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. It was 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 up.
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 us. 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. This 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, 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 housing project 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 Judas preacher?
“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.”
“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.”
“I am the New Jesus, I will prevail,” I yelled.
“Come down and pick up this thread!”
“You heard me! Do it!”
“I don’t need it!”
“You need to hide the evidence.”
“It isn’t mine.”
“You know it is.”
“No! I didn’t do anything.”
“You did, and they know about it.”
“You’re trying to trick me.”
“They know about you.”
“They know what you did.”
“No, you did it!”
“They’re coming for you, you know that.”
“You killed them all!”
“That’s a lie, and they’ll know if you lie.”
Suddenly it rose up in me like locusts out of the Abyss: the preacher was one of them!
“They’re coming to get you. And what are you going do about it?”
I wanted to escape my skin, to fly up the stairs, to find a way out, a fire escape, skylight, anything…
“I know what you’re thinking.”
Tapeworms were moving downward inside my legs.
“Are you just going stand there like an idiot and do nothing?
I looked down at my feet. The worms were spilling out my shoes.
“You must pick up this thread and run! Destroy it before they find you with it!”
I half ran, half tripped down the stairs and snatched up the gilt thread. It screamed to be put down but I couldn’t and it burned in my hand until I jammed in into the pocket with the marigolds.
“Good!” the preacher said. “Now go!” And he stepped into the shadows.
I froze. I couldn’t go downstairs, not with him lurking there. He’d jump me, take me to the dungeon… And then I got that fourth floor feeling. Sweating and cringing, I looked up, and I’ll be damned if he wasn’t way high up there on a landing, looking down at me.
He bellowed, “Go in peace!” then laughed hysterically, the echo of the highest notes stabbing down through the tunnel of stairs at me.
I nearly fell the rest of the way down the stairs but when my feet hit solid ground I dug in, just blasted through the door and ran for my life, down the first alley, then over and down entire blocks, zig-zagging willy-nilly like that until I ran out of breath in the back lot of a 7-11.
I bent over, hands on my knees, heaving for air.
“You can’t afford to stop, they’ll catch up with you,” I heard the preacher say.
My body jerked upright like the reflexive movement of a dead person. I spun around. The preacher was nowhere.
“It’s too late, Skinner, I’m in the clocktower.”
“Damn you!” I screamed at him and I ran for the 7-11 dumpster, fumbling inside my jacket for the marigolds and thread. They were burning my hand as I lifted the dumpster lid.
“No! Not there, you idiot!” the preacher shrieked.
I lost my grip on the lid and it slammed back down. I froze, shaking like a jackhammer. As if I were being electrocuted, I couldn’t let go of the marigolds and thread and they were melting the skin of my hand. When it stopped, I just threw the whole smoldering mess down on the ground and I ran willy-nilly again.
“You worthless idiot!” the preacher yelled at me. “You’ve just condemned yourself.”
I could feel what was left of my power swirling round, picking up speed like water toward a drain.
“You’ve done it now, you hear those sirens? They’re headed this way.”
I gritted my teeth together and tried to summon some power. I thought of the Trinity River. How could I have forgotten the blessed Trinity? I could wash the preacher’s vileness from me there, get another bottle from Elmer’s and drink him clean away…
“The police are getting out of their cruisers, coming for you, and it’s all your fault.”
I could hear yelling. I changed course for the river.
“You should have used your mind to stop them!”
I was flattened to the ground by a massive force.
“Stop them! You have to take control!”
I fought like a rabid dog, snapping at flying limbs and biting at faces that got too close and I spat and kicked through the yelling and pinning and the steel grips until everything went black.
# # # # #
I woke on a dirty, smooth and stinking floor. I was lying flat out on my stomach, the right side of my face in fresh vomit. I could feel my hands bound behind me. I didn’t move, just rolled my eyes around to check my whereabouts. I saw feet, shins, two guys on a bench with handcuffed wrists resting on their knees.
“Someone get the fuck in here and clean this shit up!” one of the guys yelled.
I heard more than one set of footsteps coming, then a rattling of a lock on a steel cage.
“Stay where you are!” came a booming voice.
A guard came through with a hose, sprayed my head and chased the rest of the vomit down an iron grate in the floor with a stream of water. He backed out and a cop came in and yanked me to my feet. He pulled me out of there and he and another cop dragged me down the hall, pushed me through a gray door and slammed me into a gray metal desk then jammed a chair under me.
I sat there shivering, leaning into the warmth of the blazing light hanging down from the ceiling on a long cord, while the cops banged on about some killings been going on, threatening me with being able to produce fingerprints, trying to get me to admit to things I had no part of. I knew who they wanted, but after the treatment I’d got, I wasn’t exactly in a helpful mood.
But then, I didn’t know how much longer I could last like that with my hair all dripping with cold water, chilling me anew with each drop, and I could feel that feeling I get before the voices start and my muscles grab and jerk me around until I black out.
The answer came quickly enough when the cops upped their game. They introduced a new person to the room, a pretty woman who wore T.J. Eckleburg spectacles, and before they even introduced her I knew she was a psychiatrist. I can feel the sickness coming off them. Brinson was her name. She watched me intently with her ice blue eyes while the cops made me watch CCTV footage of the preacher caught in various locations doing untoward things.
“Who is that man, Mr. Skinner?” Brinson asked.
“You know who it is,” I told her.
“It looks like you, Mr. Skinner. Is it?”
“No, it is not,” I said as politely as I could manage.
“Who is it then?” Brinson said.
“Oh for crissakes, that’s the preacher, The New Prophet, everybody knows who he is!”
“Do you know him?”
“I know of him,” I said, and I added, “I know he’s the killer, not me.”
“How do you know that?”
“I saw him kill!” I yelled.
“An alley off South Griffin Street.”
“Why didn’t you do anything?”
“There was nothing I could do. The preacher had already sewn her mouth shut.”
“Gold thread,” I said.
“Like this?” a cop said as he motioned to the 2-way mirror and an investigator walked in with a clear plastic bag containing the screaming marigolds and gilt thread.
He shouldn’t have done that. I felt queasy. “Maybe,” I said, and I turned my head far away from the bag but I could still hear them. “You did it,” they screamed.
“I did not!” I yelled.
“What’s that, Mr. Skinner?” Brinson said.
“Nothing. Can I go now?”
A blast of laughter came from one of the cops. “Oh no,” the cop said, “We haven’t even started yet!”
Brinson frowned at the cop and looked back at me.
“Just a few more questions is all it should take, Mr. Skinner. Now going back to the alley, why didn’t you go to the police?”
“Because I went to the girl and felt for a pulse and I knew the cops would think I did it so I ran away.”
“You did it,” the marigolds said.
“You should have used your mind to stop it,” the thread said.
“Shut up!” I yelled.
“Excuse me, Mr. Skinner?”
“Why did you touch her, Mr. Skinner?”
“I thought maybe she was still alive.”
“Really? Couldn’t you see that her throat was slashed to the neck bone and that her midsection had been slashed from sternum to crotch and from left to right just under the rib cage and that all her organs lay about on the ground around her?
I squirmed. “Well you never know. Medicine today is amazing.”
“Oh come on!” a cop snapped.
Brinson grimaced. “Yes, it is amazing, Mr. Skinner. Tell me, was she a pretty girl?”
“Stop her from getting in! You have to take control!” the preacher said.
I ignored him.
“Yes, she was very pretty.”
“Oh, that’s nice, Brinson said.”
“What kind of thing is that to say?” I looked very carefully at Brinson. She was up to something…
“It’s so nice to be pretty in this world of ugliness, don’t you think?”
This was blasphemous! “No!” I jumped up from my chair. I looked around and saw the cops had risen, too, poised to put me out of commission. I know I was making a mistake but I couldn’t let it ride. I sat down. “No,” I said calmly. “It’s not nice.”
“Squash her,” the preacher yelled, and the marigolds tittered in the background. “We told you,” the thread said.
“Why don’t you think that?” Brinson asked.
“That it’s good to be pretty in this world? Don’t you think it could help balance the ugliness?”
“NO!” I couldn’t stand it any longer. “No I don’t! Nothing can balance it! Ugliness is all-pervasive!”
“But if you remove the beauty from the world it for sure doesn’t have a chance.”
“It’s too late, better that beauty leave here and go back to nothingness, to pool with other beauties and make their own world.”
“Traitor!” the preacher yelled at me.
I laughed. “I told you I was the New Jesus!” I yelled.
“The new Jesus?” Brinson said.
“I just want to touch them before they go,” I said.
“Why the marigolds?”
“They are the flower of the dead.”
“Why the gold thread?”
“It’s their sacred initiation to the joyous afterlife.”
“Why are you in a position to usher them out of this world?” Brinson said.
“For the love of God, save us both,” the preacher boomed.
“The task was given to me.”
“By whom?” Brinson asked.
“By the spirit of the one that said,” and I looked about the room, made sure all were seated and reverent, “The one that said, ‘It is not true, it is not true; That we came to live here; We came only to sleep, only to dream.’”
The preacher screamed, “Murderer!” and he raked down through my insides with his unholy claws, gutting me like he does his young girls and while I still could, I sprang to the desktop and bit with all my worth into the long cord of the ghastly blazing light.
# # # # #
I woke to whiteness and screaming. The preacher was duking it out with some well-meaning psychologist sicko. The preacher had him backed against the wall and still the well-meaning sod was giving hand signals to the two white burly guys to stay back and I thought, You should have asked me first about the preacher. And finally, when the preacher, for lack of a knife, had the psychologist in a stranglehold so he couldn’t speak, let alone gesture, the burly white guys tackled him to the ground and stuck a syringe into him.
The trees of the Great Trinity Forest bent down and lifted me up, took me to the blessed river. I could hear the rush of her, and in one of her playful moments she tickled me with her froth. I laughed and said, Welcome to your new life, preacher.
Marigold covered arch from Wikimedia Commons
Green note: This story was composed in slashes of time to the tune of nearly 4000 words. I broke it up for the FridayFlash gang, served it to them in four, single-sitting-size pieces. Not the thing for this sort of story I realized part way in. So here it is for posterity, all in one piece and place, ready to go on the Best of Miss A list.