I debate kicking the grandfather clock over, but it looks old, expensive, and well cared for and I decide self-control might be the better option. And even if the clock was brand new, cheap, and indestructible it would still be six different kinds of rude and I shouldn’t ask for any more trouble. The woman sitting next to me turns in her seat and gives me a pointed look, first at my knee and then up at me. I’ve started bouncing my leg again, mile a minute and without any consistent rhythm. I give her my best, most sheepish apology smile and exert conscious control over the traitorous limb, hoping it won’t further betray my nerves.
Churches make me itch. My breathing gets shallow, my legs start to bounce, and my fight or flight instincts kick in. For once my body forgoes any attempt at confrontation and scream at me to just run! Get the hell out of Dodge! Never mind that if I stayed in town Father Lot could probably have me found just as easily as he did the first time around. Never mind that my problems wouldn’t go away just because I book it out of town, that they would actually get worse. I just want out.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to peg me as a person with some deep-seated guilt and that guilt makes me edgy around a place so shrouded in shame and repentance. Or it could be that I’m a naturally contrary person and, churches being the focal point of power in the remaining world, I’ve got far too many anti-establishment sentiments floating around my pretty little head to ever be the god-fearing type. Or, and this is my personal guess, it could be that one of the priests caught me digging up a grave in the church cemetery the night before and they don’t really take kindly to such blasphemies.
I shrug and, to no one in particular, mutter about living and learning. The woman next to me stares pointedly.
And then in sweeps the padre, all fire and brimstone. He wears black on black on black, dark well-cut clothes, a wide-brimmed hat that shades his face ever so dramatically, and a black cloak that billows down around his ankles. He’s even got a carved wooden walking stick. That’s what the Church is really about anymore, fire and brimstone and melodrama. Leave everyone fearing further damnation, claim you’re the only one with the answers, and people become very pliable very quickly. I hear the padre’s lack of exposed skin is just a skin condition. If that’s true then I have to give him credit for working it.
Father Jeremiah Lot raps his cane sharply against my knee and with an almost absent-minded grunt tells me to “Follow”. I grit my teeth and feel a distinct urge to snatch the fucking stick out of his hand and crack him over the head with it. Failing that, I sit up a bit straighter and cross my arms firmly across my chest. Nuts to his air of mystery and his intimidating presence. The priest stops and looks back at me and though I can’t see his face I get the impression that he’s arched an eyebrow at me. My arms remain crossed.
He speaks after a moment. His voice is soft enough that I find myself leaning forward to hear him. “Follow me into my office. This needs to be sorted.”
I frown at him a moment longer, to prove a point, before standing up. I stretch my legs, my back, and my shoulders out just to be contrary and then nod toward what I assume is his office. To his credit, he seems unperturbed.
Father Lot doesn’t offer me a seat but I drop myself into the chair sitting opposite his desk anyway. His office is a very simple square room. It’s of modest size when compared to the rest of the church but it’s easily as big as most families’ living rooms. A heavy desk made of real wood sits facing the door and taking up most of the space between the padre’s barren right wall and the wall-length bookcase to my left. The bookcase is every inch as large as the wall itself, leaving no room vertically or horizontally for the wall to peek through, and is filled to the bursting point with books. Most of them actually look functional, like they’ve really been read. I try not to look impressed, like I’ve seen all kinds of rooms like this one before and maybe even some nicer ones. I lose whatever stoicism I had managed when the padre lifts a half-full gallon jug of water onto the table. Beads of sweat roll down the side of the jug. He brings up only one cup up with it. Bastard.
He takes his time, filling the cup carefully and sipping daintily. I don’t know if he’s trying harder to not waste the water or to dry my throat out but he’s surely aware of both effects. He looks up sharply from the water and I realize I just muttered “asshole” out loud. I wonder if he’s ever heard anyone swear in his presence before. Even farmhands clean their mouths up when priests come around. After all, everyone’s convinced that salvation rests in the palm of the priest’s right hand and damnation in the left. Better to eternally brown-nose than to eternally burn.
He finishes the cup and fills it again, this time sliding it slowly across the table. His voice is still soft enough to make me want to lean into his words. “You’ll have to excuse my manners but I have only one cup.”
I glare at him feeling sure that he expected this exchange to play out in hopes of embarrassing me with my poor manners. I think profane thoughts but I don’t turn down the drink. I can feel the coolness of the water against my palm through the cup and a small, cracked sound rolls out from the back of my throat before I can cut it off. I glare at the priest again and avoid taking an overeager sip—or just chugging the whole cup. “So what’s there to be sorted, padre?”
The informality doesn’t bother him this time. He reaches behind his desk again and pulls out my dirty, battered black duffel bag. The grip-end of a shovel juts out from one side. He drops the bag on his desk, careful not to knock over the gallon jug of water. He looks at me evenly until I drain the rest of my water, “That’s not my bag.”
He laughs louder than his speech suggested was possible; a sharp peal of warm, honest laughter. I blink. I don’t like him seeming so human.
“Dear—man, I am well aware that you are not the rightful owner of this bag.” I can hear the smile in his words. I also hear that he almost called me a child. “And I am far more interested in the contents of the bag and what you were doing with them than in the bag itself.”
I scowl at him as ferociously as I can manage, but the lack of eye contact makes it feel underwhelming. “Take that goddamn hat off.”
I instantly realize I’ve made a mistake. The laughter leaves the room on a rocket and though I can’t see his eyes I can feel his gaze. “You are in more trouble than you know and if you see fit to disrespect the Lord once more I will simply leave you to the fullness of your punishment.” His voice is sharp and hard and I can’t help but push myself further into my chair. “I have done everything in my power to see you released with a stern warning, but there are many in this church who do not care that you are young and that there are no records of trouble-making in your youth.” My chair scrapes loudly across the floor. Father Lot hasn’t moved an inch but I can’t possibly get far enough away from him. “You defiled the body of one at rest. Life is hard and short and knowing that there is rest at the end of this suffering is as important to people as anything else they need to survive.”
I fully expect to see fire cavorting and capering behind his eyes as he speaks and I find myself searching for something to say. I can’t even manage to say something glib. We sit silently until my mouth goes dry and I feel heat radiating off of my face. Father Lot breaks the silence by clearing his throat. His body language shifts, settling himself comfortably into his chair and he pulls the cup back to his side of the table, pouring another drink. He sighs and takes a small sip. “Let’s start again.” His voice is soft again, but I no longer feel any urge to lean in closer to him.
Father Lot lifts the hat off his head and sets it on the ground behind his chair. His face isn’t horrifically burned or misshapen but I get the feeling he doesn’t draw amorous eyes from any women who don’t get off on powerful men. His skin is pale and dry and it’s flaking along his receding hairline.
“Tell me what you were doing last night.”
He doesn’t add an implied threat to the words but my stomach knots up like he’s holding a pair of pliers to my fingers. I don’t even consider lying to him. I was digging up the body of Thomas Marston, I tell him. I tell him that the two suicides in the Felton family weren’t really suicides. The Feltons live above the Marston family and had turned Thomas down for a loan when things on the Marston farm started turning to shit. I tell him that Thomas Marston’s ghost had forced Louis and Sylvia Felton to slit their wrists, that Marston’s spirit holds Garret Felton responsible for the farm going under. Marston hung himself to escape having to watch his family slowly wither away and now his spirit’s back. I tell him I was trying to stop Marston from killing the rest of Garret’s family. I tell him I was trying to lay the spirit to rest. I tell him I’ve done it before. I even tell him how I do it; salt the bones, douse them in alcohol, then drop a match into the coffin. The salt’s a symbol of purity. I tell him it worked with the string of cattle mutilations. I tell him to dig up the graves of Donald Ghant and Mary Hardaway. Ghant was killing the livestock and Mary was responsible for a rash of crib-deaths. My voice starts to give out on me and the Father offers me a cup of water. Between sips and with a dry rasp to my voice I remind him that the church has professed belief in spirits for centuries.
Father Lot nods thoughtfully. “The cattle mutilations were caused by a pack of animals. They stopped after Simon Heller waited outside one night and shot two of them dead.”
My stomach sinks.
“There was no rash of crib-deaths. In such harsh conditions as those we live, the number of infant deaths was well within the norm when one considers the whole city. It was only slightly unusual that the deaths were concentrated more densely in one area.”
He thinks I’m crazy.
“The suicides however, had drawn our attention. That is why you were caught. Father Murphy was going to check Thomas Marston’s grave for any signs of restlessness.”
I blink. “Restlessness?”
“Yes, restlessness. Certain weeds grow over the graves of those that do not find eternal rest. They are quite impossible to get rid of until the soul has been laid to rest and the grave has been sanctified.”
Father Something-or-Other walks me home. He talks to me the entire way, but I don’t hear him. Restlessness. Father Lot had admitted that the end wasn’t really the end. Not always. The priest asks to come in and rest his legs; the basement I’m squatting in is a long walk from the church. I prefer the basement’s smooth, dirt walls to the hodgepodge of rusted sheet metal that composes most of the city’s buildings and walkways. Except for the church of course. The church is mostly made of pre-war stone and is filled with wooden pews and desks and chairs. It had somehow survived the bombings mostly intact despite the area around it being reduced to rubble and cinders. That had always seemed suspicious to me. I was unaware that apocalyptic nuclear war played favorites. Then again, I couldn’t figure why the Church would level an entire city just to build up a ramshackle city wall and fill it with tin-huts.
If death didn’t really usher the just into eternal rest than what does that say about the church? It meant the church was wrong. No, not wrong—lying. Father Lot knew that Thomas Marston’s spirit had not been at rest. He knew that the church couldn’t keep its promise of a peaceful afterlife and yet he still gave sermons promising a light at the end of the tunnel. And it wasn’t just Father Lot, someone else had been the one checking the grave for the signs. Father M…Martin, Min, Murphy.
I don’t realize that the priest is still in my house and hasn’t stopped speaking until I feel his hands around my throat.
“—cannot spread heresies to the people.”
His voice is sad but he wrestles me to the floor anyway. He buries his knee into my stomach and shifts his grip clumsily. I tuck my chin before he can bring his forearm down across my windpipe. He blinks, looking like he hadn’t expected me to fight back. I pull my head back and bite down on his forearm. The priest jerks back, but before he can manage it I warp both my hands around his elbow and bite down harder. The priest shouts and swats at my head but rather than let go I hunch my shoulders to better protect my head and I shake my head like a dog breaking a rat’s neck. My teeth sink in and a taste like liquefied pennies fills my mouth.
The priest cries out again and brings his fist straight down on top of my head. The world goes black for a moment and when it comes back into focus the priest has pulled his arm out of my mouth. This time he gets his forearm down across my throat I can stop the world from spinning. I get my hands under his fist and elbow and push but the priest probably outweighs me by seventy pounds and is driven a zealot’s conviction. There’s a certain inevitability to it. He’s more than a man; he’s the weight of the entire church come to strike down the blasphemer.
The Church lives and dies by the peoples’ belief in salvation through eternal rest. Father Lot told me that himself. I understand why the padre’s having me killed.
The maniac priest on top of me leans down and whispers into my ear, “Eternal rest must be immutable if salvation is to be achievable.”
Seems a little overly dramatic to me, but that’s what the Church is all about since it rose up from the ashes of the apocalypse; fire and brimstone and melodrama.