Honorable Mention, Fiction Open Contest 2017
The day I met Mike Arnold is an interesting story. It’s not the one I’m here to tell, but I suppose you need a little backstory to understand what caused him to lay me out in the grass of the park on this Saturday evening. It started a month ago, shortly after my parents had a near fatal brush with death on HWY 9. A semi totaled the car in front of them, killing everyone inside. My parents were fine, physically, but they quickly developed a case of Sudden Onset Spiritual Revelation. In their minds, it must have been a sign from God that they weren’t killed. I guess God didn’t care too much for the folks in the other car.
Which is how, at the age of 17, having seen the inside of a church once for a wedding and once for a funeral, I found myself amidst the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Gainesville. So there I sat, in my tattered jeans and my grungy shirt, in Sunday school. I didn’t know much about Church, but I knew I didn’t want to be there. So I rebelled against my new lot in life through blasphemous rants and just generally touting my lack of belief. It’s not that I was an atheist, I’d never really thought about it before to be honest. I just needed an outlet. Pretty soon I noticed that one person in particular was taking everything I said as a personal affront. So yeah, it’s not like I didn’t see this coming.
Which brings us back to me looking up into Mike Arnold’s face from the ground. Mike is an Ogre. Twelve feet tall with muscles like a Mexican wrestler and the punch to match. I brought my hand up and felt my cheek getting puffy, like one of those birds that swells up its chest and dances around when it’s horny. Mercifully, something about seeing me on the ground nursing a split lip and a swollen cheek must have checked off a box in his tiny little brain, because he didn’t hit me again. Sadly, my natural sarcastic impulses took over. I stood up with a wry smile.
“Nice to see you, Mike,” I said, or maybe it was, “Hey Mike, how are you?”
Honestly the details are a little fuzzy. As it turns out, he doesn’t respond super well to sarcasm. His second jab caught me in the stomach and I deflated like a balloon.
“Not so funny when you can’t breathe, huh?”
I had to hand it to the ogre, if there is one way to shut me up it’s to punch me in the gut.
“Listen shithead, I’m tired of you ruining my Sundays.”
“You know, I’m not super happy about it either,” I replied, trying to catch my breath. He pulled me up by my shirt collar so I was looking him in the face.
“Look man,” I said, trying my best not to get punched again. “if I had a choice I’d spend Sunday morning sleeping in, but my parents are making me go to your church, I can’t, exactly, just stop.”
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to beat the devil out of you.”
When I got home my mom put an ice pack on my face and waited for the swelling to go down. I twisted off a story about getting too close to a goose at the park. Which she was buying, until my dad came in and informed her that he’d just spoken to Jack Arnold. Apparently some kids had seen his boy and Jack’s boy fighting in the park. I tried to smooth the situation over by pretending that Mike Arnold actually did resemble a goose. They weren’t buying it. Nor did they care that it was a one sided fight. So I was banished to my room to wait out my punishment. An hour passed, then two, soon the sun had set and I started to get nervous.
I tried distracting myself with video games. I was stuck on a mission where I kept dying over and over again in the same run down, suburban neighborhood. It felt a little too on the nose, so I turned it off and put a Vandals album on, cranking up the volume as loud as I dared. Around 8pm I heard the landline going off in the living room. No one calls the landline but robots and perverts, so no one ever answers it. This time though, the ring cut off midway through its second rattle and I heard my mother’s voice.
“Hello, Brother Thomas,” she said, before trailing off as she moved from the living room to their bedroom. About 20 minutes later there was a knock on my door.
“Come in,” I said over the music. I perked up a little when I saw my mom, the harsher punishments were typically meted out by my dad.
“Casey, can you turn that down a bit?” she asked. “Thanks, so I just got off the phone with Brother Thomas, from the church, and he has helped your father and I realize that punishing you for your fight with Mike wouldn’t be righteous.”
She’s only recently started talking like this, saying things like that wouldn’t be righteous or have a blessed day. I didn’t respond. I was well trained in suppressing any sarcastic remarks around my parents, a skill I had been employing more and more lately. I just nodded to show I was listening.
“Right,” she continued. “So, Brother Thomas suggested God Power classes.”
“Don’t think of it as extra church, think of it as focused worship.”
That didn’t really make me feel any better about the idea. Individual bible study with a mentor from my Sunday school class. I shuddered at the thought. I tried negotiation. I offered up my free time, my weekends, even my video games. Every suggestion was met with the same canned reply.
“Those things won’t heal your spirit.”
Sunday school goes down in a small annex at the back of the church. Recliners, couches, and a few beanbags all lined up in a sort of semi-circle. The awkward religiously themed posters on the walls a mirage of racial diversity. The seats are filled with white faces in perfectly pressed slacks and modest dresses. I looked around the room at the other kids and tried to guess which one would end up being my God Power tutor.
I doubted it would be Mike, who hadn’t acknowledged me since I sat down, just as well I figure. Next to him was the youth pastor. He’d told me his name on my first day, but it didn’t stick. He’s older. Thirty-four or Thirty-five maybe, with a pedophile mustache, receding hairline, and a ponytail. I just call him Brother Stranger Danger. If there is a God, I pray he doesn’t stick me with him. On his right, taking up a whole couch to themselves, was a set of triplets I knew of by reputation as ‘The O’Doyles.’ Red-haired and freckle faced. Like if the Weasleys had been Baptists instead of Wizards. When you are the only Triplets in small town Texas there aren’t a lot of people who don’t recognize you.
Then there was the only other one I knew by name, Sara. She had let me read along in her bible a couple of times because I never brought my own. She was cute, in that sort of innocent kind of way. I wouldn’t mind her as a mentor.
Beyond that there was a guy who looked a little bit like a young John Belushi. Proving my long standing theory that every group of five or more people needs a John Belushi look-a-like. Then at the far end of the room was a mousy looking girl who always wore the same jean dresses and kept her hair in a bun like she was practicing a to be a librarian. Trying to pick which one might end up being my mentor felt like playing a psychological game of Russian roulette, where Sara was the bullet that could put me out of my misery and everyone else was an empty chamber. I employed the age old tactic of eeny, meeny, miney, mo and landed on the second O’Doyle brother.
“Strike one,” I thought.
I started again from the other side of the room and landed on Mike.
I went again and started from the middle. This time I landed on the librarian-in-training.
“And strike three.”
Sitting in the pews between my parents I surveyed the gathered sheep. I’m not being sarcastic, they called themselves that, I just ran with it. The front few rows seemed to be the realm of the old folks. They did their best to get up each time a prayer was said or a hymn was sung, but they didn’t always make it. The next row back seemed reserved entirely for the O’Doyles. They were packed in so tight they were nearly in each other’s laps. The parents, then the triplets, a set of twin sisters and a younger boy. The younger families seemed to occupy most of the back rows. My parents, Mike’s brood, and a few newlyweds clutching babies to their chests looking frazzled. Sara’s family sat in the very back. I risked looking back at her twice, but each time she had her nose buried in a bible. My dad elbowed me gently in the ribs and nodded toward the front.
When the last hymns were sung and the last hands were shaken, we loaded up in my dad’s Range Rover and made the pilgrimage to that most holy of spaces, the Pizza Hut down on 12th street. I busied myself with my sacred traditions by heading to the jukebox and playing the one good album they had. Darkness on the Edge of Town. Bruce Springsteen’s crowning achievement. You know, everyone always praises Born in the USA and Greetings from Asbury Park, but Darkness on the Edge of Town is really prime Springsteen. Not to mention how utterly badass he looks on that album cover.
“So, any idea who my God Power mentor is going to be?”
My Dad took a sip of his Diet Pepsi and pretended not to hear me.
“Someone will have to volunteer for it,” Mom said. From the sound of her voice I could tell no one had stepped up yet. The waitress dropped off our order just as “The Promised Land” hit the bridge. I wondered if she liked Springsteen. I wondered if she was single. I wondered if she liked serving pizza to people like us all day. I wondered if she had a promised land, I wondered if I did, too.
When the doorbell rang I was waiting on the couch. I had spent the last few hours locked in my room contemplating existential quandaries like how can I get out of this and what the hell is a God Power class, really? I looked across the room at my Mom who, until now, had been engrossed in the nightly news.
“Oh! I guess that’s your ride,” she said before turning back to the TV. I drug my feet across the living room floor, my converse scuffing on the laminate, and opened the door with my most impressive lack of enthusiasm yet.
“Hi, can I help you?”
I didn’t recognize the girl standing in front of me. Her face was mostly obscured by a pair of dark aviator sunglasses.
“I’m here to talk to you about our lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
She pushed the glasses up on to her head and I recognized her face.
“Oh, you’re, uh…from the church.”
“Jess,” she said, holding out a slender hand of sharp black nails.
“Right,” I said, shaking it “you sit toward the end. I didn’t recognize you at first with your hair down.” In fact, I still wasn’t sure it was the same girl. From foot to head she had combat boots, a slightly too short skirt, and a low cut V-neck. She dropped her glasses back over her eyes.
“Say good bye, little boy blue,” she said walking back toward the black Honda she had left idling in the street.
I shouted a quick good-bye to my mom and jogged out to the waiting car. When I opened the door my ears were assaulted by the screams of The Damned. I hopped in and she peeled away before I had a chance to buckle in. I soon realized that she had a very loose interpretation of speed limits.
“Welcome to the Black Dahlia,” she said over the music.
So, she named her car after a famous murder victim. Reassuring.
“I…didn’t take you for a fan of The Damned.”
“You didn’t take me for much of anything, you didn’t even know my name.”
So, she’d caught on.
“Well, in my defense, you don’t really give off much of a personality at church.”
“I don’t need to with you around.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means everyone thinks you’re a dick.”
She blew through a red-light onto the highway and soon we were headed in the direction of the church. I was silent for a while. ‘Everyone’ must have included Sara and that had hurt me a little. I didn’t want to come off as the kind of person that cared about that sort of thing though.
“What did you mean back there, when you called me little boy blue?”
The slightest of smiles spread across her face, like she had just thought of the cruelest joke.
We were driving past one of a dozen different mini-malls. The shops were all closed but, as usual, a group of cars was parked in a circle in the lot. The cool kids. That was all they did in this town. Hang out in mini-mall parking lots and drink low-point beer until the cops showed up. She whipped the steering wheel and we took a sharp left into one of the parking lots where they were gathered.
“What the hell!” I shouted.
She floored the accelerator toward the gathered mass of shocked teens. We were going to hit them. I closed my eyes and braced. My body jerked forward as she slammed on the brakes but the belt caught me. I opened my eyes to see that we had stopped just a few feet short of the group.
The driver’s side door crashed open and she flew out like a wraith, gliding straight toward a handsome looking guy in a cowboy hat who had his arms thrown around the waist of a short brunette girl. As soon as she saw her coming the girl broke free and found her way to a car on the other side of the group. Jess started screaming at the guy but I couldn’t make out what she was saying from inside the car. I got out sheepishly and took a few steps forward. I could make out some of her words now. They were, let’s say, colorful.
“Jess, calm down,” I said meekly as I approached them. The handsome cowboy wasn’t saying anything. He looked petrified. He glanced around at the other kids in the circle but they had all backed away a distance and were watching in muted silence.
“Stay out of this!”
I wanted to. I really did.
“Hey man, call off your bitch,” he had sensed in me a weakness, and diverted his terror in my direction. There was a collective gasp from the circle as the handsome cowboy’s head snapped backwards. In that moment, she should have been saint-like, but all I saw was an angry little girl choking back tears. The world could have ended right there and I might have never known her as anything more. But the silence broke and the sound came roaring back into the circle like an angry god.
We had turn tail and ran as quickly as possible, her peeling out of the parking lot, me holding on for my life trying to get the door closed. Now we were safe. Or at least as safe as we could be with her driving. Main Street was empty. The town was empty. My head was full.
“What was that?”
“Just striking a blow for the matriarchy,” she said, all traces of that angry little girl now gone, back behind the mask. She pulled off her sunglasses and tossed them in the back seat.
“Christ you look tense, here,” she reached across my legs and into the glove box pulling out a pack of cigarettes.
“There’s a lighter in my purse, down in the floorboard, can you grab it?” I found the leather handle and reached inside gingerly. Thankfully, the lighter was the first thing my fingers found. I tossed it over to her and she put her knees up on the wheel to steer as she lit up a couple cigarettes.
“Sure.” I didn’t, but it was clear that I was going to be shot by a cowboy or killed in a fiery car crash before I died of lung cancer, so screw it. I watched the embers burn at the tip of the carcinogen filled paper tube for a moment before I brought the filter to my lips. The first intake was smoke and ash and death. I could taste the fire on my tongue, in my throat. I coughed and choked and flicked the still lit butt out the cracked window as she laughed at me.
“Not much of a smoker, huh?”
“My first and last time,” I said, still choking.
She shook her head.
“You have a terminal case of poseur syndrome.”
She made liberal use of the brake pedal as we pulled into the church parking lot. The sun had set now, but a dim glow was coming from inside the church as we approached the unlocked annex door.
“It’s a little spooky in here,” I said, as she led me down the hallway.
“Are you scared of the church, or me?”
We walked past the Sunday school room. She pulled out a ring of keys and opened the door to the main church.
“They gave you access to the whole church for this?”
She shook her head in the sort of way that told me I was being an idiot.
“My dad’s the preacher.”
We went through another door into a tiny office. She busied herself rummaging through a desk while I glanced around the room. There were several bookshelves filled with bibles and other Christian books. A framed newspaper clipping on the wall read Jacob Thomas: voted best pastor 2009.
“Holy crap this is your dad’s office, why are we in here?!”
“We are here,” she said, pulling a bottle of amber colored liquid out of a drawer and holding it up for me to see, “for this!”
“And that is?”
I started to protest but she had taken me by the hand now, and something about the warmth of her hand filled my head with a ringing so loud I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the feel of her skin against mine.
She led me back through the dark hallways and into the cavernous chapel. At the head of the room, behind the pulpit, was a wooden door. She had already started sipping from the bottle as she searched for another key on her ring.
“Just give me a second…there!” She swung the door open and we filed in.
“Hang on,” I felt her fumbling around beside me in the dark.
“And Jess said, let there be light!”
And behold, there was light.
We were standing at the edge of some steps that led down into something like an oversized bathtub. On one side of the small room there was a great window that looked out at the pews in the chapel and on the other was a set of brass faucets.
“What is this?”
“Baptismal pool,” she said handing me the bottle of scotch as she bounded down the stairs and turned on the faucets. Water started pouring into the pool.
“What are you doing?”
She had kicked off her boots and seconds later thrown her shirt and skirt to the side so that she was standing at the bottom in nothing but underwear.
“Going for a swim, are you coming or what?”
I looked from the scotch in my hand, to the half-naked girl in front of me. I took a deep drink from the bottle and felt my throat catch fire for the second time tonight. I dropped my pants and my shirt in a pile at the tops of the stairs. The pool was already up to her waist as I jumped in. I sunk beneath the water and let myself sit at the bottom for a few minutes before surfacing.
“And I now pronounced you bathed in the blood of the lamb!”
“Amen!” I said, laughing. She floated on her back to the edge of the pool and hung there staring at the ceiling. I treaded water near the faucet and looked out into the empty chapel. Something tugged at my leg. Her head came out of the water below me and she threw her arms around my neck, dragging me under. I opened my eyes and saw her looking at me, her face strangely distorted. She moved in close. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold my breath. Then I felt her. Her arms around me, my arms around her, her lips on mine. We lingered there under the water, embracing for longer than we should have, sustained by each other’s breath, before we finally surfaced. She kicked her way over to the steps without saying anything and I followed her. She sat down, the water rising to just below her breasts.
“What are you doing here, Casey?”
“I’m supposed to be having a God Power class.”
“And you aren’t?”
“I can’t say, but it’s definitely been a religious experience.”
I stared down at my own feet. That was corny. So very corny. I’m not very good at this sort of thing. Sincere human interaction, that is. She pulled her phone from her pile of clothes and put on some music I didn’t recognize. Her eyes were closed and she was humming along to the song.
“What are you doing here?” I turned the question on her. “I know this was a volunteer gig. Why waste your time on me?”
She kept her eyes closed. Thinking. When she finally spoke up she turned and looked right into me. Fiercely, terrifyingly intimate.
“Because you looked lost. That first day at church, hell, every time I’ve seen you. I can relate to lost. I am lost. I saw you and thought to myself, ‘he and I should get lost together.’ You didn’t have to come with me. You saw how messed up I really am pretty quickly. You could have said no, walked home, could have told me to fuck off. But you didn’t, why?”
Now it was my turn to think. And I thought. And I thought. And I could still taste her on my tongue. And I could still feel the alcohol singing inside me. And I could still feel the bruise from Mike’s punch. And I could still remember my life before all this, before my parents found God. Time passed slowly, and then quickly, and then slowly, and then not at all. We could have sat there not speaking for five minutes or five hours. I didn’t know.
“Do you believe in God?” I asked.
She had the Scotch in her hands. I realized it was almost empty now. She had been slowly sipping on it the whole time we had been sitting there. She drained the last of it and closed her eyes again.
“I stopped believing in God the same time that I stopped believing in Santa Clause.”
“When was that?”
“When I realized my father was both of them.”
There I was. Little boy blue blowing my horn every Sunday. Bragging about my lack of faith to a room full of believers. While all the while she sat in silence, shadowed beneath her father’s religion. I was in a passion play and she was burning at the stake.
“That’s what they tell me,” she said, flinging the empty scotch bottle across the room where it shattered against the side of the pool. I watched the broken glass sink below the water.
“Hey, that guy you punched earlier, who was he?”
“Oh,” I said, “before or after you punched him?”
She reached over and ran a soft hand across my bruised cheek. I caught a hint of sadness in her eyes. The same angry girl that had lashed out against a boy in that mini-mall parking lot. There was an answer there, and a question. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was a place for me to ride out the storm. Or maybe it was the international sign of lost souls, from one heretic to another.
“You hit that guy pretty hard.”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling. “I did.”