1/8/15 Update: read the story in one go, here.
Green note, 10/10/14 : A glut of work like a gaggle of geese, organized chaos, sixty days and sixty nights, and what is there left to do but pretend everything is as it should be? This story was composed in slashes of time to the tune of nearly 4000 words and is now chopped into four pieces so I can hang with the cool FF crowd again for a time. Part One of Four follows:
I watched the preacher kill in the dull yellow light of an alley. A young girl, it was, in her teens, looked like. I got there too late. I watched him put a marigold in her mouth and walk away down the street. The mist that rose up from the pavement after the rain hid his feet like the picture I have in my mind of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee.
When the preacher faded away, I went to the girl. She was all mangled but I felt her neck for a pulse anyway. It was a crazy thing to do. As if I couldn’t help myself, to touch her still-warm skin, to look into her vacant eyes for an account of her life, to smell death on the marigold stitched in place by gold thread.
I rose, saddened. This was not the first time the preacher had killed a young girl and I’m largely to blame, having that knowledge and turning a blind eye, denying it again and again. But denials hide nothing in the end. The truth lies in the catacombs of the mind and the constant drip, drip, drip of it will eat a person alive.
I hurried away, down to the Trinity, and I washed off any associative sins in the rush of its Gulf-bound water. Dirty and wise, the Trinity, and I lay on the bank to dry, glad of her gurgling council. I dozed off for a time and awoke with a clear vision: the preacher would have to die.
I had no energy to leave the river but I needed a drink, so I walked up to Elmer’s on Riverfront for a fifth of whiskey and back down to the river. I sat on the bank and drank from the bottle until the shaking stopped and I could see every detail of the killing plan.
Tomorrow, after the preacher had finished evangelizing, I’d track him down, drag him to the dungeon and torture and kill him like he does his young girls. I would be the New Jesus and kill the False Prophet.
I poured the rest of the whiskey from the bottle into my flask, and I went into the Great Trinity Forest to imbibe the night and its sounds and prepare myself for the task.
The next afternoon I watched the preacher from my usual vantage point. He strode to the corner of North Lamar and San Jacinto wearing his game show face as a mask, swinging his iniquitous hands as if they were clean.
His hat and suit looked respectable, but they were sheep’s clothing. The gray, fresco fabric belied his falsehood, and pride and violence strained at the top button of his single-breasted jacket.
He planted himself in view of the movie house up the street and commenced to preaching a changed life. “Listen to me, peoples of the Earth, I am the New Prophet and I bring to you a chance to redeem the rest of the days of your lives!”
You are the ultimate deceiver, I thought, and I squinted at the unforgiving southern sun, praying for something as true as rain.
All that came was a stream of people from the 1p.m. matinee, the preacher’s daily bread. He beseeched them, “Brother, let me show you the saving light. Sister, do you want more out of life?”
A small crowd gathered quickly, same as yesterday and all the days before that, for this was a city ripe with desire for the infusion of a higher power it could bend to its will.
The preacher plied his crowd, began working them up to desperation for healing like a lynch mob for makeshift justice.
“Your sins are blocks to receiving good things, Brothers and Sisters. God can’t give if you can’t receive. If you’ve confessed your sins and are still blocked, I can unblock you, that’s the gift of the Spirit that I was given.”
When the crowd was at the height of holy frustration, he bellowed, “Now, I can only take one of y’all. It’s all I got in me, one healing per day. Who’s it gonna be?”
The crowd surged forward, a pool of menace suddenly, and amidst the pushing, I could see it was trying to purge itself of a young man in a business suit. He popped out before the preacher bawling for the Midas touch.
The preacher circled round and round him, incantating, and when he’d lulled the young man into complaisance, he clapped his huge hands once behind his head, like a gunshot, and the man dropped to the ground convulsing and blithering.
I waited for the rest of the routine to unfold, for the preacher to act spent, the man to rise anew, the benediction to be spoken, the money to be collected, and the preacher to go off for coffee and fellowship with an admiring young girl.
This time he went off by himself, a suspect deviation. He must be reading my mind, I thought. He knew I would follow him, that I plan to kill him. Fear scraped down the inside of me, left me pallid.
I watched the distance grow between me and the preacher. I guzzled some whiskey, wiped my shaky mouth. And in that perilous moment, I saw clearly that the preacher had merely parried with his best guess. It was an invitation to take this to the higher realm of mind power, a game the New Jesus would win.
I hightailed it after him down North Lamar and saw the gray tails of his suit jacket disappear onto Elm Street. I ran to take the turn myself just in time to see him jag left down North Market, then right on Main, left on Houston, and when I saw him cut onto Jackson Street I knew he was taking me to the dungeon.
I stopped just shy of the corner of Houston and Jackson and took a swig off my flask. So be it, I thought, and I sprang around the corner, saw the preacher disappear through a hole in the boarded-up door of the abandoned apartments where he takes his victims.
Seven seconds later I was through the hole and into the familiar, foul-smelling square space with rows of vandalized mailboxes and an open well staircase directly ahead. I could hear the preacher’s steps on the second flight of stairs.
I started up the first flight and midway heard something soft and rustling drop onto a landing above. I climbed until I saw it, a handful of marigolds secured with waxed tissue paper and mossing twine.
I listened for the preacher. He was still climbing. I stashed the marigolds in my pocket and hurried on.
When I got to the second floor landing something hard dropped onto the landing just above me. It rolled and came to a stop.
I kept climbing and saw that it was a wooden spool of gilt thread. The False Prophet deserves thread as black as the pit of hell, I thought, not this. I stepped over it and at once became aware of silence.
I paused. Still no sound. I braced myself and pushed upward into the eerie quiet.
When I’d got to the fourth floor landing, I stopped again to listen: not a sound.
I leaned into the stairwell and looked up through the tunnel of stairs. Nothing.
And then it hit me. Sweat flooded my pores and froze on my skin, and I slowly turned to look down through the stairs and there he was, standing in the lobby in the center of the stairwell pointing a gun at me.
The adrenaline rush was incredible. I was thrown outside myself, watched in slow motion as I leapt back from the handrail, pressed my back to the stairwell wall, and slid down it like thick oil.
I lay pooled on the floor thinking I was alive, although I had no real idea how I was, but I was aware of an urgency to re-enter slow motion, to go back and alter fate.
“You left the thread untouched,” the preacher bellowed.
A rush of nausea swept through me. I felt clammy and on the verge of shitting or vomiting, I didn’t know which.
“Do you hear it?” the preacher hollered, “Your marigolds are crying for their sacred thread.”
A sick sweat came on fast and my and stomach heaved what little was in it out onto the landing. Strings of slime hung from my lips and I prayed to God to take this cup of suffering from me.
“Come to the rail where I can see you,” the preacher yelled.
I dragged the sleeve of my jacket across my lips and struggled to unscrew the lid from my flask. I took a desperate, long drink and tried to get myself together. Am I not the New Jesus come to kill this False Prophet?
“Show yourself,” the preacher shouted.
I got my knees under me and crawled to the handrail, pulled myself up. The preacher still had the gun trained on me. I trembled, waiting for the gunshot blackout, or worse, the burning wounding and bleeding-out of life.
“So, Skinner, our paths converge,” he yelled.
“What, not raping and killing today, ‘preacher’?” I yelled back.
“That’s your form of entertainment, not mine.”
“You lie! I saw what you did,” I said.
“Of course you saw. You were the one doing it.”
“Deceiver!” I screamed at him. “You filthy False Prophet, behold me, the New Jesus come to kill you and rule the New Day.”
The preacher roared with amusement. Nothing could be said or heard above it and I was forced to wait, to listen to what sounded like three or more tracks of the preacher’s laughter playing in my head at once.
“Fool!” the preacher thundered. “Compared to the False Prophet, your New Jesus construct is a pantywaist. The False Prophet is so deeply rooted in your mind that to kill him would be to kill yourself.”
I couldn’t think with the preacher circling round and round me with his sticky words, trying to bind me in a cocoon of confusion. I grasped at the first voice I heard in my head and blurted out, “I will subdue you then, cast you to the dungeon and reign supreme.”
“It makes no difference if I go from clocktower to dungeon,” the preacher countered. “You know I can get at you from wherever I am.”
“No you can’t.”
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