.  “Do I look younger, dear?”  “You are young, Aunt Margie.”  “Is this too daring, dear?”  “It’s lovely, Aunt Margie.”  “Am I too frumpy like this, dear?”  “I don’t know what frumpy is, Aunt Margie.”  “Oh, never mind, I don’t care for it.”  Regardless of the many styles she tried, Aunt Margie always ended where she began, with her Mamie look.  “It is the best, dear.  It compliments me so, don’t you agree?”  “Yes, Aunt Margie.”  Iam liked it best when Aunt Margie styled her hair.  Her aunt combed it straight and said, “Oh, my dear, you are the exact replica of Louise Brooks.”  “Who?”  “The loveliest woman ever, I assure you.”  She curled it and said, “Bette Davis, dear.”  “Who?”  “The flip sets off your eyes.  Captivating big eyes.”  She turned up the ends and exclaimed, “Oh, exactly as I imagine Mamie looked as a child.”  “I like it the best,” Iam said, because Mamie was her aunt’s favorite and she always wanted to please her doting aunt.

The singing tempted Iam to knock, but she was on a mission, to deliver Aunt Margie’s Jasperware safely to her bedstead.  She climbed the attic stairs.  She placed the cup and saucer next to the oval box.  She sat on the edge of her aunt’s bed and admired the trio.  “They are more than useful things, dear, you know,” her aunt once explained.  “They are works of art.  See how delicate and precise they are.  See the figures, the people.  They are Greeks.  Ancient Greeks.  The ancient Greeks were tremendous artists, you know.  Oh, probably the greatest ever.  And the men, they were brave and the women exquisite.  And everybody was polite and gracious.  You can tell that from the relief, dear.  That’s what you call the white figures and the scrolling, reliefs.  Really, they are magnificent.  Sometimes I gaze at these and dream about what it would be like to be an ancient Greek.  I sometimes see myself as Penelope.  What a true and loyal woman she was, tricking those suitors, and she had many, many, some rough and some brash and some elegant, and all masterpieces, like Greek statues.  But her pure and true heart belonged to Odysseus alone.  Oh, for such a man,” she said, tracing her hand along the curve of her jaw, down her neck, into the cleavage of her breasts, cupping them until her eyes blinked and she muttered, “Excuse me, dear.  It simply sweeps me into another world.” 

Sometimes, when Aunt Margie was away, Iam perched on the bed and stared at the Jasperware and tried imagining life in ancient Greece.  She found fuel for her imagination in the library, where she read about ancient Greece and gazed at photographed sculptures of flawless men and women.  As she imagined being among them and one of them, she imitated her aunt, running her hand over her body; but, since she didn’t flush and squirm like her aunt, she assumed she performed the caressing improperly, and would have to study Aunt Margie more closely.

Curious about Aunt Margie in the bathroom, she hurried down the steps and stood before the door.  Aunt Margie was very efficient when attending to what she termed her bodily needs.  However, when putting on her face, as she called it, or styling her hair, Aunt Margie could spend an hour or more in the bathroom.  Often, in urgent need, Iam’s mother would pound the door and rant into the jamb, and receive back from Aunt Margie the promise of “Just another minute,” or the advisement that “Patience is a holy virtue,” or the piqued admonishment, “That’s no way to treat a guest,” or something similar guaranteed to stoke her mother into a blast furnace of molten rage. 

Iam placed her ear to the door to detect what occupied Aunt Margie.  She heard her aunt talking.  She couldn’t distinguish what she was staying, but the tone told her Aunt Margie was urging and coaxing and cajoling.  Finally, straining and pushing her ear to the wood, she heard, “Well, even someone such as yourself must see my method is much neater and more civilized than yours.”  She assumed her aunt was playing a game of pretend; she could be anywhere in the world or in time; the wondrous aspect of her aunt’s imaginings was they were boundless, and that they were so real to her aunt Iam herself could envision her aunt moving through them.

“Please, take this and try it,” said her aunt to someone who could be a lunch friend, or a gentlemen escort, or a famous person; her aunt conjured up so many dazzling people, events, and situations, being with her was better than television or the movies.

Desire to be with her aunt possessed Iam.  She ached to listen to her aunt and to imagine a role for herself in her aunt’s make-believe.

She stepped back and knocked lightly.  She heard a muffled cry, silence, and her aunt:  “Just another minute.”

“It’s me, Aunt Margie.”

“My dear, how lovely, and just in time to teach an oaf a lesson in proper hygiene.”

There followed a succession of sounds and movement.  Iam heard “No” shouted several times.  She heard scurrying and scuffling.  She heard her aunt exclaim, “Why, I never.  You are an ungrateful lout.”  She heard Sammy explode, “Fuck you,” as he yanked open the door and almost trampled Iam fleeing the bathroom.  He moved fast, but she was certain she detected tears streaking his cheeks and his hands busy zipping and buttoning his pants.  Aunt Margie followed, smoothing her hair and patting her cheeks, saying, “Excuse me, dear, but I’m a tiny bit flustered.” 

From below, came the her mother’s shriek and a string of obscenities, each punctuated with, “You sick bitch.”  Followed by Aunt Margie saying, “On second thought, dear, perhaps I should take refuge in here until the weather calms a bit.  Would you care to join me?”

Safely behind the bathroom door, Aunt Margie suggested Iam comb her hair.  Iam agree gladly.  Drawing aside the shower curtain, a jungle of bright but scary flowers of prehistoric dimensions, Iam climbed onto the rim of the tub. 

“Here, dear, my best comb.  Put a hand on my shoulder.  We wouldn’t want you toppling into the tub.  There’d be no end to your mother’s caterwauling if you did.  I don’t think I could bear anymore of her at the moment.”

Iam hadn’t stroked her aunt’s hair more than a dozen times before the door jumped and trembled under the pummeling it received from Iam’s mother.

Aunt Margie tittered.  “Dear, never let them tell you a pregnant woman cannot move quickly”—gesturing at the door—”a case in point.”

“I won’t,” Iam promised.

“Your mother has quite a mouth on her, dear.  I am not the least surprised she would allow a man to put her in the condition she finds herself in.  Such a lowlife.  No offense to you, dear, she might be your mother, but she’s my sister, too.  I share your burden.”

Suddenly, the torrent of abusive shouting stopped.

“Step down, dear.  Let’s have a look at your handiwork.”

Aunt Margie viewed herself in the medicine chest mirror, which she always derided as woefully inadequate for someone who had a modicum of interest in maintaining a stylish, not to mention merely presentable, appearance.

“Excellent work, my dear.  You’ve added a wonderful glow to it.  I’m very pleased.  Now, if I know that unpleasant mother of yours, and I do, I suggest you depart while the coast is clear.  You know how the situation can get out of hand with her.”

But before Iam could make her exit, her mother returned to the door for another round of screaming.  Sammy accompanied her and interjected with the refrain, “She was playing with my dick, Mommy.”  Ruth was present, too, wailing.

“I called them, Margie, you sick bitch.  Once you’re in this time, you’re in for good.  You hear me.  For good.”

“She was playing with my dick, Mommy.”

“Will you shut up, Sammy.  Just shut your fucking mouth.  You crossed the line, Margie.  You went way over the line this time.  Do you hear me?  Way over.”

“Mommy’s sending you away again, Aunt Margie?”

“Shhh, dear.  Let’s keep our voices low.  We don’t want to give her any more to complain about.”

“Okay, shhh,” Iam said, tapping her index finger against her lips.  “Shhh.”

“To answer your question, dear, apparently, yes.  It is so distressing, my lovely little girl, so terribly depressing.”

“I don’t want you to go away,” Iam said, embracing her aunt’s waist.  “Not forever.”

“Don’t fret, dear.  Contrary to what your mother may believe, I’ll be back.”

“You will?”

“Of course, dear, I always come back,” Aunt Margie said, grasping Iam’s arms and holding them away from herself, as if preparing to inspect her.  “Besides, haven’t I told you innumerable times how precious you are to me and how I will always, always be with you?”


“You believe me, don’t you?”

“Yes, with my whole heart.”

Aunt Margie hugged her, kissed the top of her head three times quickly, held her away again, and laughed loudly.

“Laugh all you want, Margie.  Laugh your crazy fucking head off.  But you’re going and you’re never coming back.”

“Remember,” Aunt Margie said, “I’ll always be with you”—touching Iam’s heart—”here, and”—touching Iam’s head—”here.”

“I feel you, Aunt Margie,” Iam said, following her aunt’s touch with her own.

“Well, all the commotion has flustered me, dear.  May I ask you to draw me a cool bath?”

Iam occupied herself with running the water, adjusting the hot and cold until she thought it sufficiently tepid.  As she allowed the tub to fill, she swung her head around.  Her aunt stood clutching her dress to her neck, obviously naked behind it.

“I don’t mean to shock her, dear, but a lady certainly cannot bathe in her clothing, now can she?”

Iam nodded tentatively in agreement.

“Mommy,” Sammy cried.

“You are wearing on my last nerve.  Do something.  Go find Iam, and take her and Ruth to your room.  Stay there.  I’ll tell you when you can come out.”


“What are you waiting for?  Get going.”

“Stand at the sink, dear, and observe the most darling little girl in the whole wide world.”

“I am?”

“Who else?  See for yourself, while I situate myself in the bathtub and draw the curtain.”

The door vibrated.  “Margie, what are you up to?  Do I hear water?  What, they’re coming for you and you’re taking a bath?  Goddamn, Margie, don’t you have an iota of sense?”

Iam, over the shouting of her mother, heard the steel curtain rings skitter, and her aunt say, “Lovely, dear.  Precisely the correct temperature.  Oh, my goodness, I can’t describe how soothing this is.  Thank you.  Thank.  Lovely, lovely …” until her voice faded to nothing.

Iam went to the curtain and whispered, “Aunt Margie, can you hear me?  Aunt Margie.”

“Margie, what the fuck are you up to in there?  Answer me.”

As she was about to slam the door again, Iam opened it.

“What?” her mother said.

“Mommy, I’m afraid.  Aunt Margie’s asleep in the tub.”

“What?  Jesus H. Christ.  Margie,” Iam’s mother shouted, charging past Iam into the bathroom.

Iam turned to see her mother rip aside the curtain, drop to her knees, hook her arms under Aunt Margie’s, and lift her.  Her mother held her aunt until two men and a woman arrived and placed her on a stretcher. 

At night, before falling asleep, she saw her aunt at the door of the room in her favorite pink dress, more vivid than if she were actually present.  “Good night, dear.  And, please, don’t blame Sammy.  I’m sure he didn’t mean for me to go away.”

Iam sat up in her bed and said, “Sammy, are you awake?”

“Leave me be.  I was sleeping.”

“Why’d you lie about Aunt Margie?”

“I didn’t lie.”

“You were mad because I didn’t play with you?”

“You’re nuts.  She played with my dick.”

“She would never play with your thing.  I know it.”

“Good as.”

“What do you mean, ‘Good as’?”

“Means she was holding it and wiping it with a tissue and saying it was the hy— hy—, the clean thing to do after pissing.”

“She was helping you, Sammy.”

“She wanted me to wipe my dick like a girl.”

“She was helping you, and you had her sent away.  I’ll never forgive you, Sammy.  Never.  You’re … you’re a beast.”

“Grrrr.  Who cares?  Go fuck a duck and let me sleep.”

Delightful, dear.  A good cup of hot Tetly’s always puts the world in a new and brighter perspective.  Don’t you agree?

“Why did you do it?”

Dear, we both know Sammy was a simply beastly boy.  Not to put too fine a point on the nastiness of his delinquent character, I’ll remind you of his demise.  And on the grave of a good, virtuous sister no less.  I mean, dear, Sammy epitomized bad male behavior.  I believe the better question is:  why did he do what he did to me?

“They took you away, and I was so afraid you wouldn’t come back.”

Fiddlesticks, dear.  You are such a silly goose girl.  I always come back.  I’ve promised many times I will never abandon  you.  I never have, not even after the truck.  I returned to you.  I’ve never left you.  True, for years I’ve maintained a low profile.  Best to give young birdies room to spread their wings, I always say.  Now I have returned.  You could argue I should have made my appearance sooner.  I could retort you didn’t summon me.  Well, fond wishes and sad regrets; no time for either.  I’m here now, here to help you, and isn’t that what counts?

“Yes.  But, Aunt Margie, I’ve had some bad times, if you haven’t noticed, and you were quiet.  Why now, when I’m happy?”

The box, dear.

“I have to clean up in here.  I can’t have Billy coming home to this.”

You have to attend to a more important task.

“Meatloaf.  I have to start the potatoes—”

It can wait, dear.  The children are content for the time being.

“The mess on the porch.  That’s it.”

Please, dear, you are avoiding the obvious.

“The box.”

Yes, dear, the box.  You must attend to the box immediately.  Otherwise, I’m afraid the situation will worsen.


Yes, dear, I fear Dominic will be in grave danger if we do not attend to the box this instant.

Iam jumped up. 


Iam charged into the living room.

Dominic took Dominica into his arms and sunk into the couch.  “Mommy, what’s wrong?” he cried.

“Nothing,” she answered, breaking stride, “stay there and watch your movie.”

Dominica burrowed her trembling self into him.  “What’s the matter, Dominic?”

“Sweethearts, everything is fine and dandy,” Iam cooed, standing in a jittery idle that conveyed the impression something was horribly wrong.  “I’m just trotting upstairs for a few minutes.  Watch your movie.  It looks delightful.”

“When’s dinner?” asked Dominica.

“In a little while, after I’m done upstairs.  Eat your scrumptious cheese and crackers.  Enjoy your movie.”

“We ate them,” said Dominic.

“I want more milk,” said Dominica.

“What a pair of fusspots.  Help yourselves, please.  I have to get upstairs, immediately,” she said, flying over the half bath debris to the stairs and bounding them two and three in a leap.  “Don’t mess up the kitchen,” she called back.  “We want it perfect for Daddy.”

On the second floor, she entered Dominic’s room and dashed to his closet.  She bent and picked up the box, and once in her hands the urgency of her undertaking subsided.  She staggered to Dominic’s bed under the weight of the box and dropped down on it.  She thrummed the top.  She understood removing the lid was a mistake; she understood removing it was imperative.  She would destroy the box and everything it contained, except for her keepsakes of Aunt Margie.  These she could not part with, never; her need to save them was an ardent compulsion.  No matter the danger the other items harbored, she had to save the remains of her aunt.

Concentrating on her task, visualizing each item in the box, the room and the storm vanished momentarily, returning with an explosion of lightning and thunder that rocked the house and shook the bed, startling her.  Her knees jerked reflexively in a violent spasm, launching the box into the air, disgorging everything as it arced its way to thumping upside down on the floor.

Iam whimpered, “Oh, no.” 

She scrambled off the bed in panic.  She retrieved Aunt Margie’s Jasperware, each piece of which seemed upon cursory examination to be intact.  For closer inspection, she gathered the cup, saucer, and oval box, and carried them to the lamp, where she studied each minutely.  Miraculous, for doubtless given their delicacy only divine intervention could account for the fact they suffered not a chip or even hairline fracture; they were as pristine as the day she’d taken them from Aunt Margie’s bedstead and hid them.

Determined to preserve them, she set the Jasperware on Dominic’s bed, at its foot.  She folded down the bedspread from the top twice.  She positioned the cup at the fold line.  Next she turned the spread twice more and placed the saucer in the same fashion.  She separated the lid and box and arranged them individually in folds of the bedspread, finishing with the collection well padded and safe. 

Lifting and cradling the bundle like a fragile child, she decided to store it temporarily on the top shelf of Dominic’s closet.  As she walked toward the closet, a lightning flash whitened the room.  Thunder followed, pulsating through the floor, causing her to falter.  She reconsidered the wisdom of putting the precious bundle where it might fall and test her packaging.  She pivoted.  She stared at the bed.  She went to it.  She knelt and slid the bundle underneath it.  Billy would say, “Even if the roof caves in, the bed will protect them.”  She smiled with relief that come what may Aunt Margie’s treasures would be secure.

She crawled to the strewn photos and envelopes and quickly sorted them.  She grabbed the box and discarded everything that wasn’t a picture of or an envelope from her aunt, tearing each before dropping it in the box, her mother and the hospital included, especially the hospital.  When she was done, there remained a stack of pink envelopes, one photo, and the newspaper clipping.  For a reason she couldn’t comprehend, she found herself reluctant to toss the clipping.  She sat on the floor, placing herself between it and her aunt’s things.  She picked up the photo and cupped it in her hands. 

It was her favorite snapped by Sammy at her First Communion.  There had been many photos; of her; of her mother in her atrocious pencil skirt; of Sammy and Ruth; of her aunt, mother, and her together.  It was the only one she spared. 

“Why, my good gosh, dear,” Aunt Margie said of her mother’s photo afterwards on her bed shuffling dozens of photos, “she appears on the prowl.  How absolutely inappropriate for a First Communion.”  Iam had saved the pencil skirt photo as a reminder of what she didn’t want to be, though she couldn’t stand the photo and the scenes it conjured; she hated her mother’s façade, a feeble construction of delight; a translucent mask of cheap makeup troweled over her true expression of contempt mixed with boredom; a woman self-absorbed, self-pitying, always at the tipping point of rage.  Before she’d consigned it and everything to the basement vault, it was like every time she looked at it; in it she saw what she didn’t want for herself; like every time, she rubbed at the face, pressed and scrubbed, though, from previous times, she could barely see it was her mother; she rubbed something that could be anybody, something that was a meaningless figure in a tight skirt.  At last, she was able to tear it into irretrievable shreds and intern it under garbage at the bottom of box; and still it haunted her; and, worse, now the erased face was as it had been the day Sammy took the picture.  “Damn you,” she muttered, when she realized she’d been gawking at the box.

“I know, I know,” she said, weeping at the photo of Aunt Margie in her beautiful pink dress decorated with pink ribbon curlicues, her hair styled in bunched curls that resembled furry ear muffs and stringy bangs, the perfect homage to her idol, “‘Ladies are not vulgar; they are refined.  And their language reflects their propriety.’  I know.” 

She swiped her streaked cheeks and glanced at the newspaper clipping.  Again, why it was on the floor and not in the box mystified her.  She carefully set Aunt Margie’s photo aside.  She grabbed the clipping, suppressed her reluctance, and rectified her oversight by balling it and slamming it into the box.  She returned her attention to her aunt’s photo.  Before she could pick it up, the clipping summoned her; the ball expanded and crinkled, swelled and crunched; compared to its cannonade, the thunder, an ominously quickening series of blasts, paled as mere pops.  She watched as the ball grew like a deadly yellowed tumor, until she couldn’t resist and plucked it from the trash with the intention of ripping it like she had her mother’s photo and everything else.  But in her hands it seemed to come alive and transmit a mandate to unravel it.  She succumbed and stared at the mangled recounting of the demise of Universal One, not seeing photos or words; seeing, instead, the faithful, the believers, her friends, the Anointed People, who were the betrayed and dead; and she suffered, again, the agony of survival.

Sometimes, driving from Los Angeles to “Feed the World” in a white Universal One van, she wished the Church owned a convertible.  It had been weeks since she last labored in the fields.  She was back working in the Worship Temple offices, spending most of her time in the War Room defending the Church against ever more frequent attacks from media enemies and other churches envious of losing members to Pater.  She thought:  they damned him “poacher”; the converts praised him “savior”; the Church sung in greeting “The one who conquerors.” 

A coterie of newspaper and broadcast reporters, spurred on by the villainous and indestructible Harlan Johnson, purported to show the Church was exploiting its members, deceiving them with frenzied healing charades, stealing from them by tithing their income at rates that would make credit card executives blush, outright stealing their savings and property, and, most recently, isolating them on a farm, reducing them to no more than indentured laborers. 

Pater, in his wisdom, enlisted a couple of trusted lawyers, men, though of a hardhearted profession, who believed in his powers and his divinity, and were Anointed People.  In their faithfulness, they successfully defended Pater and the Church against every crafty assault its enemies could mount. 

Pater also retained a public relations agency.  Those who worked for it were believers, but of a different sort, believers who worshiped at the altar of money.  Pater complained bitterly about them, denouncing them as bloodsucking leeches, as boils rotting the innocent flesh of the Church, as the very cancers he extracted from the bowels of converts.  Iam didn’t quite understand why he disliked people who obviously benefited the Church by portraying its good works in ways that not only defended it but attracted new members who believed in its social crusading and public works.  She expressed her bafflement to Osma early on, after she’s taken over as head of Countervailing.  “Notice when he is most angry with them,” she said.  “Usually the second week of each month, when their bill arrives.”  But he didn’t react similarly to the lawyers’ bills.  Osma laughed, “Because, Marcella, for one immersed in the countervailing efforts of the Church, you sometimes exhibit an astounding degree of naivety.  We have no legal bills.  They are believers and we are pro bono to them.”  Iam dismissed Osma’s tone as her natural cynicism, one hand washing the other; but she could sympathize, too.  Often, especially as she earned greater responsibilities and witnessed the inner workings of the Church, she had her doubts.  However, like Osma, she believed in Pater and the Church; she believed what the pro bono lawyers and the money grubbing public relations people said; she believed the dirty tricks she perpetrated on the Harlan Johnson’s of the world were the flaming sword of the true word wielded against ruthless enemies, the golden army of God against the black legions of Satan; she believed the end justified the means, the end was that worthy and good.

The current mission, though, didn’t involve the lawyers or the public relations firm.  It was too sensitive for them.  No, that was euphemistic.  They would never countenance Pater’s plans for inactivating the Church’s enemies. 

The hot wind blowing in the open windows transformed the van’s interior into a convection oven.  Iam alternated hands on the steering wheel, wiping them dry on her jeans. 

Maybe she was romanticizing the fields.  Maybe the warmth she remembered was more the heat between Fabian and her.  She’d suffered for her indiscretion.  It wasn’t the fire of Hell; it was the torture of being removed from God’s presence.  Some espoused true hell was never seeing God, an eternity of agonized thirst forever unquenched.  She conceded they might be right after Pater and the Church ostracized her.  For weeks following her release from Hell, Pater forbade her from being near him.  Those times when she was unavoidably in his presence, she was required to cast her eyes down.  She was a sinner and, therefore, unworthy to gaze upon the Delegate of God, a spawn of God incarnate.  The Anointed People shunned her.  They would not look at her.  Those closest to her would not acknowledge her when she tried speaking with them.  Osma was the cruelest, showing Iam her back and ritually spitting whenever each came near the other.  She slept on the ground behind the cabin.  She ate alone outside the pavilion.  She was forbidden the daily shower.  She was contaminated and a contaminant and treated as such.  After two weeks, a single thought preoccupied her:  winning back the love of Pater and the Anointed People.  When the day arrived, Pater summoned her to the pavilion.  Before the People, he asked whom she loved.  She declared swiftly, unequivocally, and repeatedly, “Pater, my savior.”  When she humbled herself sufficiently, Pater welcomed her return to the flock.  She supplicated herself prostrate in the soil of “Feed the World,” in the goodness of the Anointed People’s mission, and the assembled sung in praise of her and Pater, a hymn that rang in her head as she pulled onto the farm, “Glory to Pater.  Welcome to the cleansed.”

She slowed at the entrance gate.  The two Swords stationed there knew her; nonetheless, they scrutinized her as if she were a stranger; it was their duty and they were conditioned to it.  They waved her in.  She passed under the sign and pulled off the road into the area that served as the farm’s motor pool.  She parked next to the shed housing five of the Church’s excursion busses used to ferry members to the farm, a van bus for town trips, and another van identical to the one she drove for official business.  Combined with the half dozen busses, two van busses, and three vans garaged near the Los Angeles Temple, it was an impressive fleet and an all-cash investment in propagating the word nationwide on summer conversion crusades.

She climbed from the van and Maxima was beside her.  Maxima, and Fabrizio at the Temple, were the Church’s two master mechanics.  Pater had assigned them perfect names, for they truly worked miracles training reformed young men in a useful trade and maintaining the farm and city fleets. 

“Greetings, Marcella.  How was the ride?”


“Nothing compared to Hell,” he winked.

“No,” she said, reminded that transgressions were more easily forgiven than forgotten.

“Returning tonight?”

“I don’t know,” she said, but doubtful as meetings with Pater could run for several hours, often into the next day.

“I’ll have it checked, washed, and gassed for you tonight, in case you need it.”

“Thank you, Maxima.”

“My duty, and my pleasure,” he said.

She slung her satchel over her shoulder and trekked the quarter mile into the heart of the encampment.  She carried the result of a month’s work.  It represented hours of eye-searing computer research, dreadful garbage can searches, and boring surveillance on foot and in rented cars.  Uncovering compromising information was the purpose.  The objective was to render the foe Harlan Johnson inactive.  The folder in her satchel bulged with discarded writing, receipts, and photos, much already familiar, none of which that would please Pater; they could use none of it to discredit the man.  In addition, contained in its own folder, she carried a two-week surveillance report marked “SPA,” Subject Pattern Analysis.  Osma’d taught her how to prepare them before an inactivation mission.  She devised a dozen missions herself, after having executed two under Osma’s guidance.  One with Osma had involved tossing a sink bomb into the home of a television reporter when they were certain the house was empty.  The reporter had disparaged Pater in a report on voter registration.  Inactivation, she learned that night, was a Church word for physical intimidation, and worse.  She expressed distress afterwards, but Osma put the mission into perspective for her.  As distasteful as she might find the assignment, if she believed in Pater and the Church, the end justified the means.  Then, Iam was an avowed believer.

She approached Pater’s cabin with misgivings.  She’d participated in three Johnson inactivations since she and Osma composed the mistress letter in the War Room.  Johnson would not back off, even when through artful subterfuge they’d nearly gotten him fired from his newspaper.  In the face of their failures, she could only imagine what Pater might be devising, and it frightened her.  Having been away from him for several weeks, her devotional adore had cooled, had been corrupted some might say.  In his mail, phone calls, especially in couriered top-secret correspondence containing reports of almost daily Black Nights, he impressed her as irrational.  More disturbing, he seemed dangerously paranoid, obsessed with the notion Harlan Johnson had organized and spearheaded a vast national conspiracy aimed at defaming him and Universal One.  It encompassed the media, FBI, CIA, and betrayal by political friends scared by the reporter’s power to tarnish them.  Pater sent her and her countervailing team on numerous fruitless forays for proof of Johnson’s Machiavellian maneuvers and raged, fortunately from afar, when they produced nothing. 

She watched the door open, recalling the night not long after she first arrived at the farm, when she heard a noise in the night, the disquieting noise always in the back of her mind.  Osma embraced her and whispered in her ear, “Afterwards, I have a secret to share with you.”  She squeezed Iam and led her into Pater’s bedroom.

Pater reclined on the bed dressed but, unusual for him, sloppy.  His feet were bare, his slacks rumpled, and his shirt open.  Iam contained her shock well but Osma, holding her arm, sensed her muscle’s tense.  They shared a glance and Iam saw Osma’s eyes flare in warning. 

“Pater, look who has arrived.”

Pater raised his chin off his chest and squinted in their direction.  He lackadaisically waved for them to approach.

“Marcella, we have anticipated you and your news.  Come, give your Pater a kiss.”

Iam laid her satchel on the bed and sat beside him.  She leaned and pecked his cheek.  His skin was yellow.  He smelled sour.  She pulled away.  He patted her hand and then tugged it.  He motioned for Osma to join them.  He turned from one to the other and smiled. 

“My lovely trinity,” he slurred, his lids drooping over his eyes.

Osma nudged him.  “Pater, we have work.”

“Work?  Yes, work.  Osma, please, my medicine.”

Osma slipped off the bed and went into the bathroom.  He was quiet, nodding Iam thought, as if in a stupor. 

Osma returned with three ruby and clear capsules Iam recognized as Dexes.  She looked at Osma sharply, as Pater washed them down with wine from his crystal goblet. 

In a moment, his lids snapped up and his eyes brightened.  He pushed himself upright in the bed and said, “Let’s see the fruit of your labors, Marcella.” 

Iam stacked the contents of her satchel on the bed.

“An impressive lot of stuff.”

“Yes, Pater.  Sadly, as previously, none of it is worth anything to us.”

“Let me have them,” he said, snapping his fingers at her.  “The devil is a dirty and foul creature, Marcella.  Try as he might to hide his filthy intents and deeds, it is impossible.”

Iam and Osma watched apprehensively as he swiftly shuffled the papers.  “What, no bribes, no whores, no little boys, no debts, or bar bills, or sneaky travel?  What?”  He tossed the month of effort at the foot of the bed, where it scattered as flotsam on the bed and the floor.  “You’re telling me Harlan Johnson, the fucking devil, is really a goddamn saint?”

“Pater,” Iam said, “it is as always.  We looked everywhere—”

“Everywhere.  Nowhere.  If you looked everywhere, I would have the bastard by his balls, Marcella.  I’d be squeezing them as we speak and he’d be hollering like the demon he is, bellowing like a stuck pig.  I want to destroy him, and you bring me, what? nothing, paper that means shit.  I expected a sword.”

“I’m sorry, Pater.”

“Marcella, he is the head of the great red dragon, a giant hydra.  We cut off the heads and the dragon dies.  We’ll be free.  We’ll accomplish the task God has given us.  And all I get from you is useless paper.  It’s good for nothing, Marcella.”

As he ranted, his face, neck, and chest reddened.  Iam feared blood would gush from his ears and mouth any second. 

“I’m sorry, Pater,” she repeated, as Osma attempted comforting him, stroking his chest and kissing his cheek.  But he would not be comforted and knocked her away, nearly off the bed.

“It’s shit, Marcella.  Yes, for shit.  Osma, gather it up and take it to the toilets.  Let the people wipe their asses with the little warrior’s useless paper.”  When Osma hesitated, he commanded, “Do it.”

Osma scurried after the papers.

“See the result of your efforts, Marcella.  Your amita debases herself cleaning up your shit.”

“Pater, I have more.”

“More shit?  I don’t need more of your crap.  I’m … Osma’s crawling in it like a pig.”

Iam reached into her satchel.  She removed the folder and presented it to him.  “SPA,” she said. 

Pater leafed through it, muttering, “He hasn’t changed much,” and smiling.  She was afraid to say more, but when he finished he regarded her with urging eyes. 

“We can frighten him,” she offered.

“The devil frightens, Marcella.  He is not frightened.  We tried.  Stop it, Osma.  Fill my goblet and lie next to me.”

The room was silent as Osma obeyed and nestled next to him. 

He sipped his burgundy and eyed Marcella over the rim.

Weakly, she said, “We could burn his car.”

He smiled and sipped.

“We could firebomb his house,” she said.

He sipped again.  He hugged Osma and kissed her passionately.  He turned his gaze on Iam.


“Pater, I don’t know.”

“Apparently I gave you the wrong name.  Osma, what might we do with the information Marcella has provided?  How might we wield it against the general of the black legion?  How will the general’s army attack without the leader?”

“We return him to Hell,” Osma whispered.

“Louder, my overflowing vessel.  Our little warrior cannot hear you.  See how blank her face is.”

“Return him to Hell,” she shouted.

“Back to Hell with the fucking bastard.  Did you hear that, Marcella?”

“Yes, Pater.”

Muted sounds from outside—of voices moaning about aches and pains, exhaustion and hunger, the heat and thirst; of tools dragged; of motors puttering and surging; of children laughing and squealing—drifted into the bedroom and filled the silent void that seemed to Iam to last an eternity.

“Well?” Pater demanded.

“Well,” Iam mumbled.

“Well, she says.  Well, well, well, is this our head of Countervailing?  Is our trust and faith misplaced?  Do we have before us a weak soul?  Or do we look upon a soul in the full armor of God, ready to do her duty for her Maker, her Pater, and her Church?”

“We inactivate him.”

“How?  You’ve attempted inactivation many times, and you have failed miserably, Marcella.”

Iam screwed herself up.  Tears welled in her, begged for release; she repressed them. 

“We inactivate Harlan Johnson … permanently,” she said, with as much conviction as she could muster.

Pater sat bold up right, dropping Osma on the bed.  He jolted them with his cachinnating.

He raised his goblet.  “Brava, Marcella!  Brava!  You are truly worthy of your name.”

“Thank you, Pater.”

“The details, Marcella, let’s hear the details.  How will you achieve the permanent solution to that slime Johnson?”

“Pater …”

Osma thrust up beside Pater.  She wrapped an arm around him and played with his raven hair.  “Pater, perhaps the details are best left unsaid.”

“What?  I want to know how the asshole—”

“Pater, they may be listening.”

“Listening?  How?  We check for bugs twice a day.  We’re clean.”

Osma pointed at the ceiling.  “The sky, Pater.  They have airplanes with ears.”

“Shit,” he shouted.  Then he whispered, “Shit, Osma, do you think?”

“No, Pater.  And even if they did overhear us, you have said nothing incriminating.”

“Thank you, Osma, my filled receptacle, my life.  Thank you.”

“I think it is best if Marcella and I go outside.  Marcella, we’ll go to the motor pool shed.  It has a metal roof that will prevent their probing rays from reaching us.”

“Excellent, Osma.  Excellent.  Attend to it now.”

“You rest, Pater,” she said, lying him back. 

She went to the bathroom and returned with two red bullets. 

“You should rest, Pater.  Take your medicine.”

He accepted the pills and took them, emptying his goblet.

Osma and Marcella, standing side by side, waited a few moments in silence, waiting until he faded into sleep.

“Let’s walk, Marcella,” said Osma, finally, taking Marcella’s hand.  “He’ll be like that for a couple of hours.

Outside, Osma said, “First things first.  Do not undertake the Johnson mission by yourself.  Consult with Armand after we talk.  Plan something soon, Marcella.  You see how he is.  Once we’ve dispensed with the Johnson problem, I know Pater will rest easier.  Things will be like they used to be.”  She tightened her grip of Iam’s hand.  “I need them to be like they were, Marcella.”

Iam embraced her.  “I know.”

“Marcella, I’m fulfilled.”

“Are there others?” Iam asked.

“You mean those silly bitches?  Please.  Pater lost interest in them soon enough.  Even the young aren’t so fertile that a romp or two will do it.  And, you saw, Pater is not his old self.  I’m afraid his potency is somewhat diminished.  So, yes, I am the only one.”

“I’m happy for you, Osma.”

“Thank you, Marcella.  I take it you haven’t—”

“No, Osma, no.”

“Good.  I am the only one, for now and for always.  We are leaving soon for the house in Ensenada.  It will be a vacation, maybe a long one.  We’ll watch me grown big.  Do you want to know what it is?”

Iam nodded.

“It’s a boy, Marcella.  I went to the hospital for an ultrasound.  It’s a perfect boy.  A girl would have been a problem.  I worried about it.  A girl could not be chosen to carry on the mission, you know.”

“Osma, you don’t …”

“Do you believe, Marcella?”

“I do, Osma.”

“Then there is nothing to explain.  Be happy for me, for Pater, and for our Church.”

“I am.”


“Of joy, Osma.”

“Now go, and succeed.  You must.  You see how Johnson and his clan of hate mongers are destroying him.  If you fail, I don’t know what will become of us.  You won’t fail us, will you, Marcella?”

Iam answered by staring deep into Osma’s eyes, and left her.

She walked quickly to the motor pool.  There, as his duty and pleasure dictated, Maxima had the van ready.  Pulling around the busses to leave, she noticed a rifle leaning against the first bus.  Driving out the gate, she saw two Swords had increased to four and each was visibly armed.  As she sped pass the perimeter of the property bordering the road, she observed more Swords, each armed with rifles.  Rushing to Los Angeles in the hot night, she rolled up the van’s windows and still she shuddered with a dreadful chill.

She was in her room located in the dorm annexed to the Temple less than an hour, when Armand rapped on her door.  He said he’d received a phone call from the farm to see her about a situation.  Her body begged for sleep and here was Armand eager to launch an assault on the Johnson gang.  She asked him to meet her in the War Room at eight a.m., that by morning she would have devised a strategy. 

After he left, she dropped onto her bed.  She closed her eyes and began to drift.  In the twilight of sleep, she had visions of herself with Harlan Johnson on his knees to her, staring up at her with eyes that had been pleading and now were vacant glass, eyes flanking a perfectly formed red hole, on a face without a skull behind it.  In her hand was a revolver, a huge block of smoking nickel-plated metal.  She awoke bathed in sweat stifling a scream.

She went to the War Room.  She locked herself in according to protocol.  She sat in the desk chair.  She stared at the member file cabinets for several minutes, until she teared, and understood, finally, that her belief was no longer strong enough to satisfy Pater’s demands.  She opened the lower desk drawer.  She removed a small strong box.  She opened it with a key on her War Room ring.  From it, she withdrew ten thousand dollars, as much as she thought she’d need and no more, and the title to a Temple-based van.  She spent several minutes changing the registrant to herself, smiling at the forgery, at her criminal expertise.  She stuffed the money and registration into her pants and in anger she emptied several boxes of copy paper.  She carried these to her room.  She filled them with her clothing and a cache of envelopes and photos she’d secreted under her mattress and the Jasperware Pater had allowed her to keep.  She carried these to the basement and set them in front of the War Room.  She went to the guard station at the Temple entrance.  She told the Swords she was on a mission for Pater, that Armand was aware of it.  She asked if one could help her move important papers to a Temple van.  After the Sword loaded the van, she thanked him and drove to the 5 and north.  South of Sacramento, when she felt safe and too tired to go on, she took a room in motel well away from the highway.  She slept several hours and left in the early evening.  She drove a while and came upon a used car lot.  She pulled in.  She traded the van for an old Ford.  The salesman helped her load her boxes into its trunk.  He taped the temporary registration to the read window and told her the new plates would arrive in about a week.  She said she’d call and pick them up, and she thought maybe she would or maybe not.  She resumed her trip north.  She saw signs for a town called Paradise and thought she could use a little of that.  In Paradise, she found a room, a job waiting tables in a family-style restaurant, and a guy named Johnny, who liked her to address him as Johnnieee and proved to fit the name.  It was in Paradise, in the restaurant, on the television they kept over the counter, that she saw a Sacramento station interrupt regular programming for Breaking News.  A family of five by the name of Johnson were found murdered in their beds in Los Angeles.  She dropped an entire service at the report.  The owner saw she was too distraught to work the night and sent her home, attributing her wrought response to a sensitive nature; he knew her as a kind-hearted soul.  By the time she reached her room and turned on her television, the station was breaking for news from the Fresno area, dozens dead in a mass shooting; dozens that later reporting tabulated at one hundred forty-five.  A day later, when she could bear to read about it, she bought a copy of the Los Angeles Times and read the details of the “Mass Execution.”  The following day, she returned to the restaurant.  That day, and for a week after, she saw people she knew.  She saw Nessa and Lotta, Fabian and Maxima, Fidella and Osma.  She fled the restaurant and Paradise when she saw Pater, and he approached her and said: 

You betrayed me once, Marcella, and see the havoc you wreaked.  You stole my Isaac from me.  I will have my due and my resurrection, and you will not betray me again.


Before the will of God had instilled in him his vocation, Father Chapas had witnessed an exorcism. 

The ritual of demon expulsion filled him with gut-retching fear, wide-eyed awe, and, in the end, with a divine peace.  Awe, for he believed as he had not until the experience that a power transcended man; that God truly existed.  Fear, for he beheld first-hand evil incarnate; that it was an entity spawning entities; that these could infect and ruin the most pious; that faith often was insufficient to defeat demons.  Peace, for he witnessed the grace, the love, the mightiness, the irresistibility, and the invincibility of God; that he, and all people, were of a true Father, and no one of faith, no one who believed was alone, could ever be an orphan; that the true Father would rescue him and everyone from the worst evil, if they, or another on their behalf, sought His intervention; that the devil and his legion of fiendish minions could not withstand the avenging sword of the true Father. 

When God blessed him with his vocation, after the Church invested him with his duties, among them the authority to exorcise demons, he believed a day would come when his true Father would summon him to perform the ultimate ritual and save a soul.  Thus, Father Chapas was prepared with his observed knowledge, his rehearsed knowledge, his honed dreams, and his studied knowledge of the Roman Ritual of Exorcism.  What he had not expected was that demons would possess someone cherished by him, and that God would summon him to redeem her.

Before embarking on his divine covenant, Father Chapas contemplated, in accordance with the Ritual, contacting his bishop in Evansville and laying before the holy prelate the case for possession by an evil spirit.  But time, he felt, was of the essence; and, besides, the modern Catholic Church, particularly the American and European branches, had long ago lost its appetite for the old practices; image in the eyes of a secularized public had assumed preeminence.  No, it was best to spare the bishop the pain of dealing with a manifestation of evil beyond the holy’s sphere of appreciation and will to act. 

Too, he considered enlisting the aid of an assistant in the battle against evil and lamented the departure of Mrs. Diddleman, a woman of faith and righteousness, an ideal stalwart against the lascivious bait of the devil.  While the team of a priest and an assistant were ideal, as the devil was a wily enemy, a valiant priest could preside and triumph.  But, in cases of possessed women, the Ritual prescribed an aid for obvious reasons.  Father Chapas was intimate with temptation.  The devil, he believed, sensed he was coming and already was lobbing bombs of temptation in his path.  He had succumbed once.  Now, though, he was aware, protected by his reinvigorated faith; he would not repeat his infidelity against his Father, who, in his heart and soul, Father Chapas believed had absolved him of his transgressions; his Father, all understanding and forgiving, saw he had committed them not entirely of his own volition, seized as he had been by Satan.

As his first step, he sought to purify his mind and soul and implore the strength of God.  He dropped to his knees on the prie dieu with great trepidation.  He set his elbows on the leather bolster.  He cast his eyes down to the carpet, seeking the infernal scorched circle of sin and shame.  It was gone, the carpet cleansed, and the vision reassured him that God had purified his soul.  His head bowed in thanks and adoration, his Father inspired his understanding of his physical attraction to Maryam Brick.  Simply put, a demon possessed her.  She was not conscious of her situation as he had not been of his until he’d made his peace with the Maker.  Through faith and the guidance of his Father, his heart and soul had detected the demon.  Unfortunately, he responded inappropriately and sinfully.  The demon had intuited his emerging comprehension of its presence and its plan to steal a child of the true Father.  In retaliation, it had transformed every innocent act of Maryam’s into the worst sort of allurement:  sexual attraction and the delusion that Maryam desired him and he her.  The demon possessor had attacked Father Chapas’s weakness; that the priest wanted what he had never had; that he yearned to be needed physically; that he yearned as much, perhaps more, to express his gratitude and love by satisfying another physically, erotically, a relation he could not have with his God, who was his Father, the object of his love, and incorporeal. 

He struck the bolster, for the agony of rehashing the seduction of the sin was like wallowing in the stench of it; it was like besmirching and spurning the forgiveness of his Father.  He would not allow the devil to bribe him with the promise of carnal release again. 

“Demonio,” he cried, “estás impotente.  No tienes poder.  Mi Padre me ha despertado y me ha liberado de ti.”

He raised his eyes and peered into the fury of the storm, into the flashes of lightning and the visible rain big as bullets; and through the fusillade he beheld the blackened skeleton of the tree.  It fixed his gaze by resurrecting into a green tree; and more, its green pulsed as a beacon through the gray steel of the storm.  It was God smiling on him, blessing his mission, and promising new life to him, the resurrection of his youthful spirit of faith, commitment, and obedience.  It was God, all deserving of adulation, bestowing upon him divine praise for his contrition, his piety, and his humility before his Father; and, too, his sinfulness, his courage confronting it in the face of evil’s bold incarnation, bulwarks of his granted strength essential to fulfilling his holy destiny.

He rose from the prie dieu and went to his desk.  He reached for the book of rites and prayers that would refresh his memory of the procedure and seal the fate of the demon, when a white light consumed the room and a jolt of thunder moved its very foundation.  The book flew from his grasp and struck his head.  He staggered from the blow, lurched in time to the vibration of the house, collapsed onto a knee, and hit his head on the desk chair.  As the room receded, he heard a sinister, unearthly chortling.

He awoke in the great, familiar, but altered Altar del Perdón.  Instead of the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de Maria, it resided in an ethereal floating world of floor, clerestory, and altar.  Marble, washed in sunlight diffused through and colored by stained glass suspended from nothing, warmed his bare feet.  He followed the light to the windows and in a spectrum of vivid hues he saw the disciples and multitudes of saints depicted carnally, and the sights were not offensive to him; they pleased him and appeared proper to him, delights ordained by God.  He lowered his eyes and observed himself.  He stood naked in the house of splendid adoration and he felt not ashamed but titillated.  He saw, too, that he was erect.  He followed his carmine pointer, his sight drifting along the magnificent floor to steps, and, finally, to the foot of the altar behind which shimmered the devout artisans’ golden exaltation and glorification of God.  Upon the consecrated table, the remembrance of the Son’s farewell and precedence to saving mankind, where Father Chapas and his fellow priests transubstantiated bread and wine into the Son every Sunday, naked as he, lying with legs apart, head raised, arms extended, beckoning, was Maryam. “Ven a mi”, she pleaded.  “Ven, mi amor, te necesito, solo a ti.  Tómame, Mario.”  The scent of her and her enticing words rose from her as vapors.  The vapors mingled and entwined and fused into a wispy rope.  The rope undulated to him and looped around the tip of his engorged pulsing phallus, caressing and gently tugging him forward.  He stepped haltingly, as if injured, as if terrified.  He sensed a stirring in his heart and he commanded himself to stop, but he could not resist the rope and what it presaged.  When he was close, from between her legs thrust the head and gaping maw of the viper and its extended forked tongue upon which balanced the fruit of damnation.  But this time God did not forsake His creation, for in that instant of temptation, a shield of piety radiated from him.  He commanded the viper, who offered the most detestable knowledge, lust, “¡Yo te expurgo!”  It disappeared and with it ersatz Maryam, leaving the altar in golden brilliance.  He spun to take in the whole cathedral and around him in the windows the disciples and saints engaged in their true holy acts. 

He revived on his knees muttering thanks to God for delivering him.  He reached for the book of rites, placed it on the desk, and went into the bathroom.  He examined, cleaned, and bandaged his cut, and he washed his hands thoroughly so they would not soil the clothing and materials of expulsion.  At his desk, he removed the kit he used for visits to the sick and administering Extreme Unction.  Into it, he placed the rites book.  He grabbed and put on his black raincoat from the closet, signed himself, and dashed out the door into the storm.

The wind and rain fought him every step of the short distance to the church.  He entered through the rear into the sacristy.  He removed his raincoat and slipped on a surplice.  He selected a purple stole and draped it from his neck over the surplice.  From his kit, he took the pyx and went into the sanctuary, drawn reverentially by the red votive to where the sacred species resided.  He genuflected, opened the tabernacle, and removed a bowl containing the wafers.  He placed four in the pyx, returned the bowel to the tabernacle, genuflected, and hurried back to the sacristy.  He returned the pyx to the kit with the book, consecrated oil, crucifix, holy water, and sprinkler.  He signed himself.  He put on his raincoat and fitted the precious kit in a pocket.  He opened the door, secured it shut behind him, and ran for his car, impervious to the wind and rain, focused on his divine assignment, armored for holy war. 


Iam sat on her legs weeping.  Her tears dropped onto the newspaper clipping at her knees.  Two, three, and four, each domed on the surface, as if the clipping had transformed over the years in the box into something closer to resilient flesh than newsprint.  She reached down and gently brushed away the tears.  She found she could not withdraw her hand; that she needed to stroke the clipping, to her feel its unexpected suppleness, and to speak to it, as if to a corpse.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “I knew.  I did nothing.  I’m sorry.”

Poppycock, dear, you have nothing to be sorry for.  Do you honestly believe anything you could have said would have persuaded a single person to leave? 

“No,” Iam said, staunching her crying and choking back her regret, not Fabian, not a poor soul.  How do you cure someone of an addiction?  Or persuade someone her father is evil?  Or convince him that truth is deception, or worse, a calculated lie?  Or that trust is manipulation?

Of course not.  Why, I feared you yourself would not heed your second sight and do the sensible thing.  Fortunately, I was with you, urging you to save yourself, possessing by that time enough strength that you heard me.  You know, I assured you many times I would be with you always; I would be like your guardian angel, in the background prepared to protect you.

“Thank you, Aunt Margie.”

Nonsense, you needn’t thank me.  I love you, dear.  I loved you the moment your mother teased me with her pregnancy.  “Look, Margie, something else you’re incapable of, you nutburger.”‘  Well, I’ll grant you, she didn’t use those words exactly, but her meaning was clear, and cutting.  While the wound festers still, fortunately, I’m not one to dwell.  Water under the bridge is my motto.  Naturally, I didn’t allow her torment of me to reduce the affection I had for you even as she carried you.  No, I took the high road and resolved to love you with all my heart, to become a part of your life and give you what I knew she never could.  Loving you saved me, dear.

“It did?”

Yes.  You fortified me with courage and resolve and a future.  Without you, I would not be here now.

“But you died.  The truck.”

In a manner of speaking only, dear.  I do apologize about the truck, but I did try to warn you.  It came as a terrible shock to you, I realize, and put you off ketchup for years.  Forgive my tittering, but the condiment and that Pater beast are simply too comical.  It was a desperate period in my life and I saw no alternative.  I would have rotted in that hellhole otherwise, with her visiting just to show and tell me everything I couldn’t have.  I had to find a way to escape by hook or crook.  Sadly, the truck was the best I could manage.

“Escape?  To where?”

To the place I loved, the only place I wanted to be.  To here, here with you.  You were the only one who ever loved me, dear.  You were the only one I loved for ages.  You gave me more darlings to love and from whom to feel love, Billy, Dominic, and Dominica.  But don’t fret, I still love you the most, and I know you love me best.  I will always be part of you, dear.  I couldn’t live without you.

“I don’t understand.  How could you—”

Tsk, tsk, shame on you.  I explained everything to you in the letter.  Alas, it has been a dead letter all these years.  It was my last to you.  You didn’t open it; you’ve never opened it.

“I’m sorry.  I should have.  I wanted to.  But I couldn’t.  It hurt too much just looking at the envelope.”

Really, dear, you are making me cry.  You know I abhor crying.  My eyes puff so.  My sensitive skin blotches horribly.  And my makeup, what an unsightly mess.  You know how meticulous I am about my appearance.

Iam’s cheeks dripped with fresh tears that fell on the clipping like rain.  She rubbed them from her face with the heels of her hands and wiped them from the supple clipping.

Don’t you think it is time, dear, especially with the creature back?

Iam had picked up the clipping and was staring at the photo of Pater.  He seemed to meet her gaze and implore her with his moist blue eyes.

Ugh, dear.  Put that down. 

Iam laid the clipping on the floor.

Forgive my insistence, but the creature, what it has inflicted on us, infuriates me beyond endurance.  That’s better.  Now, please, retrieve my letters and open the last one.  I would have come to you earlier had you read it.  If I reached you sooner, I might have prevented this.

“Prevented what?”

Why, your suffering, dear, your sorrow over the deaths of those people.  Thankfully, I’m here to prevent the creature from doing you more harm.

“Harm?  He’s dead, Aunt Margie.  It says so right here,” Iam said, pointing at the clipping.  “He’s been dead for years.”

Dead?  It is no more dead than I am.  Please, calm yourself, dear.  Deep breaths work nicely.  We must be cool as little cucumbers if we are to turn the tables on that sly serpent.  I insist you read the dead letter.  I don’t mean to be stern with you, but it is imperative.  I don’t think it a tiny bit melodramatic to say it is a matter of life and death.


The letter, dear, without further delay.

Iam retrieved the envelopes.  The dead letter lay at the bottom of the stack.  She studied the pink envelope, the script of broken loops, at her name, Miss Maryam Beatrice Maria Cardinale, admiring, as she did as a girl, the formality of it, the declaration in blue fountain ink and her aunt’s hand, once cultivated and crisp—still so in her memory—that she was important, she was somebody, not a girl without a father or a real mother, not the sister of a drug-dead brother and a mystical sequestered Carmelite; not alone.

She turned the envelope.  Exercising the greatest care, she slid a short jagged nail under the flap and slowly pried it away from the envelope.  She removed and unfolded the sheets.  The stationery was pink.  White and purple petunias woven into a garland festooned the top.  Printed below the garland in a curlicue, nearly indecipherable script font Miss Margaret Anna Maria Andolini, and, significantly she always thought, nothing more, as if Aunt Margie was nowhere, or everywhere.

She lowered her eyes to the lines of writing, marveling, as she always did, at her aunt’s precision.  Though the cursive was disturbed, sentences were straight, as always, on the unlined paper.  She smiled, recalling the sight of her own sentences meandering up and down the fancy notepaper her aunt had given her.  She guessed her aunt had used a ruler and she tried emulating her.  But her pen bumped against the edge.  When she examined what she’d written, she discovered all the descenders missing.  Even today, she could not write straight without the aid of a printed line, and she again admired her aunt’s skill. 

She raised her eyes to the top of the letter and lingered on the date, consumed by a wave of sadness that welled up from her soul, reconstituted by Billy, Dominic, Dominica, home, and love.  Aunt Margie had written the letter a few days before she died and it had arrived the very day … 

Iam shook her head and snuffled and read.

“Dearest Dear,

“I pondered the kindest way to break the news to you, and chose the most direct.  I’m leaving, dear, today.

“My stay here will be quite long, maybe forever, which is why that despicable sister of mine will receive a phone call shortly about my departure. 

“Yes, I know it seems terribly unfair that I am condemned to this place, as I am more mother to you and Ruth than she is.  Undoubtedly, our closeness and my usurping of the motherly love she believed due her are responsible for my condemnation.  I sigh with sadness as I write.

‘Dear, I simply cannot tolerate this place, not for the usual months, let alone some indefinite period, years, this time perhaps eternity, as she promises.  It is dreary beyond words and filled to the rafters with the worst sorts of riffraff.  I’m not speaking of the others confined like myself.  For the most part, they are decent people.  Yes, some may be pitiful weak heads, but they possess kind hearts.  I believe their innocent sweetness counts for something, don’t you agree?  The staff and the prison atmosphere make remaining here intolerable.  The doctors constantly needle us with questions.  The orderlies wrestle us between wards and offices and torture chambers.  And if you are halfway attractive—well, dear, I will not offend your innocent sensibilities.  Neither should you worry.  Your aunt knows how to defend herself.  These brutes are no matches for her.

“As a consequence, I’ve arrived at a momentous decision.  I am leaving.  Yes, simply strolling out, pretty as you please.  Isn’t it wonderful, dear?  I feel liberated for the first time in my life.  Why haven’t I done this sooner?  I suppose because the duration of my stays here were short.  In and out, and I was back with you practically before you could blink an eye.  However, this time is different:  the bleak prospect of never being with you again is unendurable.  I suppose the old saw is true:  necessity is the mother of invention. 

“Now, I must prepare you.  I’m afraid my exit will not be attractive.  Yes, it troubles me too.  I truly wish there was an elegant way for me to depart.  I’ve tried charm, in all its many guises (which you’ll understand when you are older), and it has failed me.  I’m afraid I have no alternative but the method I’ve decided upon.

“Two promises from you before I tell you.  First, do not break down.  No crying.  No screaming.  No carrying on of any sort.  Otherwise, you might spoil my plans, not just for me, but for us.  (Oh, yes, you are integral.  Honestly, as I’ve said, I couldn’t have worked up the courage if not for you.  My love for you is that great.)  Second, under no circumstances tell your mother.  She is such a mean, spiteful, hateful thing; she’ll try to stop me.  Release is the last thing she wants for me.  My suffering delights her.  My rotting here gives her a sadistic satisfaction.  I may seem harsh, but, dear, you know her as well as I do.  We cannot allow her to interfere. 

“Promise.  Say you promise.  I can hear you, you know.  We’re connected for eternity.

“Brace yourself, for here it comes.  I will exit my body. 

“The rules of life will not allow me to leave my body while it lives.  Goodness knows I’ve tried often enough to verify it is true.  I often find myself in a lovely world of my own design.  Contrary to what your mother and her so-called doctors say, it is a real world.  Unhappily, though, it isn’t your world, dear, where I want to live.

“Sorry for the bluntness, dear.  I must kill my body.

“You’re not crying are you?  If so, stifle the tears, please, for both our sakes.

“Look at the bright side.  I won’t be killing myself, just the physical part of me.  (Sounds strange, but I will explain below).  I won’t be in a place I hate.  I won’t suffer the indignities of old age.  I won’t be allowing nature to dictate how my body dies.  I will be, for the first time in my life, the determiner of my fate. 

“You are a child, my precious one, but I believe you are mature beyond your years.  You do understand much of what I’m saying.  Later, when you are older, you’ll understand everything.

“You see, just as you’ve learned in school, you are in two parts, body and soul.  My soul will live after my body dies.  However, instead of zooming up to Heaven, where I’m sure I will reside one day, for I’ve suffered my purgatory on earth (why, I don’t believe it presumptuous of me to say I have endured hell on earth), I will live for a while in the world as a free spirit.  No, I will not exist as a ghost.  I know you’ll think me odd, but I don’t believe in ghosts; that is, I don’t believe we spirits (I should say soon to be) are able to exist outside a body for any length of time.

“Where will I go?  I will come to you, dear.  I will fly to you.  I will live in you until we both ascend to our eternal reward.  That’s how I prefer living, with you, as part of you. 

“Don’t worry, dear.  You will not know I’m in you.  I won’t make a peep.  Swear.  I’ll just lie back and observe.  If you ever need me, though, you have only to think of me, think what you would say to me if we were snuggled in my bed.  I will whisper a bit of guidance in your ear.  Let me assure you, I realize it will be your life.  You will live it as you see fit.  I will never intrude, except to dispense little droplets of advice.  This is my pledge to you.  Your life is your life.  You can live it as you wish, with the added comfort of knowing you will never be alone.

“So, remember, no carrying on and no telling your mother.

“I will be with you soon, dearest of dears, very soon.

“My love and my life,

“Aunt Margie”

“I don’t understand,” Iam said, staring at the letter.  “It makes no sense.  It’s—”

Crazy.  Please, dear, hush.  You know, you would have been more accepting if you had opened the letter when you were a little girl.  Children are better believers than adults.

“I know I think about you often, Aunt Margie.”

All the time, recently, dear.

“Yes, today I can’t get you out of my thoughts.”

Remember the letter, dear.  I’m in more than your thoughts.

“I don’t understand.”

Well, you can claim not to understand all night.  If you do, however, the consequences will be dire.

“What?  What do you mean?”

It, the creature, your Pater, is up to no good.  The beast is inside you, too, and its presence is growing dangerously strong.  We can stop it.  But we must act as one without delay.

“Pater, in me?  I told you.  He’s dead.  Osma killed him years ago.”

My letter, dear, have you already forgotten what I wrote about spirits?  Its body died on the farm years ago, but the entity didn’t.  Its spirit must have been powerful from the beginning.  After all, it reached you up there in Paradise.

“He’s dead.”

The beast is exerting itself in you, dear.  It is here for its resurrection as a living being.

“What?  How?”

You know how.  It told you.  When Osma killed herself, she took with her its vessel.  I know all about it, dear.  I was with you that night, the night of the trinity.  What a fake.  Oh, how I wanted to intervene.  Unfortunately, I was still a weak little thing, not like now.  Now I can and will protect you.

“But from what?  His child, the vessel, is dead.  You said so yourself.  And the others, Osma, the girls, they died on the farm.”

All except you, his Marcella.

“Except me?  He isn’t real.  He can’t give me a child.”

It is real, dear.  It is as real as I am.  And it doesn’t have to give you a child.  You have one already.

“The children.”

One child, Dominic.

“No, Dominic isn’t his.”

What was the plan, dear?  Think.  You would have its child and when the time came, after the child had matured, to use its mumbo jumbo, God would plant the creature in the child.

“And he would become the child and grow up to be Pater, as he has for centuries.  My God, I have to stop him,” she said, springing to her feet, ready to oppose Pater, but unable to move forward or backward, or to form a single thought of how to defeat him.

“I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know how to fight him.”

Calm down, dear, I’m here to help.

“I’ll get Dominic.  I’ll hold onto him.  He won’t get him if I hold onto him tight enough.”

You can’t protect Dominic like that.  The battlefield isn’t in the living room.  It’s here, in you.  Here is where we fight the beast.

Iam grabbed her head.  She pulled her hair.  She hit herself.  “It’s crazy, Aunt Margie.  He’s dead.”

It’s the spirit, dear.  It’s in you.  It has been in you since Paradise.

“It’s me.  I’m losing my mind.”

Listen to me before you fly off and rush headlong into disaster.  Will you calm yourself and listen?

“Yes, yes, I’m listening.”

I am here, aren’t I?

“Yes, you are.  I loved you so much.  I could never forget you.”

I’m more than your memory of me, dear.  I am myself.  Or, rather, I am the spirit of who I was.  But I possess all the properties of my physical self.

“That’s crazy.  And I’m crazy for thinking it.”

Would you allow me to prove it?

“How?  You’re a memory.  You aren’t real.  Aunt Margie, you’re dead, too.”

I can persuade you otherwise, if you agree.  Grant me your permission.

“But I don’t want to go over the edge, Aunt Margie, not like you.  I feel so close.  I have the children, Billy, I can’t.”

Dear, time is running short.  It is a powerful spirit.  I feel the creature’s presence.  There’s a tension I sense.  The time is almost right, and it will take control of you very soon.  Through the tension, I see images.  They are disturbing, frightening.

“What are they, Aunt Margie?  What do you see?”

I see two images repeated again and again.  The first is of a man in white, cinched at the waist in gold, descending.  It can only be the viper as it envisions itself.

“Yes, a part of God, a second son.  And the other?”

It pains me to tell you.  It is Abraham placing Isaac on the altar.  Abraham is different.  He wears white with a gold cinch.  And his hair isn’t white; it is black, iridescent, like a raven’s.

“Pater.  What about the child?”

It isn’t Isaac.


He is a blur, dear.  I’m sorry. 

“It’s Dominic.  But why?”

I’m sorry.  I can’t see more.  But knowing the beast, it can’t be good.

Again, Iam cried, “Why?”  Before her, gripped in her hands, held tightly as if clamped the shoulders of a man, was the clipping; and the photo was animated, the blue eyes alive, burning into her like ice.

Leave her to me, you meddling crone.  Marcella, don’t lend credence to her blasphemous prattle.  I am preparing to do the work of my Father.  I am returning.  My Father tells me it is the time.  I return to conquer the world in His name.  You will help me, as I foretold you would.  I am the seed.  Dominic is the blessed soil from which the new world will spring in the form of me.

“No,” Iam screamed.  “No.  Aunt Margie, hold me.  Protect me.  Take me.”

Dear, destroy the clipping.  Destroy the photo. 

Iam shuddered.  She attempted tearing the clipping, but it resisted her, like resilient flesh.

Try harder, dear.  You can do it.  Rip, rip, rip that evil face to shreds.

Resolve and strength surged from Iam’s mind and heart, uniting in her hands.  She tore the clipping, the photo of Pater, the haunting horror of her betrayal, into yellow, desiccated flakes, and flung them away from herself.

Mere paper, Marcella.  My vessel, it awaits me downstairs, and I will not be denied.  The world awaits me.  My Father decrees these are ripe times.  I will lead the armies of His believers in the final battle against His enemies.  He and I are one and We will be reborn and live as We always have—forever and ever.  Take me to my vessel, Marcella.  Then, most faithful one, welcome my return, and assume your position at my side as my mighty little warrior and my mother.

Iam rose stiffly.  Shots of thunder, and more, the swirl of the entire world, of every wind from everywhere around her filled her ears.  Lightning and what it illuminated, trembling walls, pulsing windows, and beyond Sullivan County ascending into the sky, as if stirred into earthen batter by the finger of God, filled her eyes.  And these and the memory and the urgings of Pater propelled her from the room and to the vessel she’d propagated and given the Latin name Dominic, one belonging to God.


Amid the strobes of lightning and penetrating thunder, Iam lurched into the hallway and steered toward the staircase, again the Church’s warrior on her mission.

Dear, halt this very instant.  Do you realize what you are doing?

“I am fulfilling the word of the Father.  Please, Aunt Margie, let me obey him.”

I certainly will do nothing of the sort, dear.  I feared such foolery.  You have always been a sweet girl.  But you’ve never been much for confronting people, let alone demons.

“Pater is laying claim to what is his.”

Listen to yourself, rambling on about the Pater this and the Pater that.  The creature was, is, and will remain a monster forever.  It’s time you demonstrated you are not a lamb easily led to the slaughter.  Unlike the others, you have gumption.  You fled my absolutely detestable sister.  You escaped the lecherous solo Ricky.  You saw the handwriting on the wall and ran from the loon when the others didn’t.  Now, turn yourself in the other direction, dear. 

Iam spun woodenly at the command and lumbered into her bedroom.  She switched on the bedstead lamps.  They flickered as the storm trespassed into the house’s electric lines, choking them.  She went to the closet, opened it, reached up, and pulled from the back of the shelve an oversized box.  On the bed, she removed the lid and lifted from the box a strapless gown of white, through the skirt of which were vertically threaded ribbons of pink, and a simple white veil, the band of which was soft pink.  She stripped to her skin, stepped into the gown, and set the veil on her head.  Also from the box, she took a pair of pink blush satin pumps and slid her feet into them.  She staggered to the mirror behind the bedroom door to study herself. 

“Billy loved the dress,” she heard herself say.

Of course he did, dear.  Billy is a prince of a man.  We loved him the moment he found us stranded in that junk heap you drove us around in.  Such a thoughtful, noble man.  Quite unusual these days.  I don’t know why you did not see his virtue instantly.  But never mind, all’s well that ends well I always say.

“His mother called the pink odd.”

Odd, indeed.  She’s the odd one.  Quite hidebound, if you ask me, a plain Jane afraid of a soupçon of panache.  I do believe she is the reason your attire lacks color.

“She has a kind heart.  She raised a fine son.  And she has been generous to the children and to me.”

Yes, I’ll concede you her etiquette.  In the future, though, we will add spice to our wardrobe.

“Not too much, I hope.”

Goodness, dear, gauche is not my style.  We’ll infuse you with just a pinch to demonstrate we understand chic, a quality your mother never could appreciate.  Streetwalkers dressed better than she, don’t you agree?  But let’s not get started on the vixen.  Banish her, and on to the joust.


My dear, I am such a silly romantic that our terrible contest with the beast thrills me.  We are like Rowena and Rebecca rolled into one, fair maids in peril, who will gladly bestow upon their champion, in our case the glorious Sir William of Sullivan, the most delicious chaplet of victory.

“Our enemy will cry, ‘Beau-seant!'”

Yes, dear, you remember the romantic history.  How many hours did we linger with it?  We sipped it, didn’t we, dear, like wine, and didn’t it rush to our heads, a virtuous put-upon and a princess, an outcast and a kingdom to reclaim, dastardly deeds and heroic triumph?  Well, perhaps you are Rowena and I am the Disinherited Knight, and when the fires have ceased, and the dust has cleared, and the wounds have mended, I will win you completely, and with you renewal.  Then, in my colors, dear, we are …

“Armored for battle,” Iam heard herself finish.

As if encumbered by the weight of iron, she stumbled into the hallway and tottered down the stairs like someone possessed of irreconcilable sovereignty.  She paused at the front entrance.  She surveyed the mess on the porch and outside the half bath and wondered how these had happened, that perhaps the children had been a bit too rambunctious in her absence, and then speculated as to how long she had been upstairs, and then shook her head as if to say it didn’t matter, that she was downstairs now and ready to take charge.  But of what, redemption or destruction, she couldn’t say.

At the sight of her wobbling into the living room, Dominic and Dominica, exclaimed, faces afflicted with sudden, blanched expressions of monster phobia, “Mommy!”

“How are you enjoying your film, my little sweethearts,” she gushed, as if gazing on shining penny faces, in happy unison with them greeting a gorgeous summer day, bright already and gravid with delightful promise. 

“It’s done,” said Dominica.

“We were waiting for you, Mommy.”

“How lovely to be desired, little darlings.”

“We want meatloaf,” said Dominica.

“We’re hungry,” said Dominic.

“And scared, too, Mommy,” added Dominica.

As if attuned to Dominica’s proclivity for anxiety, lightning seared the room, so white, hot, and frictional, all felt their skin burn, their hair spike in shock.  Fast upon the burst rolled thunder, roaring down on the house as if from directly above, pushing the children deep into the couch and knocking Iam off her eroded kilter.  Next, while all teetered on the edge of terror, the lights flickered, the television died, the room went dark, and the telephone came to life, adding to the chaos.  Dominica, tumbling into the pit of mad panic, screamed a scream that rattled every nail and board in the house, extending beyond the house to reach the ear of who or whatever was responsible; for in the instant of her scream, the lights flickered back, the storm retreated to a growl, and the phone fell silent.

“My goodness, but what weather we are having,” said Iam, artificially composing herself and than wiggling between Dominic and Dominica.  “Do you know many songs have been written about storms?”

They responded by crying and gripping her.

“Let me see.  How about life is bare, gloom and misery everywhere, stormy weather, just can’t get my poor old self together, da, da, da.  No?  Okay, here’s a favorite.  I’m singing in the rain, just singing in the rain, what a glorious feelin’, I’m happy again .  No?  My oh my, we’ll have to attend to broadening your musical vocabulary, won’t we?  But you must know this one.  The sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun.  And there will be.  I promise.”

“I want Daddy,” cried Dominica.

“Oh, my dear, so do I.  Oh, I ache for the man.  I really do.  To be in his arms—well, I mean to say, I’m beside myself waiting for him to return home.  Tell you what.  Let’s watch your movie, Dominica, and before you know it, Daddy will be snuggling with us.  What was your movie, dear?”


“Oh, delightful, I adored ‘Cinderella.’  Why moments ago I was talking about princes and princesses.”

“With who?” asked Dominica, as Dominic put the movie into play.

“With whom, dear.  We may be in the midst of a thunder boomer, but that’s no excuse to neglect the rules of English.  Why, if every time a crisis erupted and we forgot our grammar, where would be?  Speechless.  Oh, but whom?  I guess with myself.”

“Is that why you’re dressed … so fancy?” asked Dominic.

“You noticed.  How observant and mannerly of you, dear.  Why, I suppose so.  I am the picture of a princess, aren’t I?” she said, flipping her veil and flaunting her skirt.

“Shh,” admonished Dominica, “the movie’s starting.”

Marcella, it is no time for idiocy.  Has the woman seduced you so easily?  You recognize her, do you not?

“No,” Iam muttered.

“Shh,” whispered Dominica.

No?  She is the Great Whore of Babylon, the Great Harlot.  The Vile Temptress.

“I was the Babylonian queen once,” Iam mumbled.

“Mommy,” said Dominic, “are you sick?”

No you were not, Marcella.  You were a lesson to yourself and the others.  Did I not pardon you for your fornication?  Did I not take you into my bed and honor you with the sacrament of my divine seed?

“Into your lap,” she whispered.

“Shh, Mommy.  I want to sit here,” said Dominica, misunderstanding the mutter.

You dare to trifle with your Pater, when I am about to reveal the prophecy of prophecies to the world, when I carry it to them fresh from the lips of my Father?

“Forgive me, Pater, for I have sinned.”

“Mommy,” asked Dominic, “why are you praying?  Is something wrong?”

I understand, Marcella.  It has been a long time, and the way of the Father is mysterious.

“It is brutal,” she said.

“Mommy, please,” said Dominic, directly into her ear to shield his concern from Dominica, “you’re scaring us.”

Tell the vessel not to be afraid.  It should show gratitude, for from it will spring the world’s path to salvation.  Inform it and calm it.  Instruct it God wishes it.

She patted Dominic’s hand.  “All will be well.”

“When the storm ends,” he said.

It is a prescient and worthy vessel you have created for me, Marcella.  It senses the present tumult will cease once I have reincarnated in it.

“Yes,” she said.

We require Abraham’s tool.  Take the vessel into the kitchen.  Select a knife.

“No,” she demurred in an undertone lost in the whistle of the rising wind.

You defy your Pater.  But, no, I see you do not.  You dazzle him with more of your craftiness.  He sees with your eyes, little warrior.  We must pacify one to manage the other with ease.  You are clever and I praise and cherish you for your foresight.  How I wished you had been at my side instead of the Judas.  You should have been.  You were the one I loved, Marcella, the one who pleased me most.

“I adored you,” she breathed.

“I do to,” said Dominica, distracted for a second, hearing her imperfectly.  “I adore you, Mommy, because you’re the best mommy.”

It is only right to adore your Pater.  After today, you will receive the greatest love of the centuries, for again there will be a mother of God on earth, and she will be you.  For that which was conceived in her was of the Holy Ghost, and she has brought forth a son, and he will be reborn as the new salvation of the world.  Ha!  A fictitious princess is air measured against the joy and honor and eternal peace that will reign upon you, Marcella.

Dear, I cannot tolerate another second of this buffoon’s bluster.  I have witnessed my share of windbags.  Goodness knows enough of them have squatted across from me and passed judgment.  But they were breezes compared to this hurricane of rubbish.  A god the creature calls itself.  Maybe the plastic variety your mother plunked on the dashboard of her jalopy, but nothing more, I assure you.

Iam’s complexion paled and flushed.  She frowned and smiled.  She keened and tittered ever so softly.  Her body twitched left and right.  Apart from these subtle movements, akin to seeking a comfortable position on the couch, the children noticed nothing but a smattering of her periodic exclamations.

I hear you, Whore.  Worse, I smell your vileness, the putrid rank of Hell’s sulfur.  Marcella, believe your Pater.  She pretends to love you, but I see hot malice in her heart.  It is a black cauldron encased in a soulless shell.  She is a mighty deceiver.  She is a mighty beguiler.  Sin is her meat and she devours it in great ravenous chunks.  And she plans to eat you up until there is not a morsel of you remaining.  Expel her, Marcella, and live forever and ever in glory as the new mother of the new earthly manifestation of God.

Honestly, dear, the years you devoted to the creature had me questioning your sanity.  Well, it will stop now.  Let us continue relaxing with the dear ones.  We’ll concentrate our full attention on the film and block its abominable spouting.

Obeying the whore, the reeking harlot, is dancing to the devil’s tune.  Be gone you queen of pustules.  Enough from you, Marcella.  Time is short and our destiny rises or falls on your devotion.  Hurry into the kitchen and return with Abraham’s tool.  The moment of sacrifice roars down upon us.

Iam bowed her head and pushed up to leave the couch.

“Where are you going, Mommy?” quivered Dominic.

“Don’t go, Mommy,” followed Dominica in kind, tugging Iam’s arm.

Yes, listen to the wisdom from the mouths of our babes.  Watch the film.

“Success depends on me.”

“Mommy,” cried Dominic, “Mommy, you’re sick.”

Maryam Beatrice Maria Cardinale Brick, halt and sit.  The kitchen is unsafe.  Remember what is there.  The clock.  The innocent clock, the gift of our prince, corrupted by the pretender.  Why, if pressed, I would call the creature the antichrist we’ve heard so much about.  Your antichrist is the damned one, and it has opened a pathway to perdition, which you glimpsed looking into the cat’s eyes.

“The cat scares me,” Iam said, falling back on the couch.

“What cat, Mommy?  Lucifer is only a movie cat,” said Dominica.

Must I strike you with a bolt of lightning to move you, Marcella?  The clock is the old bag’s contrivance, mere witchcraft to persuade you to betray your Pater.  Marcella, see me.  See me extend my hands to you.  Observe what glitters on my blessed palms, and what I offer to you.  It is the key that unlocks salvation and eternal life.  There is only one key, it is mine alone, and I will share it with you as my mother, if you go into the kitchen. 

Iam rose again.

“Mommy, don’t go,” said Dominica.

“Don’t, Mommy,” pleaded Dominic.

“I must, children.  God is asking me to go into the kitchen and bring something for you.”

“For me, too, Mommy?” asked Dominica, excitedly.

“Especially for you, Dominica.”

“Goody, I can’t wait, Mommy.”

Iam trudged to the kitchen doorway.

Dear, you astound me, falling for the beast’s lies and deceptions.  The beast transformed the clock into an instrument of terror.  That is how the monster controls and defiles, dear, don’t you see?  The beast turns beauty ugly, faith blasphemous, life dead.  Please, I implore you.  Reject the call and rejoin the children and me.

“No, I am of the Anointed People, and of many I am chosen to mother the reincarnated Pater and at his side win the world for God.”

Energized by her rhetoric, she strode into the kitchen unafraid of the clock.  It saw her and she it as she crossed the threshold and in her eyes it was what it was when Billy bought it for her:  it was a silly cat clock, not a portal to Hell. 

Oblivious to the disheveled kitchen, she went to the cutlery draw.  From it, she removed two items:  her chef’s knife and her steel sharpener.  She stroked the knife blade against the steel several times to insure she filed it from tip to hilt to razor sharpness.  She tossed the steel on the counter, and turned for the living room.

Stop, dear.  Think about what you are doing.  Yes, I know the monster’s intentions.  I am in the beast’s mind as it is in mine.  It knows I will not allow harm to come to our children through you.  I would have us hurt ourselves than fulfill its barbarous desire.  Drop the knife, dear, and return to me and the children.

As the imploration ended, the dormant storm revived an amplitude greater than before it had quelled to a snarl.  Lightning flooded the kitchen, blinding Iam.  Wind shook the windows and rain pounded the walls in a cacophonous blast that deafened her to all but the sounds in her head.  The house quaked and its joints creaked and the nails shrieked pulling from the wood and the sheetrock fissured and the floor buckled, and Iam moved blinkered to the commotion surrounding her with the single purpose of her duty to Pater.

Yes, yes, Marcella, at last we are together again.  Into the living room.  Inactivate the only resistance to our mission, the girl.  Drive the tool of Abraham through the demon’s heart, for make no mistake, mighty little warrior, the devil is wily and a shape shifter and violently opposed to my Father and to my earthly work.  Drive Abraham’s tool through its heart knowing it is not a child; it is the Archfiend, the Monarch of Hell, Belial; it is the enemy.

Dear, stop … stop, I beg you.  Do not allow this creature to deceive you.  Do not harm our poor, innocent child.  Dear, as much as I love life, as much as I love living with you, as much as I would love to taste a second of your physical life, I cannot abide the horror you are about to undertake.  Drop the knife, dear.  Close your ears to the devil, for the creature is the real devil.  And if you cannot, dear, concede to me now, and I will oppose him on our behalf.  Let me out, dear.  Let me be our salvation, the Brick family’s champion.

Iam screamed, “Leave me alone!  The both of you leave me alone!  I am me, Iam.  I am me, Iam.  And I will do no one’s bidding but Iam’s.” 

And as she voiced her plea for independence, she drew the honed blade across her chest, across her stomach, across each arm.  She howled and the house suffering the storm around her swallowed up her anguish.  She dropped to her knees and, as if in supplicating prayer, and she cried.

“Mommy, the house—”

It was Dominic with Dominica in hand charging into the kitchen.

“Mommy, you’re hurt,” he said, the two halting in front of her, gazing down on her in horror.

The children, dear, mind the child.  It was the storm, tell them.  It was the storm.

She looked up at them.  “It was the storm, children.”

Get out, dear.  We have to get out before the house falls in on us, tell them.

“We have to get out before the house falls in on us, children,” she said, staggering to her feet.

“The knife, Mommy?” asked Dominic.

Yes, the knife, Marcella.  Use the knife now to open the way for me.  Death will be but an instant of time and I will suffuse the child with a new, purposeful life ordained by my Father.  Open the path to my resurrection, Marcella.

Release the knife, dear, and gather the children.  The house is falling down around us.  I feel our life draining from us.  Such a terrible thing to do to us.  Act before we are too weak.  Take the children and run outside.  Save us, dear.  Save us from the storm and the beast.

“The knife is to clear our path through the storm,” she shouted.  “Out the slider and run.”

“But you, Mommy?” said Dominica.

“Run.  I’ll be behind you.  Run.”

A hand of ferocious wind blew under the house and twisted it and pulled it up.  The house bucked and screeched in protest, but its foundation refused to yield.  Dominic struggled to slide the door.  The pressure of the storm sealed it and his small arms couldn’t budge it.  Iam shoved him aside and tried with no effect.

“Dominic, get a chair.”

Iam griped the knife in her teeth and she pulled until he shoved the chair at her. 

“You both, stand over there,” she spat around the blade, indicating the refrigerator that jigged back and forth. 

She swung the chair with all the strength her wounded self could muster.  It shattered and the glass flew away into the black, roiling sky.

“Go,” she shouted, pointing the way with the knife.

Dominic and Dominica ran through first, and she followed and with her Aunt Margie, gleeful over her ingenuity, and Pater, rejoicing at rebirthing in the maelstrom wrought by his Father to trumpet his return.


Billy rushed north on Route 41, slashing a tunnel of light through the moist pitch night, until he crossed into Sullivan County and plunged in the throes of the storm that had left Knox without him.  As the road vanished into the steel deluge, as the rain balls exploded on the roof like miniature bombs, as the wind blew down a wall of resistance, as the road transformed into a sluice, he slowed, and slowed, and crept, and stopped. 

He slapped the steering wheel, always a surefire method of speeding up events, and flung in a few shit, shit, shits to supercharge the effect, and ceased when the frustrated efforts yielded nothing but aching palms. 

The car was sealed.  The weather couldn’t touch him.  Yet, he was wet.  Sweat drenched his shirt.  His crotch was distressingly soggy.  His face itched with tears.  He cried because he had to reach Iam and Dominic and Dominica, but the conspirator summoned all his inimical powers to impede him.  He descended into irrationality and screamed at Jim Smith Miller, this resurrected Pater, this self-deemed god, “Hurt them, hurt them, and I’ll kill you.”  He sucked a breath.  “Stay in Hell, where you belong, you bastard.”

He wept and pleaded with the genuine Lord for mercy, implored Him to end the storm so he could save his wife and his children.  They were in danger and he feared for them.  He saw the devil on the windshield, mocking him from the photo in the clipping.  MASS EXECUTION.  The Mass Executioner.  This demon threw up a mighty obstacle to prevent him from rescuing them.  “Lord, God in Heaven, help me.  I beg you.”

Suddenly, his distress over the furious storm and his hindered progress vanished from his mind, and with it his irrationality, his introspection, and his obsession with a phantom. 

“What’s wrong with me.  Why didn’t I do this earlier?” he said to the radio as he switched it on.  He reset the dial to the local Sullivan station.  Within a minute, he received the message, the clarion answer to his prayer in the voice of the local weatherman advising everyone within the vicinity of his broadcast of danger, to seek shelter immediately.  Tornados had touched down in several Sullivan County locations; damage had been wrought; injuries had occurred; possibly, though unconfirmed presently, lives had been lost. 

Lives.  Lives, like Iam’s, and Dominic’s, and Dominica’s.  Precious, loved lives sacrificed through happenstance; or sacrificed because he wasn’t there to save them.

“Thank you, Lord,” he cried.  “Thank you.  Now, please, guide me.  I pray you, guide me.”

The message could not have been clearer if the weatherman had burned it in lightning in the torrent.  Race to them.  Race to them and save them.

Heedless of the great storm barrier, Billy pushed down the gas pedal and accelerated and accelerated faster, and faster, and miraculously his headlights torched a bright parting of the water that brought him through Sullivan County, through the battened down town of Sullivan, across County Road 25, and into his driveway, next to Iam’s van.

Strangely, the world, such a void before, was brighter here, as if a great mass, a sort of earthbound black star, busily absorbed the darkness, replacing it with a lightness that resembled a wound, a painful bruise, yellowish green, surrounding a mass of all the world’s black concentrated in an obscene singularity bounding from the far reaches of the corn field to Billy’s house.  It descended from on high, a wide funnel mouth at the top to a slender tip at the bottom, like a big, fat, death-blackened finger.

For several seconds, Billy could not move.  Then he exploded and he could do nothing but move.  He tore at the door handle.  He sprung open the door.  The fiercely circulating wind thrust it back at him, jamming his fingers, caving them.  His left fore- and index fingers screamed in pain and he knew they were broken.  He pushed again.  The door came at him again and he met it with his shoulder, forcing it into the fury.  Before the wind could defeat him a second time, he rolled from the car, under the door, and along his gravel drive.  The gravel lacerated his face and his hands, but he felt nothing.  Even his protesting fingers quieted, for he gave none of these attention.  He rose to hunker.  He focused on a single objective:  get into the house; save them.

As if the wind reasoned and strongly objected to his intentions, it increased its velocity, preventing his standing, and when he tried, staggered him back against the car door.  He foiled the wind’s plan by falling to his knees.  He crawled across the driveway.  He ignored the gravel biting his knees.  He crawled across the lawn, oblivious to the water stinging his wounds.  He put the house between himself and the malicious wind.  He stood and charged.

He struggled with the porch door, as if the storm was behind it, fighting his efforts.  With urgent anger, he reared and lunged at it.  It tricked him.  It opened freely.  The force of his assault sprawled him on the floor.  He scrambled in a mess of torn boxes, what felt like sand, what smelled like wine.  Yellow littered the porch, as if Iam and the children had partied in it.  But, no, it couldn’t have been.  There was the wine.  Nothing was consumed.  Everything was smashed and mashed and shredded and shattered. 

He yelled for Iam, for Dominic, for Dominica, but his voice vanished into the howling wind surging through the door.  Around him, the house issued discordant objection to the wind tearing it asunder.  The wind pulled the house this way and the house turned that way; the wind yanked it outward and the house tugged inward, and reversed when the wind did to oppose it.

He stood and advanced.  He dropped and crawled through more debris, cellophane wrapped toothbrushes, binkies, lint remover, the contents of the half bath dumped onto the floor.  He entered the living room.  The wind gave up its pursuit.  The house’s groans and creaks multiplied as it stepped up the assault on its exterior. 

He steadied himself.  Images danced on the television screen.  “Cinderella,” he muttered, Dominica’s favorite.  Glasses and plates scattered on the floor.  Snacks for watching the movie.  He envisioned them on the sofa, huddled, munching, frowning and laughing with the unreeling, Dominica, though she’d seen the movie a half-dozen times, bursting with anxiety, Iam reassuring everything would be fine; after all, it was always fine, and this time it would be no different.  And Dominica studying her doubtfully as if maybe, just maybe, this was the time it would turn out bad, real, real bad.

Voices followed, pierced the commotion, shrieks, sharp, high yelps, as if terror reigned in the kitchen, as if someone or something was dying; worse, as if his wife and his children were being murdered.

He dashed to the doorway.  The house rocked.  He grabbed the jamb to steady himself.  He saw a woman framed in the slider.  He didn’t recognize her.  He recognized the dress, frilled with pink ribbons, and the askew veil.  Iam.  Iam the bride, a bizarre vision of torment streaked with blood, flashing a knife, dashing into the storm. 

“Iam,” he screamed.  “I’m—wait, wait.  What are you doing?”

He hurtled himself off the jamb into the kitchen.  The room ambushed him with a maelstrom of projectiles, each seemingly aimed at him by an invisible nemesis, the conspirator, a satanic controller. 

He struggled forward and saw the chairs spring up and thud down, up and down, then spin, then tumble, and spin like tops, until one launched at him.  He attempted dodging it.  He lost his balance on the undulating floor.  The chair struck his legs out from under him.  He went down howling, as if a willful attacker had whacked him with a baseball bat.  Through his shriek, a word came to him faintly.  “Willy,” she called.  She needed him.  She was desperate. 

He fought to rise.  His left leg collapsed under him.  The pain lit up his brain and nearly extinguished his consciousness. 

“Iam,” he cried.  “Iam, Willy’s here.  Dominic.  Dominica.  Please.  Wait.”

The kitchen blasted away at him.  Cups, dishes, glasses, pot and pans, its full complement of artillery swirled and streaked and struck with sharp reports against the walls, the ceiling, the floor, and him. 

He dragged himself to the juddering table.  He sheltered himself beneath it.  As if the controller anticipated his purpose, the table toppled.  The edge gorged his left ankle.  He cried out in anguish from the searing pain, and from despair over his sorry, aborted rescue of his family.

In the sink, the lunch dishes and glasses and lemonade pitcher rattled.  Then the house gave a mighty twist and the floor thrust up.  The plates and glasses in the sink contributed their shattering demise to the cacophony of the kitchen.  The pitcher leapt from the sink, minus its handle, which added its chime to the dissonant noise of the kitchen.  It arched into the room.  It flipped end over end. 

Billy, who had looked to his knee and his ankle, turned back to see the pink lemonade pitcher the second before it careened off his head.  He didn’t see or hear it shatter on the floor beside him.


Mixed in the clatter and crashing to the rear and the howling and roaring to the front, Iam detected another sound, the faint bray of a pursuing animal.

Her eyes were fastened on Dominic and Dominica.  She was reluctant to detach them, even for a second.  She imagined her bead as a chain temporarily anchoring the children to the deck until she could latch onto the hands of each and drag them to a safer place, the windward shed or garage maybe, or even, if possible, to the van, and use it to do what she’d done before, escape.

But the call was a seductively familiar siren.  She clawed the slider to brace herself and glanced back.  Through the fusillade of house ware, shadowy in outline, was a thing, not upright like a human, a bent creature, flailing at the missiles, plowing toward her.  No, it was a man, she saw.  It bleated her name and the names of the children. 

“Billy,” she whispered. 

“Willy, Willy,” she screamed, stopping only when the wind drowned her call in rain, wrenched her from the slider, and pitched her onto the deck.  She fought it as it separated her from Dominic and Dominica.  It attacked her viciously, thrusting her off the deck, down the stairs, toward the yard, where it could shuttle her head over heels to the cornfield, where the black singularity loomed and advanced.  It would have, but she defeated it by hooking her arm, her hand still gripping the knife, around an open risers.  In an instant, Dominic and Dominica scuttled down the steps.  As they passed her, howling her name, they each seized a part of her, Dominic her free arm, Dominica her head. 

“Under the deck,” she yelled into Dominica.  “Under, under, now.  Dominic, get Dominica off me and get under.”

“No,” screamed Dominica.  “No.  I want my Mommy.”

“Dominic, please.”

An arm and hand tore at Dominica, tore, and tore, and finally yanked her from Iam’s head.

She saw the pair scurry down along her body and disappear. 

She released her grip.  She dropped to the ground.  She belly crawled under the deck.

“You okay?”  She felt her eyes bulging and the words issuing like an accusation.

“The knife, Mommy,” said Dominic.

She held the knife up to her swollen eyes, remembered its purpose, darted a glance at Dominica, recalled what she’d inflicted upon herself in defense of her daughter and her son, and began to unhand it.

Marcella, no.  It is the tool that will resurrect your Pater and through me bestow salvation on the world.  Use the tool on the girl now.  She’s a burden.  You can see that, wrapping herself around your head, endangering you, endangering the vessel, endangering our divine mission.  She will be a mightier burden after I am reborn, when you must devote yourself to my nurturing.  She will try to steal your attention from me.  You cannot allow this to come to pass.  Use the tool now.  Rid us of the encumbrance now.  Then bring the boy to the altar my Father builds for sacrifice and my new incarnation.  His finger from on high points to the spot, Marcella.  Follow it.

Dear, I implore you for all who depend upon you, on behalf of the children, Billy, and your poor aunt, who has lived in you and loved you every day since your birth, drop the knife, strike it into the ground, rid yourself of the beast’s instrument of destruction.  Don’t you see that when it speaks of salvation, it talks about its alone?  The monster cares nothing for us, cares not a wit for anybody but itself.  It wants to possess you, dear, and in possessing you gain new life.  Drop it, dear.

Marcella, oh that I could reach across the space of your mind and strangle the whore.  Loves you?  Loves herself, the selfish wench.  I discern clearly her motive.  I have lost none of my powers of discernment, little warrior.  I can penetrate her subterfuge, even if you cannot.  The motive she attributes to me is hers.  She uses you, Marcella.  She uses you for her own purpose.  It is a great, mortal sin she wishes—defying the will of God.  For I am of Him.  You know I am.  You have always believed I am.  Take the tool and inactivate the child.  When you do, you will also silence the Great Harlot.  We will be at peace and free to stand at the tip of God’s finger, where you will witness the promise of resurrection fulfilled, for in that instant the storm will vanish and salvation will begin.  The knife, Marcella.  The girl, Marcella.  Act like the warrior of the Anointed People you are.

Iam screamed, “Shut up.  Shut up.  The both of you leave me.  I want to run away from both of you.  I would rather be sucked into oblivion than listen to either of you for another minute.”

“Mommy, no,” cried Dominica.  “No.”

“Mommy, no,” pleaded Dominic.  “You can’t leave us.”

“We love you, Mommy,” whimpered Dominica.

Marcella, when you defy me, you defy God.  How dare you … you command your Pater to be silent? 

My, dear, how inappropriate of you.  You certainly must understand I wish nothing but the best for you.  To tell me to shut up.  I never.  But the storm, the creature, I suppose these are sufficient to put anybody off.  Though, I must tell you, I’ve been though some extraordinarily challenging episodes and have always managed to maintain my decorum.  However, I forgive you, because I love you as I love life, dear.

Father, will this harlot ever be quiet?  Will You not silence her and grant Marcella the power to bring forth the destinies You have willed for us?  Marcella, use the knife and let’s go to God.

“Not you.  Them.”

“Them who, Mommy?”

“Them, them from the box.  Them from the box you opened, Dominic.”

“I didn’t mean it.  I didn’t mean it, Mommy.”

“Them.  They are in here,” she cried, drumming her head with the knife’s hilt.  “They are in here and they won’t leave.”  She struck herself harder.  “Shut up.”  And harder.  “Leave me alone.”  And opened a wound that bled down her forehead and into her eyes.  “Please.  I beg both of you.”

“Mommy, you’re hurting yourself.  Stop hurting yourself,” cried Dominic.

“I’m scared, Mommy,” joined Dominica.

Iam laid her head down in the soil and sobbed.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  I can’t do it.  I can’t fight them by myself.”

“Runaway, Mommy.  Runaway from them, Mommy,” said Dominica, bringing her face to Iam’s and kissing her cheek through the blood and dirt.

“They won’t catch us if we run real fast, Mommy,” Dominic encouraged.

“The van,” Iam said, looking up, clearing the blood from her eyes.  “We’ll take the van.  We’ll drive away.  They won’t get what they want, neither of them.”

Dear, we are quite safe here.  We have shelter above us and we are low to the ground.  Remaining is the safe and sensible course.  Please, listen to me.  You are not acting rationally.  Allow me to take over, just for a while, to set things right.

Insufferable whore.  Run, Marcella.  Run to the finger of God.  Go.

The storm raged on.  It pounded the farm with rain.  It flashed with blinding light.  It crisscrossed the bruised sky with jagged streaks of pure white fire.  It sounded ear-splitting crescendos that lifted the earth upon which the three lay.  It gathered up the things of the earth and shot them in all directions, and those things dislodged more things, and they too rose on the current of the storm and intensified its destructive battering.

Iam turned herself.  She peered from under the deck to see the siding of the barn rippling, as if the storm had gotten a hand of its wind into it and was running fingers along the boards, until the boards could no longer resist and flew away, some pulling around and up toward the vortex, and some aiming in arching trajectories at the shed, the garage, and at the house and the deck.

She hesitated.

Now you are thinking sensibly, dear.  Let’s stay put.  We’re safe here.  You’re a good girl, dear.

What do you fear, Marcella?  My Father clears the way for you.  He litters the sky to stop our enemies.  You, Anointed One, mother of me, He used His ultimate power to protect you.  Go.

“I’m not listening.  I’m not.”

“What, Mommy?  Listening to what?” asked Dominic.

“The storm,” she said.  “Don’t let the noise scare you.  Hold my hands, the both of you, and run.  We’re running to the van.”

“The knife, Mommy,” said Dominic.  “Let go.”

She tried.  She couldn’t release it.  “I can’t.  I need it.”

“For what?” he asked.

“For you.”


“For … protection.  Take my wrist.  Dominica, grab my hand.  Come on, do it.  Let’s go.”

They scurried out from under into the open.  Iam jerked their arms to pause them.  She knelt and surveyed the short route past the garage to the gravel driveway.  She saw the car.  The engine was running and the lights were on.

“Billy,” she said.

“Daddy’s home,” cried Dominic.

“Daddy, help,” shouted Dominica.  “Help!”

Iam pictured Billy hunkered in the kitchen, fearing he was lost; she said, “Maybe he’s in the car.  Let’s go see.”

She pulled them into a crouch.  They ran toward the van and Billy’s car.  As they rounded the deck, explosions, piercing and rapid in succession, like gunshots, froze them.  She dropped onto the gravel with the children.  Next to them, the garage shattered and splinted and in front of them the gravel spit at them. 

“Cover your faces,” she yelled. 

They let go of her to shield themselves. 

Before she threw an arm over her own, she saw the reason.  The wind had torn the nascent corn buds from the stalks and was peppering the garage with them.

She felt Dominica rise.

“Stay down, Dominica.”

“Daddy,” she cried.  “I want Daddy.”


Before she could grab her, Dominica was up and a step into a dash to Billy’s car.  In that instant, the wind widened the swath of its assault.  A cob caught Dominica in the chest and blew her onto her back.


Iam tried to rise, to turn, but cobs pelted her and Dominic, driving them unto the gravel.

When the attack ceased, they turned to see Dominica rising and falling on a current of wind toward the black funnel.

She grabbed Dominic and ran to the deck.

“Get under.”

“No, Mommy.  I want to be with you.”

“Get under, Dominic.  It’s safer.”


He tempted her mightily to crack him in the head with the knife’s hilt and push him to safety.

“Let’s go,” she said.

As they pivoted in the direction of the cornfield and the approaching funnel, she glimpsed new light in the driveway.  Headlights, she thought, rescue squad, police, thank God, as she and Dominic raced to find Dominica, who had vanished.


“Padre mío, me pondrás a prueba, por mis pecados y probaré mi devoción hacia ti una vez más,” exclaimed Father Chapas at the sight looming north of County Road 25 behind the Brick house, its enormity reducing the house to a white spec.  He crossed himself three times, kissed his fist upon each signing, and with the last kiss came to a stop in the Brick driveway.

He parked behind the van and stared at the running car next to it.  Mr. Brick, Billy, he thought. 

A pang of disappointment stirred within him, as if the car conveyed a diminishment of his holy mission.  But, no, it did not.  It was the demon at work, attempting to weaken and divert him with the sins of envy and jealously and coveting and rivalry.  Resiste, Chapas.  Piensa, Chapas.  Billy was here to save the impermanent body of Maryam.  He was here to save the immortal soul of Maryam. 

“Gracias, Father, gracias,” he prayed, as he pushed against the car door and edged himself out onto the gravel driveway.

The storm nearly slammed the door on his fingers.  Father Chapas, God’s knight under God’s protection, yanked his hand away as the door grazed his fingertips.  As if spiteful, the storm sent a blast of wind his way.  The blow rolled him along the side of the car and at its end launched him into the air.  In a vicious shift, it next leapt above him and swatted him onto the gravel.

He wanted to lie for a minute, to find his breath, to rub the pain from his limbs, but the storm fired another salvo at him that sent him tumbling toward County Road 25.

“Detente, diablo.  Detente.”

It ignored him, changed direction again, and bowled him off the driveway and onto the Brick front lawn of swamped grass, muck, and wreckage.  There it paused, as if mulling new torments for the priest. 

Father Chapas spied the front porch through the blur of deluge and took advantage of the reprieve.  He sprinted on hands and knees to the steps, to the shelter of the house, and through the gaping entrance, looked into the mess of yellow garbage.

“¿Qué? ¿Tu obra del mal, demonio,” he said, scrambling in the tatters of his yellow basket, through more scattered destruction into the living room, praying the house would cease its gyrations so he could get off his throbbing knees. 

The demon seemed to hear his accusation, for from inside issued a piercing cry, either of pain or anger or both Father Chapas couldn’t tell mixed as it was with the roar of the storm and the complaints of the house.

He pushed to his feet, steadied himself on the swaying floor and shuffled cautiously to the doorway.  He peered in expecting a horrid manifestation of the devil.  What he saw was a man prostrate on the floor. 

“Mr. Brick,” he shouted, “Billy, it is Father Mario.”

The house bucked violently, toppling the refrigerator and the stove. 

Father Chapas fell back and landed on his backside.  He spun himself around and crawled into the kitchen next to Billy.

“Mr. Brick, Billy, can you hear me.  It is Father Mario.”

“Father,” Billy groaned, “Iam, the children.”  He raised a hand and pointed to the slider.

Father Chapas lined his sight along Billy’s finger and saw the blue flame spreading from the stove to the floor.

“You are injured, Mr. Brick.  A tornado is here.  The house is burning.  I will help you.”

“No, Iam, the children.”

Father Chapas crawled pass the fire to the slider.  He saw the deck pummeled by rain and debris.  Back he went to Billy.

“Vamos,” he said.

“No, Iam, the children.  Leave me.”

“No, I cannot.  I will save Iam.  God has ordained I will.  But first, I must help you, Mr. Brick.  Come.  Arriba.”

“I can’t.  My ankle, my knee.”

Father Chapas hastily inspected Billy’s wounds.  Painful and crippling, yes, but there was no choice and little time.  He urged Billy up.  He threw Billy’s right arm over his shoulder and supported him.  Together, they hobbled across the bucking floor pass the flames to the slider.

“One more step, Mr. Brick,” Father Chapas said, when the house and the wind teamed against them.  The house jolted up and Father Chapas and Billy flew with it.  Father Chapas lost his hold on Billy when their feet thudded on the floor.  Billy shrieked and collapsed, half in the kitchen, half on the deck.

Father Chapas got to his hands and knees as the house lurched left and right, up and down, as if it had a will, and that will’s purpose was to stop him.  The house’s thrusting raised the volume of clatter in the kitchen to where it surpassed the howling of the storm.  Objects hurled left and right, and one secure throughout the maelstrom dislodged and shot up, hit the ceiling and repelled with doubled velocity downward, tail first, the tail a blue blade that plummeted and sliced into the neck of Father Chapas. 

Father Chapas jerked and bellowed with surprise and pain and fell over onto his back, banging the clock against the floor, hammering the tail deeper into his flesh, until it broke clean through the other side to protrude within the priest’s peripheral vision.

“Padre, lo siento.  Te he fallado,” he wailed, watching his blood spill down the plastic tail and off the tip onto the floor, certain he was witnessing his own death. 

But when he saw the blood trickling, not gushing, he traced a hand along his neck.  The blue blade had imbedded itself in the outer muscle and had not cut his carotid. 

“Gracias, Padre misericordioso,” he muttered, reaching up and grasping what had attacked him.  With his other hand, he held the tail at its base.  He closed his eyes, said, “Padre, protégeme,” and snapped.  He sat up and examined the blue cat clock.  “Usted diablo,” he said, and pitched it into the kitchen.  He felt the tail.  The wound hurt, but there was little bleeding.  He would have plenty of time later to remove it, but not now for fear that bleeding would impair his mission.

“Mr. Brick, we must rush,” he said.  “Mr. Brick.”

Billy lay as if dead.  Father Chapas felt his neck for a pulse.  Billy was unconscious but alive. 

Father Chapas stood and crouched.  He secured Billy under the arms and dragged him across the deck, down the stairs, to the foot of the deck.

“God will watch over you here, Mr. Brick,” he said, rolling Billy underneath the deck.

He scurried into the yard, over splinted boards and rocks and corn stalks and nascent cobs, to survey and find Iam and the children.  He couldn’t stand erect.  The wind blew too fiercely.  The rain proved too driven.  The air was too thick with remnants of life.  He couched and looked around.  He saw the cars and the van.  He saw the garage.  The roof was half off.  No, he thought, they are not there.  He moved toward the barn.  It jigged to the storm’s howl.  The remaining siding boards pulsed in and out and up and down.  The roof lifted and settled, lifted again.  He prayed it wasn’t her refuse, for as he watched, the barn finished its dance by flinging its roof up as a whole into the spinning air, where it exploded, and then reformed into a stringy line of shingles and beams and splinters that rocketed out over the field and ascended into the swirling black cone.  As he followed, his eye caught white reflections in the distance, and he thought, Maryam, the children.  No, a child, and she on her knees, as if in meditative prayer.  No, not prayer, for he saw her raise an arm, and at the end of the arm, the light of the storm glinted.

“Maryam, no!” he shouted.  “No!  Wait.  It is Father Mario.”

The storm devoured his words and he knew she could not hear him.  Even if she could, he knew she would ignore him.  Because his soul told him that evil possessed her.  It closed her ears to his cries.  It shut her eyes to his summoning of her.  It lifted her arm.

He yelled anyway.  “Maryam, wait.  Wait.  No.”

He signed himself.  “Protégela a ella y a los niños, Padre, y dame fortaleza.

He tore off his raincoat.  The wind tossed his surplice into his face.  He slapped it down.  The wind tried to steal his purple stole.  He wound it around his neck.  It pulled at his raincoat.  He removed his sick call kit from its pocket and let the wind snatch the coat.  He opened the kit and removed the crucifix.  He wished he could use the rites book, but the wind would shred it, possessed, as it seemed to be, by evil.  He would rely on his memory and, with the help of God, be as perfect as possible.

He raised the crucifix to the tumultuous sky and ran toward Iam, the child, and the funnel bearing down them, crying, “Evil Spirit, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in the mysteries of the incarnation, in the suffering and death of God as man, and of Jesus coming again to judge the living and the dead, I command you.  I command you, Evil One.  Obey the word of the Lord!  Obedece, le ordenó.”


Cease, Marcella, no more.  I am stuffed with your defiance.  Your disobedience is unworthy of the Anointed Mother; you, the mortal woman selected by my Father from the billions to renew my life, to raise me, and to march by my side in the final crusade, the Great Climax foretold by the divinely inspired John.  It is the time I’ve awaited.  The end, it is coming, and I am recalled to life to bring it on.  Marcella, see, witness how prophecy is realized.  Look, it is as it was written:  I cometh with clouds, and every eye will see me.

Dominic in hand, Iam dropped to her knees in the ravaged field.  She embraced her son, and froze in the commotion of destiny’s advancing fulfillment.

“Mommy, please, run.  Run,” begged Dominic, rebelling against her bloody embrace.

You fear for the girl, Marcella, like a mother.  It is right a good mother should worry for her children.  However, do not trouble yourself over the fate of the girl.  My Father, the most gentle of caretakers, has scooped her into His Eternal Arms.  He will care for her as another child of His reincarnated son’s mother.  Little warrior, the time is upon us.  A great and marvelous deed waits on your devotion and courage.  Lay the vessel on the ground.  It is hallow earth, and soon to be sanctified and exalted by His Sacred Touch.  It will be as perfect an altar as that fashioned by Abraham at His command.  Lay down the vessel, Marcella.

“No,” she whimpered, clutching Dominic tighter, feeling his breath enter her through the gashes streaking her chest, binding mother and son again like a life cord.  “No.  Please, no.”

Dear, pick yourself up, brush off the spell of the beast, and run.  Listen to the one who cuddled you as a girl.  Listen to our sweet boy, Dominic.  You must run or the three of us will perish.  It is a demon who seduces you, and it is a foul and cruel tornado that will kill us, if you do not move.

Prostrate the vessel.  God commands it, Marcella.  Emulate Abraham, God’s trusting servant, the unwavering and unquestioning believer.  Validate your true faith, as Abraham did his.  God gives life.  God does not destroy life.  God can do no wrong.  Therefore, what will transpire will be good.  My Father makes a promise to you, Marcella.  You shall conceive in your womb a blessing for all the nations of the earth, because you accepted the New Annunciation.  You, the New Divine Mother, will save the world through me.  Lay down the vessel and fulfill the wish of my Father. 

Yielding to a deep yearning for salvation, to the long ago connection of community and acceptance, to gratitude for the courage to escape from a horrid old life, and to an entity who still enwrapped her in his bewitching magic, she said, “Lie down, Dominic.”

“No, Mommy, run.”

“Dominic, you must lie down.  To lie down is to be safe in the arms of the Father.”

Dominic looked from Iam to the funnel drilling an erratic but immutable path through the field to them.  He hammered Iam’s weeping chest.  He shook off Iam’s weakened grasp.  He freed himself and ran from the funnel toward the house.

Follow him, dear.  This is no time to allow the ghosts of the past to fog your mind or to retreat into our pleasant world.  Follow Dominic.  Follow him to safety. 

Chase him, Marcella.  Seize the impudent rascal.  He defies God like a progeny of Lucifer.  After him.

Iam obeyed their orders.  She darted after Dominic, impervious to the lashing of the wind and rain, the flashing and the claps of thunder.  She caught him before he gained the yard.  She grabbed his arm.  He fought.  She overpowered him and turned him to the funnel.  She secured him with her arms.  She forced him to his knees and knelt with him.  She gazed upon the rotating tower of destructive wind and rain, of uprooted farming and shattered industry, a pinpoint apocalypse, in fixed supplication, and her arms transformed to unbreakable steel bands around him.

Dear, you were doing very nicely for a while.  Back in the house and in the yard, you stood up to the monster.  How proud I was of you.  I nearly burst my buttons with pride.  Did you sense my admiration?  But now, well, this will not do.  You must refute the creature.  If you cannot, allow me to step in.  I possess the will and the strength, and most important, sweet ladybird, the love.

Excellent, Marcella.  I have changed my mind and compliment you.  He is not a son of Satan but a lively sprite, a delight of energy.  Yes, you have presented your Pater with a feisty vessel.  Such vitality, it is all I desired the night of our trinity.  I knew you were the one; you would do justice to your Pater.  I’m sure I will be an exemplary son to you; though, judging by the boy’s fiery inclination, I may occasionally try you as well, as I mature and depart you to go make real my Father’s mission.  As I will demand your toughness, so the vessel requires it now.  Subdue the vessel with the hilt of Abraham’s Tool, as a mercy, and then open it for my entry.

Dear, please, I implore you.  Allow me to assume control.  This beast exerts a deathly power over you.  The creature always has.  But I have hardened to it.  I see the monster with sober eyes.  It is no savior.  It is death.  It is no god.  It is the devil.  It seduces and manipulates, dear.  The thousands who believed in it, the one hundred forty-four, and others, who died at its will, your friend Emily—who saw the truth too late—among them, they believed it.  It rewarded their faith with holocaust.  Oh, how I regret the clipping, dear.  I planted the idea in you of saving it as a remembrance and as a warning, not as the hex it has become.  I felt the beast’s power from the first.  I sensed it insinuate itself into you in Paradise.  I hoped you would remember the destruction; that you understood it could happen again.  And now the beast wishes to take you, the family, and my life.  No, I will not stand for it.  Please, before it can inflict further harm, release me.  Release me, dear.

Your words seep into me like reeking sewage, you blasphemous whore, you, the one rightfully called nutburger.  Marcella, the Anointed People are saved.  This very moment, above us, all partake of the fruit in my Father’s gardens.  What we strived for on earth, they reap in heaven.  And though Osma betrayed your Pater, my mercy and the mercy of my Father shine on her and she is forgiven of her most treacherous sin.  Lift your striking hand to God, Marcella, and prepare the vessel for the miracle of my resurrection.

She raised her hand grasping the knife, slowly, as if the instrument had fed on what suffused her, as if her renewed doubt had weighted the sacrificial tool and rendered it unwieldy.  At the apex, as she was about to slam the hilt onto Dominic’s bobbing head, a voice came to her in patches.  “Evil Spirit,” it intoned.  “Jesus,” it implored.  “Command,” it cried.  “Obedece,” it asserted.  She stopped.  She froze.  Though the storm thrashed her face with stinging rain, she felt the tears spill down her cheeks, and she tasted them in her mouth. 

Next, the words washed over her in a torrent of exhortation.

“Evil One.  Unholy Demon.  Obey me.  You must obey.  By the agony of our Lord Jesus Christ, by His Holy Resurrection, by His promise of eternal life in the presence of the Eternal Father, by the good works and the sacrifices and the sufferings of all the Saints in Heaven, by the certainty of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the last days to judge the living and the dead, to raise up the righteous and to cast down the unrighteous, reveal yourself, reveal yourself and any minions who may be aiding you.  Revelas y respuesta a la Verdadera Palabra de Dios.

Why, my goodness me, dear, my toes tingle with relief and joy.  My heart throbs.  He is here.  Our Disinherited Knight has materialized.  And lo and behold, he is the priest.  He is the priest who has set his cap for us.  Oh, how simply scrumptious.  Sir Holy Knight.  Sir Templar.  Sir True Knight Templar, the uncorrupted guardian and defender of pilgrims.  Look, he even wears the white tunic.  He flourishes the weapon of the cross.  He is our gallant Sir Mario of Holy Redemption.  Señor Mario de Santa María.  Dear, you simply must release me this very instant.  Our holy warrior and I will expel your Pater.  We possess the will and the might.  You will be free.  We will live.  Release me, dear, now.

Through her tears, the rain, the wind, in the white flashes, through the tumult in her head, she saw Father Chapas hovering over her, as if a descended Michael, a vision of piety in his flapping stole and billowing surplice. 

Father Chapas stared down on her.  He signed her with the cross, and lowered the crucifix to her forehead.

“I invoke the divine power of the Father, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit,” he chanted three times.  “Show yourself, Evil One.  You cannot resist the true word of the true Lord.”  His face was grim, as befitted his mission, but his eyes blazed, she thought, with empathy and love. 

Father Chapas gazed upon her with compassion and horror at her wounds, with surprise at how blood and water had mixed and dyed her dress pale pink, with pleasure at how the muted hue flattered her, with concupiscence at how so much it was like he imagined her flesh.

He flinched and shuddered at the vision, and shouted into the roiling sky, “You demon.  You deceiver.  You unholy sorcerer.  You are unclean and you spew your filth on all who cross your sinful path.  You exploit the weakness of man, Evil One.  I confessed to the only God that I am servant unworthy of the True Light.  In His infinite mercy, He has shown me my sin, and He has absolved me.  He has strengthened me so I may resist your temptations, Condemned One.  In his Divine Name, I expulse your deception from me as I would regurgitate foul, poisoning bile.  Now, reveal yourself.  The Father commands it.”

“I am the Pater,” mouthed Iam, relinquished to him.  “I am the son of God.  I am the Lord you worship and serve.”

Father Chapas probed Iam’s eyes, plumbing for her immortal soul and the demon devouring it.

“You are a blasphemer.  You are an invading foe.  You are an unholy worm.  You are the enemy of faith and you feast on its annihilation.  Eres el enemigo de la raza humana.  You wish us nothing but destruction.  You wish this poor creature of God eternal suffering.  You have already injured her.  You will hurt her no más.”

“Priest, observe yourself.  Heed yourself, you pathetic fraud.  Open your ears to hear the good news from me, pretender.  Here is my mother to be.  Heed what I promise her:  for behold, henceforth all generations will call the mother of Pater blessed.”

“You vile abominator.  You prove your villainy with your slander and your defamation of the true and only Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary.  You are a demon and the root of evil.”

“You stupid shaman.  I am foretold.  I am come to end the wickedness.  Hear the word, you witchdoctor who dresses like a trooper in my ministerial corps.  ‘A whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself; and a brightness about it, and out of the midst thereof as the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire.’  It is my Father, as prophesized by the ancients, come to give me new life and send me on my mission to deliver His wrath upon a sinful world.”

“You are a fiend.  You are an equivocator.  You are an unholy prism.  You mold the True Word to your unholy purpose.  No, Evil One, the Lord comes in the clouds to summon His Watchman.  He says to the Viligante:  ‘In my fury I will let loose storm winds, because of my anger there shall be a flooding rain and hailstones shall fall with destructive wrath—'”

“Shut your heathen mouth, false priest.”

“He says, ‘I will tear down the wall you have whitewashed and level it to the ground, laying bare its foundations.  When it falls, you shall be crushed beneath it; thus you shall know that I am the Lord.’  Those are the True Words of God told by a True Prophet, demon.  This display of God’s wrath will not end until you release His faithful servant woman.”

As he spoke, Father Chapas nested the crucifix under his arm.  He opened his sick call kit.  He removed his sprinkler and bottle of holy water.  He closed the kit, reached under his surplice, and jammed it into his pants pocket.  He filled his sprinkler and discarded the bottle, working in a veil of tranquility he had not experienced in months, perhaps ever, at peace in the swirl of the storm and in the face of incarnate evil. 

Dear, our noble priest certainly has taken the measure of your Pater.  Let’s you and me together give the beast the heave ho.  Life within us will be much pleasanter without him.  Come on, dear, out, out, damn spot, for he is a cursed blot on our happiness.  Let the knightly priest have him.  Now, heave ho.

“You are gravely mistaken, false priest, misguided retainer of mine, who is truly of the Father,” spoke Iam, in deep, stiff annunciation.  “I am come to end your wickedness.  You are a sinner, false priest.  I feel your sinfulness as if it were stamped upon your forehead in hot, crimson stigma.  You are a counterfeit, are you not?  You are a strange, priest.  Your sin, you counterfeit priest, is lust.  Yes, it is, you randy red-dicked fake.  Come on, you pagan priest, show us the seat of your faith.  Take out your swollen holy wand and sprinkle us with your holy spunk.  While you stroke, for you most assuredly must suffer the punishment of impenitence as well, we will prepare for my return.”

Dear, you understand what you are doing.  You are permitting the creature to assume control of us.  You understand the consequences.  He will doom us, you, Dominic, Dominica, Billy, and me.  All of us will die if you continue to allow this.  Dear, I love you and have stood by you.  When you were a child, I was your mother.  I love you, dear.  I do not wish to see you die.  Push the beast aside for a moment.  Open the door for me, dear.  Between you and me, I am the stronger one.  In alliance with the quixotic priest, we can send the beast home to Hell.  Life will be idyllic with it purged, dear.  You will live in a garden without cares, my sweet love.  I promise.  Just open the door for me.

Regaining herself, Iam pleaded, “Help me, Father Mario.”

“Lower the knife, child,” he urged, she a veiled bleeding Madonna in his eyes.

“I can’t, Father.  He will not let me.”

“Allow Dominic to come to me.”

“I can’t, Father.  He needs my son.”

“For what purpose, Mir— Mrs. Brick?”

“For his resurrection, Father.”

“Evil One, I summon you.  Ven a mí.”

Lost once more, Iam curled her lips in a grotesque mimic of a smile and, like a misbehaving child, stuck her tongue out and wagged it at him.

“Evil Spirit,” declared Father Chapas, shaking the sprinkler over Iam’s head, “you cannot resist the blessed water of God.  I cleanse you from this poor servant.  I wash away your foulness with it.”

Iam laughed.  “Father, holy one, ordained servant of God, dildo your ass with sprinkler and your holy water.  You are a pitiful excuse for a man of God.  You are a pitiful excuse for a man.”

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I expel you, Evil One.”

Iam’s laugh rose above the roar of the funnel.  “Behold this, holy man, ‘I am your God, and I am against thee, and draw forth my sword out of his sheath against all the flesh from the south to the north.  Seeing then that I will cut off from thee the righteous and the wicked.  Sigh therefore with the breaking of they loins!'” 

She whipped the knife down and thrust it between his legs. 

Father Chapas staggered back, howling, but held firmly the cross and the sprinkler.

“You are what you wish to be, are you not?  You are a eunuch to better praise your Lord and master.  Gelding takes your feeble mind off of desires that should not occupy it.  It is my favor to you.  Now, be off.  I have my Father’s work to attend to.  Lay down the vessel, Marcella.  I am ready.  The laughable holy man has refreshed my vigor.”

“You cannot harm me, Evil One.  You cannot dissuade me.  You can fight me, but you cannot win,” cried Father Chapas, convulsed in agony, yet still presenting the cross and sprinkler by the grace of preternatural resolve.

“Watch yourself, disgusting eunuch, or you’ll find more than your little red cock and shriveled marbles separated from you.”

“I am like David, who defeats giants.”

“Are you, now?  And like your hero would you kill for your pleasure, too?”

“I am forgiven by God, and strengthened by His forgiveness.  ‘The Lord is my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.'”

“Listen, half man, ‘A sword, a sword is sharpened, and also furbished.  It is sharpened to make a sore slaughter,'” exclaimed Iam’s voice, her arm flashing the knife.

“‘He is my rock of refuge, my shield, my saving horn, my stronghold.'”

“Enough volleying of scripture.  It is time to open the vessel.”

Lightning flashed and thunder reverberated under them as Iam sprang into action.  She threw Dominic to the ground and pounced on him, pinning his arms with her legs.  She placed her free hand under his chin, pushed his head back, and braced and tilted it to expose his neck.  She brought the blade down.  She rested it on his throat.  She squeezed the hilt and began to draw it across his neck.  She squeezed more and fought her trembling hand.  She screamed, “Aunt Margie, take me into your bed.”

Oh, dear, come; come to me.  See the room and the treasured Jasperware and the warm bed and the protective covers; and watch as I lift them for you.  Do as you did as a little girl.  Shelter yourself under the covers.  That’s right, dear, scoot down.  Get comfortable as I lower them onto you and snuggle close to you.  Oh, isn’t this delightful?

“As nice as I remember, Aunt Margie.  It’s so warm and safe; I never want to leave.”

How dare you, you  miserable old hag bitch?  You really presume you are capable of stealing her from me?  She is my life.  She is the fulfillment of a great prophecy.  It is God’s will you tamper with.

“Here’s how,” screamed Iam, flinging the knife over the head of Father Chapas, who had sunk to his knees.

You witch.  Marcella, expel her.

“Dominic,” cried Iam, gathering the hysterical boy into her arms, “Dominic, I am sorry.  Forgive me.”

“Mommy, you were going to kill me.”

“No, not me.  It, something that possessed me, Dominic.  Something from the box.  It wanted to hurt you.  But it won’t.  It won’t.  Do you understand me, Dominic?”

“Yes, Mommy.  It was a bad thing.”

“Oh, Dominic, it was a very bad thing, a terrible monster.  But it’s gone, and I love you, Dominic, I love you so much.  Now listen.  I want you to get up, get up and run to the house.  Run to the house and get under the deck.”

“I’m afraid, Mommy.”

“I’ll be behind you, Dominic, after I help Father Chapas.  But you must not wait for me.  You must go now.  The tornado is almost on us.  Run as fast as you can.  Go, now, dear, lovely boy.”

Dominic was on his feet hugging and kissing Iam.  She returned each, kiss for kiss, while pushing him away, urging him to run to the safety of the deck; until, finally, he was reconciled to her wish and off.

“Father Chapas, I’m so very sorry for letting this happen to you,” she said, kneeling before him and taking his face in her hands, touching the blue blade protruding from his neck.  “The cat, such a sweet thing, such a thoughtful gift, it was possessed and transformed into a doer of evil.  You’ve suffered for me, Father, and for your agony, I offer you the only chaplet at hand, these kisses.”  She kissed his forehead, each cheek, and his lips, a cuneiform of tender brushes.  “You are blessed, Father Mario.  Forgive me, Father.”

“It wasn’t you, Mrs. Brick.  It was the demon.  It has been the demon all along.”

Marcella, what is this, allowing my vessel to run from his predestined duty?  What is this outrage?  I am Pater.  I am of the Father.  I am who you believe in.  You are the Anointed One.  You are to be my mother.  You are to be the new Queen of the Heavens.  Why do you deny me?

Pater, forgive me.

“Poppycock and dribble.  His name is Pater.  He believes he is the son of God.  He wishes to be born again.  But, Father, he is the devil.  He is the epitome of evil.  He is crazy.  He wanted me to kill our son.  He wanted to enter our son’s body and come back to life.  He wanted to rule the world, and destroy it, too.  Father, please, I beg you.  Expel him.  Exorcize him.  Take him from us and cast him down to burn forever in Hell.”

“Help me, Mrs. Brick.” 

Father Chapas, dazed, in shock, but still gripping the crucifix and the sprinkler, raised his elbows.  Iam placed her hands under his arms.  He pushed himself up and she helped lift him into a crouch.

You have given yourself over to the old whore.  Marcella, your sin against your Pater is most grievous.  You are like your amita, Osma, a betrayer.  You are a Judas, Marcella, a Judas bitch.

“Please, my sick call kit.  In my pocket, Mrs. Brick.”

She reached into his pants pocket, moist with his blood, and removed it.

“Open it.  The rites book.”

She did as he instructed.

“I am weakened and cannot remember it perfectly, so I must read it.  Luke ten.  Yes, please hold the book steady.”

I was right about you, Marcella.  You are the Great Harlot.  You are the Great Whore of Babylon.  Like a whore, you sell yourself to any man, Ricky and his amigos, Lukas and Fabian, and who knows how many others.  Would your husband like you if he knew you were a whore, a whore from the beginning, a whore with another wetback, this one who calls himself a priest but who lusts for you?  Would he like you then, Marcella, as the whore you are?

“Mrs. Brick, the passage, quickly.”

She placed the sick call kit between her legs and battled the wind to find the section Father Chapas requested.  But the clatter in her head distracted her and she could not steady the book in front of Father Chapas’s eyes. 

“Father, it is a cruel beast.  Hurry, Father, and rid us of him,” she said, steadying herself, thrusting the book at him. 

He recited, “This is the word of the True Lord and you must obey it, Evil One.  ‘I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.  Behold, I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you.'” 

The power of the word coursed through him and he straightened from his crouch. 

“Father, are you able?”

He nodded.  “Turn the pages, Mrs. Brick.  There, stop.  Hear how the True Lord protects and heals His chosen, and condemns serpents like you, Evil One.  Listen and depart His servant.  ‘In My name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages.  They will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.  They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.'”

He smiled at her.  “Hold these, Mrs. Brick.  I will take the book and the kit.”

After the exchange, Father Chapas removed the pyx.  He pushed the sick kit into his pants pocket.  He said, “Kneel, Mrs. Brick.”

“Yes, Father, but the tornado.”

He glanced back at the funnel that was nearly upon them.

“I believe God sent it to us.  It is here to serve a holy purpose, Mrs. Brick, and it will wait for us.  Bow your head.”

She breathed, “Oh, my, but you are as cool as a cucumber.”

“What, Mrs. Brick?”

“Nothing, Father, except that I am at the mercy of God.”

“God is all merciful and all forgiving.  We can commit no offense that God will not forgive us for.  As long as we are sorry and make our amends with Him, He will forgive us, for we are His creations and He loves us.”

“Thank you, Father.”


She bowed and he laid a hand on her head.  “You, Evil One, Great Tormentor, Eternal Liar, Vicious Serpent, you claim you are a god and you wish to be born into the world again.”

Marcella, or nutburger, whichever is leading this insurrection against me, tell this voodoo priest he is mine and he serves me and I will be recalled to life.

The kneeling figure repeated Pater’s words as he spoke them.

“How, Evil One, do you plan to be reborn?”

I will defeat you.  I will retake what is mine.  I will retrieve the vessel the woman prepared for me.  I will open him and gut him and cleanse him like a holocaust offering and I will enter his sanctified cavity and breathe life into it and set about the work of my Father.

She repeated the words as they were pronounced in her mind.

“A boy.  Who would believe a boy, Evil One?  You would wait years for power.  But, why wait, when you can fulfill your destiny immediately?”

No, we can’t allow this Aunt Margie.

Quiet, Marcella.  The priest sets forth a sensible proposition.  Ask who the vessel might be, though I believe I know.

She obeyed.  “Who?”

“Me,” declared Father Chapas.

You.  You are pitiable.  A lovesick priest.  A dickless priest.  The little warrior sliced and diced your dick balls for you.

She spoke the Pater’s words and thought, Aunt Margie, please, do not allow this

“You shock me Evil One who professes godlike powers.  Are your powers so weak you cannot mend what you have broken?”

My powers are beyond your comprehension, you puny excuse for a man, you wetback, you Indian, you crossbred mutant.

The taunts spilled from her.

“Evil One, I am like Thomas.  ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in His hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into His side—'”

You are either an unbeliever, despite all the accouterments of your priestly office, or a fox.  I think you are a fox.

Her lips curled, and Father Chapas noted how she resisted the spirit’s manipulation of her.  He smiled with understanding and encouragement that soon her suffering would end.

“As a priest, I can help you in your mission by giving you access to believers.  As a fox, I can help you build an empire on earth.”

Slyness is a virtue in a holy man, priest. 

His eyes told her she was forgiven everything. 

“I wish only to absolve this woman of her sins and give her the body of Christ.”

Proceed.  I will watch and learn.

Father Chapas steadied himself against the cyclonic wind.  He carefully opened the pyx.  He removed a host.  He closed and pocketed the pyx.

“Child of God, you are a sinner, as are we all.  God, in His infinite mercy, forgives you, for there is no sin He will not forgive the children He loves.”

“Thank you, Father,” Iam replied.

“Let us pray with confidence in the words our Savior gave us.  Our Father …” and they recited the pray together.

When they finished, Father Chapas held the host before her eyes. 

“This,” he intoned, “is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Happy are we who are called to His supper.”

“Lord,” she said, “I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

She opened her mouth and he laid the host on her tongue.  It was as it had been when she was a girl.  As the host melted, she felt her body glow with hope and peace, and the world changed.  In her eyes, Father Chapas stood tall and serene.  He exuded life and holiness.  Over his head appeared a golden nimbus, and from it radiated a golden shaft of light.  It pierced the black and green sky and rose up, up, an infinite ray of goodness that, she believed, issued from the spirit of God.  And around him, the nimbus spread, until the world was gold and unbearable, not because it hurt, but because the joy of goodness was more than a mortal could bear.

Then, for the first time that day, and, perhaps, for years, she felt free.  Her pain, her sorrow, it vanished.  She was tranquil, even as she gazed into the world and saw Father Chapas recede from her.  He disappeared and the house she ran to replaced him. 

Faintly, she heard his voice.  “Corre, Maryam, te he liberado. Ahora está en mí, no mires hacia atrás.  Corre.

She looked back to the voice and found Father Chapas.  His golden cloak was gone and he had turned to face the funnel that was upon him.  She wanted to cry out to him, but she couldn’t; she had no voice.  She could only watch as he spread his arms to embrace the funnel, and it took him up into itself.  He rose to it spinning like a pinwheel, arms and legs splayed.  He was a man with five points; he was a pentagram, she thought, a symbol of the evil captured within him.  From him, the winds stripped away the stole, the surplice, and all his clothing.  After he was as God had created him, his legs came together and she saw him as the symbol of sacrifice; saw that he was victorious; that he had defeated the Evil One, the Evil Pater, Creature, Beast, and Monster.  And then the funnel swallowed him.

“Mommy,” shouted Dominic, who had fallen at the edge of the yard.  “Mommy, help.  Fast, the tornado.”

She caught Dominic’s hand.  She jerked him up.  They raced for the deck, until she brought them to a sharp stop.

“What?” cried Dominic.

“Look,” she said, pointing to Billy’s white work shed.

Atop the shed, clinging to the peaked roof spine was Dominica.

“Dominica,” yelled Dominic.  “Dominica, we’re coming.”

They trotted to the shed, where they urged Dominica to slide to the ground.  She required a minute of frantic coaxing before she skidded off the roof and on to them.

“The wind put me there.”

“Do you hurt anywhere?”

“No,” she said, “but my chest feels punched.”

“The baby corncobs,” said Dominic.

“Mean babies,” said Dominica.

“Okay, children, we can sort it out when we are safe under the deck.  Let’s go.”

“It’s on fire,” cried Dominic.

Iam shielded her eyes.  She saw the glow of fire in the kitchen.

“We don’t have other options,” she said.

She gathered Dominic and Dominica, one under each arm, and dashed with them for the deck.  As they ran, the funnel assaulted them with debris that struck and seared like BBs.

“It’s skipping,” cried Dominic.

They looked and ran.  The funnel zigzagged this way and that, an undisciplined terror that teased with the hope it might bypass them and tormented with the inevitability it would grind them to pulp. 

They arrived at the deck as the funnel crossed into the yard on a direct course for the house.

“Under, under, quick,” Iam shouted.

Dominica squirmed under.  Dominic followed, with Iam right behind him.

“Daddy,” yelled Dominica.  “It’s Daddy.”

Dominic scurried next to her and both stared at their father, afraid to touch him, fearing he might be dead.

Iam wedged herself between the children.  Billy was stretched out on his stomach.  She ran a finger across his forehead.  He was burning with fever, but he was alive.  She reached a hand under his chest and felt the beat of his heart.

“He’s hurt, but he’s alive.”

“Can I kiss him?” asked Dominica.

“Me, too,” said Dominic.

“Yes, but be gentle.  It’s better he sleeps until this is over.”

They each pecked his exposed cheek, leaving little lip prints in the dirt and blood that coated his skin.

As they crawled back from him, an explosion rocked the ground and a few seconds later the planks above them erupted under terrifying pounding, howling and throbbing as objects beat down on them.

“What?” said Dominic.

She shifted herself to view into the yard.

“The garage,” she said.  “The garage is gone.”

“The tornado?” said Dominic.

“It’s gone, too,” she said.  “It’s heading back into the field, heading south.”

She was about to add, “We’re safe,” when shingles and boards and glass and gardening tools and everything else that was in the garage showered down in force on the deck and the yard.

“Get back,” she commanded.  “Get back, away from the opening.”

As she turned away from the sight of garage remnants bouncing and skidding across the yard, a spade she often used thudded and pinged on the ground and careened under the deck.  The handle struck the back of her head.

“Mommy,” the children screamed.

She didn’t hear.  She couldn’t hear them.  She was gone.


Beautiful.  Wonderful.  Marvelous. 

Iam didn’t tire of singing the words over and over whenever she gazed at the grounds that were much more than a garden or a park; that she colored as an Edenic preserve.  Her pastoral vista was tranquility itself, and she was, for the most part, at peace. 

Her portion of Eden was perpetually green.  The air was a constant of warmth and sweetly fragranced.  Flowers bloomed unendingly.  Trees offered up succulent fruit of any variety she desired, and the harvest was limitless. 

When she wished to sit, a lovely white wrought iron bench presented itself. 

When she wished a walk, a level path led her through forests and meadows, by ponds, and the ocean, if the sea was what she desired. 

When she wearied and wished to retire, a cottage, or house, or apartment appeared, decorated to match her vision of a home, changing in accord with her imagination. 

When she entered, the interior contained everything to satisfy her needs—food, beverages, utensils, chairs, and beds.

When she clothed herself, she could dress as her mood dictated, for fashionable apparel of different designs from different periods always appeared corresponding to her whim. 

When she wished to pray and receive Communion, Father Chapas would knock on her door.  He would stand before her in his dazzling white surplice marked with a red cross over his sacred heart.  He would hold golden chalices, the Blood and the Body in each hand.  His incarnation would be beyond temporal; Father Chapas would come to her as the angel he had been to her. 

She had everything in her beautiful, wonderful, and marvelous world, everything save Billy, Dominic, and Dominica; and Aunt Margie could be distant. 

Oh, when will they come?  When, Aunt Margie?  Aunt Margie, I know you are there.  Please, don’t ignore me.  Is today the day?  Will they visit today?

“My goodness, dear, but you are an impatient little goose.  Well, I don’t know why I should except you would change anytime soon.”

No, Aunt Margie, but are they coming today?

“Yes, dear, today is the day.”

Oh, I am excited.  I am, I am.

“You are a silly child.  And you most certainly are excited.  You’re shaking me all over.  Please, dear, you’re jumping and clapping.  You must be aware of the disturbing picture it creates?”

Sorry, Aunt Margie.  Sorry.

“Well, I’ve worked diligently putting on a display for them.  For weeks, I’ve demonstrated that no one could be more normal than we are, dear.  Normal, joyful jeunes filles who wish only to be with their family, caring for them, loving them, and receiving their love in return.”

Yes, Aunt Margie, and you’ve been perfect.  They will adore you.

“Adoration is pleasant, indeed, you darling ladybird.  Our ticket home, however, is belief.  Pestering me constantly with the same question, and acting like a birdbrained schoolgirl … well, dear, you must see how it defeats my efforts at projecting composure.”

Aunt Margie, I’m sorry.  I hope I haven’t jeopardized all your work.  Oh, that would be terrible.  I feel so bad, like I’ve failed us, like I’ve failed you.

“I will not stand for you punishing yourself.  I am not criticizing you.  I am simply asking for your patience.”

I’ll be good, Aunt Margie.  I’ll be patient.

“Well, you are a good girl.  You have always been a good girl, dear.  You have always been the joy of my life.”

The lady, in a pink shirtwaist with the skirt and crinoline demurely tucked under her legs crossed at the ankles, sat in a room next to a freshly made bed in a metal frame chair on a cushion upholstered in salmon vinyl by a multi-paned window looking through the mesh embedded in the glass at rolling grounds and a parking lot, sitting and watching and chattering in anticipation.

Billy had parked in the lot in front of the hospital that looked nothing like the building in the photograph he remembered, yet was the same nonetheless.  He stood in a stark corridor by a metal door.  He watched her through a small rectangular window, through mesh glass.

“She’s still talking to herself?”

“Yes,” said the doctor, a worn man in a worn seersucker suit. 

“When will she stop it?”

“She tells us that we must be mistaken; that she isn’t talking.  Occasionally, she says, she might express some thoughts aloud, but thinks it is natural in an environment like this.”


“Yes, except for me and a few of the staff.  I thought family might help draw her out.”

“I would have come sooner.”

“You were injured, Mr. Brick.  Besides, too soon might not have been good.  No, you and the children are visiting at exactly the right time.”

“Dominic and Dominica are excited to see their mother.  It’s been two months.  The summer’s practically gone by without her.  They miss her.”

“Understandable, Mr. Brick.”

“Do you really think seeing them will help?  I mean, do you think it will, you know, snap her out of whatever she’s in?”

“As I said, I hope it will motivate her to come out.  If it doesn’t, as I’ve mentioned to you, we have several very effective therapies and medicines available to us.”

“But she won’t be herself, doctor.”

“She isn’t now, Mr. Brick.”

“No.  But what you’re talking about, they’ll make her … dull.”

“I wouldn’t say dull.  If we’re successful, she’ll be herself, close to herself, on an even keel.”

“I want my wife the way she was.”

“Yes, I understand, Mr. Brick.  We’re doing our best.”

“We brought a few things.  The tornado destroyed most of our things, but we salvaged what we could, what was important to us, important to Iam.”

“Very good, Mr. Brick.  We hope she associates them with better times and they aid her in moving pass the trauma of the storm.”

“More than the storm, doctor.”

“Certainly, Mr. Brick.  The storm was the trigger.  It was painful, I’m sure, to learn about … the past.”

“It was a surprise.  Like I’ve said, it was difficult.  She was protecting us.  She thought so, anyway.”

Billy felt the doctor’s eyes on him, seeking a clue to his true feelings about the …  How to describe them?  Revelations, he guessed, was the word. 

Billy met the doctor’s eyes, fixed on them, and spoke to them with his own.  What are you looking for?  Pain, anger, sorrow? 

Billy felt none of these.  Well, maybe sorrow, but not for himself.  Sorrow for Iam, for all she’d suffered, for how she’d dammed up her sorrows in herself, for her private agony.  It was sorrow about her.  Not fear that the dead, the Pater, Ricky, her mother and brother, would return to haunt her to the edge, to the edge and maybe over it; or her sister would emerge from the refuge of her convent to lay claim to her.  Sorrow for fear of him, of how he would react, of his walking away from the truth; for fear a day would come when he would learn, when the box in which she’d stored a lifetime of bad memories would find its way out of the basement, as she must of known it would, and into her life, into their life, and wreck it. 

If it would satisfy you, doctor, at first, he thought, there were waves of resentment.

She had so little faith in him, little belief in the strength of his love for her, of what they shared together, that she did not trust him with her secrets; that she feared he would desert her; or that he would stay and stew in anger over what her life had been, the whoring, the cult disguised as religion, the unsavory activities for its sake, and then the self-mutilation, the averted sacrifice, and the death of the priest.  His loathing was justified and he unleashed it in private.  But it was short lived, a few evenings, no more than three.  His rage ended when he understood the real reason she’d confided nothing.  She loved him.  She didn’t want to hurt him.  Knowing how she’d been hurt, knowing his deep love for her, he would suffer beyond what she’d already endured.  And the other horrors, well, she’d lost control; her demon got lose, possessed her, and manipulated her.  The realization of her sacrifice for him served as a renewal of his vows of love and devotion. 

His understanding and forgiveness was only part of it.  The rest came later in fragments of memory, of the warmth of her next to him in the car on a cold night, the comfort of her in his arms on the couch after a day with the children, her quiet passion under him in their bed, a passion met by his, passions that nearly, nearly merged them into what he had prayed for.  Two into one.

Billy smiled.

“Is there something I should know about, Mr. Brick?”

There’s plenty you would like to know about, but nothing you should.  “No.  Why?”

“You’re smiling.”

“Is smiling a problem?”

“No, not at all.  But I’ve talked to you before and this is the first you’ve seemed happy.”

“It’s the first time I’ve been hopeful enough to feel happy.”

“That’s good, Mr. Brick.  Everyone is healing.”

“Yes, we are.  Well, we’re ready to see her.  The children are getting a bit antsy,” he said, gesturing at Dominic and Dominica squirming against the corridor wall, the pair holding boxes containing what she’d asked about.

The doctor knocked on the door, a politeness perhaps for the sake of the children; Billy knew the doctor could enter anytime at will; he knew that Iam had little choice about when he entered.  She was a prisoner they called a patient.

“Mrs. Brick,” the doctor said, opening the door, “you have visitors.”

Billy followed him, with Dominic and Dominica behind him. 

In the room, everybody lined up in front of the lady seated in the chair.

“Well,” she exclaimed, “what a lovely picture.  I’m thrilled and delighted and, oh my,” fanning herself, a bit overwhelmed.  “No, I don’t believe I can rise.  No, I’ll just topple over.  Come here my darling lovelies.”

She extended her arms.  Dominica rushed to her.  Dominic hesitated.  She nodded to him, and he, too, rushed to her.

“What’s troubling you, Dominic?”

“I was afraid you were mad at me.”

“Mad?  Why would I ever be mad at you?”

“Because I got you into trouble.”

Aunt Margie, I can’t believe I injured poor Father Mario … that I tried to kill Dominic.  And here he is afraid and guilty.  If you hadn’t—

“Shh, quiet.  There’s no need for that.  You aren’t responsible for my troubles.  Don’t think that for even a second.  No, I got myself into trouble.  It is my own doing,” she said, casting an eye over Dominic at the doctor that declared:  See I am his mother and he is my son; I understand what I did; I am rationale and sane; I am, I am.


“Absolutely.  I hurt myself, too.  Well, to put it plainly, I was off my rocker.  Looney tunes, correct, doctor?”

“I wouldn’t use those words, Mrs. Brick.”

“Dominic, the doctor’s being professional.  He is a very educated and thoughtful man.  Let’s say I wasn’t myself.  Not one tiny bit myself.”

“You’re you now, right?”

“Yes, I am one hundred percent me.  As a matter of fact, I’ve never been more me, or better.”  She rubbed her chest.  “Look, the nasty wounds have healed.  Now, both of you, let me hug you and kiss you a thousand times.”

After she smothered them with hugs and kisses and they returned the kisses as profusely, she was able to stand. 

She took a step toward Billy; he had her in his arms before she could take a second.

“I’ve missed you so much,” he said.

“Billy,” she said, “Billy, Billy, Billy, Billy.  Oh, golly, I can’t say Billy enough.  Billy, it is like the first time.”

He kissed her and she kissed back.  He felt emotion in her kiss that had been missing before; it was the feeling he’d prayed for; it was the passion he thought moments ago the doctor would have liked knowing about. 

Two into one.  It was possible.  More than possible.  When she was home from the hospital, on the very night she returned home, he would make love to her, and it would be as it never had been before.  It would be as if they were making love for the first time.  He would be on top of her and he would melt into her and she into him; they would absorb each other; they would be another breed of human; they would be separate lovers merged by the power of their love into one being.  Yes, it would happen, because … because of the absence of the barrier.  She had no secrets.  He knew everything about her.  He had forgiven her everything.  She would see he loved her.  He loved her more than he ever had.  Without the barrier of secrets, they would achieve what he’d always wanted:  absorption into each other. 

He glanced at the doctor.  Why am I smiling, doctor, he thought, with a broad, almost silly smile?  Because, before your very eyes, like magic, we are merging into one Brick.

Continuing to hug her, unable and unwilling to release her, he said, “We brought you gifts.”

“Oh, Billy, how thoughtful.  What I asked for?”

“You’ll see.  Dominic, Dominica, show Mommy what you brought her.”

“Well, I must sit for the grand presentation, mustn’t I?  Otherwise, I will fall over with joy.”

She perched on the chair, leaned forward over crossed legs, and accepted Dominica’s box.  She opened it and exclaimed, “It is what I wanted.”  Removing the pink Jasperware oval box, “Isn’t it divine?”

Dominica, Dominic, and Billy said, “Yes,” while the doctor nodded approval.

Dominic handed her his box. 

“Hold the box for me, Dominica.  I wouldn’t want to damage it, not after everything it has survived.”

Dominica took it and clutched it tightly to her chest.

She opened Dominic’s box.  She removed the pink Jasperware cup and saucer.  She began weeping.

“Did I do something wrong?” asked Dominic, turning to Billy.

“Wrong?” she said.  “You could not have done better.  You could not have made me happier.”  She wiped her tears.  “Silly of me to cry.  Doctor, from this moment forward, I’ll have my tea in my beautiful cup.”  She paused.  “I’ll have my tea in my lovely heirloom.”

“Certainly,” the doctor said.

“Children, let’s put these on the bedstead by the lamp.  They’ll make the room seem more like home.”

The doctor and Billy exchanged glances as the children placed the cup and saucer and oval box on the bedstead.  She supervised, but looked back to catch the communication between them.

“Naturally, what I mean is they’ll remind me of happier times of niece and Aunt enjoying each other’s company.”

“She was nice,” said Dominica.

“Who, dear?”

“Aunt Margie.”

“She was a delight, dear, an absolute delight.  Why, I wouldn’t be who I am if it had not been for Aunt Margie.  I don’t think it’s too much to say I owe her quite a bit.”

No, Aunt Margie, you saved me.  You saved everyone.  I owe you so much.

“Life goes on, though.  But each time I look at these and I use the cup and saucer, I’ll remember those happy days. You know, she always liked good girls.”

I’ll be good, Aunt Margie.  I promise.

“I’m good,” said Dominica.

“Yes you are.  And you, too, Dominic.  You are both very good, the very best children a person could ask for.”

They came to her and the three embraced and kissed.

“Well, I for one am parched.  It’s a gorgeous day for a walk, and from my perch here I’ve spied a refreshment stand on the grounds.  We can quench our parched throats in the beautiful sunshine.”

“Mommy,” said Dominica, “you talk funny.”

“I do?”

“You talk different,” said Dominic.

“I do?  Billy, dear, do I sound different to you?”

He shrugged.  “A little, but nothing we can’t get used to.”

“My, my.  Well, I suppose the storm mixed me up a bit.  I expect it will sort itself out in a while, and after everything will be back to normal.”

“I want to go outside,” said Dominica.

“If it’s okay with the doctor.  We don’t want Mommy overdoing it,” Billy said to the doctor.

“A stroll outdoors is just what this doctor ordered,” the doctor said.

“Doctor,” she said, “I always suspected a sense of humor lurked under that stern visage of yours.  Well, what are we waiting for?  I am absolutely dry.”

“Me, too,” cried the children together.

Several buildings dotted the undulating landscape that extended to high black iron fencing encircling the grounds.  Patients walked with orderlies and nurses.  Seating areas were arranged under copses of trees.  And, as it was summer, there were two refreshment pushcarts.  The Bricks stopped at the first one they encountered.

“What does everyone want?” Billy asked.

The children ordered juices.  Billy got himself a Diet Pepsi. 

“Iam?” he asked.

She pointed at the two lemonade dispensers, one regular, the other pink.  “I’m dying for a pink lemonade.”

“Are you sure?” Billy said.

“Absolutely.  I adore pink lemonade.”

“But you said you never wanted the stuff in the house?”

“We had pink lemonade,” Dominic said. 

“You did?” Billy said.  “When?”

“Then,” said Dominic.

“It was good,” Dominica said. 

“But …”

She wound an arm around his.  “Now, Mr. Brick, you may know a lot, but you don’t know everything.  Tastes change.”

“I guess,” he said, ordering her the lemonade.

When they finished, Billy and she strolled the grounds.  The children played around them, stopping and catching up, or getting ahead of them and waiting.  She talked about the beauty of the grounds, how fortunate she was to lodge in a room overlooking them, that her stay was a sort of vacation, and like a vacation would end soon, and the absence would make arriving home all the sweeter.  He told her he had to rebuild all of the house and most of the barn and expected to start on the garage and barn shortly.  She said she looked forward to living in a practically new home. 

They returned to the room after having been out nearly two hours.  She kissed the children.  She thanked them for visiting and the splendid gifts.  She embraced and kissed Billy deeply, several times.  The children cried as they left.  Within herself, she was crying as she watched the door shut and the latch click.

“Please, dear, in a moment you will have me gushing like a geyser.”

It’s just that I miss them so much.  And little Dominic, I almost can’t bear to look at him, not after …

“Dear, it does no one, especially yourself, any good to dwell on unpleasant past events.  Water under the bridge, you know.  We are moving forward.  We are not looking backwards.  Onward, I always like to say.”

Yes, Aunt Margie. 

“Dear, have I told you recently that you are a good girl?”

Yes, Aunt Margie.

“You are, dear.  Now rest.”

I can’t rest.  Their visit excited me.  I don’t think I could sleep for days.

“I certainly hope you are speaking figuratively, dear.  We have to rebuild ourselves, just as Billy is rebuilding our little homestead.”

Well, I feel strong.

“Excellent, dear, I can sense you improving.  But you aren’t quite ready yet, now are you?”

No, I suppose not, Aunt Margie.

“No.  But I am sufficiently strong for both of us.  I’ll continue watching over our affairs for a while.  Someday, when you are fine as a fiddle again, it will be your job.”

Yes, Aunt Margie.  How long do you think it might be?

“Well, dear, I am confident we will know when the time arrives.  For the present, my prescription for you is to spend time in that beautiful world of yours.  It is lovely.  It is summer all the time.  Nothing bad ever happens.  You will be safe.  And who knows?  I may have to drag you kicking and screaming from it.  For now, since you are bursting with energy, let’s write a note of thanks to Billy and the children for visiting and bringing us our delightful Jasperware.  I just adore looking at it, don’t you?

Yes, Aunt Margie.

“I’ll have to summon the nurse for pen and paper.  And she’ll want to watch us compose the note.  It seems like such a bother.  But sending a thank you note is proper etiquette.”

Yes, Aunt Margie.

She rose and went to the door.  She used the intercom to attract a nurse’s attention.  The nurse brought a notepaper and pen.  The nurse asked if she might wait while the note was written.  She obligingly said she understood the nurse completely.

In her chair, she began to write.  She wrote a few lines and frowned at them.  She tried again, frowned again, and tried a third time.  She smiled and dashed off the note, addressed the envelope, inserted the note and sealed it.  She handed it to the nurse.

Glancing at the envelope, the nurse said, “I have the same problem.”

“What might that be?”

“Writing without lines.  My writing goes every which way.”

“I know a lady who can write straight lines on lineless paper.”

“How does she do it?”

“She is rather old.  People of her day placed great store in their penmanship.”

“I envy her,” said the nurse, leaving the room.

Iam sat beaming at the window.

“Thank you, dear, for helping me with the note.  Quite authentic, I think.”

Sometimes you can be too perfect Aunt Margie.

“You are very kind, dear.  Now, it’s time for you to rest.”

Yes, Aunt Margie.

w/c  copyright, use without permission prohibited

Richard + Bobby, Kisses, Alyce

Richard + Bobby,
Kisses, Alyce

Chapter 12: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY  (Part 10, 11, and 12)


I’m on the road to the East Windsor YMCA. I’m concentrating on driving, pushing away the boy’s smile and memory. I focus on the roadside book of garbage I’ve read hundreds of times—markers, ads, signs, bits of litter. Slowly the smile fades away and I’m speculating as to why people must litter, why a clean car is more important than a clean road, as I pull into the Y’s parking lot. And that leads me to Richard, a prime violator.


I was composed and arranged by the time I reached home. I went directly to my room, saying nothing about the incident, or anything else, to my mother. Bobby frightened me and I didn’t doubt he was willing and capable of hurting me if I told on him. But fear wasn’t what stopped me. It was Richard, what Bobby said Richard thought of me, how Richard went out behind my back with other girls, girls willing to give him more than kisses, to allow him to go farther than groping under clothing. And how he could take a boy like Bobby for his friend. Before telling anybody about Bobby, I needed to talk to Richard.

Richard and I had planned a date for the evening and he picked me up at seven. We were going to the drive-in movies in Kills River in Bobby’s borrowed car.

As Richard drove, I compulsively glanced behind me, at the backseat, envisioning what transpired on it between Richard and me, and Richard and Terry just that afternoon, and with others like Terry.

“Babe,” Richard said, “what’s with the neck? Somebody following us? Maybe your father checking up on us?”

“No, nothing,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about it now.”

“Sure, anything you say, Babe.”

At the drive-in, Richard parked toward the back, over to the side, away from the route people usually followed to the concession stand and restrooms.

He slid his arm around me. “Cozy,” he said, pulling me to him.

I resisted and anchored myself next to the door.

“Hey, what’s eating you? Did I do something?”

“Bobby says you take other girls out in this car.”

He turned full on me. “Bobby said what?”

“You heard me.”

He laughed. “What a son-of-bitch. Forgive my French, Babe, but Bobby’s lying.”

“He said some horrible things about …” I couldn’t bear to utter the word, freighted as it was with disturbing images, and nodded toward the rear instead. “And there’s nothing funny about it.”

“Hey, I agree with you. Bobby’s pissed with me. Forgive my French again, Babe. Look, the guy wanted to double with us tonight.”

“I would never double with Bobby. Besides, no girl would ever date Bobby McFarlane.”

“I know, Babe. Why do you think Bobby’s mad? I told him you don’t like doubles. And I tried to fix him up with Terry Bishop. No luck.”

“He said you where with Terry this afternoon,” I said, casting my eyes to the back.

“I was. Bobby and I were cruising and passed her on Creek Road. She was riding her bike. Bobby asked me to give it another shot. I let him off and circled back to talk to her. Down in flames twice. If you can’t get a date with Terry, it’s hopeless.”

I was silent for a while, considering what he said, somewhat assuaged by it, and troubled, too.

“Richard, why didn’t you ask me when I talked to Bobby. You know I never talk to him?”

“Hmm, well, I figured you must of run into him somewhere.”

“He ran into me on the path by the creek when you were with Terry. He didn’t tell you?”

“No, Babe, not a peep. I guess he was too ticked about Terry.”

“He attacked me, Richard.”

“Attacked you?”

“He pushed me and knocked me down and said some foul, insulting things to me.” He tried pushing closer to me, but I held up my hands. “Don’t.”

“What did he say?”

“I can’t repeat what he said. It was too horrible. And he said terrible things about you, too.”


“What you think of me, Richard, that I’m too prim and proper, that you see other girls because …” I had a difficult time forming the words. “That I don’t put out enough for you.”

Over the years, Richard learned to control his emotions, to project a placidity, a wall competitors, customers, associates, and his wife could not penetrate, an equanimity that, he boasted to me when I questioned his spiritual deadness, gave him the advantage, that put and kept me and the girls in the big house filled with an abundance of things. Early on, I didn’t notice him laying the bricks. That day I credited his fleeting stony reaction to being stunned by the loathsome behavior of a false friend, the way I would respond, as I did, regretfully, respond years later when Angie told me about Bobby and her.

“Babe,” he said, “I would never cheat on you. Not ever, because I never want to lose you. And because I know what it can do to people.”

“You do?” I said. I didn’t know what he meant, didn’t press him, assuming it was probably a girl, perhaps back on Staten Island.

“And it’s why I couldn’t betray a friend, even somebody who did something bad, like poor Bobby.”

“Poor Bobby?” I wheezed, virtually on the verge of tears over the tale of his parents, his wound, and his misguided compassion for Bobby McFarlane.

“The guy’s a mess, Babe. Don’t get me wrong, what he did to you, it wasn’t right. And you better believe he’s getting it from me. No way am I letting him take his frustration out on you. No way. He’s going to get it. But, you know, he’s such a sad sack. In a way, you’ve got to feel sorry for the guy.”

My incredulity was unrestrained and all I could do was exclaim, “Richard, are you insane? He assaulted me. He called me names. He said disgusting things about you, about us. And you’re, you’re making excuses for him? Richard?”

“I’m going to pound him, Babe. I’m going to set him straight. He’ll never do anything like that again, never. I promise. But with Bobby, you’ve got to understand.”

“Understand what, Richard? I understand he’s a lowlife, and he’s dangerous, and he could do something worse another time.”

“There won’t be another time, Babe. But—”

“But what? He’s your friend. He’s still your friend after what he did, what he said? Take me home, Richard, right now.”

I refused to see or talk to Richard for two weeks. He phoned. He visited my house. I saw him in the coffee shop and snubbed him. I was lashing back at him, hurting him, and myself, too. In the end, however, I missed him; I wanted him; I believed I needed him. And I persuaded myself that his staunch loyalty, even to someone like Bobby, was commendable. Richard was a boy I could trust, who I could count on to stand by me. In the end, I compromised on Bobby McFarlane: As long as I had nothing to do with Bobby, Richard could remain his friend. I suppose I believed eventually Bobby would betray Richard in a way he could not forgive.


I park in the YMCA lot and pick up Samantha and Emily in the all-purpose room. Other parents, mostly mothers, are doing the same, all of us waiting for our children to gather up the projects they’ve been laboring over for the past hour.

In the car, I ask Samantha about what she had worked on. “Nothing,” she says. She’s a teen and often sulky. I assume today it’s the YMCA camp, which she doesn’t like. She argues she’s too old for it. She’s probably right and I’ll have to find something else for her next year.

Emily volunteers that she’s been drawing and, from the backseat, inserts her creation between Samantha and me. It’s familiar, a brightly colored woman and two girls holding hands dancing in a circle. From the first time we lived in Cranbury, when Emily began drawing, I’ve thought of her as a fauvist, a little female Matisse. After our relocation to San Diego, I bought Samantha and Emily gifts, sort of welcoming presents to smooth away some of the edge of dislocation. Emily’s was a book of Matisse paintings and drawing, because I remembered her picture of a floating, disgruntled cow. Occasionally, in rare moments when she tired of her dervish larking, she’d flip through the book. I can see now the book has made an impression, for the drawing, in color and composition, bears a striking resemblance to “Dance.”

“Beautiful, Emily,” I say. “Looks like everybody is happy.”

“Maybe,” she says.

At least, I think, this time nobody in the picture is distempered.


Richard + Bobby, Kisses, Alyce

Richard + Bobby,
Kisses, Alyce

Chapter 12: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY  (Part 8, and 9)


I’m finished. I’ve been around the track twelve times, getting closer to my goal. I drag off the cinders, over to my backpack containing a jacket, a towel, and what I crave, the bottle of water. I gulp down half the contents and find myself breathing harder than when I was circling the track. The Peddie boys jog by as I’m wiping my mouth with my arm. The laggard smiles at me. Maybe he’s been smiling round and round the track. Maybe smiling is his natural state. I don’t acknowledge him. I remove my towel from the backpack and drop in the bottle. I give myself a quick wipe, face and arms. I shoulder the pack and head for my car. I toss a glance back and see the Peddie boy has been following me with his eyes and has fallen further behind his partner. He smiles again and I turn away quickly and climb into my car. But I can’t extinguish the smile.


Creek Falls is at the foot of a mountain, surrounded by woods and creeks, and summer there is lovely, and instills in me the urge to walk. Walking was how I got my exercise when I was growing up. And how I got around town, even after I had my driver’s license, since we owned only one car and my father used it for work.

In those first weeks with Richard as my boyfriend, he and I would walk with no purpose other than to be together. Often, we would find ourselves in the cemetery at St. Mary’s, usually atop the grave of some poor nun who, if she were able, would slap us silly and condemn us for our sacrilegious antics.

Other times, when Richard wasn’t available, I walked alone, walked and fantasized of our lives after we finished school. I was sure we would be together, married, with children, perhaps not in Creek Falls, but certainly nearby. My favorite walk was along the creek down the hill from our row house.

That summer Saturday afternoon I can’t recall why I was alone, where Richard was, though I’m sure I assumed he was with Bobby. But he wasn’t, because Bobby was with me on the path.

I’d been on the path for twenty minutes and was near the point where I turned around. The path begins in an area where there are houses, both close by and on the ridge above, where I lived. Farther on, where I usually turned for home, it was woods and the creek, the area looking much as it had before the Dutch arrived, when the long gone Wappingers tribes hunted the land.

I was devoting my full attention to the woods and the creek and the lore of the setting, listening for nothing more than the soft susurration of the breeze in the trees, the mellow babble of the water lazing around and over branches that had fallen into the creek, and the occasional scurrying of squirrels on the ground and in the trees. So, when I turned to retrace my steps, he startled me, and I whispered a scream.

“It’s only me,” Bobby said.

He wore blue coveralls and heavy brogans. A blue tee underneath showed through at the neck. The entire outfit was filthy with grease and grime smudges. His hair was wild, flying every which way, dirty too with grease. Only his eyes were clean and clear, big eyes, bright blue like a cloudless January sky, promising warmth but bitterly cold.

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“Walking, like you. Can’t I walk?”

“Sure, I suppose. It’s just you’re always in that car.”

“Ritchie’s got it.”


“Yeah. What? You think you’re the only one who gets in that car with Ritchie?”

“I have to get home,” I said. I tried pushing past him, but he hopped in front of me, arms extended like a basketball guard.

“Yeah, but with you I don’t have to worry about cleaning the backseat.”

“Let me by, Bobby.”

But he kept bobbing left and right.

“Guess who’s in the car now.”


“Guess. Guess and I’ll let you go.”

I tried dodging around him, but he flung me back with an arm.

“Bobby, watch it. You’ll hurt me.”

“Who’s the biggest slut in school? Come on, you know. Terry Bishop.”

“She’s Mike’s girlfriend. You shouldn’t say things about her.”

“Mike McGrath. Big football star. Big asshole is what he is. You know what Ritchie says about Terry?”

“Bobby, I’m late.”

“There’s a bitch with a classy chassis. ‘Classy chassis.’  I love Ritchie. I mean, who can think of stuff like that?”

“Bobby, please, I don’t want to hear anymore.”

“Yeah, he told her, ‘Babe, I want to take that chassis of yours for a ride.’ ‘Okay,’ she said.” He snapped his fingers, thick, grimy, repulsive things. “Just like that, ‘Okay.’  Don’t believe me? Hey, I was there, cruising with Ritchie right up there on the road when she came by on her bike. What could I do? I had to let him take the car. It’s what Ritchie and me do. We share stuff.”

As he spoke, he inched closer to me, until he was on me, and seized my arm. He attempted pulling me to him. I twisted and yanked free.

“Stay away, Bobby.”

“What about a little kiss for your boyfriend’s best friend? Don’t you want to share like Ritchie?”

“Stop it, Bobby. I need to go home.”

“Ritchie says he can’t get to second base with you. I said, ‘You got it too easy, man, the girls falling all over you and all. Now me, I got to work harder.’  ‘So give it a try,’ he said. ‘Share and share alike, you know,’ he said.”

He lunged at me. Retreating, I tripped, fell, and rolled down the embankment to the edge of the creek. I scrambled to my hands and knees, stared up at him, tears flooding my cheeks, whispering a halting plea, “Leave me alone, Bobby.”

He laughed, a vicious howl. “Look at you, little Miss Goody Two-Shoes, crawling like a little doggie bitch.” More cruel laughing, then he said, “Miss Goody Two-Shoes,” mimicking the high pitch of a child, a bully, as if we were on a playground and his thrust had been malicious play, not an assault. “That’s what Ritchie calls you, Miss Goody Two-Shoes.”

I’m convinced to this day Bobby would have come down the embankment for me, if faintly, over the breeze and the burble of the water, had not drifted the incessant, impatient call of a car horn.

“No little goodbye kiss for Bobby?” he taunted, pursing his lips obscenely.

“Get out of here,” I screamed. “Leave me alone.”

He pivoted to the summons and then swung back. “Just remember, Ritchie’s my friend. Mine. You’d better not say anything. You get it?”

He didn’t wait for my answer. He scurried off the path and up the hill through the woods to the road, to the car, to Richard.

Richard + Bobby, Kisses, Alyce

Richard + Bobby,
Kisses, Alyce

Chapter 12: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY  (Part 6, and 7)


He catches up with his friend, and they run side-by-side, and then burst into a sprint. A reversal overtakes me and their youth and speed and energy enervate me; for a moment all that occupies my mind is the water bottle in my backpack and the patch of grass upon which it rests and how delightful it would be to collapse next to it. But I’ve promised myself four miles by the end of summer and I am determined.

The Peddie boys pass my backpack and slow to a trot. Playfully, they slap at each other. It’s comradely roughhousing, boys showing they like each other, emotion stripped of sap, different than girls. With us, Angie and me, it was all emotion; terrible, painful emotion.


Angie, Rosemary, and I veered in different directions after we graduated from Creek Falls High. Angie went to Bennington in Vermont, Rosemary to Marymount in Manhattan, and I followed Richard to Rider in New Jersey. The week before we parted, we threw ourselves a going-away party at the best restaurant in Creek Falls, The Steakhouse. We vowed not to allow distance to separate us, to be friends forever. And though our interests were diverging, we managed with letters and holiday gatherings to maintain our friendship. When my wedding to Richard came around, we believed we were as close as we ever had been in high school. We weren’t, though. Our interests and ambitions were immutably dissimilar.

Four years at Marymount solidified Rosemary’s conviction that she had had been blessed with a vocation. She acted upon it by becoming a Carmelite novitiate, entering the strictest order, the Carmelite Hermit of the Trinity, and moving to a cloistered life in Slinger, Wisconsin. I haven’t seen her or heard directly from her, but my mother, who speaks with her mother, reports Rosemary is happy and at enviable peace in her devotions.

Angie was always the most opinionated of our group. At my wedding, she told Rosemary and me she’d been accepted at Fordham Law. She disappeared into her law studies, occasionally phoning to check in with me in New Jersey. However, after she graduated and passed her bar exam, I didn’t hear from her for some time, until Richard and I were spending a weekend with my parents. Samantha was a toddler then and Emily was in diapers. I recall the weekend vividly for two reasons. We’d been home the previous weekend and I wasn’t thrilled at traveling up to Creek Falls again with the girls. It was just too much hassle. Richard was insistent, the complete opposite of his usual complaining about lugging the girls and their paraphernalia north. We arrived on Saturday morning, another anomaly, since Richard insisted on dedicating the mornings to paperwork at his office, whether we were traveling or not. Late Saturday afternoon, while the girls napped and I helped my mother prepare dinner, with Richard vanished, palling around with Bobby McFarlane I assumed, for I still thought Bobby lived in town, Angie rang the doorbell.

Naturally, seeing her elated me; it had been such a long time. I excused myself from helping my mother and Angie and I sat in the living room. My mother made tea for us and served cookies; in Creek Falls, it was bad form to visit with a friend without refreshments. I told her about life in Cranbury, life with the girls, and she regaled me with her budding corporate career at New York Life, which, I admit, aroused jealousy in me, as by that time Richard had made it known he preferred me as a house Frau, and I was rankled by his demand.

After fifteen minutes of chatter, she said, “I’ve met someone.”

I took her hands in mine. “Angie, I’m so happy for you. Did you just meet him?”

“No,” she said, fidgeting her hands, pulling them away from mine. “I’ve known him for some time. I mean, we’ve been seeing each other.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Perhaps I was a bit pointed. I didn’t mean to be. I had no right to be, as we spoke by phone only occasionally. We weren’t quite the close friends we had been in high school. Nonetheless, she appeared uneasy, like she should have told me; that she had done something wrong.

I laughed. “Sure, I understand. You had to be certain this was the right one.”

She reciprocated with a feeble laugh of her own. “Well, not exactly,” she said. “You see, it’s someone we know.”

“You and I know?”

She nodded. “You, me, and Richard know him.”

I remember very distinctly drawing a blank. I honestly could not think of a single guy the three of us knew in common, and certainly not anyone in New York City.

“I want you to be my maid of honor, Alyce,” she said. “The wedding will be here in Creek Falls. A real hometown wedding. It will be wonderful.” But there was nothing wonderful in her tone.

“Of course, I’ll be your maid of honor. I’d never forgive you if I wasn’t.”

Relieved, she said, “Oh, I’m so happy. I was nervous. I don’t get nervous, big-time lawyer and everything, but I was, what with …”

I scooted closer to her, gathered up her hands again, squeezed with mine. “We don’t have to see each other everyday to be best friends. We’ll always be best friends, Angie. You know that, I hope.”

“I hope so, Alyce.”

“So, who is he, Angie? Who is this guy Richard and I know? I can’t imagine a single person.”

She was quiet for a long time, possibly assembling her thoughts, deciding what gushing adjectives best described her amazing man.

“Remember this?” she asked, freeing her hands from mine and displaying a middle finger.

I regarded the finger and her in utter befuddlement.

“Think, Alyce. Remember.”

I did remember, a cold winter day, shopping, strolling down main street, a blue car, a despicable boy, a stern proclamation, a raised gloved finger.

“Bobby! Not Bobby McFarlane!” I recoiled as his name shot from my mouth.

“I know how you feel about Bobby, Alyce—”

“You too, Angie,” I said, raising my finger.

“He’s changed.”

“Bobby will never change.”

“But he has, Alyce. He turned his life around. He’s a veterinarian now and has a big practice in Manhattan.”

“How did that happen?”

She related that he attended Roosevelt, discovered his calling, and studied at Cornell.

The Cornell?” I said.

She nodded. “You see, he has changed. Cornell doesn’t accept just anybody.”

“Well, anybody can run off a diploma on a computer,” I snapped.

“Alyce, you’re being unreasonable. Bobby is a different person, nothing like what you remember from high school. He even forgives you for not allowing him at your wedding.”

“Very big of him.”

“Richard’s going to be his best man, and Bobby really wants you to be my maid of honor. And so do I.”

“No,” I said. I didn’t take a second to consider her request, simply fired my no instantly, and shook my head fiercely.

“Alyce, I don’t understand you. Bobby’s a good man now. No matter what he was when we were kids, he’s a success now.”

“I can’t, Angie.”

“Okay,” she said, rising to leave. “Please think about it. Talk to Richard. Maybe the four of us can have lunch tomorrow. We can go to The Steakhouse. You’ll see.”

But we didn’t. Sunday, Richard and I argued from Creek Falls to Cranbury about Bobby and Angie and the wedding and, in his view, my ridiculous recalcitrance. During the week, I broke down and, though I had vowed long ago not to resurrect the reason, I reminded Richard why I vehemently hated Bobby. But it made no impression on Richard. They were like brothers, maybe more for all I knew.

The wedding went on without me, with Richard as best man, with the girls and me home in Cranbury.

The last time I spoke with Angie was that Saturday afternoon in my parent’s living room. I saw her once sometime later, after Richard told me she was pregnant, watched her and Bobby from a distance on a New York street.

Richard + Bobby, Kisses, Alyce

Richard + Bobby,
Kisses, Alyce

Chapter 12: CRANBURY, NEW JERSEY  (Part 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5)


My heart verges on exploding. What would it look like? Would my heart blow straight through my sternum, blast a gaping hole through my flesh, shoot clear out of me, veins and arteries trailing like tails of a red rocket? Probably not. Merely a vein or artery would rupture, as if I were suffering an aneurism; and my blood would flood into me, and drown me.

I jog along and grimace at the image like I do at movie murders, at the trial and sentencing of Richard and Bobby, defensively, to hide my abhorrence and horror, to deceive myself it’s fiction and I shouldn’t take it seriously. I can smile now, smirk actually; revel, maybe, at the foiling of their plot. Finally, I’m not suffering fits of screaming and crying and shaking, my reaction for weeks after my discharge from UCMC, lying in bed and shuffling around the house in Rancho Bernardo, studying the walls for the slightest hint of blue paint; sighing, relieved at the green and white, and, yes, the ubiquitous tan, too; and transporting my recuperation to my parent’s house in Creek Falls, but without the California ticks, adopting new quirks, especially my weekly pilgrimage to Angie’s grave to assure myself my recollections were genuine, the important incidences were authentic, and to gaze at myself reflected in the polished ebony tombstone and seek a forgiveness that she was beyond bestowing.


Two boys join me on the track. They wear white T’s with blue insignias and blue trunks trimmed in gold, Peddie colors, and Kreps colors, too. They must be in summer session, not making up anything, not at Peddie, but jumping ahead. We’re alike in that; I’m taking summer courses at Rider University, working toward my masters, advancing a pay grade at the Kreps Middle School, where I teach Language Arts.

They are stretching at what would be the start line, as if we are about to race. I pass them and observe them from the corner of my eye. They appear to be sixteen, lithe and almost mature, but still dewy. As I round the turn, they stride past me. They run smoothly, effortlessly, and at twice my speed, in perfect unison. They are a pair, a team, like Richard and Bobby. But, no; no two could ever be like Richard and Bobby.


An exploding heart is exactly what Richard and Bobby had planned for me: death by gargantuan gas embolism induced by a bull-, or more appropriate, cow-sized syringe. What truly happened is foggy, indistinct as if a dense mist encases my memory; and distorted, too, refracted in layers of nightmares, a weird, moist, jumbled membrane of reality and, I don’t know what, theater, melodrama; heightened terror fabricated by my mind to rouse me to defend myself. Whatever, it worked, or else I wouldn’t be rescued and here today, in a new house in Cranbury, an hour from picking up Samantha and Emily from summer day camp at the YMCA, trotting around the Peddie School track with my heart thumping to its gratefully expanding limit, and my legs churning, bending, lifting, protesting, reanimated from dead meat.

In my mind, I hum ancient nonsense, “I’m forever blowing bubbles.” Father McLaughlin surprised the St. Mary’s congregation once in the old days when I was Samantha’s age, adapting the tune to echo how he felt, the experience shared by my and all the parents, about paying for the new school I attended in another lifetime with Angie and Rosemary: “I’m forever writing checks.” I smile at the innocence. I watch Jacques Cousteau fin in the blue ocean somewhere exotic, trailing bubbles that drift up, up and away; and inside him I also see tiny bubbles of nitrogen lazily floating on the rivers of his life, through the caverns of his lungs and heart. I frown at these as they agglutinate into a single giant, surreal bubble that engorges Number Six and deposits him again in the Village, in a world removed, wet, as if fresh from a futile escape swim in the River Styx.

My thoughts now comprise a winding circle leading me back to the mammoth bubble Richard and Bobby had intended for me, the Vesuvius, the Krakatoa of gas embolisms I did escape.


I hear the cinders crunching behind, louder and louder, until the Peddie boys lap me. One boy stares ahead intensely, as if each step is a mathematical problem he has to solve before he can go on. His partner is looser, and drops a foot behind the other boy, not seeming to care he is lagging. As they pass, this boy directs a smile at me; maybe in response to the dumb grin I feel spreading over my face. I’m hot and sweating, tired and thirsty, my age and children and history weigh on me and act as brakes on my feet; and instantly his attention, casual and innocent, friendly and understanding, infuses me with youth, strength, and embarrassment, for I’m not seeing him as a boy in track shorts. Then I wonder what he and his partner will be; professionals, most likely, lawyers, doctors, and veterinarians. No, not vets, for vets are evil. Bobby McFarlane damned them for eternity. I know it’s unfair of me, but I can’t help myself. Whenever I drive past a veterinarian’s office, I grimace and an icy hand grips my spine and rattles me into insensibility. I’ve progressed, but not enough to embrace veterinarians, or the tools they use.


Richard, Bobby and Angie kept no secrets, and I knew the truth. But I wished none of it were true. When I visit Angie’s grave, which I do every time Samantha, Emily, and I spend a weekend at my parents, I implore her forgiveness, but receive back images of myself and events.

I suppose the root of everything was—is—my hatred of Bobby McFarlane. I simply could not believe he would make anything of himself. Yet he did. After Richard left for Rider, Bobby was alone with no prospects other than a mechanic’s job at the garage, where he was employed part-time while at Creek Falls High. I ignored him my last year of high school, going as far as avoiding the garage he worked at. While I was halfway through Rider, he enrolled at Roosevelt County Community College to earn an associates degree in auto mechanics. There, he discovered he possessed an aptitude for and enjoyed biology and chemistry. He decided on a career in veterinary medicine after Richard and I married. I never knew Bobby cared for animals; I always saw him as an animal. So, I guess his choice was something of a natural. He excelled at Roosevelt and gained admission to the veterinary program at Cornell. Bobby McFarlane at Cornell University was something I could not fathom. Nor could I believe he graduated near the top of his class.

After a one-year internship at the Cornell University Hospital for Animals, he was ready to move on. And on he did move, to New York City and joined the Manhattan Hospital for Animals on the upper Eastside. That’s where he treated Marshall, the cat of a young corporate lawyer at New York Life, Angie Tessaro, my best high school friend. Though I had barred Bobby McFarlane from my wedding, had forbade Richard from mentioning him, and had sequestered Bobby McFarlane in the deep recesses of my memory as best I could, I know all this to be true. Angie herself told me everything when she asked me to be her maid of honor at their wedding.

Richard + Bobby, Kisses, Alyce

Richard + Bobby,
Kisses, Alyce

Chapter 11: UCMC, SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA  (Part 7 and 8)


The strain of the day must have worn on my weakened condition more than I could imagine for before it seems they are gone not a minute I am blinking awake in a dimmed room. I glance toward the window. The curtains are pulled aside, revealing it is night. And by the deep quiet surrounding me, not even the squeak of a nurse’s shoe seeping in from the corridor, it is very late, perhaps early morning. An entire evening has vanished.

With every tired, aching muscle feeling rejuvenated and my eyes alert and cleared of stinging exhaustion, I decide to test the truth of Doctor Anya’s assurance. I attempt lifting my arms and raising them nearly perpendicular to my body. I’m pleased. Next, I try my legs. Not as successful, but, still, I manage to get them off the bed, and I sense I might be able to swing them over the side. Emboldened and happier than I have been since reviving, I plant my elbows and push up. I am surprised, for I lever myself into an almost upright position before gravity bears down and forces my head back onto the pillow. I blow a couple of labored breaths and grunt as I do. Why not, I tell myself, let’s go for broke? I think, I am making excellent progress, and I try pushing the words out into the room. And I succeed. Well, maybe I’m not perfectly comprehensible, but enough that anyone hearing me could understand me. I weep because, finally, I am back in the world.


I do not notice the activity outside my room for my sobbing; the world is real, but it is distorted, blurred, as if perceived through a wet windshield. And while I cry silently outside myself, inside the noise is distracting. It is not until I see shadows flashing back and forth across the threshold of my room that I become aware something is happening, something frightening. I give my nose a huge snuffing, enabling me to breath through it quietly. I wipe away my tears with arms and hands that are again useful and I distinguish the flickering shadows clearly.

Richard and Bobby move swiftly to my bedside. They flank me. Richard leans into my face. I have closed my eyes and evened my breathing.

“She’s sleeping,” he whispers.

“Good,” Bobby says. “Probably the meds.”

“Let’s hurry, Bobby. I don’t want her waking up.”

“Don’t worry,” he says. “She won’t be, not ever.”

I hear snapping, I think.

Then they stop and I feel Bobby grasp my arm, turn it over, run a finger over it, searching, finding what he is seeking. He presses lightly.

“Any last words for the dearly departed?” he asks.

Richard says, “Stop it, Bobby. Just do it.”

I blink my eyes open and stare directly into Richard’s.

“Christ, Bobby, she’s awake,” he bleats, struggling to keep his voice low.

“Not for long,” Bobby says.

I feel rested and strong, but mostly I am scared. I yank my arm from Bobby’s grip, thrush up and smack at the monster syringe he aims at my tubing.

I scream, “Nurse Rosenthal!  Doctor Anya!  Doctor Erlich!  Anybody!”

“Ritchie, hold her down for Christ’s sake.”

Instead, Richard pulls back, and as he does the room becomes bright and fills with people. They are police officers in blue and two in suits. One of them says, “Police. Step away from the bed.”

Bobby mutters, “Shit.”

Richard, already away, pedals back farther.

I close my eyes and exhale and hear only, “Arrest.”

I don’t open them until a nurse touches my arm and says, “They’re gone, Mrs. DeSantis.”

I’m crying unrestrainedly, inconsolably, and hiccupping my words. “Oh, Nurse Rosenthal, thank you. Thank you for believing me.”

She smiles down on me, a portrait of goodness, an angel of mercy, of life, a savior. But she’s not my nurse.

“Is Nurse Rosenthal off duty?” I ask, my eyes busted dams flooding my cheeks in tears.

“I don’t know any Nurse Rosenthal,” she says.

“No?” I say. “She was here last shift. Nurse Rosenthal and Doctor Anya.”

“You mean Doctor Larsen, perhaps? We have no Doctor Anya on the floor.”

“Doctor Erlich, then,” I say, thinking I could use a psychiatrist at this moment.

“No,” she says. “Mrs. DeSantis, you’ve been in a coma since you arrived two weeks ago.”

“I have?” I mutter.

The suited police return to inform me that Richard and Bobby are safely on their way to jail. They’ll be arraigned on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, and various other counts that shoot past me.

I ask about Samantha and Emily, afraid maybe, in light of things, they don’t exist. They assure me my parents are caring for them.

After the police leave, the nurse suggests I rest.

I think hers is excellent advice. I lie back in bed. I am exhausted. I close my eyes and immediately I am asleep. And I am dreaming. I am dreaming about what is ahead of me, of seeing Samantha and Emily tomorrow, of arriving at home, of embracing my parents, of selling the house, of flying to where I loved living, to where life can be normal and hopeful.