DEEP CITY in Times Roman

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Caught in Kansas City

Tears blotched Sophia’s face, and she kept dabbing her cheeks with a tissue while she waited for Daniel at the limestone gate outside Haag Hall. She’d just discovered she’d failed the final comprehensive exam, an exam she needed to pass to receive her master’s degree. She couldn’t teach without the degree—and if she returned to news reporting, she’d work fifty-plus hours a week, which left her little time to be a mother. Or even a person. It’d taken a legion of demons to bring her this low, she was sure. They’d whipped and slashed her mind with doubt to bring her this far down. No longer did she feel she knew who she was or where she was going. And even worse, she was running out of money. If she didn’t land a full-time job soon, she and her son Adam would be without food or shelter.

She inhaled the muggy July air. The day smelled like fishy, Missouri River mud. Today, no honeysuckle scents were around, and Sophia could smell no roses—only the fishy smell of hot, dirty water. It seemed she hadn’t smelled any roses that spring, either. This year had been the most miserable year in her 35 years on the planet. It hadn’t been the run-of-the-mill misery she’d accepted as life long ago. In January, to fight her demand for a divorce, her husband Edgar had tried to stab her to death. He almost succeeded but hit her left lung instead of her heart. He’d tried to con her into believing he’d been on the mark, too.

“You’re dead already!” he’d growled when he sat on top of her chest. His breath had smelled like vinegar.

She’d glanced down at her chest, and was surprised to see the handle of his buck knife perched there. The blade had gone inside her, but she hadn’t felt it. For some strange reason, it didn’t hurt, and she couldn’t recall him plunging it in there. She’d only remembered trying to wrestle the knife away from him so no one would get hurt. Then, he’d slashed her left wrist, which sent more pain to her confused neurons that the wound in her chest. He’d vowed to kill her after she said he’d have to move out—that much, she’d remembered. And she recalled thinking, get-the-knife, get-the-knife, get it and put it away so everyone’s safe. Then, after he’d shoved her onto the floor and sat on her, she saw the knife and realized she was indeed in trouble. She’d yelled, “Lord, in the name of Jesus, help me!” but her mind still hadn’t wrapped around everything that had happened, that this crazed man she’d lived with eight years had actually jabbed the blade into her body.

Ironically, she didn’t believe she was “dead,” as Edgar had averred. She hadn’t felt she was about to die, either. It was if the clumsy nerd had missed her core, her essence, so to speak. She knew that once again, he was conning her, just as he’d conned her brother into investing $20,000 into commodities, $20,000 that Edgar lost, every dollar of it. So she was sure that, like Satan, Edgar had been a “liar from the beginning,” and that she was completely alive. But certainly the situation was all too surreal—it seemed like some movie, one that she didn’t want to watch. And she felt that she’d benefit from emergency medical assistance. She’d looked back at Edgar’s blood-red face and his wild, green eyes, then called again for Divine assistance.

“You’re dead,” Edgar repeated.

She’d wanted to say, “your vocabulary’s limited.” Instead, she stared at his throbbing temples, and saw his face contort into Conan the Barbarian’s: forehead drawn down over glazed eyes, mouth in a gnarled sneer.

Suddenly, he yanked the knife from her body and held it high as if he’d strike again.

She’d called once more for divine intercession.

Adam stepped into the doorway. “Dad, if you love me, you’ll give up the knife,” the eleven-year-old said calmly and held out his hand.

Edgar stared into the distance, then focused on Adam. He clenched the knife, then, finally, released it and handed it to the boy.

Although Sophia knew that Christ had helped her then, she felt he’d recently abandoned her, and she didn’t know why. “Probably he was off on some fishing trip,” she’d quipped during the cynical mood that descended upon her after she learned the results from the comps. The stabbing and divorce had bothered her enough, but that—it was just too much. She couldn’t understand the good that all these mishaps were working toward. On the other hand, she couldn’t face a life without faith, either. Life, she contended, was mostly pain. If that pain were meaningless, if there were no reason for the suffering, she might as well anesthetize herself: become perennially drunk, stoned, simply stay high to mitigate the senseless pain. But that seemed meaningless, too, so she maintained some sense of faith. Nevertheless, the past year’s events still made little sense to her. She could not see any spiritual reason for them.

Finally, Daniel arrived at the limestone gate. Sunlight formed a halo around his dark hair and brought out red highlights. She smiled.

“Cheer up,” he said and rubbed her back then wrapped an arm around her and squeezed her. “It isn’t the end of the world.” He smelled like evergreens.

She smiled again. It was the first time Daniel had initiated touching since he’d applied to join the Universality Church four months before. Earlier, a couple of months after the stabbing, they’d become lovers. But the Reverend Yung Sung Ghunne had demanded that all proselytes remain celibate for three years after they applied to join the church. Following that probation period, they could marry.

Sophia had not applied to join the church. Instead, she prayed that God would send some messenger to Daniel, a messenger who would expose the reverend for the fraud he was. In fact, Sophia had often considered that the fat Korean might be the Anti-Christ. She hadn’t brought up this to Daniel—she didn’t want to argue with him.

Nevertheless, she’d happened across a book in the campus library: Sex and Marriage in the Universality Movement. The tome read like a dissertation, but it contained a plethora of facts about Ghunne and his religion, facts she was sure Daniel didn’t know. For one thing, Ghunne’s organization was not scriptural. In fact, who was this Korean to say God had made a mistake? Didn’t he know about the covenant with Abraham? Sophia had been amazed that the man had found such a following with his perversion of Christianity. Then, after she’d failed the comps, she began to wonder about the truth of scripture herself. Nonetheless, she knew the Uni Movement wasn’t a feasible replacement for it.

She smiled once more. “Thanks.” Her voice was nearly breathless, and she averted her gaze before Daniel saw her yearning. Indeed, she’d be rational about this disappointment, too, just as she’d remained rational about the stabbing, the divorce, and about failing the comps. Reason would rule her life.

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