First Church of Christ, North Dallas.
Sunday morning . . .
It was getting closer to Wednesday, and I had some things on my mind. I was trying to get every perspective I could. Ricky and Dr. Monica, they both were of the mind that I must pursue my fated task, at all costs. Me, I think that whatever I have to do to help Kristen and Rupert and the others, it’s probably the only chance I’ll ever get to do something truly great in my life. But there was still one perspective I hadn’t entertained.
I didn’t tell Ricky that I was going. I just got up early Sunday morning and headed out of my apartment. Eerily enough I walked, almost to the step, the exact same path around the hospital as I had with Kristen and Rupert—over there.
This time the parking lot wasn’t cracked and broken. Instead it was full of cars of different makes and models, all of them with a small fortune in gas sitting inside of them. When I look at cars now, I see giant machines for taking your money. Even Ricky’s Land Rover, it sucks down gas at an alarming rate. You have to be rich twice to have a truck like that.
I walk around the side of the hospital; the windows that were dark and broken are clean and shiny. The wall in the abandoned Obstetrics Department, there’s no hole in it. I have this sneaking suspicion that I don’t want to peek in through the boarded-up windows though. I fear that I will see the spook hive and pull a complete freak-out.
My security necklace—the one Ms. Josephine gave me—it’s sitting underneath my shirt. At this point, if I had a choice between carrying a gun, or wearing this necklace . . . I’d chose the necklace hands down.
The marks on my skin, they’ve faded considerably, and I’m not sure how much they’re still glowing. But I haven’t seen spooks in a couple days. It’s almost like all of that might just be some fantasy that I have unknowingly walked away from. Maybe the me of last week has been replaced by a more normal, much more rational and grounded me of now.
But I still miss Kristen like I have lost one of my arms. I see her when my eyes are closed. I see her every time I walk through my apartment . . . especially near my bed, where we kissed. And that is a strange swap. When she was first haunting me, I was scared out of my skin to see her. Now that I’ve grown to care for her, I’d give anything for her to come back . . . and she won’t.
But I’m trying not to think about her, if only just for a couple of hours. And I decided I’d try my hand at church.
I made my way down Webbs Chapel road, to the corner of Valley View, and crossed the street. Some guy honked at me from a Honda Accord, flipped me off, and said something about shoving my feet up my ass if I didn’t get out of his way.
And, like, I know that he had to be seeing the church silhouetting me as he yelled these things. People in Dallas are mean to pedestrians. Even right in front of God’s house. I wonder if religion is dead.
I made a mental note that if I ever saw him on the other side, I would make sure some spooks tormented him like it was their only mission in life.
I finally got to the church parking lot, and it was absolutely full. Not a parking space in sight. I made my way to the red brick walkway and followed the stream of church-looking people inside.
I crossed through the large tank doors, which were propped open for ease of entry. I’m accidentally eaves-dropping on the people walking ahead of me and they’re talking about a food drive they are going to participate in. They look similar, all of them—two attractive parents, with two DNA matched twins. They look like they were designed for this very moment.
This perfect family, they do not say one selfish thing for the three minutes I’m walking behind them, and this makes me feel as though a buzzer is probably going to go off when I sit down in the church. Like, somehow they’ll know that I eat pizza and study voodoo, and kiss dead people.
I guess, though I’m not a man of faith or anything close to it, I’m still as scared of God as the next guy. All of this stuff that’s been happening to me has changed the way I look at religion. I don’t know which particular god might be in charge of things, but I’m pretty sure it’s one of them. I mean, somebody has to be calling the shots for there to even be a Deadside. All those souls, waiting for the End of Days, which seems to point to the notion of a war between good and evil.
Who’s on which side, I don’t know.
But I’m going to keep my eyes peeled.
As we get into the lobby area, I notice the young preacher guy from the other day. He has on a nice blue suit, with a nametag that says, ‘Hello, I’m Edward’.
As the X-Files family and I make our way past him, his eyes light up, “It’s you!”
“It is me,” I say politely. “Who else were you expecting?”
“This is great,” Edward says as he pulls me away from the automatons. “I had this gut feeling that you would return to us. That’s the grace of God,” he says, his eyes looking magically past us as if there was something glimmering on the wall.
I looked over there to make sure there wasn’t. This guy was, in a word, pious. He smiles at everyone, and people seemed to be infected by him. Maybe he was like that guy seeded into the crowds at infomercials to clap all the time, and laugh at everything the host says. That’s just me being cynical, I suppose. I have a tendency to assume people are disingenuous, and I should really stop doing that.
Todd Steele says, “Suspect the worst, and you’ll never be surprised by a bullet.” But I don’t think I’m going to get shot at during church—although, he did have an attempt on his life in his latest novel, Chemical Sundown. It’s about this group of eco-terrorists . . . oh, never mind.
This nice young, morally upright, devout man of God, he says, “Sit anywhere you’d like and I would love to speak with you later on, after the service. We try to get to know each and every one of our congregation. We’re a big family, here.”
“Okay . . . Edward,” I said. “I’m going to find a seat and see what God has to tell me.”
He shook my hand again, almost pulling my shoulder out of socket, and I headed into the bowels of the church. I found a seat off to the center, right, a few places from the aisle. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around this many people in such close proximity, and I’m feeling a bit claustrophobic. Not that I think anything untoward is going to happen, I just feel cramped-in.
A few minutes go by, people get seated, and some young kids, probably in their early teens, they walk down the aisles passing out little pamphlets. I take one and pass the pile to my left. On it is the name of today’s service, as well as the words to the different songs we will be singing.
Correction . . . songs they will be singing. I absolutely don’t sing. Not now. Not ever. Not for all the tea in China. I’m one of those rare people who knows I sound bad, even in the shower. My voice, it makes the dead cringe. Glass breaks even if I whistle. If I hum, even so much as a few notes to a popular song, somewhere an Angel is getting set on fire. It’s that bad.
I read the title of today’s sermon,
‘Dangers of the Desire to Succeed!’
Everything gets quiet, and Edward comes walking down the aisle. As he’s walking he smiles here, nods there. Every now and again he’ll mouth a “hi” or a “hello.” A wink or two. People like this guy. He has a nice candor about him. Polite. Respectful.
He seems pleasant enough, but something irks me about him. I can’t put my finger on it, but I’m bothered by something. Maybe I’m just overly skeptical of people.
He goes to an oak podium and taps a microphone a few times, smiling to the congregation. There’s probably seven or eight hundred of us in here. All eyes on him. I hear a whisper here and there. A random cough. A child being muffled by upwardly-mobile parents.
Edward leans in with the softest, most kind voice, “Praise the Lord.”
And everyone says it back to him. It’s almost shocking how many people just said the same exact words. It even startled me a bit.
“. . . Our God, he is a good and kind God. So generous to us that we can all be here, together, on a wonderful day like today. All of us, a family of friends.” He nodded, “. . . here, in this house,” he slowly raised his arms upwards, “. . . there are no strangers. Right now . . . right here . . . we are all brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons . . .”
I look around and everybody’s eyes have all but glossed over. I know this is going to earn me a hot seat in Hell, but these people, they seem like zombies to me. Like their souls have been possessed. I feel really awkward. The nice clothes—relatively speaking—that I’m wearing, they suddenly feel hot and itchy.
I have this creeping feeling that I don’t belong here. That I am tainting this group with my poison. I listen to him begin his sermon and talk about the dangers of wanting to be too successful. Of thinking that you must get the better job, or the nicer house, or send your children to a more prestigious university.
He’s telling these people, in church speak . . . to lower their ambitions. He says that evil lurks in our aspirations. He’s selling mediocre, and they’re gobbling it up. He’s telling them to be happy with what they have—which is a good message—but to not strive too hard to have more—which is not. I understand not wanting to crush people’s dreams. But, not wanting them to have dreams, that’s awful.
This Edward, in his nice way, he’s corrupting these people in the other direction. He’s sucking their ambitions out of them and replacing them with a bleak reality. I think, especially for those younger people in the audience, that’s a horrible message.
It’s uncomfortable, and I am regretting making this trip. I don’t know what I expected, but this isn’t it. Maybe I’m not taking the message the way he’s meaning it. Perhaps I am not letting him make his points, and jumping to conclusions, or being too judgmental?
“Satan,” Edward says, making his voice sinister and menacing, “. . . he’s lurking under the hood of that new car. He’s racing around in the attic of that expensive house. He wants you to start putting material possession over the love you have for your fellow man . . . and for yourself.”
I squint at Edward, trying to see if there are any spooks tying his shoe laces together in knots. I look around for Gatherers in the corners. But not here, not in this place. While the House of God might not always be open—like when they’re cleaning—they are free of shadow creatures.
I sit through another 30 minutes of Edward’s sermon, and I’ll have to give it to him, he’s a good orator. It’s just that, everything he has talked about, you have to take his word on it. There’s no proof, here. There’s no pictures of God, or maps to Heaven or Hell. Everything he’s telling you, it’s from a book that was written by the same people that wrote my book.
Half of me wants to believe that it could all be glory and shimmering loveliness, but the other half—that has walked among the souls trapped right on top of us—that part of me wants to scream at the top of my lungs that nobody is going to Heaven!
That nobody has ever gone to Heaven.
That we’re all going to be ripped out of our bodies and left in this cold Land of Sorrows until the End of Days . . . whenever that may be. But, of course, I don’t say anything. I just wait until it’s over, and try to make my way out as inconspicuously as possible while people are flowing back towards the parking lot.
I cruise up the aisle, out into the lobby, seeing the sunlight up ahead. I can see the finish line. But that Edward, he’s a crafty one indeed. He cuts me off on my way out the tank doors.
“Hey there, friend,” Edward says as people pat him on the back and hit him with a staccato of, ′thank yous‘, and, ’great sermons’.
I considered head butting him, but decided that would not be the appropriate response to his sermon on mediocrity. Ricky always tells me that a good head butt will get you out of almost anything—including first dates. I’m not sure what Ricky’s talking about half the time, but I file it away as information for later use.
Edward has perfect teeth. He says, “What did you think about today’s service?”
“It was, uh, very good. Enlightening. Informative,” I say.
His eyebrows ruffle a bit, his face almost sad, “You didn’t like it, did you?”
I don’t want to be mean to Edward, especially if he’s a sales rep for the Supreme Being in the universe. But I don’t want to lie to him either, because that’s probably just as bad. I look at him, and I can see that he is truly concerned with my thoughts. Why, I don’t know . . . but he seems interested in my reaction.
“Look,” I say to him, “. . . I don’t know anything about religion. I’m just some guy talking, right. I’m sure a lot of people really enjoyed your message.”
“But you didn’t agree with it?” he said, nodding as if I’d already answered.
I look at him and say, “I don’t think that you should tell a bunch of struggling families that average is good enough. Or that having a run-of-the-mill or garden-variety life is okay. Because it isn’t. Telling people that hang on your every word that ordinariness and adequateness are qualities they should be proud of, that’s more than a disservice . . . it’s dangerous.”
“Dangerous? How so?” Edward asked, now more curious about my position.
And really, I am not trying to get into a semantic argument with a preacher. These guys go to school, and learn all sorts of rebuttals—like car salesman—and I know he’ll just slaughter me in a battle of wits. But he asked, so I’m going to answer.
I say, “You want people to have a better life, then you need to prepare them for the afterlife. Preach the glory of God, or whatever is your main message. Tell people to be devout in their beliefs. Something like that. But don’t tell people to settle for alright. Because on the other side, that will end them up in a place you don’t want to imagine, padre.”
“You are speaking about going to Hell?”
“No, Edward,” I say. “I’m talking about somewhere much worse than the Bible’s version of Hell. A place of cold, violent, pain and suffering. A place where we’ll all end up when it’s over.”
And then I just stop, knowing the futility in my point of view. “Oh,” I tell him, “what’s the difference? You have your way. If it makes your life better, and theirs, I guess that’s fine. To each his own. I guess if they keep coming back . . .” And I walk on past him.
I realize that I’m not really arguing with him, anymore. I’m arguing with myself. I’m the one who needs a reality check. Edward, he’s just helping a bunch of people who need his words to make it. Because life is basically cruel and unforgiving.
He calls out from behind me, “I’m sorry if you did not receive my—”
I spin on my heel, “It’s not you, Edward. You’re a good man. It’s me. I’m the virus. “But,” I say, just for the record, “. . . I’d start telling these people to leave a light on.”
And I turn and go before the spooks, which are sitting just outside this old lady’s Suburban, see me.
I have a physical tomorrow, and after that I think I need to speak with Ms. Josephine.
On my way back to my apartment I see that same Honda Accord—with the guy that flipped me off earlier—and it’s crashed into a ditch beside the road. Paramedics are slowly pulling him out of the car, trying to figure out if he had a heart attack and then crashed, or the other way around. I hope I didn’t cause that.
I sense that I haven’t got much time left.