They All Fall Down

The whole village was ripe with emotion. People stood all around us in swarms, throwing stones and trash at our faces and feet. The villagers close enough reached out with long, skinny arms and slashed at our bare chests and torsos – raving dogs, every one of them. The entire community engulfed us, shouting, screaming garbled and incomprehensible incantations. None of us understood them, but surely there must have been a language in between howls. The sad part was that with all this madness, this abuse, we did nothing. Nothing was all we could do.In gaps between the ravenous mutts, through the dry dust in the wind, I noticed a mother and her son standing together with several other families. The boy, bare save for a pair of rugged brown shorts, latched himself to his mother’s left side. As he turned his head, we locked eyes for a split second. Time stopped while I looked into his dark brown eyes. He could see our pain, the exploitation – it wasn’t the first time he saw it. Then, as we were forced to walk on, a hint of a smile formed on the boy’s face, and he snickered.We began our shameless walk to the end, to the finish line of a painful marathon – each one of us the athletes, the villagers the game makers. There were no losers in this competition, however; we all would earn a medal. It was a prize we looked forward to for months. Fame, minus the fortune – it was an end to the torture.Our journey paused. Several meters ahead of me, one of my fellow soldiers had fallen out of line. They must have acted against the pack. Amid the deafening shouts I heard a faint cry. A pack master dressed in camouflage had stepped forward waving a wooden bat in the air. The bat was clearly defined in the colorless sky. Then in strong blows, the bat rushed down. With each thrust, the bat grew darker and darker, until it was soaked with blood. Glaring at each of us, the master licked his weapon in one motion, slurping the life liquid from the club. This was followed by an even louder outcry from the savages.There were two of us left.
Immediately afterward, we felt a tug at the chains and the walk resumed. This time each of us pulled our slumps out as straight as we could, despite our exhaustion. Nobody wanted to risk a repeat of the previous slaughter. The alpha’s temper was not to be tested.

The finish line was growing near. Due to the unwelcoming flatness of the area, we could see for miles, at least until our vision reached the vicious, blinding storms to the east. And before we knew it, we had reached the edge of the finish line: an altar. The group of dogs piled around the dilapidated wood structure and began rooting and whooping. Some of them had brought signs, but I had no idea what they said. I imagine they read some derogatory message against America. But I didn’t care. After months of torture, I learned that feeling nothing was the best strategy in these hopeless wretches of the world.

The plan was to bring us to the center of the stage, one by one, and film our deaths in the most thoughtless and careless way possible. On the front of the stage stood a pork-of-a-man with a Kodak video camera loosely strapped to his palm. He was the director and everything had to be perfect.

Since I wasn’t in front of the line, I wasn’t the first to die. A young man named Caleb, he was ten years older than I, was forced down on the stage, his face turned against the top of a cement block. Another dog swinging a past-its-prime machete stood to the side making practice swings.

With a wave of a hand, the machete came down on my buddy’s neck. His head rolled off the edge of the block and into the soot. They didn’t even have enough respect to have a bucket.

I was the only one left.

Despite being cloudless, the sky was bleached an empty, sandy gray. And even with this harboring atmosphere in a realm of hell, I could feel that it was early August back home. This would be the time when Miranda would be taking Paulie clothes shopping at the mall. This would have been his first year of school; he would be starting kindergarten. For so long Miranda had been pressuring me to spend more time with the both of them, because these were the years that go by the fastest. But who was I to care? Sure, I loved them both, but what I really cared about was the future. And despite rigorous planning, even though I had meticulously set everything up to where I would retire at just the right age with just the right amount of money, it was for nothing. My future ended here. Not beside my wife. Not years after Paulie’s college graduation. I would die in front of dozens of barbaric hounds whose only sense of love is predation.

The next moment took place quicker than I had anticipated. The filthy beasts ruthlessly kicked Caleb’s headless carcass off the altar – it met the ground with a loud slap. The man with the camera motioned the brute to lead me to my place at the table. As suddenly as I closed my eyes standing as a viewer of the atrocity, I opened them at the table as a participant.

The cameraman faced me, grinning with victory. Then, he said in clear English, “I love you, Tom. Don’t you forget that.”

Suddenly, the man’s face turned twisted and contorted. The colorless sky turned to a white ceiling. The gritty sand turned to speckled-white tile. The merciless mongrels that once surrounded me in hatred were now only blank stares from nurses in teal. Instead of staring into the face of a sinister director, I was peering into the sweet, wrinkled face of my dearest wife.

“Miranda…” I mumbled. Then I noticed her bleeding nose and busted lip. Her cheek was bruised. “What happened?” I couldn’t move to hug her however; my body was constrained.

But why? She had nothing to fear from me. I did all I could to protect her and Paulie. How could they do this to me? Then in a rush it came to me.

The war. My survival. My violence. My poor Miranda.

My eyes moved to a mirror that hung in the corner of my room. A gray old man stood in my place, and a photo of an older Paulie was propped up in a silver picture frame near the window behind me. Outside I could see many old folks strolling around with their family and others sitting alone near a great fountain. A fence separating the facility from the parking lot stood like blackened knives scorched by fire.

Sniffling, Miranda stood from behind the observation desk and kissed my head; her body was trembling. Softly, she whispered in my ear: “I’ll see you again soon, honey.”

Heaven

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“Would you just hold still?” Laurie says, running her palm slick with spit up my forehead.

“I’ve been doing this every week for thirty-seven years; you’d think I would know how to prep myself before the sermon.”

She scoffs. “You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” Her cold beryl eyes, like daggers, stare into my welcoming green. It’s when her perfectly-plucked eyebrows pull together and her strawberry lips purse that I back off; I mustn’t start a fight with the domineering she-demon.

“Thank you, honey.” Those words taste foul, toxic even, but nevertheless I bite back my sharp rebuttals.

She claps my back, cackling, and hands me the car keys. “Don’t kid yourself, Charles. You know damn well I don’t fall for that bullshit.”

***

When we arrive at the church, I put her hand in mine and we meander the parking lot, stopping to greet our loyal audience, a crowd of Bible thumping hypocrites who strictly come to the house of worship for the gossip.

A woman in her thirties wearing a bright purple Georgette skirt stops us before we enter the church. “Good morning, Charles. Oh, and Laurie, I just want you to know that I took your advice on my little problem.” She winks. “It’s working just fine now.”

My wife and I display our false smile, the one that portrays a loving pastor and his wife. “It’s so nice to see you, Margaret.” I turn to Laurie. “I’ll let you two catch up, though. I’m afraid I am running late as it is.” Laurie nods and throws me her “you lucky sonofabitch” grin, allowing me to retreat into the brick building.

It only takes me a few minutes to set up the podium and clear the stage. And at 10 o’clock finally I am able to begin, just like all the other times.

I fumble my hands through Edgar Allen Poe’s short story compilation on the podium – a Bible cover is pasted flatly on the book’s face – and I pretend to turn to just the right page. Before I begin, I quietly clear my throat. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Today, we’re going to move on from the previous sermon about the birth of Christ and delve into a relatively short discussion of Heaven.

“So, when I ask you the question, ‘What is Heaven?’ I think we can all at least come up with some similar, albeit unique, versions of the spectacular place. We also spend a lot of time learning what we must do to reach eternal bliss as well as what it would be like. Will we know each other? What will we do? We simply don’t know. But what’s certain is that we will spend an eternity worshiping and seeing Jesus face to face, helping God run the universe.” I hear various amen and praise the good Lord from front aisle.

Laurie stands behind the last row, her face slightly distorted, and she nods toward me before exiting into the foyer. Catching the cue, I close my eyes and mutter, “Amen, indeed,” before raising my clenched fists into the air – my figure mocking the large crucifix hanging above me. As I open my eyes, the room begins to shake and plaques strung on the wall featuring the Stations of the Cross violently tremble and fall to the terracotta-colored carpet. I bring my fists together, casting my body in an emerald aura. The True King’s power flows out of me like smoke through a sieve.

The others sit perfectly still; their eyes stare forward and they do not blink; their arms rest at an angle in their laps. Cell phones, Bibles, purses, anything they were holding before the trance fall with a thud to the floor.

“Stand up and face the Lord; so too as you exit this life on your feet shall you enter the next prepared to stride to the Holy gate,” I call, and almost instantly the entire congregation obeys; the overly-religious elderly folks that always populate the front rows, the usually bouncy and disruptive children, the husbands who only come at the request of their wife – everyone stands straight, awaiting my next order. But there won’t be another order. Before I meet my wife, who was probably right outside the church’s front doors, I mutter a prayer of my own: “Please forgive me.”

“Your part is done, I assume?” My wife says outside, thumbing a green BIC cigarette lighter. She doesn’t stop focusing on dancing flame atop the lighter, a scarlet ballerina. I feel my body twitch as I watch her observing the fire.

“It’s not like I had a choice. You do the gasoline?”

“You couldn’t have missed the puddle in the foyer. And with these bricks, that place’ll be a furnace before you know it.”

With a final flick of the lighter, Laurie bends down to ignite the gasoline trail at our feet. I watch through the window as the floor in the foyer ignites into a massive carpet of fire. Pretty soon there isn’t anything that’s not blazing in the small church. Smoke froths through the cracks of the doors leading into the nave, where hundreds of paralyzed worshipers wait their turn in the line to Heaven.

“How many more times are we going to do this, before it’s enough?”

“Don’t play the angel, Charles. You’ll just end up in there with them. You made a deal with me, and you will keep it. Let’s not forget that you gave up your old family for a taste of His power.” She tosses the keys into my chest. “Now we leave, unless you wish to welcome the policemen and firemen when they roll in.”