If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
- Gospel of Thomas(apocryphal), verse 70
It was a cold day when Margaret Duncan saw her only son again. But that was no barrier. Margaret would have done anything just to see his face again, the face that had grown from that tiny little boy who used to run around the house accidentally knocking things over, who always got A’s on math if nothing else, who drew the crayon portrait of her that she never took down from the refrigerator. She thought sometimes she ought to frame it, but then she wouldn’t be able to touch the construction paper or smell the colored wax that brought back memories of grade school and his proud smile when he had given it to her to apologize for breaking that vase.
She held Todd so long that day, as hard as she held him that last day she saw him, before he boarded the plane to Iraq, while his buddies chuckled and gave him crap about it, and he smiled bashfully. Every day she checked her e-mail for his letters. He was never eloquent, but she always knew what he meant, even if clumsily put. It didn’t matter what he said. She was so glad that he was still there to say it. Someday God would bring her son back to her. Someday she would see his face again, and cook him that fried chicken he almost set fire to the tent with when he’d tried himself. He’d tried it for the guys at the base when it was his night to cook, because there’s only so much Army food you can handle that far from home. Where he’d gotten the ingredients he wouldn’t say in an e-mail. That smile had lasted her all day. She’d make sure he’d taste the real thing again. And she would sit and smile, just watching her boy eat.
But now she only had their word that the remains in the closed casket were his. There was no face to show, not after the IED had torn his brain and everything around it away, that last week before his tour was nearly done. She could only feel the coffin and tell herself, I can feel the warmth of his spirit through this wood. I know he‘s speaking to me and telling me he’s at peace, that he’s beyond pain, that it’s all right, Mom. She kept telling herself that. That this was for something even though there wasn’t even really a war any longer. That in some small way his death helped make the world a better place. She couldn’t put her finger on just how. But thankfully nobody asked her to.
Closure, they called it. A safely cold, smooth word to hold onto. This is what the funeral was for, and if she went through the motions, maybe she would get it, even if it didn’t feel like it right now. She’d never buried a child before. But somehow perhaps the ceremony would give it to her. It’s not like she could get retribution, and the bastard who had killed her son probably didn’t even know who he’d killed. But everyone was so nice. Everyone was so sorry. They held her hand, held her body, gave her their warmth and regret, and the knowledge that they missed him too. It was in every word everyone who went up to speak about him said. That she had brought a son into the world that had touched so many lives, that he had made a difference at least that much, that they all felt his passing just as she had. That he was dead, but that he had been there; that there was a mark upon the world made of people’s minds denoting this, and it hadn’t been just a beautiful but sadistic dream that once, she had a wonderful son.
As long as everything went the way it was supposed to, at least she might feel peace. She would be able to picture Todd at peace then, rather than the thoughts of his handsome head torn apart that kept stabbing her every time she forgot to keep wound tight and think only of him running, running around the house. His soul. His soul was safe, and everyone wished it well. She could believe it.
But then, once it was over, she had to go back outside. And there they still were, across the street.
“GOD LOVES WATCHING SOLDIERS DIE!” screamed one.
“SOLDIERS BURN IN HELL!” screamed another. And they laughed, after they said it. They smiled, like children taunting a weaker child that could not fight back. They shook their signs in case anyone had missed their boldface, all-caps slogans, some merely repeating what they were jeering, some saying GOD HATES FAGS. None of them seemed to have anything to do with her son. They were enjoying themselves, acting as though they were at a baseball match trying to throw the pitcher off his game.
“Just don’t listen,” said her sister as she held her tightly, taking her to the car. Which was good, as she didn’t know how long she could stay vertical by herself. She didn’t expect hecklers at the funeral of a boy who had died for his country. Who were these people? They didn’t even know her son. But they seemed to be enjoying themselves so much, more so when they saw the tears streaming down her face.
“Who are they…?”
“Just don’t look, Maggie. Please. The car’s not that—“
“LOOK AT THIS MOTHER!” said an old, tall, weathered, sneering man who appeared to be at the lead of this small gang. “SHE CRIES FER HER SON, BUT SHE DOESN’T CRY FOR AMERICA!” They cheered him. “AN AMERICA THAT GOD HAS LEFT BEHIND! BECAUSE IT LETS FAGS LIVE!” And they laughed, and clapped, and cheered him. “AND DOESN’T REPENT! AND GOD WILL KILL A SOLDIER FOR EVERY ONE THAT DOES NOT UNTIL THEY WAKE UP!”
They then went into a semi-rhythmic, guttural chant of “GOD HATES FAGS! GOD HATES FAGS!”
The leader laughed and said, “BET THAT SOLDIER WAS A FAG!” That got the biggest applause of all. Then they continued with their chant, like an enormous, evil-smelling motor that had been set running.
What did any of this have to do with her son? Why were they doing this? What did they gain? Why was nobody stopping them? Why did Todd have to die? Where were her legs?
“YOUR SON WAS BLOWN APART AND IS BURNING IN HELL!” the man laughed, holding his Bible aloft with pride, as though he’d written it.
She had tried so hard not to picture it, but now all she could see before her eyes is her son, and his head, a spray of red, a splatter of meat.
It wasn’t her sister’s fault she fell to the pavement and struck her head. Margaret had been trying so hard to hold most of herself up. When she lost her will, and consciousness, even she didn’t see it coming. Her body saw no further reason to try. But if she had been conscious she would have thanked God for the pain she didn’t have to feel now.
“GOD HAS STRUCK THIS WHORE DOWN JUST LIKE HER FAG SON!”
Or hear their applause and laughter. Or wonder why Jesus did not come down and stop what could not, possibly, be right, while using his name. Surely Jesus is disgusted, was the third to last thing that flashed through her broken head. Surely Jesus would not want this, was the second.
I can’t see Todd’s face anymore, was the last.
The rest were all gone now and Fred was alone in his chapel, unwinding. The day had been such fun for Fred. That old bitch looked so funny hitting the pavement. All that was missing was the banana peel. “Think they’re so smart,” he chuckled aloud to himself as his enormous belt buckle jingled near his knees. So much creaking. He should have gotten a sturdier table for the altar. Careful, that was all, just be careful.
The moment the tears came down her stupid fat face.
The smile he had now, seeing them, noticing him. Seeing the news filming him, knowing that seeing him was a spike in the eyes he wanted to put out. Seeing all his family and followers, afraid of him, doing anything he said. All those beatings gave them God. And the gates to God were only through him.
The fear in their eyes of what I’ll do, whether they’re good or not.
His little army, hurting them because they deserved to hurt, just like he’d brought them through beatings to Jesus. And Jesus was not all about touchy-feely, lovey-dovey communism. Jesus was a sign God was tired of everyone’s crap, and doing things that made Fred sick. They had to hurt till they gave up, followed Jesus, and hanged every fag neighbor they had till God was appeased.
All those soldiers, blown to bits. The bits lying in the red wet sand. Yes.
Fred was directly connected to God, so surely God was sick through him. So God would strike back, through wars, through economic disaster, everything it took, till Fred could forget that day in the park, those fags on the bench, and what they were trying to make him feel by doing it right in front of him, wearing everything tight, and pretending they didn’t know he was watching.
He couldn’t let himself come now that they’d come to mind. “Dammit!” But there was a knock at the back door anyway. Probably his oldest daughter, asking for something again. Those downturn eyes and the way she twitched made him so sick, just asking to be hit. He hadn’t smacked her in the mouth in a while. That’d make him feel better.
He opened the door. “So what is it you—“ It was a very tall, thin black man, who appeared to be wearing his bathrobe. He said nothing, just stared right through to the back of Fred’s skull, and didn’t blink. His eyes looked red. Some crackhead, coming in to rob the chapel. “How did you get in here?” Fred pushed the door in his face. He was strong for a junkie. He blocked it, though Fred mashed at it with the door as hard as he could, his hand poking through.
But Fred had his .38 right in his coat pocket like he always did, though he’d never used it for more than pistol-whipping. “You black son of a bitch,” Fred said, grinning, “you’ll be sorry to fuck with me, oh yes,” panting, putting more bullets into it. “Oh yes. Yes yes yes.” He’d never had an excuse to do this before. He thanked God for interrupting him and giving him something so much better, like a cherry on the day. It wasn’t a fag, or a soldier, but it was almost as good. He wiped the saliva from his chin, then realized he’d never done his pants back up all the way. No matter, this wouldn’t be long. There was the hand, poking through, perfectly still, even with the full weight of Fred against it. Aim for his hand, blow a hole right through it. And then Fred and his boots would start kicking the shit out of him right here in his chapel, before the cross, in the face, the gut, the spine, the kidneys, while the crackhead cried and cried in pain, and then later got raped in prison by some bunch of fags, and then God would burn them all. A glorious circle. “Praise God.” He aimed, tongue tight between his teeth.
But in all the excitement he hadn’t been looking at the hand as closely as he could have. It turned. There was already a hole.
“What the fu—“ The door exploded off its hinges, straight across the room and smack against the wall, Fred behind it all the way. The door fell straight forward away from him and the black man walked across the room, stepping onto it on a path to him. Everything was shaking through Fred, and he slumped to the floor, the gun clattering away. Something was broken. He’d done something though. Through the blurs in his eyes he could have sworn blood was streaking down from the crackhead’s hairline. Probably hit him with the door.
“You’re a very rude man, Fred,” he said, in a forceful but melodic voice. Like a fag. It was all those dreams he had after the park coming true. Fred’s pants were down. The nightmare would happen, all because they hadn’t listened to Fred and killed them all. God would know it wasn’t his fault. He was strong for a crackhead. He pulled Fred by his collar to his feet, but Fred’s legs were too jangly now to hold himself up. He was angry and his white teeth flashed.
“Please Jesus, save me Jesus, save me from this, this nigger fag—“ And he slammed Fred to the wall.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP!” he shouted in a voice like an earthquake, slamming Fred’s spine against the concrete wall, again and again, on every syllable he said. “I AM SICK OF HEARING ANYTHING YOU HAVE TO SAY!” Things were popping in there and grinding. His leg. He knew it was broken now.
“Please—I have money—“ Then a fist mashed his nose.
“Look in my eyes.”
“Look into my fucking eyes. Do you know me? Huh? Do you fucking know me, Fred?”
“No—I don’t know any nig-“ Another blow, this time knocking a few teeth out, before he could finish the word.
“Because, you know, the way you keep telling everyone you know what I think, I’d think you’d fucking recognize me.” He dropped Fred hard onto the floor and rested his foot with a stomp upon him, bending down to face him.
Deliriously, Fred started singing something that made him feel safe, from when he was a child, “Jesus loves me, y-yes I—“ Then another punch shut his face.
“NO I FUCKING DO NOT.”
“Wh—who—“ He spat out a tooth. “Who the fuck are—“
“Who the hell do you think?”
“Some fucking crackhead—Jesus, please help m—“ He grabbed Fred’s face hard and pinched it closed.
“Stop. Saying. My fucking name. I’ve had it with you. I am not going to help you.”
“You—you aren’t—“ And he passed his hand over Fred’s leg.
“Try to move your leg.”
Fred could. It didn’t hurt. He’s been wrong, it wasn’t broken at all.
“ Now do you know me?” the man said calmly, but impatiently, like awaiting a final straw.
Now he could go for his gun. Except the boot came down and snapped it again. “AAAA! STOP!” And he held the stomp as he talked.
“How many have asked you to stop what you enjoy doing? When did you care about what they felt? How much pain have you given people who don’t deserve it, and in my name, motherfucker.” Another stomp and the bone tore through the skin.
“I don’t love you or anyone like you. I pity you. Maybe it’s just what you made me. I didn’t want to be angry but I have had enough of hearing you and I’ve come back. Angry, like you want me. Hope you’re happy as hell about it, Fred.” He looked fire right into Fred’s eyes, and Fred couldn’t help knowing now.
“L-lord? LORD? You’re real?... You’ve heard me!”
“Oh, I’ve heard you, yes.”
“Oh praise you, Jesus. Praise you, I am sorry I didn’t see through this disguise, I—“ A slap across his loose face.
“See this blood? The more you say, the more I bleed, the more my brain feels full—“ Another slap. “Of—“ And another. “THORNS.”
“I—I don’t understand—I praise you, I honor you every day, I do your work—“
“You do nothing for me. Nothing I said.”
“I preach your word! To get rid of the fags!”
“Where did I say that?”
“In…in the Bible.”
“Where? Quote me some quotes that I said.”
“I wasn’t even born then,” Jesus said. “Do you keep kosher too?”
“W-What? I’m no goddamn kike.”
Jesus smiled. “This isn’t something I usually like. Thanks for making it easier.” He got up and paced.
“Is…is it the apocalypse? Why are you—“
“Back? Well, partly to kick your ass,” Jesus said, bringing his boot into Fred’s ribcage. Suddenly all Fred’s pain started to hurt worse than any pain before, like a sun lit up in each nerve. “But also because there’s a mother, who already has it hard enough having to mourn her son without being still unconscious, in a hospital, because of a concussion from a fall.” He bent down again, grabbed Phelps’s head in both hands. “Because, like me, she couldn’t bear another second of you.” He gave the back of Fred’s head a good bash against the wall. “She was asking me to take away her pain, Fred. To make it easier in her because she feels like she wants to die too. Her son, dead because of war, which I’m not happy about either. But I give people a chance to be free. I let you choose your own way. It’s hard sometimes but I stick by my promise. So many other mothers too, trying to talk to me, only to be drowned out by you. We were having a conversation, you bastard. And you wouldn’t shut the fuck up!”
Why wouldn’t he pass out from the pain? Why did he feel all of it? Why was nothing yet numb? “J-Jesus…wouldn’t curse…”
“Oh, you’re now telling me how I talk? Well, it’s true, I also don’t call anyone a ‘black son of a bitch’, or a ‘nigger.’ Or a ‘fag’.”
“You hate fags.”
“Shut up, Fred.”
Fred laughed. “Jesus hates fags. I said so. I know so!” Another tooth to spit. “You can’t be—“ And then his tongue stopped working, and he had to catch his breath. Jesus continued.
“I waited, and I waited for you to shut up, to change, to understand, to at least get tired of it. But, I mean, it’s as though you, you’re daring me. Well, here I am. Angry like you want me to be.”
“And now you’ll send all the fags to Hell?...”
“Angry at you, Fred. So I’d really just enjoy the air if I were you. It’s very cool in here with the AC going. Only nice thing about it.”
“End this fallen world!”
“I love this fallen world, Fred.”
“Cast down the Devil!”
“You certainly think about the Devil and Hell a lot, Fred. You’re more familiar with them, I think, than you ever were with me.”
“Send the fags to Hell if you’re Jesus! Show me!”
“I came to show you, Fred.” With a sweep of his hand he unzipped the air. Suddenly, the black sulphur smoke choked the whole room. “I am the gates to Heaven and Hell, after all.”
“I was going to show you a little bit of Heaven, and all those young soldiers in it, to try to teach you something,” Jesus said, picking him up and dragging him toward the smoking gash in the air. One bump, then another, every broken bone grinding and poking. He could feel a rib through his heart, but he was not dead, just in pain like never before. “But I don’t think I should make it any harder on them, and anyway, wondering what Heaven is really like should at least keep away the boredom for eternity. And trying to teach you anything would be to hold out hope for you to change. I hope for everyone to change. But I realize now, I just don’t care. I just want you out of my sight.” And he threw Fred in, and the gash closed. And Jesus finally smiled.
“L-Lord?” Fred was having trouble seeing before. “Don’t leave me. Please. I’m sorry.” Now he could see like he never had. Every sense was raised to unimaginable sharpness. The demon farted in his face as he dragged him.
“We don’t normally do favors for them,” he said, among the other small talk on the way up the Mountain of Shit and Broken Glass. “But we always enjoy a creative challenge. Ah.” There was a rumble of impatient roars. Like an orchestra of beasts tuning up.
He dropped Fred on what was left of his face. “Here we are. Fred, I would like to introduce you to a thousand very horny Kodiak bears. I’ll leave you to get acquainted.”
The demon flew off the mountain and left Fred with his friends. Fred’s screams and pleas, and even bargaining, were soon drowned out by the Lake of Dictators. The demon was slightly dissatisfied; even if the Nazarene brat wouldn’t be checking in, he had his pride. It could have been more original. But he trusted his talent. Times and standards change. Certainly they’d think of something even better in forty or fifty centuries.
Margaret could have sworn someone had their hand on her forehead before she woke up, that had felt cool, like a breeze and flesh at once. Like peace made solid. But her sister assured her she’d been sitting there the whole time, three feet away all night.
But the doctors were glad they were wrong about the concussion. Yesterday’s x-rays must have just had an error. No more.
“I dreamed about Todd,” she said to her sister on the way down the hall to leave.
“That’s good, Maggie.”
“He was smiling and saying he was happy, though he missed me.”
“I’m sure he’s happy where he is. And he is in a good place.”
“Oh yes. I know he was.” Margaret smiled, for the first time since she’d gotten the news, without really meaning to. “And he said the chicken was—was almost as good as mine.”THE END.
Seattle, March 2010
©2010 John Linton Roberson. All rights reserved.
Dedicated with apologies to Garth Ennis.