“The Word of God is a living thing.”
I look at her, swallow the cold take out, and nod. It isn’t a shocking statement. It isn’t even an original statement. If you have a faith, it’s a pretty standard part of things. But, she says it like it’s the most profound thing ever.
“To take the Word upon yourself is the highest calling we have in this world.”
I grunt. I don’t care, but still pretend I do. I’m at the stage where fear of being alone is still greater than the irritation of her speaking. “Where you going?”
She glances back from the bedroom door.”I can’t partake of the flesh of living things anymore,” Pity drips from her words. “I must purify myself. I must become worthy again.”
I pop the last piece of chicken in my mouth. “Okay,” I shrug. She shuts the bedroom door. I hear her…praying? Singing? I don’t know. I just turn the TV up a little louder to drown her out. I blink, and it’s morning. Another mindless day selling lotto tickets, and rotgut, to shaky handed burnouts. I don’t judge. Everyone has their ways of coping in this town. NAFTA killed us, not immediately, but truly. Thirty years later the shells of factories now house the same people that used to work there. The local government can’t make up their minds how to fix the situation. There’s talk about trying to become a tourist town. Ha! I could picture the billboards.
“All the violent crime of Chicago! All the crippling poverty of Detroit! All packed into a place the size of Mayberry! Visit the 4th worst place to live in America before it disappears forever!”
We met at the local call center. The one that shut down last year once the tax breaks ran out? Yeah, that’s the pattern everyone who’s rented the building has followed. They’ll hype up a “great, new opportunity” with “great pay” bringing “dozens of jobs” to the area. Six months later you’re competing with 300 other applicants for 10 positions that will top out at $9.00 an hour after your 6 month probation period is over. Local businesses, who own the local government, won’t let real jobs come in here. Says it will kill competition, since they can’t match the pay, and benefits, they would bring with them.
Anyway, I retreated into bitter cynicism, and gaming. She found God.
At first nothing really changes. Her diet alters slightly. Her hair, and wardrobe, look a little different. She doesn’t laugh at my jokes as much anymore. (That’s totally on her, because I am hilarious.) She starts volunteering more. I encourage her. I mean she hasn’t been this happy in months. It gets worse though.
I’m not intolerant. I really don’t care what you believe, or if you believe. You want to dance naked in your backyard, while praising Sho’Nuff from The Last Dragon, and drink Communion shots of Steel Reserve? Have at it. See me outside, and wish me “Blessings on Berry Gordy Eve, Neighbor”? I’ll smile and return the sentiment. I just ask the same respect in return. She violates that rule.
“The Living Word says we shouldn’t eat that.”
“The Living Word says we should pray 12 times a day for 30 minutes at a time.”
“The Living Word says today starts the Feast of Lovence. That means no sex until the beginning of the next moon cycle. Oh, and we have to collect, and drink a cup of dew every morning.”
Luckily she drags the relationship behind the barn and puts two in its head before I have to. Apparently since I won’t convert, she’s being held back on her path. I offer to move out, but she had already packed her stuff. She was moving into The Living Word’s facility out in Axton. I don’t know what her new living conditions will be, nor do I care. She’s gone before lunch.
I take the opportunity my newly single life gives me to learn some things about myself. Namely, I can’t dance, even naked, and Steel Reserve shouldn’t be consumed by anything living. One of my buddies crashes on the couch. His family wasn’t affected by the economic collapse. He was supposed to be a doctor, but a stay in rehab got in the way. His family cut him off, until he tests clean for one year straight. Yeah, they have a different way of defining “cut off” than me. He complains constantly about being limited to only 900 dollars a day. Whatever. He pays on time, and doesn’t bother me.
Six months later, she calls me. She’s taking her final oaths, and needs someone there from her old life. “Why don’t you ask your Mom, or something?”
“She turned me down,” She sighs. “I really don’t want to ask you, but you’re my last hope. I can’t complete my journey without you. It’s really simple. You just have to stand there, give me someone to say goodbye to. Will you?”
“Sounds a little creepy,” I admit. “But I got that Saturday off, so, long as it doesn’t take too long.”
“No,” she giggles. “It’ll take about an hour, then you’ll have the rest of the day.”
“Eh, All right,” I shake my head. “If it will help you achieve enlightenment, or peace, or whatever. I don’t want to hold you back any more than I already have.”
“Thank you.” She ignores the jab. I write down the time, and address. She earnestly offers me a blessing. I mumble a response while hanging up. Trust Fund is back in rehab. His family keeps paying his bills though, so I don’t care. I drag out my Good Outfit. Blue button up shirt, black slacks, slip on loafers, and a tie. My dad tied that knot the day I graduated. I hope to God it never comes loose, or I’m screwed.
The day of, I show up a half hour early, just in case. I walk across the overgrown parking lot towards The Living Word headquarters. It was originally a Food Lion, then a bingo hall, Baptist church, flea market, then a Protestant church before these guys. My first job was pushing carts at this store. I pass through the automatic doors to discover it’s just as hot on the inside. I guess air conditioning is a sin?
The interior is open. No one ever bothered to put up walls, or take down the old signs either. Produce has been converted into a shared living space. A few cots surrounded by sleeping bags, air mattresses, and piled blankets cover most of the floor. The deli is now the dining area. Folding tables with a chaotic blend of seating options and microwaves that look like they were scavenged from the dump. Dairy is now some kind of work space, I guess. More folding tables topped with obsolete computer equipment, and actual landline phones.
The back of the store is the meat department. It’s also their church, judging by the pulpit and makeshift stage set up back there. Something large sits under a tarp in front of the pulpit. A small crowd is gathered around it. They stare at the intruder who has willingly walked into their lair. I try to shove down the reminder that a lot of horror stories start this way. I almost succeed. Some of the parishioners wear hooded robes. The rest are dressed in normal, street clothes. The styles vary, some of the clothes look expensive, but all have seen better days.
I’m getting ready to run to my car when I hear her call my name. One of the hooded figures runs towards me. I freeze as the hood falls back, revealing her smiling, naked face. I stare. She’s bald, completely bald, even her eyebrows are gone. She smiles warmly, embracing me tightly. I awkwardly hug back. She grabs my hand pulling me towards the others.
“Everyone,” she calls, “This is my Remnant. The one who represents my previous life. The one who will witness my rebirth into The Living Word.” Suspicions stares turn to friendly smiles as they surround, and embrace me. I’m thanked, blessed, kissed, and welcomed. Personal space, people! I’m finally allowed a little breathing room, and introduce myself. They just nod.
“Uh,” I turn to her, “I got here early, since I don’t exactly know what I need to do.” I shrug. “Chanting, dancing, or what?” She smacks my arm playfully.
“You just need to stand,” she points, “there. Just bear witness until the end, then walk away without saying anything. That will represent the final aspects of my old self fleeing from my righteousness.” She shrugs, “Simple, right?”
“I think I can pull that off,” I fake a huge smile. I’m trying to put on a brave face. She seems so happy, I don’t want to ruin this for her. I want someone in this forgotten hellhole to feel good, even if it’s not me. “I’m not overdressed, am I? I wanted to be respectful.” I gesture at the pulpit, and tarp. “I mean, this is a house of worship.”
“You’re fine, and thank you.”
I turn to see another hooded figure behind me. Every cell in my body wants to run screaming from this place, but my upbringing won’t let me be that disrespectful. This one is shorter than me, barely reaching my shoulder. The voice sounds male, but I can’t be sure.
“No problem,” I say. My cheeks hurt from smiling so much.
“Let us begin,” the short one says. He yanks the tarp back to reveal a machine. I can’t quite figure out its purpose. It seems to be built from repurposed parts from…everything. A multi-jointed, metal arm juts out of it, ending in a metal quill. From what I can see of the inner workings of the machine, this arm is manipulated by a dizzying mixture of gears, pulleys, and shafts. It looks held together by luck, and chicken wire. Dents, rust, and filth mark every inch of it, save one. The quill gleams in the yellow light. On the back of the machine is what looks like a salvaged writing desk. A stylus, on the end of a smaller mechanical arm rests on a page covered with some of the most elaborate calligraphy I’ve ever seen.
“God spoke to me,” Shorty intones. Everyone gives him their rapt attention. “He told me it was time to add another chapter to His Living Word.” The church cheers. I politely applaud. “Today, we fulfill his will. Today, we bring another into His eternal embrace. Today, The Living Word grows yet again.” He points, “Are you ready?”
Her robe falls to the dirty floor. “I am,” she smiles. The congregation cheers. I stare. She stands under the quill, naked. Not a single stitch, or hair on her entire body. We lock eyes. She’s smiling like she won the lottery, but her eyes unnerve me. There is such certainty in them. Such willingness, it’s scary.
The other robes fall away. I cover my mouth to hide my horror. I bite my lips to stifle the cussing. They are all naked, hairless, and scarred.
From the tops of their heads to the tops of their feet is covered in a spiraling, swirling pattern of letters. Every square inch of visible flesh filled with their holy book. Some of the scars shine, letters filled with metal to mark important passages. I can’t keep the revulsion out of my eyes as I look at her. I’ll never forget the pity she has for me in hers. The leader walks behind the device. The lights flicker. The quill sparks. She giggles in anticipation.
I want to stop it. I want to run. I want to grab her, and save her from all this. I do none of it. I stare, frozen as the quill descends.
“To find one who is without blemish, without mark,” Shorty shouts, “is a sign from God. Only they are worthy of being the bearers of his teachings. Only they may be The Living Word. Only they may be The Pages!”
The quill burns into her skin. The smell is horrible. I gag, but don’t leave. I watch. Watch the flesh darken. Watch the other Pages wipe blood, peel flesh, pass it to the others. They take a communion of her body, thanking God for her flawless skin. They don’t offer me any, thankfully. I tend to go along wit whatever rituals I find myself in, but this is too much. It seems to last forever. I stare at her, desperately looking for a sign. Looking for something that will tell me she’s being forced. Something to tell me she’s regretting this. Something. Anything.
All I get is that cold certainty. All she gives me is giggles, and smiles, and praise of The Living Word.
I force myself to stay, to witness until the end. Until the last letter is cleared and eaten. Until the quill retracts. Until she, red, raw, consumed, smiles at me one last time. I nod. She closes her eyes and bows. I walk away.
My whole body quivers as I walk stiff legged across the parking lot. Shaking hands struggle with keys and seat belt. Jaw clenches as ants crawl across every nerve in my body. The drive home feels like it’s happening to someone else. I start screaming at the first stop light. My voice breaks at the third. I finally quit when I pull into my driveway, but only because I’ve started crying. It’s past sundown before I let go of the wheel and go inside. At some point, I apparently peed myself.
Thank God I’m off on Sundays.
Monday, I want to call the police. I actually start to dial a few times, but why? Is it wrong? Would they care? It was through consent. Is it any worse than any other form of modification? As before, I do nothing. Why should I? In the end, one of us is content with their life. In the end, one of us feels like they’ve made good decisions. In the end, one of us is, finally, happy.
I wish I could remember what that was like.