Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When Strength is Required, by Jon VanZile

I waited in the front room for the Reverend Jones. When he came out, he was ashen, his eyes wide and rolling like a colt that smells a thunderstorm coming across the plain.

"Well?" I said.

"Rachel is right," the Reverend said. "You must do it."

I felt my heart drop into an empty space in my chest. In the hours since the child was born, I had been hollowed out by shock and terror. But until I heard Jones say it, I had never experienced true existential dread.

What kind of monster must I be? Did I create this?

"Are you sure?" I asked.

Jones nodded and gripped my shoulder. "Yes. It must be you. You are the father. Only you can wash the stain of it away. Only you have the moral authority to banish the Dark One back to where he came from."

"But he's just a baby—" and my voice broke.

"No," Jones said. "You are thinking now only of love. But love is a weakness. Love stays the hand of justice. Love hesitates when strength is required. God did not spare Sodom or Gomorrah. Before that, he sent the Great Flood. He shows us the path in all things."

I'd heard this before, in one of Jones's sweaty, chanting sermons, the congregation shrieking before him in spasms of bliss, a box of snakes hissing and rattling next to the altar. But I only went to those heaving nights for Rachel. I joked it was an anthropology experiment.

"This can't be happening," I said.

"It is," Jones said. Then he stepped back and regarded me with a critical, appraising eye, like one might judge an ax before hefting it. "I've seen you on Sundays. You are not a believer—"

"What does that—"

Jones held up his hand. "I know it. I can feel your doubt like a cold stone in the fire. But think on this: do you not see the will of God himself in this? Is it possible that God wasn't after your wife, but that he had his hand on you all this time? That he designed this test for you alone?"

I shook my head. It was preposterous.

"Think on it," Jones said. "Things have been put in motion now that cannot be undone. Except by you."

Then he was gone.

I hesitated. Rachel was still groggy from the drugs Darla gave her to stop the screaming. I desperately wanted to see her, to touch her and bury my face in the cascade of dark hair. But then part of me wondered about her. The pale skin. Her black eyes rolling in unbridled ecstasy. Her ethereal, almost unearthly beauty. What if she was the monster? What if she had created this thing, and now she expected me to kill it?

A spasm of righteous anger and hatred blazed in my heart. The strength of it shocked me.

I heard a stealthy noise and whipped around, afraid that my very thoughts were visible like black letters on a white board. It was only Darla, pushing through the door and moving in sharp, rat-like motions to cross the room. She was still wearing her white gown, and I found myself unable to tear my eyes away from a red smudge across her front. Rachel's blood? The child's?

She came to me with her piercing blue eyes and stood close enough I could smell the sharp tang of the antiseptic she had used to cleanse herself after the birth. She looked up into my face, and I saw no doubt in her. Only determination.

"Please," I croaked. "Isn't there some other explanation? Some genetic condition? An anomaly?"

Darla shook her head, and what did I expect? She was a congregationalist, too. And she had seen the boy. "No," she said in a pitiless voice. "There is no such sickness."

Then she pressed an object into my open hand. I looked with dawning horror and realized it was a sharpened crucifix. I looked up and she nodded at me.

"I'll give you some privacy now," she said.

Alone, the crucifix burning into my palm, I stared at the door, feeling as if the last tendrils of sanity were slipping away from me. Would it ever be summer again? Would the moon ever shine on me? What if this was just a birth defect? What if it wasn't?

Beyond the door, a high keening note sounded, and I began to shiver with fear. I'd heard babies cry before, but this was nothing like any baby I'd ever heard. Slowly, I approached the door and pushed it open. The room beyond was bathed in shadow, the bedsheets still stained with Rachel's blood and something glistening and clotted on the floor. A crib had been set up next to the bed, and it was from this crib that the unearthly note sounded. I saw something move in the blankets and my shivering deepened into shaking.

"Hello?" I whispered, knowing how ridiculous it was to expect an answer from a three-hour-old baby. I looked up to the ceiling, and for the first time in my life, I wished I could call upon Rachel's God to give me the same certainty she possessed. To give me some kind of sign that Jones was right and this was a test like the Great Flood or those wicked cities he burned on the desolate plains.

But it was too late for God and me—I realized right then, standing in the awful doorway, that deathbed conversions and desperate prayers are just tricks doubters play on themselves to keep the fear at bay.

The blanket rustled and a tiny arm rose up and gripped the crib slats. It was as I remembered: scaled, red, with the tiny claws that had ripped poor, lovely Rachel to shreds.

I entered the room slowly, my hand tightening around the crucifix and my lips forming the words to some childhood prayer I only half-remembered and less than half-believed. I hovered over the crib.

Then the slitted eyes and the lipless, ancient grin.

My son.

The crucifix clattered to the floor, useless. Jones was right. Love hesitates.

I bowed my head and asked him what I needed to do. When the answer came, I wasn't surprised.

20 comments:

Erica Orloff said...

Two words.

Holy crap.

Erica Orloff said...

And now . . .

Look at all these "love hestitates at death" themes. Fascinating.

I sensed the panic, I "got" the sect, the anthropology experiment and so on. Because it is a short-short I had TONS of questions. Why did he go with her to that church, why didn't he lead her away from it . . . who is this man? But it was terribly fun and creepy. The dialogue very spot on.

About the only phrase that didn't work for me was the opening line about the colt--totally got the visual, but it felt a little too literarily eloquent for this narrator to begin this story . . . (it felt like JVZ . . . ).

But you know . . . honest, this felt publishable . . . expandable. And just left me wanting to see more of this horror story!!! And I repeat . . . HOLY CRAP.

E

Jude Hardin said...

Wow. I'm almost ashamed for you to run my story after reading yours and Erica's. Great stuff, Jon.

E. Flanigan said...

I agree with Erica, this story could definitely be expanded into something bigger. I enjoyed it immensely .... didn't see the ending coming. And the tone overall is spot on.

You should consider writing more about these people. I was smiling a lipless, ancient grin throughout .... ;)

Erica Orloff said...

I had to come back and see other comments . . . I find myself with more and more questions. How does a guy with "existential dread" get caught up in this world. Write this book, please!

:-)
E

LurkerMonkey said...

Erica,

Thanks! Get it? Demon baby? He he.

I had no idea what to do with this prompt when I put it up (that's one of my rules -- I can't have the story in place first). So I walked around thinking, "When does love hesitate?" for three days. Then I thought that love hesitates when strength is required and violá, it was done.

Actually, I think there is a novel here. I pretty much know the answers to all the questions you posed; this guy and the story came all at once. I dunno. Maybe I will write it. I love writing this stuff. It's baroque and dark and totally over the top, but fun.

p.s. You're right, too, about the first image. I had to go back through after I finished the first draft and pull back some of the more melodramatic imagery.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

Thanks!

LurkerMonkey said...

E,

I laughed out loud, picturing you with your lipless, ancient grin :)

Yeah, I was worried at the end of going too Damian-esque, where the parent has to kill his demon spawn. So then I thought, hmm, maybe the parent is spiritually weak and becomes a minion of his demon child. Besides, what parent doesn't sometimes feel like the minion of their possessed child?

I've spent some time wondering what the baby says to him, but I've got a few ideas ...

LurkerMonkey said...

Erica,

One last thing: the short came all at once, but the seed of a novel-length story was actually planted by my wife, who had an excellent idea for a very hooky expansion of this ... just to give credit where it's due.

Realmcovet said...

A minion of his own demon child!!! Love it. Just....WHOA!

Anonymous said...

Talented bastard. Loved it. Especially "… moving in sharp, rat-like motions to cross the room". Excellent image. PM

Erica Orloff said...

PM:
That was my FAVORITE of the whole piece!!!!
E

Natasha Fondren said...

This TOTALLY rocks, Jon! This is why I used to read horror. The way it explores humanity is fascinating.

One thing I REALLY liked is how you withheld the deformity. All the way through, I was wondering if this is some cult who thought a birthmark was the mark of a devil, and was wondering about how people can be made to believe such things, and if he would or wouldn't be sucked in. I was rooting for the father to see reason, but then I was surprised by the red scales and claws. Then I was thinking that I wouldn't blame him for killing the baby, perhaps... and then you surprised me once more. So very cool!

I do like the whole minion thing in the last paragraph, too. On the other hand, the paragraph before that would make such a great ending that hooks back to the beginning. Closure and all that. The last paragraph does hook into the belief discussions in the middle, but it just waters down what was already a powerful ending for me. But that's just me! If you make this story longer, the whole minion thing is totally needed and totally awesome!

LurkerMonkey said...

Thanks, Realm!

LurkerMonkey said...

PM and Erica ... all week I've been saying, "There is no such sickness," in an obnoxious Southern accent whenever someone asks me something.

LurkerMonkey said...

Spy,

Woo hoo! I actually agree ... if the story ended here, then I could cut the last paragraph and it would end OK. But I guess I figured there was always more to the story, and the "What now?" question really hung over me. I had to stop early because I was at the word limit. Ultimately, though, I really liked the idea of a parent becoming a minion of their devil spawn.

In a lot of these kinds of stories, there is ambiguity about the baby. Is it cursed or not? I wanted to make sure there was no ambiguity about this baby: it is a demon.

Melanie Avila said...

All the good comments are taken! Jon, this is awesome. Like Spy said, I kept wondering about the birthmark and how a group of people could be convinced they need to kill their newborn children if they have it. The fact that he STILL loves him despite it being a demon... doubly awesome.

I liked the rat-like movements line so much I read it a couple times. :)

And like Jude said, I'm a little embarrassed to have my story come after yours and Erica's.

LurkerMonkey said...

Melanie,

Gracias! I thought this was a good month. I was a tad worried at first about that prompt, because it was so vague, but it actually yielded some really strong stories. I was excited all last week to start posting this month's stories because (seeing as how I read them early) I know how good they all are.

Crucifix said...

Just be sure to stay away from the Evil Eye, having a crucifix from Holy Land may help.

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