Children of the Good
Copyright © 2019 by Jack Preston King.
All Rights Reserved.
Published by New Paradigm Press
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Movie/TV/Broadcast Rights are available. Please contact the author directly at email@example.com.
Author website: JackPrestonKing.com
Prefer an eBook?
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For several years in the early 2010s, I was a practicing Catholic. It was my second slow-dance with Catholic devotion (you can read about my first time on the dancefloor here), and during those years I decided to make a go of it as “a Catholic writer.” I adopted the pseudonym Felix Whelan – “Felix,” being Greek for “happy,” and “whelan” being Welsh for “joy.” So “Felix Whelan” equals “Happy Joy.” It was a conscious incantation, a spell designed to manifest a successful writer’s life of happy joy.
Children of the Good was my Magnum Opus as Felix Whelan. It’s Book One of a planned trilogy (don’t worry, Children of the Good is a complete story unto itself - think Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), but I only got a few chapters into writing Book Two before the lack of Book One sales stole my motivation. I eventually unpublished Children of the Good and moved on to other projects.
Children of the Good got early rave reviews from a number of Catholic book bloggers. But there was this one negative review that really got to me. In words like an angry fist pounding a table, he (of course my critic was a he) pronounced that my little book was an affront to Catholic theology. His main concern was that my story at least appeared to be setting up Christ’s return at the Second Coming as a girl.
Which is true. He was not misreading Children of the Good. That’s what I was writing, and writing well, IMHO. What shocked me was that he had a problem with it.
He was adamant that the Salvation of Humanity, from a Catholic perspective, pivoted on the shape of God’s genitalia.
I might have shrugged him off as a misogynistic zealot, but his words moved me to do some research, instead. He’d supported his argument with references to the Catechism and Papal documents, so I looked them up.
My angry critic was right. Official Catholic theology is remarkably sexist.
And Children of the Good colors so far outside those lines that, from a Traditional point of view, it probably is an affront to Catholic theology.
Let that be a warning or an incentive, as the spirit moves you.
What Children of the Good Is, and What It Isn’t
It is not my intention to bash Catholicism, a faith from which, for the second time in my life, I have successfully parted company with no hard feelings.
Suffice it to say that Children of the Good is not “a Catholic novel.”
Rather, Children of the Good is a fast-paced spiritual SciFi/Fantasy novel that traffics in certain aspects of Catholic mythology the way Lord of the Rings mined Norse myth without simply retelling it.
Children of the Good is set in a dystopian near future (2066) in which all religion has been outlawed. The mythology driving the spiritual part of the story is Catholic, as I personally experienced Catholicism before awakening to its inherent sexism.
My personal Catholicism of the 2010s had a lot more to do with Marian apparitions than with the Catechism or Papal documents (or Jesus, for that matter). So Children of the Good is a novel steeped in Marian apparitions and miracles. The Blessed Virgin Mary, here referred to only as the woman, is a bad-ass supernatural superhero with the power to knock the Antichrist on his ass.
Yeah, the Antichrist is here, too. Catholics don’t spend much time worrying about the “Man of Perdition.” That’s mostly a Protestant obsession. For the End Times mythology in Children of the Good, I tapped my 1970s Methodist upbringing, where we gave ourselves shivers reading Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth in Sunday school and seeing the devil in every headline.
Children of the Good is a weird mix and a wild ride. I should have marketed it to SciFi/Fantasy readers instead of Catholics from the start…
Read Children of the Good FREE!
But that’s water under the bridge. Who I really want to market this story to as we enter the 2020s is Hollywood.
When writing Children of the Good, I envisioned every scene projected onto the Big Screen. I think you’ll agree that this novel is written like a movie, and that’s because, at every stage of its creation, I intended it to become one.
I invite you to read Children of the Good for free. All I ask in return is that you tell people about this story. Share with anyone who will listen that Children of the Good would make a great movie. Send free-read links to everyone you know, especially people in the movie industry (or TV, that would work). Contact information is in the book, and on my website, JackPrestonKing.com
I still remember where Books Two and Three were headed, and I feel confident I could write them quickly, should a studio decide to option the movie rights to Children of the Good and want more. Or I’d be happy to consult with studio writers to develop the rest of the story straight into a Big Screen franchise!
Yeah, the movie rights to Children of the Good are for sale.
But the book is free to read. Help me spread the word. Thanks!
Prefer an eBook?
You can download Children of the Good as a FREE eBook in Kindle, ePub, PDF and other formats at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/955028.
For in secret the holy
children of the good
were offering sacrifice
and carried out with one mind
the divine institution, So that your
holy ones should share alike
the same blessings and dangers,
once they had sung the
ancestral hymns of praise.
Wisdom 18: 9
New American Bible
"Please state your name and your age.”
Nine year old Anne Gold allowed herself a brief glimpse of each stern face lined up behind the Barrett County School Board meeting room table, but kept her head turning past them, until her eyes came to rest on her mother. Mom and Dad were seated in the gallery with the other parents, a glass wall separating them from where she sat before the board members. Even from a distance, Anne could see that her mother was crying.
“Anne,” she answered, her voice a crackling whisper. “Anne Gold.”
“Speak up, please.”
The woman asking questions was a stranger to the little girl, as were all the School Board members. The only face inside the examination chamber Anne recognized belonged to Principal Rankin, and the sour expression he wore didn’t grant her any comfort. Anne straightened to sit properly in the chair. She took a deep breath.
“Anne Gold,” she stated clearly. “I’m nine. I’m in Mrs. Bollinger’s fourth grade class.”
“Yes, thank you, Anne,” the lady examiner said. “My name is Miss Bray, and I’m a student counselor with the Barrett County Special School. Do you understand why you are here tonight?”
“I think so…”
“Let me explain,” Miss Bray continued, cutting her off. “You are here for one reason only, Anne, and that is to tell this board the truth. Principal Rankin has presented evidence that you and your friends may have fallen in with trouble makers, the so-called Children of the Good. That’s a forbidden club, Anne. It’s against the rules to join. You know that, right?”
“A lot of children wind up in my care at the Special School because of that club, Anne. You don’t have to be one of them.”
“I just need you to tell me the truth, then. Did you join the Children of the Good?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” She was whispering again.
“Speak up, please.”
“Did you attend any meetings?”
A pen appeared in Miss Bray’s hand. An open notebook lay on the table before her.
“Now this is important, Anne. If you answer my next question honestly and fully, you may yet go home with your parents tonight. You can sleep in your own bed and be safe. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Anne squirmed against the hard, wooden chair.
“Very good,” Miss Bray continued. “All you have to do now is tell me the name of every child who attended those meetings with you.”
Anne began to cry and sweat at the same time. She looked again to her mother, and then back to Miss Bray. She pressed her teeth together so hard that she felt her little jaw pop.
“I’m sure we already know everyone’s names,” Miss Bray answered Anne’s silence. “This isn’t about telling on your friends, Anne. It’s about proving you’re not really a member of their club. I’m sure you only joined because everyone else did. Of course, you’re not really a believer..."
The counselor paused, and her eyes narrowed. She laid the pen carefully inside the open notebook and folded her hands together.
"Believers get taken away from their families, Anne. Believers live with me at the Special School until they’re not believers anymore. But you’re not one of those, are you? I’m giving you one chance, right now, to set the record straight.”
Anne gripped the edges of the chair with both hands. She did not speak.
“You don’t have to share in your friends’ punishment, Anne. Just give me their names. Do what’s right for yourself.”
Anne looked to her mother, and Miss Bray followed her eyes.
“Think of your mother, Anne. If you don’t betray your friends this minute, you may never see her again. Do you want that?”
“Speak up, please.”
“No, Ma’am!” Oh, Mama…
Miss Bray clapped her hands twice.
“Don’t look at her. Look at me. This is your only chance, Anne. Speak the truth, right now, or suffer with your friends. It’s them or you, Anne. Speak the truth. I’m waiting.”
Anne looked back to Miss Bray, then down into her own lap. She could barely breathe, let alone speak. So she was as surprised as anyone when, from some hidden place inside her child’s body, words like water rushing up from the bottom of a deep well rose to fill her mouth and flood out into the room.
"This is the truth," she said, all fear suddenly gone from her voice. She straightened once again in the chair, and took a deep breath. There was a large white clock with black hands on the far wall, just over the heads of Miss Bray and the school board members, and she fixed her eyes on it. She spoke her truth, then, and the words trilled out like a song:
In the beginning,
there was only the Good,
and the Good made the world,
and put all the people in it,
and the world was good,
and the people were good,
and everyone was happy.
Then late one night,
in the darkest dark of the night,
while all the good people
in the whole world slept,
the Evil fell like smoke
from moonless treetops,
and spread itself over the world,
and the people breathed the smoke,
and it crept inside their bodies.
And when they woke up,
nobody was happy,
and the Evil made the people
be evil to each other,
and think just about themselves,
and forget about the Good,
and send away their children.
But the Good is coming back...
A loud crack as Miss Bray slammed the cover of the notebook on the table before her. Anne looked down, and the flow of words stopped.
"We’re familiar with the story, Miss Gold," Miss Bray said. "You must be a very bright girl to have memorized every word like that."
The counselor turned toward the gallery, and the girl’s parents, then swiveled back to face Anne.
"But the brightest children can do the stupidest things, sometimes. Your own words condemn you, Anne. There are no second chances."
Through the glass gallery window, Anne could see her mother sobbing hard against her father’s chest. Dad held her, and stared back at Anne with eyes that were already seeing a ghost, his lips repeating a silent why?
Miss Bray extracted a sheet of pale, blue paper from a briefcase on the floor beside her chair, and signed it with a flourish. She stood and passed the form to the school board table behind her, where each board member in turn signed their name and passed the form on. When the Warrant of Confinement to the Special School returned to her hands, Miss Bray folded it carefully and filed it in her briefcase. Principal Rankin escorted Anne from the examination chamber to a small holding anteroom, then returned to his chair.
"Very well, then," Miss Bray announced. She opened the notebook again and smiled. "Who’s next?"
Eight Years Later
The sheep was dead. He could tell that much before he got close enough to touch it. Even a sleeping sheep’s body expands and contracts as it breathes, and this sheep wasn’t moving at all. There was an unnatural flatness to it that he guessed rationally was the fluids inside the sheep settling, but in his gut he felt the earth sucking the body down, hungry to make quick dirt of it.
Tomorrow, John Harper would be eighteen years old. Tomorrow, he would leave the Special School forever. He’d held on as a Gooder for most of eight years, but when the day came that he finally fell, he’d fallen hard. He’d taken fellow Gooder Anne Gold with him by getting her pregnant, and now she was dead and it was all his fault. The anger that never stopped churning inside him now had earned him praise from the School counselor, Miss Bray. Two weeks ago Sunday, he’d kicked bloody a nine year old caught blessing his lunch in a fit of crazy violence that told Superintendent Myer everything he needed to know.
John Harper was cured. He was ready for the real world.
But even with Commandant Meyer finally pleased with his progress, the school owned him for one more day and, as was the way of things at the Special School, even this final day would not pass without a lesson – or as the kids more plainly named it, without a beating.
Tomorrow, John Harper would graduate, with honors it seemed, at last from the Special School. Today, he would bury the sheep. Alone. The brutal August heat that felled the sheep burning his back, his only weapon against the drought-parched soil an old shovel.
When he got close enough to see the sheep’s face, he felt nothing, and he knew in that moment the School had really broken him. The face was anything but serene in death, eyes panicked and bulging, a pink wad of bloody something from deep inside oozing out from a mouth bared and gaping as if still fighting for breath. It was a horrendous and pitiable sight. And John Harper didn’t care. He knew not caring signaled a defect in the part of him normal feelings were supposed to come from, but even thinking that thought failed to stir the slightest change. He was dead inside.
* * * *
"This has been the best day of my life," Anne said, wistfully.
This was memory, not quite vision. This had really happened, this turning point.
May first was Universal Self Day, with speeches and parades, carnival rides and games. Once the sun set, there would be fireworks. Their dorm had come to the fairgrounds as a group, with no plans he knew of to hive off into couples, but the moment the rides started turning and rising and bellowing music, that’s what happened. He spent the whole day with Anne, and it all somehow meant so much more than just an on-campus holiday, just friends hanging out. Now they were touching hands, timidly, facing one another as they sat cross-legged on the grass beneath a great, shading oak.
John Harper smiled and looked down at the grass poking up around his legs. They’d grown up together in the Special School, he and Anne, best friends from the fifth grade on, with never so much as a thought of anything more between them. Until today. Yesterday he’d have taken even kidding that he had a thing for Anne, or her for him, as an insult; today he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Sitting this close, he did more than look. He caressed her with his eyes, memorizing her face, the shape of her neck, her slender arms, the barest freckling of her skin. Something dramatic had changed about Anne. Something new that he could not explain was moving inside him today, as well.
"Yeah," he said, "Me, too."
Before the fireworks, there would be a dance for the high school kids, so they returned to the empty dorm to change clothes. They should have gone to separate rooms till they were ready, met in the hallway to leave. They were both Gooders – they knew the right thing to do. But instead, John Harper changed quickly, then hurried to Anne’s room. As he stepped through the door, Anne was crossing from the bathroom, wearing only a towel. She stopped and smiled, and the thing churning all day in his insides turned him around and raised a hand to lock the door behind him.
When it was discovered that Anne was pregnant, the School cloistered her away to an all-girl dorm on the far side of campus. They said she wanted nothing to do with him. He’d ruined her life and she hated him. Don’t try to see her. Don’t call.
* * * *
He scratched a large square in the dirt in front of the sheep, five toe-to-heel footsteps on each side, and prepared to dig. But, when even jumping up and down on the shovel with all his weight failed to crack the parched surface, he threw down the shovel and walked back to the sheep shed. There was a long hose there used to give water to the sheep and other farm animals, and he stretched it to its length. He found another hose stored in the rafters of the shed and connected that one to the first. Now he could reach the dead sheep. He laid the hose on the ground and let water flood the gravesite.
He was soon able to sink the shovel a good six inches into the mud, and he worked his way over the surface of the grave, removing the first half foot all the way across. He placed the hose in this shallow depression and let it fill to overflowing. When that water had sunk through and disappeared, he removed the next layer, four inches, maybe. Then the hose again, and this time the water seemed to take forever to be absorbed. He sat down cross-legged beside the dead sheep to wait.
* * * *
"You’re not in trouble, Harper," Superintendent Meyer said as Miss Bray ushered him into the office, then stepped back out into the hallway and sealed them in. "Sit."
John Harper sat. He knew his body was sweating on the hard pasture ground beside the sheep, but his mind was before The Commandant.
"I’m sure you’re curious about Miss Gold," Superintendent Meyer said. There was a massive wooden desk in the room, with a leather chair and a flag on a pole, but the Superintendent never sat. He moved back and forth in front of the boy as he spoke. "Don’t worry, Harper. The School will take care of the baby. Anne’s parents are moving her to Springfield. To a girls-only School."
"We’ll terminate the pregnancy before she moves on. No baby."
John Harper, seventeen years old, considered vomiting, but instead sat perfectly still, looking down at the floor. He could neither move nor speak. Silence meant his very real son or daughter, now a cluster of cells inside Anne’s body, would be sacrificed for his sin. To speak, at best, might save the baby, but then Anne’s life would be ruined, and who was he to decide that?
And what about him…? He was only seventeen…
He wanted to punch The Commandant’s fat face, run away and never stop running…. Then a devil on his shoulder whispered she hates you anyway…
No baby. Not a father at seventeen. No consequences.
Relief and shame swirled together from his groin and rose to wrap his body in an ice cold blanket that bound without comforting. He told himself he was powerless before the decisions of The School, The Commandant, Anne’s parents, but he knew these were lies. He wasn’t in that moment sure exactly what he might have done to change things, but he knew with unwavering certainty that, whatever it was, he wasn’t going to do it. He was going to let this happen.
For Anne… he tried, briefly, though he knew the truth of it – for himself.
It was as if a light had gone out inside him. He couldn’t even feel himself breathing.
"Can I go now?" was all he could think to say.
"Of course, John. Follow Miss Bray back to the dormitory. Don’t do anything stupid."
* * * *
The muddy water had finally drained away, and he could now see the problem – the next layer of soil was packed with jagged sandstone in chunks ranging in size from tiny peas to a dinner plate. It was a shelf of buried stone he’d have to cut through by hand if he was going to keep digging in that spot. But if he moved and started over there was no guarantee the shelf wouldn’t be waiting under the new location, as well. And even if he lucked out and got the grave dug elsewhere, the sheep weighed a hundred and fifty pounds easy, and he’d have to figure out how to drag it. If he finished where he started, he’d be able to just roll the sheep over and it would fall into the hole.
If he could make a hole. He scraped at the sandstone with the tip of the shovel and managed to scoop out a layer of muddy soup like wet concrete. He freed one plate-sized chunk using the shovel as a lever, and exposed beneath it a layer of orange-red clay. There was sandstone gravel there, too, but not as much. He cleared down to the clay over as much of the surface of the grave as he could, then put the hose back in. The hole filled like a tiny swimming pool.
By the time the grave was two feet deep, he felt sure if he kept on he would die. His arms trembled. Great blisters had risen on his hands. His shirt was soaked through front and back, and rivers of sweat stained his jeans and pooled like lava in his boots. His heart pounded as he once again filled the hole with water then threw himself flat on his back on the ground, one arm over his eyes to block the merciless sun.
* * * *
"You dumb bastard," was Dennis Hale’s greeting when John found his way back to their shared dorm room. "You cry-baby prick. Now you think you’re the Evil for doing what’s best for yourself… Crack your thick head open and absorb the truth, Harper. There is no Evil. There is no Good. Watching your own back is not a crime."
"Shut up," was all John Harper could find to say.
He was sprawled over the lumpy cot of a bed in the exact position his body lay in the hot dirt beside the grave. His roommate hovered over him, looking for all the world like a wiry, teenaged version of what all the kids called him behind his back – Jack Frost. With shocking white hair and skin barely a shade grayer, he was almost albino, but not quite. His eyes were not pink.
"You’re a School-bot, Hale," John said. "The difference between you and me is I’m smart enough to know when I’m damned."
"Well, if you’re damned anyway, you might as well live it up."
"They’re shipping Anne to Springfield."
"Who cares? You got what you wanted."
In memory, John Harper sprang to his feet, a breath away from exploding with a fury he no longer cared to control. Dennis Hale shot past him and scuttled out the door.
"And so did Anne!" his voice echoed as he vanished down the long hallway. "You’re not Saints! You’re both sluts! Give it up, Harper!" And he was gone.
If his roommate had been completely wrong, John Harper would have chased him down and broken both his arms. But he couldn’t know for sure now, because he couldn’t trust himself to know. The Evil consumes its prey quickly, he thought, and he could feel himself disappearing in chunks down its black gullet.
When they told him the next day he could forget about the abortion because Anne had killed herself rather than face the procedure, he just nodded and walked away. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with him.
* * * *
He decided to offer himself no kinder consideration than he’d shown Anne or the baby, and he dug the next two feet through rock and clay and mud without stopping to daydream. Every time he was certain he couldn’t lift the shovel again, he refocused his fury and dug and dug, heart pounding, tiny lights beginning to swim past his eyes. At four feet he pressed wildly on to five, and then fainted.
When they found him the sun had set, and it was hard to tell which smelled worse, John Harper or the now seriously decomposing sheep. They were two boys from B-Dorm sent to find out why he hadn’t returned for dinner. They pulled him roughly from the grave and he sat watching as they rolled the stinking sheep into the pit. Two shovels appeared and, as his rescuers made quick work of filling the grave, they waved for him to go on and not to wait for them to finish. Stomach cramping, clothes stiff with mud, body aching everywhere, he nodded a quick thanks, then set out alone across the field, toward the distant gray lights of the dorm.
Of course, Anne Gold did not take her own life that afternoon, or that of the baby inside her. That story was a lie, like so many lies told kids by staff at the Special School, this one cleverly designed to serve two purposes.
The first was to break John Harper, who, as a seasoned veteran of the School, should have seen the lie for what it was and, at the very least, questioned its veracity. But he had already lost faith in himself – betrayer of Anne, his baby, the Good – so in his weakened state he willingly hefted the heavy lie up onto his shoulders and collapsed beneath its weight.
The second purpose of the lie was to cover the truth of Anne Gold’s miraculous escape.
At 3:00 PM on the same afternoon Miss Bray escorted John Harper to Superintendent Meyer’s office, she summoned Anne to her own, to share her parents’ decision to change Schools. At 3:10 Miss Bray mentioned, as if an aside, that Anne would be wise to eat at most a light dinner, as a staffer would gather her at 7:00 PM to take her to the campus clinic, where her pregnancy would be terminated. By 3:30, Anne was back in her dorm room, sitting alone on the bed, feeling every tick of the wall clock ping through the chrome braces on her teeth like little sparks of electric fire. Only clenching her jaws together tightly kept her teeth from chattering.
And in that moment of darkest waiting, the Evil seemingly poised to have its wicked way with her, caught in the wake of adult decisions she had no power to influence, let alone control, Anne Gold did what John Harper had failed to do, what Children of the Good are sworn to do in such times of trial.
Anne Gold prayed.
She closed her eyes and prayed to the Good. She prayed to the woman to plead her case to the Good. She prayed to be rescued. She prayed for the baby so alive inside her body. She prayed for John Harper, who she did not yet know had betrayed her, though she would have prayed for him then, anyway, had she known. She prayed for the Grace to accept whatever fate befell her, and for the strength to cling only to the Good no matter where the next few hours took her. She prayed for a miracle.
There are three conflicting stories as to what, exactly, happened next.
Anne, herself, has never been able to say with certainty whether she opened her eyes during the course of the miracle or not. She’d been praying with the palms of her hands pressed hard against her eyes, and though it makes rational sense she must have lowered her hands and opened her eyes at some point, she has no memory of doing either. She envisions herself now, looking back, as a skinny teenage girl, eyes shut, face covered, abruptly standing because her dorm room has appeared inexplicably before her, seen right through cupped hands, softly illuminated by the silver-white radiance of a light no larger than a single drop of water that hovers in the air before her. She remembers following the tiny light, hands never leaving her face, elbows jutting forward, as the orb bobs out the door and into the hallway, past rooms with open doors filled with music or flickering TVs, past a sullen RA watching for trouble in the hallway, down three flights of stairs, past a janitor pushing his broom, out the front door of the School and into the afternoon sun. All Special Schools are equipped with manned watchtowers, and in her vision Anne walks past at least two of these as if she is invisible. The dot of light leads her to a wide tear in the chain link fence that looks like a bomb has gone off, splitting a portion of the fence wide, woven steel links melting back in smoky curls. Beyond the fence is twenty yards of mowed clearing, then dense woods surrounding the School on all sides. Anne slips through the fence, and it is only once she is well past the tree line that she clearly remembers her hands at her sides, attached to arms churning furiously as she runs and runs…
Behind locked office doors, School staffers constructed the story of a carefully planned breakout, complete with student accomplices and School employees either bribed (by Anne’s parents, maybe?) or so wildly inattentive to their duties that they must be removed from service, either way. The exploded fence did not make it into their version of the story because there is simply no rational explanation for that detail. So that obvious, gaping fissure in both the official inside story and the School’s legendary defenses was simply removed from the narrative, quietly mended, then forgotten. The janitor was fired, but a larger investigation never materialized.
The third reckoning of the events of that fateful afternoon eventually became the only story anybody remembers. There was no escape. Nothing even close to a miracle occurred. Despondent over her impending abortion and the loss of her best friend, now boyfriend, John Harper, Anne died by her own hand, and in such a gruesome manner that her coffin had to remain sealed throughout the funeral. All Special School students were required to attend a full Secular Mass in her honor, and to follow in parade as the slender box containing her body was carried to the front gate and loaded into the back of a waiting hearse. The long vehicle pulled away, lights on, and the gate was sealed behind it. Life returned to normal.
But none of these stories ever leaked, or much mattered, beyond the gates and tall fences of the Special School itself. The woods Anne found herself running through when her hands fell away from her eyes were dense, but not deep. Thorn trees and brambles with no path between them sawed at her arms and tore at her clothing, but she kept running hard, and, after a shockingly brief interval, the woods opened again into a new clearing, and there was Arkady.
She emerged from the tree line in a low, dry ditch, body aching, panting for breath, but wide-eyed and burning with energy. Up the hill was a blacktop parking lot lined with rusty metal dumpsters and the receiving docks of stores. There was the back of McCormick’s furniture store, Kent’s Rent to Own, a fast food Mexican restaurant that hadn’t been there the last time she’d laid eyes on the town at the age of nine. But she remembered the other stores. She knew where she was.
She climbed the low hill and made her way east to the end of the lot, where she could cut through and around to the front of the strip center. A girl her own age wearing a green Comida Mexicana apron watched in silence from the drive thru window as Anne walked past in the wrong direction. When she turned the front corner and found herself facing 12th Street, the local name for the section of State highway 160 that ran through the center of town, she felt her run-shaky legs giving way beneath her, so she spun into a white metal chair beside one of Comida Mexicana’s deserted outdoor patio dining tables. No one came out to ask if she was going to order food, so she let herself cry shamelessly, right there in front of she didn’t care who, as the Arkady of her childhood flooded in from every direction.
Across the street was Foster’s Farm & Home, where toys and old fashioned candy sold right next to sweet feed, alfalfa cubes, and horse wormer. Beside that, Wendy’s Wash & Wax, with people busily spraying and scrubbing their vehicles. Wilson’s Pharmacy. Family Dollar. The red tractor dealership no one thought would last, still in business right across the street from John Deere. An insurance salesman. A real estate office. Then Cherry Street, where she knew if she turned and ran two blocks north she’d find the Barrett County Library, and directly behind it, facing 9th Street, her parents’ home.
Miss Bray, had she been there, would have urged Anne to fight the yearning that rose inside her with every breath to run home and fall helpless into her mother’s arms, to feel the press of her body and bury her face in the warm, clean smell of her mother’s hair. Her mother, after all– and Daddy, too, don’t forget him – had abandoned her for fear of the government to reeducation at the Special School. Her mother – and Daddy, too – had failed to visit her even once in all those years. To them she had been dead, written off and forgotten with the signing of her Warrant of Confinement that day long ago. No comfort could justify forgiving such spineless disregard. The Special School discouraged forgiveness of any kind, as such altruism, they taught, insulted the self.
But Miss Bray was far away now, and seven years of daily Gospel of Self classes, weekly Secular Masses, and endless hard lessons had failed to crush the Child of the Good within her, and with all the innocence of the child she, herself, still was at sixteen, Anne Gold found her legs and without thinking or worrying to breathe sprinted the two blocks to Cherry, then two more to 9th Street, up gray wooden steps, past the porch swing on its rusting chains, and right on up to the white wooden door and the lighted golden doorbell, which she stabbed with a finger over and over, at least ten times without stopping.
And when the door swung wide, the scene played out exactly as she’d dreamed it so many times in the prison of the Special School. The white door sucking inward, whooshing against carpet. Mom stepping back. Tears as her heart knows the frazzled teen on her porch to be her own little girl, returned to life. Arms opening to receive, the door closing behind them.
And the forgiveness, oh, the forgiveness. And the warmth, and the welcoming. The soft press of bodies and the smell of clean hair. And the Good, like fireworks, bursting all around them, sparkling their tears and making everything glow.
The thing no one noticed in John Harper’s spectacular plummet from grace following the news of Anne’s death– even John, himself, missed it – is that his beliefs did not fundamentally change. He just switched sides.
Good and evil can only be said to exist as relative measures in the pursuit of personal goals. If your goal is to become a doctor, whatever helps you attain your degree – hard work, study, financial aid, effective cheating – can be measured as good. Whatever stands in your way – poverty, sloth, competitors for internships – would be relative evils. If you desire to rob a bank, shooting the security guard before he can unholster his weapon is good. Your gun jamming so he gets the first shot is evil. For you. For the guard, those labels would be reversed. The ancient idea of objective Good and Evil, divorced from a unique human self pursuing its own service, is an insult to reason and cannot exist. Only the individual can say what is good or evil for him or her self, and the wise individual allows such judgments to evolve over time with experience and changing circumstances.
-- The Gospel of Self, A Student’s Guide, Chapter 1
John Harper found The Gospel of Self laughable. As a boy, he’d listened, entranced, as older kids told the story of the Good and the Evil and their war for human souls in furtive whispers during recess. He listened with full knowledge that children vanished every year behind the high fence of the Special School for telling this story, and even just for listening. This was secret knowledge, a great truth parents hid from their children, and that the Special School existed to erase from the mind of any kid brave enough to believe it. But that only made the act of hearing, and eventually, retelling the story seem all the more heroic.
Did John Harper really believe the story then, at six, seven, eight years old? Hard to say. But he wanted to believe, he wanted it all to be true so much that, at the age of nine, when a fourth grader told John and a group of his third grade friends on the playground that he belonged to a secret club called The Children of the Good, and he could prove the Good was real and the Evil had all their parents in its grip, that night, when his house went dark, John went out the window, to brave the spooky yards and alleys of Arkady at night.
* * * *
"Hale!" he hissed in such a loud stage whisper he might as well have shouted the name. He scooped up a handful of driveway gravel and tossed one, then two pieces, then the whole handful at the second story window behind which Dennis Hale was not sleeping. The window opened and the white-haired boy slid out, grabbed the branch of a tree, shinnied his way to the trunk and then dropped to the grass. They ran together to Paul Rankin’s house, the principal’s own son, and found him hiding behind the giant three-bay garage, awaiting their arrival. He joined the pair without a word, and they scurried on to Neil Coleman’s wreck of a house beside the junk yard his old man owned. Neil’s dad stayed drunk most of the time, and liked to punish Neil in ways that in a larger community would send him to jail. But in Arkady a man was the king of his castle, so all eyes looked away, and Neil was already growing up hard and mean. But he had sense enough to join the other boys that night, in search of rescue from the Evil, or at least some sure way to kill it dead.
Their destination was a teen party spot in the woods called Hobo Camp, a hidden cove off City Lake where log benches circled a fire pit filled with crushed beer cans. When the boys stepped into the clearing, about a dozen kids, mostly third graders, more boys than girls, already clustered on the benches or stood in cold silence, hands in pockets. No one knew how to start a fire or dared try.
John and his friends stayed close to the path back to town, hovering together, not sure what to do next, ready to run at the first sign of trouble. The fourth grader from the playground was there, and he stood as if their arrival was some kind of signal to begin.
"The woman is the Mother of the Good," he said quietly, addressing everyone assembled. "The Good used to be in charge, but then the Evil took over. It tricked all our parents into thinking bad is good, and they’re bad to us now all the time and they don’t even know it. But the Good is coming back, and soon. He’s coming to rescue us all, to take the world back and make the Evil pay. Till He gets here, the woman helps us stay good and tells us what we need to know to be ready for the day her seed – her son, but that’s what she calls him, her seed – until the Good gets here. You’ve heard all about the woman in the story. Well, she’s not just a story. She’s real. The Children of the Good meet her here in this spot, once every month, on the first night the moon doesn’t come out. The New Moon. That’s tonight. You don’t have to believe me. In a few minutes you’ll see her for yourself."
And with that, he sat down again.
The trees were alive with cicadas and the lake with frogs, so to say they waited in silence, then, would not be true. But they sat or stood without speaking, listening to the night sounds around them, for what seemed an unlikely interval for a group of mostly third graders huddled outdoors in the dark.
When the frogs and cicadas fell silent as one, true quiet pressed everyone breathless. There was motion on the lake. A white form the size of a dog drifted toward them on the water, and became a swan as it neared the shore. It did not step up onto the land, but rather halted abruptly, craned its long neck and stretched its ivory wings, then simply vanished as the campsite exploded into light.
John Harper saw the outline of a woman about the height and contour of his own mom etched into the hot white center of the group. The children closest to her, boys and girls alike, had fallen to their knees with their hands clasped before them and their eyes rolled back into their heads. The fourth grader stood in front of them, calmly conversing with the woman as naturally as he might had his own mother entered the circle.
John’s ears filled with static like a radio between stations with the volume cranked high. He couldn’t hear anything the woman or the fourth grader were saying to each other, but he knew something brand new was happening inside him. As if a switch had flipped, all the things he’d ever wanted to believe about the Good and the woman and heroic human souls were now facts as certain as his own birthday. He knew the Evil shouldn’t be in control of the world, but it was, by tricks and deception, and the woman was the way the Good snuck behind enemy lines with its plan to save them all. He couldn’t even guess what it all added up to. But he understood he’d been a Child of the Good long before this secret meeting, and he was here, with his friends, this night, because the Good had called him. And that was all he needed to know.
Dennis Hale witnessed the explosion of light, but never did see the woman. From where he stood, the whole campsite went off like a bomb and everybody went crazy. Later, John would convince him to join The Children of the Good anyway, despite his doubts, a decision he would regret barely a year later when the school board recommended the lot of them for reeducation.
Paul Rankin never saw or heard anything. He was standing closest to the path, and when the first silence fell, he panicked and sprinted for home. When John and Dennis later described the explosion of light and the woman appearing from nowhere, he said they were nuts. He’d looked back a dozen times to see if the rest were following, and Hobo Camp was never anything but pitch black dark. And silent. No light, no static, no voices, no nothing. He stopped talking to anyone he remembered being present that night, and in the last near-summer weeks of their own fourth grade year, when the Special School finally swept them all up in its net, Paul was the little fish that got away. It wasn’t hard to figure out what happened, his dad being the principal and all.
Neil Coleman was a special case. He’d seen everything John had, but he’d heard everything, too. He’d heard what the woman and the boy from fourth grade talked about. His was the deeper revelation, perhaps because he needed it more. But he refused to share what he’d heard. It belonged to him, and him alone, and if the rest had missed out, well, they should have been paying better attention. He joined The Children of the Good, but he never talked when they met. He just listened and nodded a lot.
* * * *
Seventeen year old John Harper found The Gospel of Self contemptible for teaching that objective Good and Evil do not exist. He knew first hand they were both not only real, they were persons who acted on the world and competed for the souls of men. In his moment of weakness, his betrayal of Anne and the Good, he had not surrendered his certainty that the Good and the Evil were real – he had simply chosen, however poorly, between them.
With one self-serving choice he had damned himself, eternally, motivated by nothing nobler than pure, selfish weakness. And Anne had died. Their baby had died. He hated himself, and started acting the way he figured a person who knew he was damned would behave – to the delight of Commandant Meyer, Miss Bray, and all the Special School staff who had begun to doubt he would ever come around. How happy they were to pronounce him cured and push him out the big gate before he could stain their perfect record.
* * * *
For his eighteenth birthday, John Harper received his freedom.
The bus dropped him at the Courthouse in the center of the Arkady Town Square. Mom and Dad would be here to pick him up, and he guessed he’d live with them for a while, till he got his bearings and decided what to do next. The discipline of daily life in the Special School had been rigid and grueling in the extreme. But it was all he’d known for nearly half his life. He had no idea what to expect from the Arkady beyond its fences.
He could not have expected what he found.
As he stepped from the echoing Courthouse hallway through the unnaturally tall doors leading into the Courtroom, there they were. His father, grayer than he had imagined, having sprouted glasses, and wearing a gray flannel suit that made him look like somebody’s grandfather. Tiny Mom in her sun dress beside him, also grayer than she ought to be in her early forties, but still beautiful.
And next to her, a ghost. Two ghosts, really.
Anne Gold sat beside his mother, looking stunningly seventeen and vibrantly, gloriously, enormously pregnant.
He fell to his knees right there in the aisle. "Anne… How?"
She was suddenly kneeling before him. She touched his face. "It’s okay..."
With each word, a sobbing gasp for air. "I... am... so... sorry..." Then in quick bursts "Stay away, Anne… Hate me… Kill me… I’m evil… I’m lost..."
And though he was disintegrating right there in front of her, his face in his hands, the whole Courtroom shamelessly staring, watching him crumble... Ann Gold laughed – and with her laughter returned to John Harper the fate of his immortal soul.
"No," she said, simply, and laughed again, now laughing and crying at the same time. "I love you, and I know you love me. We’re going to have a baby. Now get up, sign your paperwork, and take me home."
And that’s what he did.
By the day of John Harper’s release from the Special School, the baby in Anne’s womb was barely three months away from staging its own commencement into the outside world. With the consent of Anne’s parents, who were also in the courtroom on the day of John’s reprieve, when that second Harper graduation day arrived, baby Nelly was applauded to life by her legally married parents, John and Anne Harper, and by two very happy sets of grandparents.
Arkady instantly judged them by appearances – the pregnant teen shotgun-married to the bad kid from the School – and John and Anne made a decision never to challenge that perception. The town’s smug disapproval was a convenient line past which observation simply did not cross. Arkady knew exactly who they’d always be and what they’d never amount to, so no one paid a lick of attention to how the Harpers actually lived. No one cared enough to notice when John was hired at eighteen, first to wash tractors, then to pay bills and process payroll in the office at John Deere, or when he distinguished himself and in less than five years became the youngest office manager in the state, earning a living wage. They joined the Fellowship of Self Church, where all the guys from John Deere brought their families. They bought a house with a view of City Lake, and prepared to live happily ever after.
For all appearances, they were Arkadyans, through and through.
But night after night, behind closed doors or in whispers on the porch, they secretly warmed the ember of the truth with their breath, telling and retelling the story, reminding one another of the woman, and the Good, and to never forget how they’d been rescued from slavery and graced with a life surprisingly rich and sweet on the inside, however bitter its faux candy coating.
The hard part was keeping their dual life from Nelly. Their own childhoods stolen by a government fearful of even the suggestion of something larger than itself, they vowed to keep Nelly in the dark until her eighteenth birthday, when the Special School couldn’t touch her.
But some secrets are simply too large to contain, and it soon became clear that their well-meaning plan to protect Nelly had gone terribly awry.
* * * *
It started with the TV.
"Find the queen show, Daddy."
It was Saturday morning. John and Anne sipped coffee together at the dining room table, while five year old Nelly reclined on the living room floor, holding down a button on the remote that made the channels spin and spin.
"What queen, baby?"
Nelly dropped the remote and the TV settled on a cable news station.
"The Queen of the World," Nelly insisted, twisting around to face her parents, her tiny brow knitting with frustration. "The one whose baby kills the snake."
They lowered their coffee cups together, as if on cue.
"The snake from the trees," Nelly added. "Who hides in the smoke."
Their eyes locked across the table.
"I don’t think I know that one," John said. "Let’s turn off the TV and go to the park, okay?"
"Yay!"Nelly jumped up and ran to her parents, leaving the TV set on. She climbed onto her father’s lap. "Park!" she announced.
What Nelly thought of as the "park" was really the primary school playground barely two blocks from their home, a pleasant morning walk for the three of them. John and Anne finished their coffee on a bench watching Nelly swing and play in the sandbox. When she decided she was hungry, they headed for home.
As they reached their own yard, the air came alive with music, rising and falling like painted horses on a merry-go-round. John looked for an ice cream truck to appear around the corner, then realized the music was coming from his own house.
"The Queen!" Nelly squealed and shot off toward the house at a dead run. The door was unlocked and she disappeared inside.
"We left the TV on," Anne said.
They crossed the yard, circus music in the air. And then a lilting voice, female and melodic:
The snake, the snake,
the old evil snake,
sneaks into the town
when no one’s awake.
He bites all the people,
and steals all their love,
and makes them forget about
But you, little urchin,
have nothing to fear.
The Mother of Good
is always near,
to hold you till love,
like a raging fire
returns to devour that
snakey old liar
But don’t tell a soul… Shhhhh!
As they rushed through the door and into the living room, the music stopped, replaced by the excited chatter of a blue-suited weatherman, one arm swinging circles over a patch of green radar, as if conjuring rain. Nelly stood, facing the TV, arms dangling at her sides.
"Daddy? What’s an urchin?"
"I don’t know, baby. Let’s look it up."
He sat down in front of the computer, and Nelly climbed into his lap.
1. A mischievous young child, esp. one who is poorly or raggedly dressed.
2. A goblin.
"A goblin. That’s you, alright," he said, "But I like your clothes." They laughed together. Soon they were lost in pictures of goblins, then funny animal videos.
* * * *
Nelly was coloring in front of the TV. John and Anne backed away together into the kitchen.
"She overheard us talking?"
"I don’t think so," John said. "You heard the song. And so did Nelly, obviously. That was real. It’s like all of a sudden there’s a kids’ show about the story on national TV. They’d never let that happen."
"She said the queen whose baby kills the snake. We always say the woman’s seed, and the Evil..."
"But it’s the same story. She’s not getting it from us. She can’t really be getting it from TV, can she?"
"She’s never alone there. We’d know if she was talking to other kids."
"Can we just ask her? She thinks it’s a TV show. We don’t have to tell her any different."
More than just any TV show, The Queen of the World Show was Nelly’s favorite, and she’d seen it for the first time in a dream. In the dream, the queen lived up in the sky, in a castle that rested on a cloud in the daytime and the moon at night. Her baby was the king of the world below, but his kingdom had been stolen by a bad snake who wanted to hurt everybody. Because the snake had bitten all the people and his poison was inside them, the people hurt each other and did bad things. They acted like the snake. The baby king wanted to save them all and take back his kingdom, but to do that, he’d have to kill the snake – which he couldn’t do while the people still had the poison inside them. Killing the snake would kill the people under its spell, as well. To win the day, he’d have to cure everybody of their snakebite first. So the baby king and his mother the queen made a plan...
Being five, it had not surprised Nelly one bit when The Queen of the World Show appeared on the real TV. She loved to watch it and knew all the characters and songs. It sounded like she watched the show pretty much every day, which was simply not possible, with Anne rarely out of her daughter’s sight, and never out of earshot. Maybe she watched the show in her dreams, and made no distinction between sleeping and waking? However that worked, from the long talk her parents had with their daughter that Saturday morning, passing into afternoon, three things became clear:
1. Nelly, at the age of five, had developed a sophisticated understanding of the story, the Evil, the Good, the woman, all of it. She understood in kid metaphors, but she had a very thorough grasp of the basics, down to fine details.
2. She had not overheard her parents talking, and was never aware that afternoon that they were discussing anything larger than a favorite television show. No person, child or adult, had told her anything. The Queen of the World Show was the only source of her knowledge.
3. However this private revelation to their little girl was taking place, it had progressed from the realm of dreams to manifestation in the waking world. They had both heard the song that morning, and still had it stuck inside their heads, circling round and round in their minds like a merry-go-round.
They kept pretending it was just a TV show, and made a fun family routine of giving Nelly center stage every evening at dinner as she retold in excited kid language what happened on that day’s episode of The Queen of the World. Nelly never asked why they didn’t just sit and watch it with her. She liked the spotlight, and was happy to be their go-between. Adding the content of Nelly’s daily revelations to their own long-defended understanding, John and Anne Harper began to suspect that events long prophesied in the story had begun to unfold right there in their own home, with their precocious daughter Nelly at the center of what was increasingly difficult to picture as anything short of a gathering storm.
* * * *
Then Nelly started school, and the storm clouds darkened.
On her first day at Kindergarten, once all the children had participated in a healthy round of tears at being left on their own, the teacher, Mrs. Rankin, gathered everyone in a circle and asked them to share something special about themselves.
"I’m special," one girl said proudly, "because my father is a judge. He sends people to jail."
Mrs. Rankin smiled. "Your father is special for being a judge, that’s very true, Jennifer. But you are special just for being you. We’ll spend a lot of time this year finding out just how special everyone is."
Like a fairy sprinkling magic dust, she swept a hand over the children’s heads in a wide arc, with every eye following.
"Every one of you is the most important person in the world!" she said.
And they all giggled and loved her, believing every word.
"I’m special because I have more toys than anybody."
"I can already read and write my name."
"I’m going to be the President when I grow up!"
Nelly’s turn came. She had planned to say she was special because she could sing every song on The Queen of the World Show by heart. Then a voice:
Don’t tell a soul... Shhhhh!
And it was just that loud, though not a single head turned. She must never, ever, mention The Queen of the World outside her own home. The queen and her baby were real. Betray them and the snake wins – and that means the end of the world. She could not say how she suddenly knew this, but she did. Ice filled her veins and froze her body solid.
They were waiting on Nelly. Mrs. Rankin’s eyes narrowed, as if she wanted to squeeze and squeeze a response out of the little girl before her. She opened her mouth and smiled down with teeth altogether too sharp and perfect and white...
And Nelly was a mouse, trembling while a snake sizes her up in the grass.
"I... I...," she said, finally, words tumbling out of her mouth as if someone else put them there, "I’m special because I’m pretty. Everybody says so."
"Of course you are, Nelly," Mrs. Rankin said, beaming with approval. "Being pretty makes you very special, indeed!"
In that moment Mrs. Rankin was the ugliest thing Nelly had ever seen.
Human beings no more know
their own time than fish taken
in the fatal net or birds trapped
in the snare; like these, mortals
are caught when an evil time
suddenly falls upon them.
New American Bible
The first Rankin of note in Arkady was Captain Elias P. Rankin, second in command of a cavalry troop which, throughout the 1830s, is said to have massacred every living Indian for fifty miles around the present day site of the town. The Black Hawk War, in which young Abraham Lincoln served his brief military service, was going on about that time and not too far away, but rumors of that officially declared conflict only served as cover for Captain Rankin’s personal war on the native Peoples. He killed Indians because he was mean and full of hate and enjoyed taking human life, and in those days you could kill as many "savages" as you pleased, no one cared.
Legend has it that, one night, while Elias Rankin was drunk on whiskey and the blood of his victims, an Indian boy no older than twelve slipped under the wall of his tent to find the white man passed out naked on his cot. The boy split the Captain’s skull with his own sword, then was, himself, shot dead while trying to escape out the front flap of the tent.
It took Rankin several days to die of his wound, but there was no patching him together, either. His skull was really and truly split, right through the bone and down into the spongy pink flesh of his brain. He laid there for three days, naked and fevered and bloody, the sword still lodged in his head, and he only opened his eyes once to announce that an angel had descended from heaven to reveal to him that on the very spot where he lay, Noah’s Ark had first found dry land after the flood. That Noah’s Ark is well known to have landed on Mount Ararat, along the Turkish-Iranian border, and that there was not a mountain to be found within ten days hard ride in any direction from the old bastard’s dying body, were facts no one was cruel enough to mention, so the story stuck – and they say that’s how the town got its name, Arkady, with the accent peculiarly on the first syllable like that.
The next Rankin to distinguish himself was Thomas Fillmore Rankin, the only recorded serial-deserter in Arkady history. During the Civil War, the state officially aligned with the Union, but the people’s loyalties were split right down the middle. Families were torn, as a father donned gray while his sons wore blue, and many slaughtered their own kin on the battlefield. In an effort to avoid actual conflict of any kind, Thomas Rankin switched sides many times, changing uniforms to join up with whoever won the last battle. He used many different names, and is said to have had at least two complete families, one North and one South. There was plenty of chaos to go around on both sides, so he managed to safely ride out the war this way without notice – except by historians, whose public account of his shame didn’t appear until he was long dead and had gotten away with it.
The first moneyed Rankins appeared soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and America’s entry into World War II. In February, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, primarily from the Pacific Coast, into camps in seven states. Roger "Jesse James" Rankin, who had, to that date, facelessly survived most of the Great Depression as a drifter and petty con man, was among the first to recognize the golden opportunity hidden in so many people being forced from their homes at one time, many with as little as forty-eight hours notice of evacuation. True to his outlaw nickname, "Jesse James" Rankin mounted a caravan of fellow hustlers who arrived in California with trucks, cash, and clean, lawyerish suits to swindle desperate families out of all their worldly possessions, paying pennies on the dollar. When the houses were resold, and the trucks full of furniture and jewelry and household items had been liquidated, Roger Rankin left California a very wealthy man. His return to Arkady in the style of a victorious monarch was greeted with distaste by a few in the political class who understood where his riches originated, but, after Pearl Harbor, most Americans hated the Japanese and plain didn’t care.
They say the only thing less wholesome than a dishonest man is a rich dishonest man, and Richard "Jesse James" Rankin proved the rule on that one. Amidst a series of failed marriages and uncounted philanderings, a Baby Boom of Rankins spread over Arkady well in advance of the official post-war population explosion. This generation of Rankins were all children born within just a few years of each other, so the 1950s and much of the ‘60s passed in relative obscurity for the clan. Those were the quiet "growing years."
There was a brief, but significant, flash on the historical horizon circa 1968, when the beautiful but misguided twenty-two year old "Peacedove" Rankin (real name, Elizabeth Clair) hitchhiked all the way to the San Jacinto Mountains east of Los Angeles to join Timothy Leary’s Brotherhood of Eternal Love Commune. When Leary was arrested later that year for marijuana possession, and it looked like he’d soon be doing hard time, Peacedove returned to Arkady, tattooed and sullen, and seven months later gave birth to a boy she named, spitefully, most thought, Timothy Lovechild Rankin.
On the boy’s thirteenth birthday, Peacedove hit the cinderblock east wall of the Tri-City Grocery Store in her bright yellow 1957 VW Beetle, doing well over 70 MPH in town. There was speculation about suicide, or if maybe she’d been running toward or away from something or someone when the crash occurred, but her death was ruled accidental and dropped. When no one stepped forward to claim the army duffle bag found next to her body in what was left of the front seat, or the $40,000 cash stuffed inside it, the money followed her son to the home of Peacedove’s sister, Eloise Boyle, whose husband, Joe Boyle, was the Arkady Postmaster.
By high school, Timothy Lovechild Rankin became just Tim Rankin, no middle name, and he graduated in the top ten percent of his class. His combo graduation gift and eighteenth birthday present – from his mother, they told him – was a cashier’s check for the $40,000, which the Boyles put in trust for him and never touched. He used it as a healthy down payment on a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a Juris Doctor from Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology. He graduated with honors in 1994, passed the Bar on the first try, and walked straight into a job in the Patent Law division of Morris, Cooper, Smith & Powell, LLP in Chicago.
There’s another old saying that you can take the boy out of Arkady, but good luck prying Arkady out of the boy – especially if he’s a Rankin. A lawyer at twenty-six, already working for a top-100 international firm, Tim Rankin seemed poised for a meteoric, if somewhat traditional, rise to success. But his genes had gifted him with a lazy eye for opportunity, and as that eye lolled over the hundreds of client records stored in the MCS&P Patent Law file room, a vision began to emerge by which he might, with just a few clever moves, put his impressive six figure starting salary to shame.
This was in the early years of the US "Dot Com" tech bubble of the ‘90s, and it seemed every week a new gadget or web-widget made somebody a millionaire, all predicated on incestuous technologies being developed so quickly, one atop the other, that no one but a lawyer with finely-tuned research skills and access to a first class Patent Law library could even begin to sort it out. Tim Rankin found himself in the right place at the right time, and he quietly researched, and then purchased a series of patents from unsuspecting inventors who didn’t realize what they had, or how what they’d invented had already been stolen and evolved into new devices by the likes of Samsung, Apple, HP, Microsoft, or Dell.
He maintained this quiet research and acquisition phase of his plan through February, 2000, when it was clear the "Y2K" bomb had been defused and the media-hyped end of the world wasn’t going to happen. Then, beginning that summer, he filed a series of lawsuits for patent infringement, half a dozen of which settled quickly out of court, netting him a cool twenty million by Christmas. Once the tech bubble predictably burst the next year, he invested his millions buying stock in the same companies he’d just sued, at fire sale prices. They all eventually recovered, the NASDAQ righted itself then shot through the roof, and by thirty-three, Tim Rankin was a billionaire.
For his fortieth birthday, he gifted himself a stunningly beautiful twenty year old wife, Jessica Mayberry Rankin, who had once been a pre-teen child star on cable TV. Her post-puberty re-launch as a trashy pop singer had been savagely rejected by the music-buying parents of her young fans, but a scandalously erotic performance on the 2009 MTV Music Awards won her Tim’s rapt attention, and soon after, a share in his fortune. The couple relocated to Arkady, where, before the year ended, Jessica produced their only begotten son – and the first Rankin who would play an active role in the lives of John, Anne and Nelly Harper – Marion Francis Rankin.
By 2040, when John Harper, Dennis Hale, Neil Coleman, and Marion Francis Rankin’s own son, Paul, were all born, grown up Marion was thirty years old, and had been appointed Principal of Arkady R1 Combined Elementary and Middle Schools. Every child in the district under the age of thirteen passed before him, to be sorted like sheep from goats, with compliant sheep promoted on to high school, then college and happy careers and lives, and unruly goats redirected to the Special School for reeducation.
Why the child of a billionaire would accept such mundane employment, and what, precisely, Marion Francis Rankin was watching for in that decades-long procession of children past his open office door, are very good questions, indeed.
On Wednesday, August 1st, 2012, when Marion Francis Rankin was just two years old, his father vanished, taking most of his fortune with him. It’s not that Tim Rankin left his new wife and child in the usual way, divorcing Jessica to marry some mistress, say. Nor was there intrigue – he was not killed or kidnapped, that anybody knew of. He did not leave his family destitute. Instead, billionaire Tim Rankin quietly carved out a very comfortable nest egg in Jessica’s name only, had his own name removed from the titles of their mansion, automobiles and other Arkady properties, signed his active business holdings into receivership until the unspecified date of his return, then, for all appearances, ceased to exist anywhere on the face of the earth.
Of course, Tim Rankin was still on earth. He just was no longer "Tim Rankin." He’d traded that plain American moniker for Maium Hum, the Hindi words for "I AM," and, in a move that would have made his reputed father proud, he’d chucked it all to take Sadhu vows at the Paramātmā svaya Divine Self Ashram, somewhere along the Ganges River, in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Tim Rankin had found religion.
At the center of the Paramātmā svaya ashram was the person and teaching of His Divine Grace, Swami Ātma pyāra, a man born, like Tim Rankin, in the USA. He’d come to India in the early Seventies as an adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Panjab University in Chandigarh. Just as America’s youth were flocking to India for a taste of ancient Hindu religious mystique, India’s intellectual class was grasping for a toehold on modern Western, Capitalist thought, and Ātma pyāra, whose name was Terry Oglesby at the time, arrived riding the later wave. His specialty was the Objectivist philosophies of Ayn Rand and her followers, Nathaniel Branden and Leonard Peikoff. An avowed atheist, Oglesby advocated reason as the only legitimate means of acquiring knowledge. He eschewed "do-gooder" altruism of any kind, rejected collectivism and Stateism, and taught his students, many of whom would go on to become the movers and shakers of India’s economic rebirth during the ‘80s and ‘90s, that true morality could arise only from the free choice of an individual human will serving its own ends. Egoism, he taught, was not only ethical, the lack of a healthy self-love and dedication to self-service was the very definition of mental illness.
Being an American in India in the Seventies, it was inevitable that Oglesby would eventually rub shoulders with the rising tide of hippies, yippies, mystics and drugged out wayfarers washing up daily onto India’s shores. Though he found the invading vagabond army’s blanket substitution of superstition and wish fulfillment for rational thought annoying, he had to admit the girls were foxy. And that one compromise of his staunch Objectivist discipline sent him spiraling down the slippery slope of 1970s All-American sex, drugs and rock and roll counterculture, in exactly that order.
The girl’s given name was Bethany, but she preferred Starfire. Their meeting at the Amērikī paba Bar and Mostly-Vegetarian Grill clearly marked the beginning of the sex portion of his mystical conversion process, but their chance encounter might also qualify as the first of his drug experiences, as, from their very first conversation, the only word worthy of describing his affection for her company was addiction. He couldn’t get enough of her. Her philosophy was a naive’ hodgepodge of Astrology, pantheism, misunderstood Hindu concepts like reincarnation, passing references to ghosts and UFOs... But what she said made no difference, really. She could recite the contents of the Delhi phone book and he would be happy to listen, so long as he could watch her lips moving, her eyes closing or growing wide with wonder or surprise, her fingers rising to twirl a golden curl as she spoke. Even in India, where women’s Saris reflect the rainbow and their makeup the stars, Starfire stood out – an American rendition of a (young and beautiful, of course) Hungarian Gypsy witch, impeccably disheveled as if she’d just fallen, ever so freshly, from her broom.
The future of the entire world shifted the night Starfire introduced Terry Oglesby to acid.
As Timothy Leary explained in his classic work The Psychedelic Experience: a Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, as much as ninety percent of the LSD experience depends, not on the drug itself, but on what Leary termed Set – the experiencer’s character, expectations and intentions – and Setting, meaning the social and physical surroundings in which the drug experience takes place. The other ten percent would, then, depend on the drug itself, and such tangible factors as source, purity and dosage.
Terry Oglesby had exactly zero control over any of these factors, as he and Starfire lay naked and blissfully post-coitus, side by side on the roof of his apartment building on the Panjab-U campus. They were passing a bottle of warm Gin between them, staring up at an ocean of eight billion stars, when the girl, intending nothing more than a pixyish prank, slipped a few hits of Windowpane into the bottle and gave it a good shake before passing it back to Terry.
Windowpane differed from most acid of the time in that it was not printed on blotter paper, but was rather cooked into incredibly thin sheets of gelatin that were cut into doses a quarter inch square. One benefit of this production technique was that hits melted like sugar on your tongue (or in a bottle of Gin). One downside was that they tended to get "sticky" when the air was hot and humid, as it was that night in Chandigarh, and what Starfire thought sure was two, at most three hits, turned out to be nine.
Terry Oglesby knew something had changed when the girl’s rambling monologue on the significance of Astrology struck him as unfathomably profound.
"Most people only know their sun sign," she was saying, "… like Scorpio or Aquarius or Libra. I’m an Aquarius, you probably guessed that already. Anyway, everybody has a moon sign, too, and that’s how other people mostly see you. But you can’t really understand your fate at all without knowing your rising sign and the position of at least the inner planets at the moment of your birth…"
Her words caressed his body like a soft rain of kisses, but he could not turn his head to kiss her back. His eyes were taken by eight billion stars trailing sparklers across the sky, their dance somehow a language, a hypnotic semaphore signaling yes… yes… yes...
He remembered being born, how pissed off it made him. Air tasted bad, light hurt his eyes, and he was cold… cold… cold… They wrapped him in a blanket and laid him on his mother’s chest, but even this was like ice compared to the hot liquid bliss of the womb.
The stars wrapped him in a blanket of light and flung him up into the sky – and there was the whole world, a teeming human smorgasbord below him. On a rooftop in India, he saw his own naked body, chakras spinning like multi-colored suns inside his head, his throat, his heart, his groin. And next to that living solar system of rainbows, equally unclothed and strangely alluring in the starkest imaginable tones of black and white, Starfire had become Ayn Rand:
"Every man is his own reason and justification for being," she philosophized. "Man must live for himself. He must pursue his own ends. He must be his own champion, led only by his own mind. The pursuit of happiness and rational self-interest are the highest moral purposes in life, selfishness the only reasonable virtue… I am the miracle, I belong to me, I guard myself, I use myself, I kneel before, I bow before, I need serve first, last and only MYSELF!"
A tempest scattered the philosopher into a thousand swirling puzzle pieces, then reassembled her into an old Sadhu in orange mendicant robes, white hair blazing like sun rays in every direction.
"Self is the ground of all existence. The whole world is merely waves in the infinite Ocean of Self. You are that infinite Ocean… God is Self; Self is God. Look nowhere for either but in the mirror of Divine Self Love and Service…"
And the whole of reality became a single silver mirror with millions and billions of faces reflecting up and all around, and he could see through all their eyes at once. Each human being a cosmic end unto him or her self, each a mirror-image fragment of the one and only fully real all seeing, all knowing true cosmic mind-self-being in all the universe… To love at all was to love the self, and self-love was the only meaningful universal directive... Cosmic Self hugged him like a much beloved child, and in a mother’s cooing whisper rechristened him Ātma pyāra…
Ātma dropped his teaching gig, let his hair grow long, and soon became the orange-robed guru of his vision, with Starfire as his queen. Together, they founded the Paramātmā svaya Divine Self Ashram and Astrological Enlightenment Center on the Ganges, and amassed a quick fortune catering to the spiritual needs of young Americans arrogant enough to chase enlightenment halfway across the world without even asking what language Indian Hindus spoke… The Divine Self ashram conducted all business in English only, and took out ads in Rolling Stone. Their fifty guest capacity soon became a hundred, then five hundred, as they reinvested everything in growing the business. Rock stars made Paramātmā svaya a favorite tour layover, and the guru and his queen built an amphitheater for hosting lucrative benefit concerts.
In early 1980, Starfire turned up pregnant, and confessed the baby was not Ātma’s. The father had to be one of three famous lead singers, but she couldn’t be sure which one until the baby was born and she could compare its astrological chart to those of the potential dads.
That Starfire had been sleeping around came as such an insult to Ātma pyāra’s sense of divine entitlement that he spun into a rage that lasted most of the year. He shut down the ashram, sent all the guests packing, and locked Starfire away in a very nicely equipped and comfortable guest suite, with an armed guard posted outside her door. She was fed lavishly three times a day, and waited on hand and foot by the ashram’s few permanent residents, Ātma pyāra’s most trusted disciples. But she was not allowed to leave.
The child in Starfire’s womb was not the only seed growing within the now sealed perimeter of the Divine Self ashram. Wrapped tight in his own dark blanket of seclusion, Ātma pyāra began a journey of purification, gradually disentangling his mind from the circus of greed the ashram had become, in search of the pure kernel of Truth he’d received that night in Chandigarh. The revelation of Divine Self was a cosmic gift his own God-nature had bestowed upon his limited human mind, and he could hardly be blamed for having reeled a bit under the weight of his own revealed glory…
But the fun and games were over. Starfire’s bastard was a gift from the same source, he could see that now. She wasn’t smart enough to have betrayed him right under his nose, like he was some common fool. It was the work of his God-self, in one fell motion demolishing the idol he’d constructed in its image, shocking the one true prophet of self onto a path finally worthy of the original revelation, and providing him with the child he would need to bring the cosmic plan to fruition.
In a fit of creativity that bordered on channeling, Ātma pyāra composed the entirety of the Svaya kē susamācāra Sutra in under forty-eight hours, committing the complete and inerrant Truth of his Divine Revelation to paper, scribbling faster than he could even read, filling notebook after notebook, a mound of pencils ground to nubs piling high on the desk before him. When the manuscript was typed, it weighed in at over four hundred pages, It was, of course, perfect, and required no editing. It was published the next year in America and Europe as The Gospel of Self.
As an earthquake can reverse the course of a river, or explosives can tunnel through miles of unyielding mountain, so a single book has the power to change the whole course of a man’s life – and through that man, all history – by setting his feet onto paths he would never have discovered on his own. For Terry Oglesby, that life-changing book was Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and later, Atlas Shrugged.
For Tim Rankin, it was The Gospel of Self.
On the level of experience, every one of us is bound by the limitations of our human bodies. Our every thought about the world is therefore a rumination on what we perceive with our personal eyes, ears, nose or tongue, the touch of our individual fingertips. Each man’s experience of reality is unique, personal, and unduplicated in all the world, in all of history. It is not possible for two people to ever have exactly the same experience of the world.
And yet, reality, the world over, is the same for everyone. I do not pick an apple that becomes a pear in your hand. I look up into the night sky and see the moon and the stars, and that’s what you see, too, irrespective of our individual beliefs, desires or expectations. How is that possible?
As philosopher Ayn Rand proved, this is true because the outside world is objectively real, independent of our human perceptions of or feelings about it. We do not create reality; we can only discover it. And what we discover is the same for everyone because it is "really real", out there beyond our senses. It exists, just as it is, before we are born, and it will continue to exist, unchanged, when we die. No desire on our part can alter that reality.
To Ayn Rand’s inarguable material observation, I add this spiritual Truth revealed to me by God Him/Her/Itself – an epiphany that completes Ms. Rand’s vision and ushers in a New Objectivism with the power to transform the world:
Just as the outside world is a single objective reality that can only be discovered by the wielder of human senses, so every discoverer looking out through those human eyes is also one in an equally objective measure. Underlying the illusion of billions of separate human "persons" populating the world, there is in reality only one true human Self (or "Meta-Self" or "Super Self," perhaps) that is every bit as tangible, universal, singular and "discoverable" as the "outside world." There are billions of human beings currently sharing the earth, but only one Self – a Self that existed before any of us were born, and which is in no way impacted by our physical deaths. Just as each person experiences reality differently without effecting the objective, self-existing nature of the "real world," so billions of people experiencing themselves, interiorly, as individuals who are born, live their lives, and one day die, does not in any way undermine the objective reality of the Universal Self that pre-exists and survives us all, and within which every human person lives and moves and has their being.
"My world," "my self," and even "my life" are illusions born of the limitations imposed by our existence in separate physical human bodies. But the "individuality" every human being experiences as "I," "me," "myself," is not what it appears to be. Each of us is, in reality, nothing less than a crossroads where Universal Self and the Universe Itself meet and intermingle in an ecstatic union of mutual discovery.
What I call "me," and what you call "you," are objectively one and the same thing – the most important thing that exists or ever could exist in all of Space, Time, and Eternity.
Universal Self is God, and the Universe itself, in its objective material existence beyond the limitation of our human senses, is God as well.
Where God meets God, where God discovers God, where God unites with God, the result can only be more God.
You are the place where God meets to discover Himself.
You are the meeting, itself.
You are God playfully creating more God.
You are God.
-- The Gospel of Self, Sutra I.
While The Gospel of Selfhad its dry moments, once the metaphors started flying, Ātma pyāra had a real gift for making the human condition sound like a cosmic spiritual orgy – one where God actually wants us to have a good time – penetrating a material realm atremble with desire to be touched and shaped and molded into the fruition of every man’s personal ambitions and pleasures. It solved the contentious "problem of evil" by dismissing the basic premise on which the argument is traditionally based:
"If God is both all good and all powerful, how can there be evil in the world? If God creates or even tolerates evil, then he must not be all good. Or perhaps God is good, but he is unable to stop evil things from happening, in which case he is not all powerful."
The atheist answers that because evil can be seen to exist in the world, God must not exist.
Theologians spin arcane theorems whereby an all good God "allows" evil in the service of a higher good, an argument that amounts to little more than the relabeling of "evil" as "higher good," which does not solve the moral conundrum, and which therefore begs the question.
Religious mystics play the "mystery card" and refuse to pose any answer, offering instead dodges like, "No need to think about that now. We’ll all know the answer someday in heaven."
This only proves philosophers on all sides of the question have no understanding of God.
When human beings use the terms Good and Evil, they are invariably referring, not to any objectively existing property of reality, but to behaviors, "acts" of good or evil, and among those, exclusively acts performed by human beings.
No one labels a lion "evil" for bringing down an antelope, or "good" for feeding the meat to its young. The human concept of morality does not apply to the actions of animals. Whatever the lion does, it is simply being a lion.
In exactly this sense, God is not capable of doing anything other than being God. Good and Evil do not exist in either the objective outside world, or within Universal Self, so these terms simply cannot be applied to God.
And since you are God, they cannot be applied to you, either.
It’s time for Humanity to grow up and get on with being God.
Let’s retire our labels. Good and Evil are obsolete.
YOU ARE WHAT GOD IS DOING! Start acting like it!
-- The Gospel of Self, Sutra I
When The Gospel of Selfwas published in early 1981, Tim Rankin was twelve years old, and his mom was still alive. To his knowledge, she never read the book, though her hippie lifestyle suggested she’d have resonated with its message of the pursuit of personal pleasure as life’s highest virtue. Someone in California mailed the book to her, but she was mostly into marijuana and TV talk shows right then, so it found swift unread passage to the bookshelf, where Tim found it a year later while packing to move in with the Boyles.
And The Gospel of Selfsaved his life. What could have been a life-crushing tragedy, the teenage loss of the only parent a boy has ever known, became, instead, a chrysalis of transformation.
The answers were all right there. Why had his mother died? Because she was driving recklessly. Why would she do that? Because she was high, and she experienced great pleasure from smoking pot. Or maybe she was rushing to make a major drug purchase, what with $40,000 in the car, and all. She would have been very excited about that. Or maybe she’d just made a big drug sale, and was so happy about all that money and the pleasure it could buy her that she lost control of her vehicle. It didn’t matter which scenario was true. No matter how you spun it, Peacedove died in hot pursuit of what she perceived to be her own happiness.
In death, as in life, Mom was being true to her God-self. And that’s the best possible thing she could have been doing. At thirteen, Timothy Lovechild Rankin really thought all of this through, in just these terms, guided to a sense of acceptance and inner piece by daily reading and rereading of The Gospel of Self. He wrote a long and sincere fan letter to Ātma pyāra and mailed it in care of the publisher. He never received a reply, but that was okay. The Guru was just being God. Tim Rankin had plenty of his own divine business to attend to, so he rolled up his metaphorical sleeves and got busy remaking his life.
* * * *
On Independence Day, 2012, when the email from Ātma pyāra at the Paramātmā svaya ashram in India landed in his in-box, the adult Tim Rankin’s first impression was that it must be a joke.
By the time The Gospel of Self was released in 1981, Paramātmā svaya had already closed its doors, and a steady stream of disgruntled rock stars, actors and other vacuous spiritual vultures had descended to publicly rend its remains on the TV news, tearing at the good Swami’s reputation with lurid tales of debauchery, drugs and exploitation on the ashram. Those stories initially boosted book sales, then killed them off when no one could be reached for comment, no titillating photos surfaced, and no caches of guns or fleets of Rolls Royces turned up to keep the public eye riveted. By Christmas, even the Where Are They Now? segments had tired of the story.
So the email, thirty-one years later, struck him on his second impression as almost a paranormal event, rather than a comedic one – like watching the planchette move of its own accord across a Ouija board. Like a ghost springing up out of nowhere and shouting boo.
He did not open the email until he had worked thoroughly through his much more sensible third impression, which was that three decades added to what he knew of Swami Ātma’s age when Paramātmā svaya closed would put him somewhere in his seventies, a perfectly reasonable age for him to still be alive out there somewhere.
He clicked the link.
Hello, Timothy Lovechild Rankin! the message began. It was more of a note, really, just three lines of text:
Thank you for your letter. Sorry it took me so long to reply.
I won’t kid you, Tim, I know you’re a billionaire. That’s why I’m writing to you.
It is time to transform the world. I need your help.
Twenty-eight days later, Maium Hum met the man whose philosophy had saved his life on the tarmac of the Varanasi Airport, near the sacred Ganges River in India. It was time to repay the favor.
His Divine Grace, Swami Ātma pyāra, seventy-four years old and dying of prostate cancer, brought no one but a driver with him to the airport, and refused to waste time on common niceties like getting out of the vehicle to shake Tim Rankin’s hand or introduce himself.
"Put your bags in the trunk – Then get in here!" the Swami growled from the back of his maroon Maruti Alto as the car pulled up on the runway, the tinted back seat passenger side window at half-mast.
Tim Rankin did as he was told. He’d only brought a single carry-on bag, taking seriously the vow he knew was coming, to renounce the world, though he figured even a full time Sadhu needs his own toothbrush and a few changes of underwear. He skipped the trunk and slid in next to the now elderly Ātma pyāra, wedging the bag between himself and the door as he pulled it shut with a click. The driver closed the empty trunk and retook his position behind the wheel.
"Drive!" And the car veered a wild slow figure eight through the assemblage of people still disembarking from the plane, and made its way back onto the main road out of the airport.
"Maium Hum,"Tim said, introducing himself, then, feeling foolish, added, "Tim Rankin."
"I know," the Swami said, a low growl still rumbling around the edges of his words. "I’m sorry, Tim." He waved with both hands over the orange robe that covered his lap and legs, swooshing downward. "Everything from here down hurts like a son of a bitch. It makes me cranky. I’m dying, and that makes me cranky, too. Don’t take it personally."
The billionaire-turned-monk simply nodded and said nothing.
"Good. Now listen."
And just like that, without so much as a How was your trip?, the divinely inspired author of The Gospel of Self laid out the plan by which Tim Rankin and his riches were going to usher in the Age of Aquarius.
* * * *
Chōtā dēvatā, or "Little Godling," whose birth certificate bears the strategically American name Michael Oglesby, was born April 1st, 1981 to Terry and Bethany Oglesby, more popularly known as Ātma pyāra and his woman Starfire. The Swami began the boy’s story stressing that little Cho-cho (which sounded like "Jo-Jo" on his lips) was not his natural child. In fact, no human father had been involved in the child’s conception. His mother had been a celibate nun cloistered in prayer and self-service at the ashram. When the baby simply appeared one day in her virginal womb, one of those signature feats only God and certain starfish can pull off, it was clear that something very special was taking place. A Dēvadūta, or angelic messenger, appeared to Ātma pyāra in a dream to anoint him the baby’s earthly stepfather and provider and protector, and he threw himself unreservedly into the role, sending all the lucrative but distracting hangers-on packing and sealing the ashram like a fortress around the new Holy Family – himself, Starfire, and by April, baby Cho-cho. The Gospel of Self had been written for love of the baby while he was still in the womb. God inspired every word, as a manual for the right instruction of Cho-cho’s unfolding human psyche, and a roadmap to his adult integration with the divine God-nature that had sparked his very existence.
But the new family was shattered just a few months later, when a hemorrhagic fever epidemic sweeping Delhi stretched a skeletal finger all the way south and east to Varanasi. For all their barriers to the outside world, the fever found them, and Starfire took ill. On her deathbed, she begged Ātma to remain forever faithful to her little godling, and to devote his life to preparing the boy to meet his cosmic destiny. Her final living act had been to marry Ātma, granting him both the legal and moral authority to control the child’s upbringing.
Ātma pyāra’s book took Starfire’s place in the Holy Triad, becoming the boy’s mother, his teacher, his school, his brothers and sisters, his closest companion. With millions still in the bank from the heyday of the ashram’s success, the Swami felt no pressure to get back to business, so the next thirty years passed in a beam of razor focus intensity, just him and the boy and the book. The spiritual giant Chōtā dēvatā became under that lens was in every way a fulfillment of The Gospel of Self. He was God, and any man admitted to his presence found his own God-nature awakened and set ablaze. He could answer any question. He could heal with a touch. He had supernatural knowledge of everything happening everywhere at once – and not just what people were doing, but their deepest secret motivations and dreams and aspirations, as well. He was Truth incarnate, and nothing could be hidden from him.
Chōtā dēvatā was exactly what the world needed. A savior. A model. A teacher. A leader without fear or equal in all the world. God’s miraculously begotten son, Ātma pyāra’s stepchild and spiritual protégée, became, in his fullness, God’s gift of enlightenment to the world.
And His Divine Grace, Swami Ātma pyāra was going to die before that gift could be delivered. Within hours of the first cancer cells swimming to sick life in his prostate, Cho-cho had informed his step-father that the end was near. With no trace of emotion, staring off as if reading a headline over the shoulder of a distant stranger, the grown Chōtā dēvatā told him the exact date and hour of his death – Sunday, August 5th, 2:29 AM – and warned him not to bother chasing doctors to ward off the inevitable. No treatment could help. His death was ordained. A throne had been prepared for him in the afterlife, and it was time to ascend.
Ātma pyāra bristled at the pronouncement of such a self-sacrificial fate. It was unnatural and grossly unjust.
"You could cure me."
"I could," Cho-cho answered. "But that is not ordained."
"I’m your father," Ātma said. "I command you to heal me, right now."
"I’m sorry. I love you, I do. But God does not want you cured."
"God wants me dead."
"Not exactly. But that’s how it’s going to play out in the physical realm. I’m sorry."
Silence, then Ātma said, "So what’s next?"
Cho-cho retrieved a folded letter from inside his kurta and handed it to his dying father.
"Timothy Rankin is next," he said.
* * * *
"So that’s where you come in," the Swami finished. The car was just passing through the iron gates of the ashram, which closed with a motorized hum behind the vehicle. "And don’t take that Age of Aquarius crap seriously, Tim. My wife was an astrologer. She talked that way, so I picked up the habit. But what I’m telling you has nothing to do with crystals or channeled beings or any of that New Age bullshit. It’s time to usher in a new objective order on earth. It’s time for you to make that happen."
"You and Cho-cho. I want you to take him to America. The next phase happens there."
"The next phase?"
"I’ll be dead in less than three days. Tim, you have to take the ball from here. Run for the goalpost. God has ordained it. You are God, so you have no choice."
"You said Cho-cho was God."
"What’s the next phase?"
"Cho-cho is thirty-one. He still has a few years before he can run for President in the US. Use that time to buy him a place in one of the Parties, maybe a senate seat. Build his political resume. He’ll need an American birth certificate."
"It’ll be expensive, but it won’t be hard. He’s irresistible. Charisma isn’t even the word for it. You’ll see what I mean when you meet him in a few minutes. Once the world gets a look at him, you won’t have to buy him the White House, Tim. They’ll beg him to take it."
* * * *
All of Tim Rankin’s thoughts over the next half hour, as the car was parked and they made their torturous way, considering the old man’s condition, up a dozen stone steps to the main house, then zigzag down several long hallways as they journeyed toward the meditation hall where Chōtā dēvatā waited to be met, amounted to some version of This is not what I bargained for... He expected to turn a corner into the great room to find Cho-cho on stage, levitating in a full lotus position, beams of light firing from his hands. He cynically envisioned an inverted top hat on the stage beside him, white bunny ears poking tentatively over the brim...
"Maium Hum, welcome," Chōtā dēvatā said, smiling, as their next turn indeed revealed a meditation hall the size of an airline hangar, capable of seating at least two hundred seekers. Cho-cho was alone in the room, standing near the door they entered through. There was nothing pretentious about him. "Tim Rankin. All the way from America. Thank you for coming."
He extended a hand, and Tim took it. In the space of one firm, American handshake, Tim Rankin’s head exploded.
And his next thought was, So this is how it feels to be God…
It was the strangest sensation. In one second he had already expanded beyond the boundaries of the earth and was flying free amongst the stars. Not flying, though. Expanding. Maybe inflating was a better term, the way a balloon gets bigger in every direction at once as it fills with air. But what was pushing him ever outward from some mysterious center was not air, it was God, and the space he was expanding into was also God, as was that unseen center point. None of it made sense, but it was visually stunning, as clusters of stars and whirling pinwheel galaxies and towering pillars of hot glowing gas zoomed closer from their distance only to vanish sacrificially into his ever-growing glory like drops of water chasing oblivion into a sponge…
And just like that, he was once again standing in the vast, echoing chamber of the ashram meditation hall, shaking hands with a strikingly unassuming Chōtā dēvatā.
"I…” There simply were no words.
"Call me Michael," said the God-man, smiling, even bowing a little. He was still holding Tim Rankin’s trembling hand. "Starting today, I answer only to my American name."
They started in Chicago, Tim Rankin’s old stomping grounds, and the beating heart of Illinois politics for anyone with ambitions toward national office. All Tim had to do was introduce the suave and excruciatingly handsome young man around, take him to the right parties, let him shake a few important hands, and, as if in the grips of an irresistible spell, the city’s power brokers wasted no time in granting him favors, opening doors, and making available opportunities others had worked whole lifetimes for a shot at and never got.
The ink was barely dry on the US birth certificate Tim acquired for Michael, when the Illinois governor called a special primary to fill a vacant State Senate seat, and Tim threw Michael’s hat in the ring. One team of clever and well-financed lawyers later, his three challengers were all disqualified on technicalities, and, running unopposed, the nomination was his. Being a Democrat in Chicago, the general election fell into his lap as well, and, with an ease that would have raised eyebrows anywhere but the Windy City, Michael Oglesby, whose feet had been on US soil barely thirty days, was already a rising political star.
And his star kept rising. Less than a year into Michael’s State Senate term, terrorists fired an explosive round into a DC taxi cab carrying US Senator Floyd Bennett and his wife, and within days Michael had been appointed to fill the vacant Federal seat. He won easy reelection the following year, and, in his first full term in the US senate, made a name for himself as an advocate for the poor and a champion of women’s reproductive rights. He created an uproar as the keynote speaker at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, selling his personal vision for the future of America as if he were the nominee, and Jack Marshfield, the party’s actual choice for President that year, was just his yes man.
Four years later, when both President Marshfield and Vice President Stansen were assassinated in separate terrorist bombings within weeks of the 2020 Democratic primary, Michael Oglesby was the only living person with his name on the ballot. No other Democrat had dared run against the popular incumbent. Tim Rankin bought his protégée airtime on every TV in America, and in a speech media outlets ranked in real time alongside Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and King’s I have a Dream speech, Michael cast his spell over a grieving nation, vowing, if made President, to preserve and build upon President Marshfield’s popular social programs, while hawkishly taking the fight to the newly formed Alliance of Islamic States, who were universally blamed for the President’s murder, and who had just announced significant restrictions on oil exports to the US.
Republicans argued that another four years of Marshfield’s Socialist domestic policies plus a major new overseas war would bankrupt the country. Tim Rankin didn’t have to spend a dime getting the GOP candidate, Jim Rush, branded a "camel-hugging coward" – his own party pinned that label on him when their convention approved a platform balancing a "New Isolationism," which even conservative pundits quickly relabeled the "bury our head in Arabian sands"policy, with a call for corporate and capital gains tax cuts, paid for by the gutting of popular cash welfare and Medicaid programs. The New York Post headline read REPUBLICAN CONVENTION DRAFTS SUICIDE PACT, and that was pretty much that. Michael Oglesby’s landslide win in November made history when he became the first US President since George Washington to secure an electoral margin of one hundred percent.
* * * *
The White House secured, Tim Rankin returned, secretly, to Arkady.
The day he first shook Cho-cho’s hand back at the ashram, a process of physical as well as spiritual transformation had begun for him that he knew he would never be able to explain to Jessica. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t or couldn’t understand, though she probably wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. The main difficulty lay in speaking to her at all, the actual physical act of talking. If she was like everybody else he tried to share anything with these days – except, of course, Michael – she would look right through him, perhaps noting a faint shimmer in the light painting the wall behind him, turning her ear when he called out to her as if stretching to decipher the rustle of distant whispering on the wind. It was as if, since the day his consciousness had so effusely expanded at the mere touch of Michael’s hand, his whole body was following, in slow, daily less and less corporeal motion. Every day he felt the molecules of his body expanding like stars across a galaxy, inflating like the universe, the dark spaces between them growing ever more expansive until even he had begun to experience himself more as a thinking, feeling cloud than a human being.
He was becoming a vapor, an antique word for ghost, and it seemed the more vaporous he became, the less the present moment mattered. The past was more solid, more easily clung to, so he allowed a deep, unsatisfied yearning for his mother and for the innocence of a childhood in Arkady cut off too soon to draw him home.
On the night wall of chimney smoke blanketing the town he found the sweet scent of Jessica and little Marion, the boy not so little anymore, and he followed it to them. With a sigh like weeping, he joined the walls of the mansion whose title once bore his name, passing like fog between its molecules of wood and stone and glass, fixing himself around the sleeping woman and the boy like a fortress to protect and love them with whatever life he had left, for however long he might last.
* * * *
Michael Oglesby no longer had need of Tim Rankin or his money. He now had the full faith and credit of the United States government at his disposal, and he used it to remake the world.
Much has been written about the US/Islamic Alliance War of 2021 to 2024, but that conflict’s most interesting and historically significant dimension, and the only one that really matters for this narrative, is that it was, from its very inception, a complex double-cross.
You could say the Muslims started it. That’s certainly how the history books present the case, but then again, history can’t help but enshrine the viewpoint of the victor. It’s true that the dramatic escalation of terrorist events on US soil that began the day Michael Oglesby was sworn in on Inauguration Day, 2021 could be seen as a simple expansion of hostilities initiated by the Muslim world on September 11th, 2001, when terrorist destroyed the World Trade Center in New York. Again, that is certainly how every history textbook in every school everywhere on earth tells the story now.
But there’s also a case to be made that the war was largely about America’s dependence on foreign oil, and it’s willingness to exact previously unimagined scales of carnage in the service of that addiction.
More conspiracy-minded dissenters to the textbook view of history suggest that neither the energy needs of the US and its allies, nor religion – Muslim, Christian or Jewish – were ever anything more than props in the hands of a tiny number of super-rich families connected on a level beyond any nation or system of belief. Seen through this lens, the war was essentially a business transaction whereby the overwhelming force of the US military was used to wrest world petroleum supplies out of Arabic hands in order to pour them into the deep, deep pockets of America’s ultra-rich European sponsors.
But the truth that no one but President Oglesby and the ghost of Tim Rankin have ever understood is that Michael’s decisions concerning the US/IA War were never in the least motivated by the mundane allure of money, or power, or energy, or even religion – at least not in the common early 2020s understanding of that term.
Michael Oglesby was on a mission from God. He was God, and he had been blessed from birth with the divine knowledge that, while individual human beings fear their own physical death and mourn the loss of wives and husbands and sons and daughters and parents, their tears fall in vain service to an illusion. The life or death of one person – or a thousand people, or a million, or even a billion – is as nothing to Universal Self, which pre-exists all their births and is unmoved by their deaths. Like drops of rain falling on the sea, every human at death is simply absorbed back into the cosmic ocean of Self, and only the false belief that something unique ever existed in the first place, or could ever be lost, causes pain among the living. It’s not death that hurts, it’s clinging to the illusion of life as possession rather than process. To finally rip away the Band-Aid of personal ego to reveal Universal Self and set Humanity free would require death on such a massive scale that not a single living human being anywhere on earth could be unaffected by it. The loss had to be collective, universal. If all Humanity could be led into shock and mourning as one, in that radical moment of global, broken-hearted opening, The Gospel of Self could sweep in to dry every tear with Truth, and replace every illusion with an objective vision of material and spiritual reality.
It was a beautiful ambition Michael nurtured secretly in his heart as he laid the real-world groundwork for its realization.
For most of four years, he led the Muslims to believe they could win. He feigned indecision, taking out the occasional Alliance leader with an unmanned drone strike, but failing to put boots on any ground, anywhere. Alliance operatives captured on US soil were tried as criminals in American courts, with implied Constitutional rights. When rumors started that Michael was, himself, a secret Muslim, he leaked turbaned photos from his childhood in India to the Press, then vehemently denounced them as fakes. In secret correspondence with IA Imams, he sent assurances that America had nothing but respect for Muslim culture, had no stomach for war, and wanted only a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
By Independence Day, 2024, more than one million Americans had died in terrorist bombings, nerve gas releases, dirty bomb explosions, and a series of nuclear reactor detonations that killed or sickened people in 17 states. All US nuclear power stations had to be shut down to break the chain of successful bombings, leaving more than sixty million homes in the dark. Congress approved a blank check authorization to wage war on the Alliance. A few small scale strikes were launched, but nothing substantial or effective.
By mid-October, 2024, the outcry of the American people to make it stop had reached exactly the pitch of desperation he had been waiting for. Just two weeks before Election Day, with one stroke of the ceremonial pen, President Michael Oglesby unleashed the full force and fury of the United States military on an Islamic world that had been led, like a kitten to a bowl of milk, to grossly underestimate its adversary.
President Oglesby signed the order authorizing nuclear strikes at Noon sharp, then retired alone to his chambers to enjoy his lunch. By 3:00 PM, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon had been leveled to flat plains of radioactive rubble. Before vanishing beneath a field of mushroom clouds, Iran managed to fire more than half its secret arsenal of short range nuclear missiles toward Israel, and that nation was gone now, as well, along with the Palestinians.
The American attacks galvanized the Islamic world, and soon Turkey, Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan and Indonesia had fallen in behind their Muslim brothers. By dinner, those nations were no more.
Russia, China, India, Great Britain, and Germany, as if by prior arrangement, employed their armies not in battling the Americans, but in rounding up and imprisoning their own Muslim populations, to be dealt with after the radiation had settled and the new global lines of power were distinguishable. The rest of liberal Europe reluctantly followed suit.
Election Day never came. In the wake of America’s bloody vengeance, more than half a billion people were dead across Asia, the Middle East and Africa, with millions more likely to follow in the coming weeks from radiation sickness, starvation, poisoned water, and the collapse of critical infrastructure. President Oglesby first delayed the 2024 US elections until December, then, cancelled them altogether. He declared Martial Law, and simply stayed in office.
On New Year’s Day, 2025, President Michael Oglesby addressed the nation, and the world, in these words:
My Fellow Americans. Citizens of the World.
For too long, the world has suffered in the shadow of a handful of cowardly nations for whom brutal acts of terror against innocent civilians came to define not only their politics, but their religion, as well. Today marks not just the beginning of a New Year, but of a new era in the history of the human race. Those who sought to control us through intimidation, through the imposition of crippling fear and the unpredictable disruption of our lives and security through violence, are dead – by the hundreds of millions, dead. Their scourge has been erased from the earth. We are free.
I know the temptation to do so is strong in the wake of recent events, but we must not allow either our fear or our relief to mislead us into blaming Islam alone for what has occurred.
Experts tell us that terrorism as an ideology is the exclusive domain of no one religion. It is, rather, a strategy that has always been and will continue to be embraced by religious fanatics of all traditions.
Islam is not the enemy. Religion is the enemy. Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism... Name your "ism" – all organized religions bear within them the seeds of fanaticism, because they are all based on irrational assumptions about the world around us – and the world within us. And what is irrational will always and inevitably cause men and women of otherwise sound mind to make unreasonable choices.
We will only be forever free from the shadow of terrorism when we free ourselves once and for all from the psychic plague of irrational beliefs and behaviors – starting with the established world religions and everything connected with them. From this day forward, only reason can be trusted to lead us to peace and prosperity. From this day forward, all the temples built to blind, mad gods of the imagination must be torn down, and in their place erected an eternal monument to the rational mind of Man.
Many of you are familiar with the writings of the Russian turned American philosopher Ayn Rand...
And somehow, he did not bore them. Not a single man listening, anywhere on the earth, felt talked down to or patronized. Not one found his exposition puzzling. Or insulting. Or threatening. An astronaut floating in orbit, watching President Oglesby’s address unfold from space, might have witnessed a smoky, gray fog pouring out of the Oval Office windows, spreading outward to blanket the states, growing thicker and blacker with each expanding word, swelling to engulf all of North and South America, crossing the oceans in both directions at once, consuming Africa, Europe, India, Russia, China, until it met its own incantational tail somewhere over the Pacific, where the seam wrapped around itself and snapped closed like an angry fist, like a great, gloved hand squeezing the whole earth tight in its inexorable grip.
Within weeks, The Gospel of Self was the best-selling book of all time.
If God existed, Marion Francis Rankin would hate the all-powerful son of a bitch for all he was worth. But God did not exist, at least not in the way people thought he did when Marion was a child, before President Oglesby secured Mankind’s freedom from the irrational and the whole world changed. Now people knew better, and there was no capital to be gained from investing emotion, good, bad or indifferent, in an impossibility. The world without God judged men objectively, measuring their worth not according to wealth, or social class, or skin color, or degree of education, but solely by the weight of the choices each man or woman made in life, and the elbow grease each was willing to put behind those choices.
The Gospel of Self offered every man what he needed most – absolute autonomy, and both the natural right and the inalienable responsibility to be his own god and steer his own course through life. Men who stepped up to that challenge and thrived by their own direction and hard work deserved every laurel with which the world crowned them – money, power, property, prestige, all the tangible rewards of material success. To those who backed away from the challenge of their human divinity, giving in to weakness, self-doubt, infirmity or sloth, the godless world meted out equal justice in the form of poverty, illness, addiction, wage slavery. In the absence of any god other than Man himself, the illusion of injustice vanished. When each man bears sole responsibility for the creation of his own life, his circumstances, moment by moment, can never be anything other than exactly what he deserves.
The Gospel of Self taught that the Ideal Man was self-made, self-supporting, self-educated in the sense that he aggressively searches out, grasps and shapes information to serve his own purposes, self-developed, having honed his every natural talent into a capitalizable skill, and cosmically self-realized as a fully conscious node of Universal Self staking claim to the treasure house that was the material world.
Becoming The Gospel’s Ideal Man was Marion Rankin’s life goal, and he had not allowed his privileged birth into a wealthy family to limit his ambition or reduce him to sloth. He had not given in to the seduction of the undemanding life that was his mother’s, a has-been pop star his father had left so wealthy she never had to even think about working, a life that could easily have been his. She would have just handed it to him. As it was, he controlled the mansion and estate, so long as he ensured that Mom, inhabiting her third floor chambers, had every need met, and he stood to inherit everything when her tiny drop of self returned someday to the great cosmic ocean. By the time that day came, he would have proven himself truly worthy of such a vast fortune – as every Ideal Man deserves all of the best things human life has to offer.
But even in his efforts to exemplify the Human Ideal, Marion Rankin walked a unique, some might still say privileged, path that went beyond the mere happenstance of material wealth. He possessed a spiritual inheritance, as well. Unlike other men, he had his own personal daemon, a private spirit-teacher, an invisible guardian angel expert in the ways of Universal Self who marked the path before him as he journeyed toward what only he and the daemon knew was his personal cosmic destiny. His daemon was the ghost of the father he had never known, and the arrival of Tim Rankin’s spectral presence in their home, when Marion was just ten years old, had marked the first of several turning points, for Marion Rankin and for the world.
* * * *
A single word – S O N– was the first indication ten year old Marion received that his father had returned from the grave. Eight years abandoned, the boy had no memory of his father at all, no face to associate with the word dad. He could not have recognized the tremulous voice emanating from every shapeless, gray wall of the dream as his father’s, and yet he did. The dream was rain, and night, and more rain, and nothing but water pouring out of a gray sky in gray sheets that disappeared into the gray ground below. It was the opposite of color, a metaphor of misery that only a child on the verge of exploding into life can feel, waiting and wanting for the adventure to begin...
S O N.
It was barely a whisper, but it came from everywhere and ran all the bones of his body at once like lightning down a flagpole, and he fell to the ground and shook and could not say a word. And the rain poured down. And he could see the sky now, lightning leaping between clouds and waking up the world, and he thought I’m here I’m here I’m here!
And then he was awake, right there in his own bed. And he was crying. And it was raining hard outside, one of those freezing Midwest February rains where every third drop is ice that grows in white mounds on the window sill.
And there was the word.
S O N.
It was written in the condensation on his bedroom window, just as plainly as if he’d crossed the room and painted it with his own finger.
S O N.
"Dad," he whispered into the darkness, and a great peal of thunder rattled the glass of the window and shook loose a hundred clinging drops that ran down and erased what he was sure he had seen there.
S O N.
It had been written on the inside of the window, the letters pointing the right direction to be read without a mirror. His father was letting him know he was inside the house, not outside seeking entry like some vampire.
His mother assured him that his father was not dead, just missing. If he was dead, someone would have contacted her. But pretty soon she was feeling his presence in the house, too, which left her increasingly wistful and tired from dreams that wouldn’t let her sleep. Her sometimes live-in boyfriend, Jeff, stormed out after an impossible slip of the knife in the kitchen left him bleeding and shouting about too many accidents and he was getting out while he still could.
Jessica didn’t stop him. Tim was home.
When Marion was fourteen, half a billion people died, and he was the only kid on earth who knew it was going to happen. Dad told him. His mother stayed in bed for days, staring dark-eyed at the TV, so it was clear she had not received warning. But Marion was ready to put now four years of dream academy training to the test, and for the handful of hours it took the lion’s share of those spirits to be separated from their bodies, he sat cross-legged on his bed, eyes closed in quiet meditation, hoping to glimpse or at least feel the flood of selves like drops of rain pouring in every direction from the material realm and back into their Universal source. He saw and felt nothing, but he imagined in great detail what he thought the deluge might look like once he’d grown spiritual eyes capable of seeing such things, and that’s when the ghost of his father gave him the prophecy.
What he had been learning from his father, night after night as he slept, had a name – The Gospel of Self. President Oglesby was that Gospel’s avatar, and he was in the process, with this war, of saving the world from its own irrationality. Soon, all religion except The Gospel of Self would be outlawed, and in a single generation, forgotten by the whole world. Most of that portion of the prophecy was fulfilled by January.
The next part would take decades to unfold. Unreason would refuse to die. Like a bird with two wings broken, the wounded heart of the old irrationality would tumble out of the sky and crash land in Arkady. Children would find it, nurse it to life, feed it with their naïve’ imaginations. It would tell them a story, a sick inversion of the truth that would poison them to reason, a story that would spread amongst their kind like a contagion. The old madness would use children to re-establish itself in the world.
That was actually the end of the prophecy. Unreason wins. Universal Self is forgotten. Superstition once again rules the world. A new Dark Age begins. Tim Rankin could clearly see that future from his otherworldly vantage point.
But he didn’t like it. From where he existed, hovering somewhere between life and death, he could almost see an option, just the shiny distant glint of a suggestion that the story might end differently if a few key elements could be redirected. If even one or two sharp right turns in the timeline could be forced left instead, unreason might not win the day. The course of the future could be changed. The Gospel of Self’s victory in the present might be secured for all eternity.
It was worth a shot. Together, father and son made a plan.
* * * *
And that’s how Marion Francis Rankin, heir to his mother’s millions and his father’s billions, likely future business mogul, or high-powered lawyer, or political power-broker, found himself, instead, at the ripe middle age of fifty-five, celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary as Principal of the Arkady R1 Combined Elementary and Middle Schools. He – and the seemingly omniscient ghost of his father, plus a US President-for-life, born and raised in a foreign country, who all three were certain was God incarnate – needed access to the children.
Many shall be refined,
purified, and tested,
but the wicked
shall prove wicked;
the wicked shall have
but those with insight shall.
New American Bible
"You know how this works." Vice-Principal Dennis Hale leaned forward and folded his hands together on the desk before him. "If I refer this on to Principal Rankin, he’ll send it to the school board, and they’ll recommend reeducation. They always do."
John Harper sat across from the big desk in a pink plastic chair far too small for his height, elbows on knees, eyes on the floor. The child beside him balanced her tiny weight on a chair of pale turquoise, hair curling down around sharp blue eyes that stared without blinking into Mr. Hale’s face.
"That’s crazy, Dennis. She’s eight years old."
"The age of reason. She’s culpable now. If you can’t redirect her, the State will." Then after a pause, "Listen, we’ve both been down this road. We of all people should know to keep our kids clear of this stuff. Nelly’s got to be corrected, for her own good, and right away. Don’t let things get out of control."
John Harper found himself holding his breath. Nelly pushed her bangs nervously to one side but continued to stare at Principal Hale. She was neither smiling nor frowning. The big white clock ticked.
"I’ll take care of it, Dennis. Don’t worry. This ends today."
"Daddy..." Nelly started.
"Tsh! Tsh!" he hushed her. "Not a word."
The girl hung her head at last.
"Take her home, John," the Vice-Principal said. "Make her understand what could happen to her, to your family."
Both men ignored her.
"This ends today," John Harper repeated, as much a command to his daughter as reassurance to Mr. Hale.
Now that Nelly was in tears, Dennis Hale felt finally free to relax and lean back into the chair.
"I’m with you on this," he said. "Yanking eight year olds is crazy. Rankin gets crazier every year..."
He flashed a big, artificial smile at Nelly, then looked back to John.
"You didn’t hear that from me, but feel free to spread it around. I’m not the only one who thinks he’s lost it a little. He’s got to retire soon, Harper, then I’ll be in charge. When I’m the boss, thing will change, you can count on it. No more Mr. Vice-Guy..."
He sounded serious, so John did not laugh.
"You’ll make a great Principal, Dennis," he said, then, "Thank you, really. I appreciate your bending the rules for an old friend. Consider Nelly cured."
"Awesome. Thank you, John."
The grown man and the little girl walked side by side in silence to the car.
* * * *
Nelly’s tears dried up as soon as the engine growled to life and the car was in motion. Now she was definitely frowning.
"He’s a liar," she said as if that explained everything.
"Were you telling the story to first graders?"
"Then Mr. Hale is not a liar. That’s what he said you were doing. And you know it’s against the rules."
"He’s a liar because he says the story isn’t true. But it is true."
"You can’t tell the story at school, or anywhere else for that matter. You can’t tell other kids it’s true, or even that you think it’s true. They’ll lock you up. You are eight years old. You can’t in a million years understand the trouble you could be in, or what could happen to me or your mother if you keep this up. Come on…"
"You know the story’s true, Daddy."
"And you used to know not to talk about it in public. If Mr. Rankin had overheard you instead of Mr. Hale, you’d be locked up right now. You’d be a grownup before I saw you again. Holy crap, Nelly..."
When he turned to face the girl, she was staring at him defiantly, her little teeth clenched.
"If anything in this town is truly evil, Nell, it’s the Special School," he said, trying for stern but coming off pleading, "and I will not let them send you there. But please! Just stop it with the story. Keep it up and they’ll take us all away, and that’s the truth."
The girl was facing forward now, staring out the windshield, arms still crossed.
"You love your mother, right?" John Harper said, his tone softening. "You love me?"
Nelly nodded. The tears were back.
"And we love you, baby. More than anything. Let that be enough, okay? There’s nothing worth trading for that."
"I know," Nelly whispered, so low he almost didn’t hear her. Or had she said No?
A Dairy Queen appeared just ahead, at the next light.
"We need ice cream," he said. "Like, now."
"Yeah," Nelly said beside him, unsuccessfully fighting back the beginnings of a smile. "Like, now."
* * * *
As was his way, Neil Coleman stood perfectly still and silent beside the school’s green metal trash dumpster, watching as the child and her father climbed into their vehicle and sped off the parking lot. For a long moment after they were gone, he studied the strange sensation of electricity that danced up and down both of his forearms, making the hairs stand on end. He smoothed them down with two quick swipes, hefted the giant trashcan, wheels and all, over his head, and emptied its contents into the dumpster with a long rustle of mostly dirt and paper. He pushed the trashcan back toward the school, plastic wheels rumbling hollowly before him over the blacktop.
From the window of her Kindergarten classroom, Christy Rankin watched Neil Coleman watching Nelly and John Harper drive away from the school. He was a strange man, that Coleman. The way he watched people and never talked as he made his janitorial rounds of the building gave her the creeps. He was the only staffer in the whole school who didn’t attend church, and she had done her research on that one. Paul Rankin – Principal Rankin’s son, and her husband – took a special interest in the unchurched. And since her husband’s sole compensation as youth minister at the Fellowship of Self Church was a percentage of the Sunday collection plate, she had her own special interest in making sure every pew was filled to capacity, each and every Sunday. Coleman’s silent rebuff of her friendly invitation to join the congregation had at first unnerved her, then painted a bright red target on his back in her mind. There was something creepy about him, alright, something elusive she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but just give her time. She’d ferret out the truth. She always did. Then he’d be sorry.
* * * *
That night, after Nelly had been tucked away safely into bed, and John and Anne Harper moved their hands and spoke about her in whispers in the living room, the TV blaring and blurring their words, Nelly dreamed, once again, of the woman.
In the dream, Nelly was, herself, a grown woman, who lived with her mother and father in a great Victorian castle of a house, with sky blue walls and a widow’s walk facing the sea. The front yard was a rose garden, in bloom even though it was nighttime, wound with snaking paths, and closed in all around with a white picket fence.
From her rooftop perch she at first thought the woman standing motionless just outside the gate was a beggar whose clothing reflected the moonlight, but then she realized there was no moon; only the stars and their reflection on the sea illuminated the night. The woman was her own soft moon, glowing inexplicably in the darkness just beyond the gate. When those slender, white arms rose to beckon the girl, Nelly knew she had an appointment to keep.
She slipped back into her room, out into the hallway, down spiraling stairs to the great front door, then out onto the porch. The scent of roses almost overwhelmed her, the night air was so fragrant and lovely. But she kept on, and when she reached the gate and opened it for the glowing woman, the woman turned instead and began to float away from the sea, toward the woods behind the house.
Nelly followed and saw ahead the beginnings of a path. The forest canopy was a blanket that held back the stars, and beyond the path’s entrance was the darkest dark Nelly could imagine. Her legs began to tremble and her breath became short as the woman slipped onto the path and the darkness swallowed her whole. Nelly gave a little gasp and, gathering her courage, leapt after her into the void.
And up ahead, the glow again. The woman stood in a clearing lighted only by her own gentle radiance. Nelly ran to her side.
Dig, came the wordless command, though Nelly understood plainly in her mind.
Nelly looked at her own soft, white hands, then down toward the black ground invisible at their feet.
Dig, the order came again, more urgent this time.
"Let me wake my father. He’ll bring a shovel…"
The woman began to fade and disappear.
Nelly screamed, "Wait!"
She dropped to her knees and began digging furiously. Great mounds of black earth came up in her hands, and a hole began to grow before her. She looked up and the woman was gone. Nelly could feel the teeth of wicked beasts closing in around her, and she dug and dug, tears muddying the dirt in her hands.
Inside the hole, the same strange light that had shone from the woman. Nelly tore furiously through layer upon layer of earth until she found her hands cupped around a softly glowing teardrop. She brushed it clean of dirt and the teardrop burst in her hands. Water that was also somehow light exploded like a geyser into the sky. The stars appeared, visible through the canopy of interwoven branches over her head, and the forest became just a forest again around her. There were no teeth or beasts.
Nelly stood and pressed both hands deep into the pulsing geyser and the dirt beneath her fingernails sparked and vanished up into the sky. The glow traveled up her arms and spread over her body and she laughed and twirled like a dancer in the radiant rain of light, happier than she’d ever imagined possible.
Neil Coleman’s father drank himself to death two years after Neil was taken for reeducation. The boy wouldn’t find out till he graduated six years later, as nobody ever saw or heard from their families while locked away in the Special School. Parents weren’t allowed to reach in, and the School only reached out when a kid got into trouble.
And Neil Coleman was no trouble-maker. He loved the Special School for rescuing him from the old man’s meanness, and he wouldn’t have dreamed of risking that security by making waves. Three hot meals and a shot of hard labor every day was a good time in his book. The School’s daily lessons were never easy, but they were always fair. Everybody got one. And if you applied yourself, they were always doable. You hit the bed exhausted and woke up stronger the next day. People paid good money for that kind of workout at a gym. Sure, School staff lied constantly and tried to get inside your head all the time, but they were amateurs compared to his dad.
In eight years a child growing up in the Special School, the man Neil Coleman became was born at the crossroads of three vital skills learned in captivity:
The first was a deep understanding of the value of keeping his mouth shut. Only words that must be spoken ever should be. One word more was just being careless, and carelessness always led to trouble.
Skill two was patience. When you’re ten years old and you can see full well that you ain’t going nowhere for years and years to come, you either go crazy, get sad (the path most kids took), or you set your mind to ride it out and got busy with the business of waiting.
Skill three was a real professional skill that would earn him a living after graduating at eighteen to find the old man dead and himself all alone in the world – the Special School taught him how to fix cars. The School was, after all, a real school, complete with grade three through twelve academic classes, and on the high school level, wood, machine and auto shop. There was a campus fleet of vans and buses to maintain, and everybody from the teachers to the janitors drove cars that needed tune ups, oil changes, new starters and transmissions, and from fourteen to eighteen, he made the auto shop his home. With his back pressed to a creeper and two tons of steel in his face, conversation was a non-issue – just the way he liked it.
So when his eighteenth birthday arrived and the bus brought him to the courthouse, there was nobody there to meet him. The judge was professionally sorry to break the news about his dad, and shrugged off Neil’s response of a quick nod and total silence. He agreed with the boy – there was nothing to say. He had Neil sign his paperwork, and handed him a fat envelope filled with deeds to his dad’s house, the salvage yard, and about a hundred long ago crushed or parted out vehicles.
Well, at least he wasn’t homeless. But he sure as hell wasn’t following his dad’s footsteps into the family business. He invested his first week home tuning up an old tractor and a Bobcat that hadn’t been started in more than half a decade, and using them to move every piece of scrap piled up in the front of the house to the salvage yard, where he locked it all away behind the rolling chain link gate. He propped the shiny black hood of a 2030 Olds on its edge in the front yard, and painted Coleman Auto Repair across it in bright orange letters. As mean as his dad had been at home, he had a lot of friends in town who remembered him, and his boy, fondly. In no time, Neil had all the business he could handle.
So, it’s a very good question why a man with no mortgage and a thriving business would take a part time job as a school janitor? The answer is no stranger than why the son of a billionaire would become school Principal.
Marion Rankin didn’t know it, but he was not the only man in Arkady with invisible friends. Nor was he the only person in town who understood his life to be unfolding in service to a prophecy.
* * * *
"John Harper? That pussy?"
Neil Coleman and Billy Conner met when they were only nine and ten, respectively. Billy was the fourth grader that night at Hobo Camp. Now Billy worked for Neil.
"Not him. His kid." Neil twisted the caps off two beers and handed one over.
"He nailed Anne Gold, that’s right," Billy said, easing back into his lawn chair. "Lucky bastard."
"They’re married now. Practically the day they graduated."
"She cant be the one. The kid. She’s a girl."
"So what? The woman’s vibe is all over her."
"The prophecy says the Good returns as the woman’s son. Boy child."
"The prophecy says the Good is the woman’s son, and that he returns. Doesn’t say how. He could ride in on a fiery cloud for all we know." He took a long swig of beer and rested the bottle on the cooler lid beside him. "I’m just saying. Nelly’s part of this. And if I can feel it, you can bet Rankin does, too."
* * * *
In the stillness of exactly 3:00 AM, three women in three beds in three different homes sat up, startled awake by three dreams that might as well have been one and the same dream. Each dreamed they could not move, pressed to a window, encased in ice, a tower of glass, looking on, powerless, as the man each woman loved suffered fire.
Christy Rankin saw Paul sitting alone in his Toyota coup, as a vast yellow fireball engulfed the vehicle. She pressed her face to the windshield, willing him to escape, but a writhing black serpent had him pinned to the seat. Paul pulled at the snake’s head, bloodying his hands, but its teeth held fast. Flames found the gas tank and the vehicle exploded...
Jessica Rankin’s home was burning, and Tim somehow with it. An invisible breath out of the darkness blew and blew and the ceiling timbers crackled overhead. Ice held her lifeless, but flames that were also somehow Tim now licked up around the bed, working frantically to free her toes, her stomach, her arms, her breasts… But her face was still frozen when the ceiling came down...
Trapped in glass, Anne Harper screamed silence at John kneeling before her, holding his head as twin fires, one to his left and one to his right, raged beyond all possibility of control. Whichever he ran toward, he would lose his life but save another’s. He couldn’t choose both – but choose he must or set the whole world blazing...
* * * *
Eight year old Nelly was wide awake, too. She’d been dreaming of the woman, like she did most nights, and she awakened to the sound of rustling leaves. There was a glow at the foot of the bed, and there stood the woman, looking down silently beyond the footboard. Nelly assumed she was still asleep and dreaming and smiled.
"Hi," she said.
"The end is beginning."
The woman lit the dark bedroom like cool moonlight on water. Yet waves of heat rippled over the bed. Nelly sat up and pushed her hair out of her eyes.
"Are you really here?" she asked. "Can I touch you?"
"Put your shoes on, Nelly," the woman said. "Get ready to run. Always be ready to run."
Nelly jumped out of bed to do as she was told, but the woman was gone.
* * * *
"Close the door."
Dennis Hale stepped reluctantly into Principal Rankin’s office. Christy Rankin, the Principal’s daughter-in-law and all-around pain in the ass, was already seated across from the large desk. He took the empty chair next to her.
"Nelly Harper," the principal said. "The whole story."
I hate you washed quickly over Dennis Hale’s already ghost-white features, but it was intended for the Kindergarten teacher and he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction, so he snapped the look back without turning his head.
"There’s nothing to tell."
"I understand you had a twenty minute closed door meeting with her father yesterday. You sent the child home early."
With monumental effort, he did not turn to stare down the woman beside him. He cleared his throat.
"Nelly said shit. That’s all. We always call the parents with that sort of thing. I sent her home because she was crying. The day was almost over anyway."
"Why wasn’t I informed?"
You’re always informed, you son of a...
But he didn’t speak the words. Instead, he said, "I didn’t think it merited your attention."
"You didn’t think."
"It was a very minor incident, sir. Kids say things."
"That they do. And all Nelly said was shit?"
"I’m sure there was a larger context. But that’s what got my attention."
"Maybe we should interview the other children involved?"
Father-in-law and daughter-in-law exchanged glances.
You already know. You’re playing games.
"If you think that’s necessary. Do you want me to call the parents?’
A long pause.
"No, Dennis. I’m sure you handled everything according to policy. You can go now.”
"Man is the glory of Self," Pastor Roger chanted from the pulpit. It was Sunday morning.
"And Self is the glory of Man," the congregation responded.
"From Universal Self we are born."
"To Universal Self we return."
"All hail Universal Self!"
"And Glory be to Man."
As the all-electric, five man Fellowship of Self Church band launched into the driving rhythm of the opening hymn, the overhead lights dimmed and heavy curtains crept slowly open to reveal the altar stage. Black light from hidden spotlights flickered upward, setting moonglow fire to a thousand backdrop stars, before which towered the floor to ceiling effigy of Universal Self. Neither man nor woman, but suggesting both, the massive ebony form stood smooth and naked, its muscled curves and soft contours reflecting to those assembled an impossible perfection of body, mind and spirit all were invited to reach, and reach, and ever more strenuously reach to attain...
"A mighty fortress is the Self,
Our model never fai-a-a-ling!
Our selves our help amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
does seek to work us woe.
Unreason’s pow’r is great,
And armed with cru-el hate!
But self-love is our wea-a-a-pon!"
The congregation clapped and cheered and stomped their feet as the band crescendoed to a crashing conclusion and a hot white spotlight circled down from the balcony to find Pastor Roger, red faced, wiping sweat from his brow with a carefully folded handkerchief.
"Aaawll Haaaiil Universal Self!" the Pastor roared.
"And Glory be to Man!" the crowd roared back.
And from the rear of the church a chant started up:
Self!... Self!... Self!... Self!... Self!... Self!...
Pastor Roger raised both hands high and the chant grew louder.
SELF!... SELF!... SELF!... SELF!...
Then like an orchestra conductor, with a twirling finger-snip of the air he cut them off.
"Who gathered in this tabernacle today wants to win?"
"I do!"the crowd thundered as one.
"Who wants to succeed?"
"I do!"came the chorus.
"Who wants to make a-walll their dr-eeeams come true!’
"I do! I do! I do! I do!"
"And who, I ask – who, who and only who can make that happen?"
And the chant rose again, "SELF!... SELF!... SELF!... SELF!..."
"That’s right, friends. Only we can make winners of ourselves. Only we can lay claim to what is rightfully ours. There is no finer emblem of faith in action than a man who has scaled the highest mountain on his own, who has left every miserable, crawling parasite of a failed, fallen neighbor in the dust, the God-man who has planted the flag of Self on the mountaintop of victory!"
"Victory! Victory! Victory! Victory!"
"And who, I ask – who can stop the Victorious Ideal Man?"
"No one!... No one!... No one!..."
"But guard yourselves, friends. Unreason will try! That old devil religion still lurks in every shadow, just waiting for its chance to steal your mind, to sap your will, to shatter your spirit with its lies lies lies so great as to deceive, if that were possible, even the elect! Follow me, religion seduces. You’re not good enough, it cries! You’re not strong enough, it shouts! You can’t save yourself, it preaches…"
A dramatic pause.
"And what do we say to that?"
"LIES!... LIES!... LIES!... LIES!... No more sinners! Only winners! No more sinners! Only winners! No more sinners! Only winners!..."
He let the chant go on until the packed house of worshippers frothed visibly around the edges like a pot about to boil.
"Hallelujah! That’s right, only winners, Amen? Can I get an Amen?"
He waved the crowd quiet. Then gently, wooing, his voice taking on the barest hint of reserved tears, "Are you a winner today, my friend? Have you claimed the prize of self? For yourself?"
Now roaring again:
"Ideal Men! Self-made men! Come forward and testify! Approach the altar of Universal Self and share your story! Inspire us! Show us all your gu-lo-ry!"
A great cheer filled the sanctuary. Several men leapt to their feet and began working their way toward the altar, bobbing and weaving like excited game show contestants.
"Now, who’ll go first...?"
And it went on like that for what seemed like the whole of the morning. Neil Coleman had not attended a Secular Mass since the Special School’s front gate closed behind him on his eighteenth birthday, but he remembered how dumb they were, and how endlessly they seemed to drone on. This particular Mass was dumber than anything he could remember, though, with a lowbrow, Gospel thumping enthusiasm the ultra-controlling Special School would never have tolerated.
He sat in the last row of the packed church, ready at a moment’s notice to make a run for it. Four rows ahead sat John and Anne Harper, with Nelly between them. The congregation was very clearly divided between a majority who sang and cheered and shouted Amen!, and a handful whose posture announced they were present out of obligation only, and ten minutes in he had no question the Harpers were in the latter group. He’d heard that John went all Self in his last months at the School, but it sure didn’t look that way, watching him squirm in the pew. Of course, they’d also said Anne killed herself, yet there she sat. And Nelly between them, even in this vile setting radiating the woman so brightly he half expected the altar idol itself to stride down into the crowd and devour her. He smoothed hairs standing at attention on his forearms and the back of his neck.
When the service was finally drawing to a close, Youth Pastor Paul Rankin climbed energetically to the podium, waiving a friendly hand at the crowd that was already up and milling toward the center aisle.
"Hold on! Hold on!" he announced. "One more thing. A new season of Fellowship Youth starts tonight, and I want every child in this congregation between the ages of eight and seventeen right back in this building at 7:00 sharp. No excuses."
John Harper looked at Anne, who looked at Nelly, who was still seated in the pew shaking her head back and forth – No way...
As the crowd filed out of the church, all paid their toll to the parking lot smiling and shaking hands with Pastor Roger, and Paul Rankin beside him. Christy Rankin beamed and smiled and hugged and batted long eyelashes alongside her husband as the procession passed by.
"I’m so glad to see you!" she effervesced, reaching through the crowd of pressed bodies to grasp the cuff of Neil Coleman’s jacket and pull him uncomfortably close. Their faces were almost touching. She shook his hand up and down. "I knew you’d give in eventually. I just know we can change your life, Mr. Coleman! You simply must join our adult Gospel study group every Wednesday evening at 6:30. I won’t take no for an answer!’ And her eyelashes fluttered like twin butterflies straining to escape a spider’s web.
"Uhn…" was the only sound Neil Coleman could make as he pulled free of the Kindergarten teacher’s grip. He spotted John Harper through the big open door, already crossing the parking lot, and he lunged ahead through the crowd and fought his way out into the late morning sunlight.
John Harper turned. Anne and Nelly were already in the car.
"Yeah, it’s been like forever. We need to talk."
"Not here. My place. Tonight. Bring the girls."
"How’ve you been, Neil?"
Neil Coleman shook his head. "Tonight."
He reached out quickly and shook John’s hand – and in doing so, made a secret sign, thumping three times with his thumb, that John had not experienced since the fourth grade. Even at the Special School, Gooders were afraid to give the sign, for fear of discovery. Or reprisal.
"Wow, really?" he said, giving the sign back, then pulled his hand quickly away. "Listen, Neil..."
"Tonight," Neil Coleman said. "You, Anne and Nelly. We need to talk."
He turned and vanished across the parking lot.
John Harper almost didn’t pull into the long driveway leading to Coleman Auto Repair. He had expected a solitary, secret meeting, but the driveway was lined with cars, at least five he could see from the main road. The wind carried voices and the smell of charcoal smoke. Children squealed at play. He counted nine parked cars by the time he reached the end of the curving driveway. At least a dozen adults sat or stood around two large picnic tables in the front yard, while children of all ages played Frisbee and chase games or pushed scraps of food to Neil’s dogs through the diamonds of the chain link salvage yard fence. Neil himself manned the grill, standing next to a table sporting two open coolers. He smiled up as the Harper’s joined the party.
"Beer and pop there," he said, indicating the coolers, "Brats and Burgers over here. Help yourselves. I think you know everybody here."
And they did. Well, some of the children were a mystery, but every one of the adults was a comrade from the Special School, not seen up close in many years. As they mingled and rekindled and touched base after base, déjà vu scraped a slow, dry spark the length of John Harper’s spine, till it poked through his brain and, as a lit match illumines darkness, he knew. Through the eyes of the child he’d been at nine, he suddenly saw each and every adult present shrunk down into their third or fourth grade bodies, their rejuveniled faces. This was so much more than a Special School reunion. It was Hobo Camp reborn. Every man and woman gathered in this place had been a child there that night, nearly two decades past. Lots of faces were missing, but not one was new.
He cornered Neil. "This is dangerous."
"This is necessary," Neil said. "Who can we trust but each other? You’re new here, but we’ve been doing this for years. We are the Remnant."
John frowned. "Like in the prophecy." As if from rote: "The Remnant that waits for the Good and prepares for his return."
"That’s us," Neil said brightly. He took a swig of beer. "And you, too, now. You and Anne. And Nelly."
"The Remnant are all children. They have to be. The woman only appears to children."
"We have that covered."
It was only as the words were spoken that John realized he no longer heard the sound of youthful play going on around him. The sun had mostly set. He turned a slow circle on the driveway. Not a child was anywhere to be seen. Or heard.
"Inside. With Anne. Come on."
Neil turned up the walk toward the front door. John followed.
As strange as it was, the state of Neil Coleman’s living room did not surprise John Harper. It was a cross between a bachelorized living space Neil had made little effort to clean, even knowing he’d have guests, a spillover storeroom for his auto shop, and – the strange part – a NASA mission control room. There was a couch on top of which rested folded clothing and a pile of clean socks, an overstuffed recliner that clearly doubled as a feline scratching post, a large hassock, and a stack of white plastic folding chairs that were being handed out and unfolded as they entered. Car parts and stray electronics littered every horizontal surface. Centered on the wall furthest from the door was an enormous television screen phalanxed by six smaller monitors on shelves, three on each side. The low table on the end of the couch closest to the TV wall held a long box with blinking lights and switches and dials that might have been rescued from the set of a drive-in SciFi movie. The room would have had an eerie quality to it, all on its own, but a dozen people laughing and talking and lining up chairs transformed it into a cozy indoor theater, full of life.
Neil Coleman positioned himself on the couch next to the control board. John set up chairs for Anne and Nelly, then squeezed himself in next to Neil on the couch.
"You’re going to explain all this, right?"
Neil Coleman tapped a button on the box and the screens came to life. The six side monitors lit up with disparate surveillance camera views of the junkyard inside the tall fence, and on each screen one or more children could be seen snaking along paths leading through the squashed cars and piles of scrap, then disappearing at various points into, or behind, or beneath different stacks. The giant central TV at first showed only an empty, low-lit, rectangular room, but the room gradually filled as the children vanishing from the side monitors appeared there, sliding into view from many directions at once. Somebody killed the living room lights and the big screen seemed to brighten and command all their eyes.
"That," Neil explained to John, "is the living room of a double-wide trailer my dad buried in the center of his salvage yard. It’s above ground, but completely hidden, even from flyovers. There are six paths through the scrap that lead to secret entrances."
"Why would he do that?"
"I have no idea. He started after I went for re-ed, and died before he could finish. Maybe he planned to grow pot, I don’t know. It wasn’t wired when I found it, though. I added the lights and cameras."
"And the kids are in there because...?"
"It’s the new moon. They leveled Hobo Camp a long time ago. The woman needs a stage."
On the big screen, a sudden flare of light, and the children dropping as one to their knees. John had not seen the woman with his own eyes in two decades, but he sure recognized her now, standing there in the hidden room, less than a hundred yards from where he sat. She looked exactly as he remembered.
Nelly jumped to her feet. "It’s her! It’s her! It’s her!" She clapped her hands and stood trembling with need to be in that room, with those children. "Please, Daddy, please!"
John shook his head No– but Anne was already in motion, standing up and sweeping Nelly into the arms of two mothers who had stepped forward to guide her. "Go," she whispered as tears came. Her look to John said let her go... and Nelly was whisked from the room...
...to reappear several long minutes later on TV. In the time it took her to reach the hidden trailer, no one had moved, or even seemed to have taken a breath – not the woman, not the children in on their knees in ecstasy before her, not the parents looking on through their closed circuit lens. Time had frozen, and now Nelly’s appearance birthed a collective inhalation.
On the great, glowing screen, the circle of children parted to allow Nelly’s entrance. The girl moved to the center, facing the woman. The circle closed around them.
Neil Coleman stood and stepped right up to the big screen, almost touching it. That didn’t help, so he returned to the control panel and double-tapped a switch. The trailer-cam swiveled, and now he could see over the heads of the children into the circle’s center. Nelly and the woman were not merely facing one another. They were superimposed, inhabiting the same space, blending one into the other right before his eyes...
And John Harper’s eyes, too. John was standing now, pressed close to the near life-size screen.
And then the woman was gone. Nelly stood alone at the center of the circle of children, phosphorescent rain spinning a storm all around her, then gathering over her small head to form, for a moment so brief none were certain they’d seen it, a winged heart before jetting out through the ceiling and away into the night.
Sorry, it would all fit on one page!