Happy Birthday, Scott!!!
My darling Julianna, this is not a confession. Before we go
any further, that point needs to be absolutely clear. Of course it happened,
and I am prepared to tell you, from my perspective, why it happened. But I am
not here to justify anything. I don’t think I can. I will tell you everything,
and let you decide.
This morning—or yesterday morning, I don’t know what time
it is—I was finishing my morning shave when the water started backing up in the
sink. I reached through the soapy, stubble-filled water until my fingertips
reached a mass of...something inside
the drain. I fished around with an old toothbrush until I could get hold of it.
The water gurgled on its way down as I hauled up a sopping, tangled mass of
Brittany walked past at that moment, schoolbag and purse
slung over opposite shoulders like bandoleers. She caught sight of what I was
holding at the end of the toothbrush.
“Gross,” I agreed, “and yours.”
She shook her head and wrinkled her nose. The way parts of
her face creased made her look exactly like you, Julianna. Her cheeks are trim
and narrow like yours, her lips thin and spread easily into a smile like yours.
Children are such a mystery, aren’t they? They’re a perfect blend of the
parents, but there’s also someone else in there. For example, even though both
your eyes and hers are the same hazel color, her shape looks rounder, more open
to the world. Maybe it’s the way she does her makeup.
“Dad?” she asked.
“I said, have you
heard from Mom?”
I had my answer ready. “The point of a spiritual retreat is
to get away from the world. We’re not supposed to be in contact.”
Brittany processed this for a couple moments longer than
she should have. My mouth ran dry, but I held my gaze. If she was going to read
the lie in my face, it would’ve happened already.
“Can I still go to Darla’s party tonight? Mom said I
could.” I relaxed. Her pause had just been about switching gears.
“Yes,” I answered, “but curfew still stands.”
“Right,” she smiled. “Midnight.”
My turn to smile. Brittany was expecting me to be
distracted by your absence, or perhaps she’d fantasized that we’d switched
places and now I was the permissive parent.
“Eleven o’clock,” I repeated, “period, finish, the end.”
Something sparked in her expression, and I think part of me
was hoping she’d resist. But it ended up being only a flash, with no sound or
fury. And that also made me happy.
“Eleven o’clock,” she muttered, and then tromped down the
stairs, out the door, and off to school.
I just stood there a while longer. I didn’t have any
specific reason not to extend curfew an hour later than normal. I think I was
still unsettled about us, Julianna, and couldn’t help seeing Brittany as so
terribly vulnerable. Although she had been taught correctly, she was still
young—lacking my spiritual defenses, or the ones I thought you had.
A sharp sting on my finger broke my woolgathering. A few
hair strands from the end of the toothbrush had fallen across my skin and were
pricking me. Thinking maybe I’d pulled up a bug from the drain, I headed for
the wastebasket and threw the whole mess away. Yet, even after I dropped the
toothbrush, I could still see long, dark hairs intertwined between my fingers.
It may have been an initial reaction of disgust, but my hand filled with the
sensation of pins-and-needles under my skin.
The more I tried to shake them off, the more the hairs
entangled themselves. I ripped off almost a foot of toilet paper and wiped my hand
over and over, finally tossing the wad into the toilet. Again, my revulsion may
have triggered some kind of momentary illusion, but just as I flushed, I
thought I saw some of the hairs moving in the water even before they swirled
together and vanished down the bowl.
A fog passed through my head, and I half-wondered if I
weren’t experiencing one of those highly realistic dreams. But I knew that I
was awake, and the prickling in my hand was absolutely real, although it faded
quickly enough for me to doubt what had just happened.
Julianna, you know how clearly my mind works, and yet here
was another in a string of examples of my mind wandering—not just my mind, but
my heart and soul as well.
I decided that day to walk to church. The sun was alone in
the sky, bringing the spring temperatures up several degrees above normal for
this time of year. It was glorious. The walk took much less time than I’d
expected. As a minister in a small town, a simple stroll usually includes
stopping for two or three conversations along the way. Today, though, people
seemed content with a wave and a “Good morning!” extended in passing. As if
they think I can see inside of them, very few stop for idle chitchat. If they
talk to me, it’s because they want me to sense whatever is stirring within
them. They know I carry the Light in this town.
Once arrived, I headed straight to my office just off the
hallway from the fellowship hall. As soon as I entered, I banged my knee on a
chair before I could turn on the light switch. After nearly a week, I still
wasn’t used to the new layout. Last Monday a few boys from the confirmation
class met after school to help repaint and move the furniture around because I
couldn’t very well switch out of the room (the first thing I’d wanted to do).
It needed to be renewed at the very least. Since I couldn’t wash the stench
from its walls, the next best thing was to obscure it.
No messages were on the voice-mail and nothing but junk had
come via postal delivery. The most pressing business on my desk was a final
review of Sunday’s service bulletin—a draft of which my secretary, Meredith,
had left for me. A retired 3rd grade teacher now well into her 80’s, my
predecessor had nicknamed her “Sarge” for the military precision with which she
goes about her work. I wished I’d had some of that focus. The bulletin looked
fine, but my attention kept slipping over to the opposite corner where the desk
used to be. Now the spot had become a small sitting area around the bay window—a
settee, a chair for me, and a coffee table. That’s when it struck me. The
settee had to be replaced, even if it meant buying it myself. It was too easy
to imagine her sitting there…in the
Stephanie Zumbro is an unhappy woman. One of my occasional
parishioners, attending services whenever she’s back to staying with her
parents between living with boyfriends. Her visit last Friday was prompted by
another turn of the cycle. Boyfriend number three within the last four years
had given her a deadline for moving out, and she felt she was at a dead end. My
intention was to give her, through the Light of my Lord, a righteous foundation
on which to stand and a beacon of faith to lead her onward.
She came to our appointment dressed in what she thought
would be appropriate attire, and that was part of her problem. Her cream-white
blouse had a plunging vee-neck, like an arrow directing eyes to where the
fabric intimately hugged her chest. Her skirt was even tighter and barely
reached mid-thigh. She wore open-toed shoes, presumably to display the nails of
her fingers and feet brushed with the same shade of rose as her lipstick.
I sat with her on the opposite end of the settee and
listened. But soon I began to sense something else happening in the back of my
mind. I felt...warm, like easing into a soothing bath. Although I know
differently now, Julianna, in the moment I imagined that my Lord was preparing
me to serve as a vessel, and so I welcomed this new undercurrent.
Stephanie gestured constantly while she talked, regularly
drawing my gaze to her hands dancing in front of her clearly-defined breasts.
Warmth emanated from her as well, pooling with mine. Despite our respectable
distance, I felt a strong invitation to take her body beneath mine, the two of
us melting together...
I snapped my attention to her face, watching her mouth form
words that meant nothing to me. Whatever she was saying barely penetrated the
roaring blaze inside my head. I leaned closer, as if I were being pulled in.
Again, I had the sense that I could already tell what it would be like to taste
her lips, her tongue, and her—
I wrenched myself out of my seat and forced myself across
the room. I could barely make it halfway. This was not my Lord holding me up in
grace. A darkly powerful force had hooked me. Was it this girl herself, with an
evil design behind her normal appearance? Clearly there was nothing innocent
about her or her expressions of concern over my abrupt actions.
I burbled an excuse about being suddenly nauseated and
exited for the bathroom. I hoped, despite her being rather dense, that she
would figure out that she needed to leave. I went into a stall and sat, holding
my feverish head. This was not my first encounter with a harlot, yet I felt
nearly overwhelmed. Temptation had infected me. I was experiencing an illness
of spirit. But how? Not by Stephanie. Although obviously a repository of sin, she
was not the source. Then who? And how
and when had this been done to me?
My Lord was silent on this matter, and I understood that
this was a test of my virtue and fidelity. I prayed, and cooled sin’s fire.
When I finally emerged from the men’s room and returned to my office, Stephanie
had indeed left. Yet I could still smell her perfume in the air, and underneath
that, the rank steam of lust.
Meredith was in the sanctuary dusting windowsills. I told
her to reschedule all my appointments for the next few days. You remember,
Julianna, how I came home and secluded myself, even from you. I was not at all
ashamed that my Lord knew what had happened. We are all base creatures. We
strive to live within the Light, but can never be the Light. But the idea that
you, or Brittany, or anyone else, would know about this weakness within me was
I emerged from my solitude in time for Sunday service, no
longer feeling the mark of Cain. Yet every time I entered my church office, my
senses awoke with a fresh surge of temptation. Stephanie had left a ghost of
herself with the scent of her hair, the cream on her skin, the long lines of
her legs and thighs, the taunting invitation of her breasts. This room didn’t
just need redecorating: it needed an exorcism.
Even this morning, as I tried again to reclaim my
sanctuary, her specter hovered in the corners. I stayed barely ten minutes
before returning home, where my books and reference materials on such subjects
are kept in my private office. I fixed a fresh pot of coffee and set to work.
After what had happened between us earlier, Julianna, and then the lingering
spirit of Stephanie, there were immediate questions I needed answers to. But
the research is complicated. This spiritual equivalent of solving quadratic
equations means several sources must be cross-referenced and bits of
information gathered and incorporated.
After a few hours, the writings stopped making any sense.
Although I felt close to a breakthrough, it was time for a break. I’d fix
myself something to eat, then push forward a little more before Brittany got
home from school. I stopped at the kitchen sink to rinse out my mug and, while
there, thought to run the used grounds down the disposal. As I dropped them in,
I also knocked over a drinking glass holding a few pieces of silverware and
they all slid down the drain. I pulled everything out except for one spoon
which had fallen deep into the disposal.
As my fingertips touched the spoon handle, a familiar sting
pricked me. Strands of dark hair snaked out of the drain. They wrapped around
my fingers and pulled me down, scraping my knuckles against the disposal
blades. Thin rivulets of blood ran across my fingers.
A low mechanical growl came from the drain. The switch on
the wall was in the off position, and yet the disposal sounded like an old
engine trying to crank to life. I yanked frantically—barely any give. The only
thing I pulled was a muscle. Sharp pain knifed through my shoulder; I ignored
it. My mind was racing ahead in anticipation of those blades furiously
Still, some part of me had not totally succumbed to panic.
Before I realized what I was doing, I had already grabbed a paring knife from
the dish rack. My hand and the knife danced around each other, although I
couldn’t help cutting myself as I went. The disposal growled again and I
felt the barest tremor of movement from the blades. I gave one last desperate
heave, and pulled free just as the disposal roared. The air filled with a
horrible grinding sound from the knife and spoon. It lasted a moment or two,
and then fell still.
My shoulder throbbed so badly that I could barely lift my
arm. Dark matted hair still clung to my bloodied hand, and now I could feel the
seven or eight places where I’d sliced myself. I used a cloth towel to wipe up
the mess and threw everything into the kitchen trash. I wrapped my hand with a
second towel and headed upstairs, hoping I was remembering correctly about a
supply of gauze in the hall closet. Turns out that I was, and also found an old
tube of antiseptic cream (well past its expiration date, but better than
nothing). I rubbed it on my wounded hand, then did my best to wrap it.
Twice now! As a sentinel of Light, I expect attacks from a
world full of sin and sinners. But this was completely different. My church and
home were my fortresses, and yet evil had gotten past my defenses—hiding, spreading
like a virus. I asked for a sign.
As I struggled with the gauze I happened to look up, and
saw a plastic shopping bag on the top shelf that I didn’t recognize. It was
tucked in the back corner, not hidden exactly, but clearly in an inconspicuous
place. I stretched to grab it. The bag was much heavier than I expected, and
its contents spilled out over me.
Magazines. The titles suggested content about fashion and
health, but the covers told the truth: women’s bodies, articles promising the
secrets to “Unleashing Your Inner Bad Girl”, “Best Sex Toys (Just for You!)”,
“Kisses, Kinks, and Kegels for Everyone”. My chest tightened. Since our last
night together, Julianna, I had been watching for any indication that the rot
was still here. And so it was—spreading inside my home, inside Brittany.
I gathered the magazines and brought them to the living
room. I waited for Brittany while the stack of filth warmed my lap. When I was
finished with my daughter, the firepit in our back yard would make an excellent
destination for her contraband: purification by fire.
After waiting half an hour, Brittany came through the front
door as bright as a spring morning, but now I could see through the fašade. Tight
jeans, tiny t-shirt, and blouse flying open as she walked—all of her clothes
were a full size too small. I chastised myself for not detecting it sooner.
“Come here,” I said, and she obeyed. Her eyes widened once
she saw her secret shame in my possession, but like a talented deceiver, waited
for me to make the first move.
“What are these?” I asked.
“Magazines,” she answered quickly.
“Wrong. What are these?”
She looked at her shoes, either to craft a lie or to goad
me into an impatient mistake. But I’m talented, too.
“I require an answer,” I said.
Brittany made her voice as mousy as possible. “I don’t know
what you want me to say.”
“I’ll remind you.” I flung the top magazine at her. It
struck her in the chest, then thudded to the floor. The pages fell open to a
And still she stayed silent.
“If you can’t speak your sin, you can’t admit your sin.” I
threw another. And another. She didn’t move or try to dodge in any way. “You
cannot be forgiven if you cannot admit your sin.”
My arm was cocked back, and this next missile was aimed at
her head. Suddenly her eyes flashed. “Sin!” she cried.
I held the magazine at the ready. “What is your sin?”
“Lust,” she whimpered.
“Deceit...dishonor to my father.”
I lowered the magazine. “And?”
She looked at me with genuine confusion. My thoughts began
“Pride,” I answered for her.
Brittany took a moment, then nodded. “Pride,” she repeated.
In that moment I thought I saw her innocence reassert itself. I believed the
crisis was over. I forgave her.
I was weak. “You ought to be grounded, starting tonight,” I
said, “but I won’t if you’re truly sorry.”
“I am,” she said.
Brittany stepped over the scattered magazines to kneel
before me, clasping her hands in her lap. She bowed her head.
I stroked her hair—so soft, like the little girl that she
was. “Thy will be done.”
“Thy will be done,” she repeated.
“You may go and have thirty minutes of prayer before making
“Yes, Father.” She rose and wiped her cheeks. I truly
believed that she had been moved. She went up to her room as I gathered the
magazines and headed to the backyard. I fed them to the flames, foolishly
believing the battle had been won. Only now can I understand how truly lost I
was…and still am.
After Brittany left for her friend’s party, I was ready to
enjoy an evening of solitude and restoration. Yet almost as soon as I was left
alone, a restlessness came over me. I couldn’t focus on anything, couldn’t even
stay still long enough to try. I wandered through every room of the house
without purpose. My body tingled with an electricity that I couldn’t use up.
I found myself in our bedroom, Julianna, staring at our bed,
at nothing. Then I realized, it wasn’t nothing. The restless sensation running
under my skin was coalescing. I was going to have a vision. And for an
agonizing moment, I couldn’t see it. How could I be given such a blessing, and
then be so weak as to fail to hold onto it?
Then it came.
Julianna, I saw us.
I watched a memory, with me in it, like an angel sent to
witness the deeds of the wicked and the righteous to record in the Book of
Life. You will remember what I’m about to describe, but don’t know it from my
point of view.
It was last Monday. Even three days after meeting with
Stephanie, I could not reconcile what had happened with a purpose. A test from
my Lord? A temptation from the Beast? Surely I would make a wonderful trophy
were I to fall. I had felt my own weakness. I studied and prayed for strength,
but doubted. How would I defend myself?
We were in bed, you knitting a blanket for our Ladies’ Aid
group, and I trying to read. At one point, I slammed my book shut in
“Darling,” you said, putting aside your needles and yarn.
You reached for my hand to give comfort, as a wife should. The touch of your
skin was a gust of wind across coals I had been trying to cool. My heart lied
to me. You are married, it whispered.
It’s not lust to embrace your wife.
I surrendered. You sensed my heat and kissed me. You
touched me. I tossed you on your back and climbed on top, our hips thrusting
together before we were fully undressed. I could feel your sex wanting to consume
me, driving me to consume you. If I had any sense of the awakening hellfire
around me, I was too far gone to care.
I gave myself to you, Julianna. Your eyes widened until I
could fall into them. But then, within you, I saw something looking back—not
you...not my Julianna. Your face lit up
with a maniacal grin as you looked into me, into the seed of darkness planted
there. My torment was your pleasure. I don’t know when or how, but I realized
you had been possessed. A power within you had been slowly casting rot into my
soul for who knows how long. I had been blind and had not seen, but my Lord
had. Now, so could I.
I wrenched the pillow from under your head and slammed it
over your face. You made muffled sounds, confused at first, then more panicked
as I pressed harder. Witch! I
screamed in my mind. Demon! You
clawed at my arms. I ignored the pain. All sense of time dissolved. I only knew
something was changing when your flailing grew weaker...then…stillness.
I withdrew from you, exhausted yet exhilarated. This was
the redemption I had been seeking. Death to the succubus. As my adrenaline
faded, I started to feel the bloody gouges in my arms. I washed up in the
bathroom with rubbing alcohol. It burned, of course, but I thought of it as the
last of the poisonous sin leaving me.
Back in the bedroom, I lifted the pillow from your face and
jumped back. Your eyes were still open. I feared the Beast waiting to catch me
again. I shut my eyes and quickly turned away. When I felt brave enough, I
looked again. I was safe. Your eyes were closed.
Just to be certain, I grabbed the blanket you’d been
knitting and wrapped it around your face. It soaked up the bit of blood from
your nose and the yellow spittle around your mouth. Then I carried you into the
cellar. The parsonage is very old, and still has the original cistern from the
1850’s in a little crawlspace under what is now the laundry room. That’s where
I left you.
As the memory of that night lifted from my mind, I found
myself back downstairs, sitting in my study just off the main entryway. Night
had fallen in full. I listened to the clock chime nine, then ten and eleven. No
Brittany. I wondered why I had wandered to this particular spot. Ultimately I
decided that I didn’t need to understand. A guiding force had wrapped its arms
around me, and I trusted it.
Just beyond midnight, the first glimmer of my purpose
appeared. I heard fumbling keys outside the front door and mumbled expletives
as the hand wielding those keys needed four attempts before fitting them into
the lock. The door opened slowly, quietly, though to me the sound was
thunderous. All my senses were alive; I
was alive like I’d never been before.
The door closed and was locked again just as carefully. I
heard her footsteps and smelled her tainted breath from where I sat. She headed
toward the stairs, a clear silhouette even against the background of night,
stepping cautiously, even hunched over, as if that provided some extra
camouflage. I waited until she was about to put her foot on the bottom stair.
She froze, uncertain where my voice had come from.
Eventually she turned toward my office doorway.
“Geez, you scared me!” she giggled.
Heat rose in my temples. “Do not blaspheme,” I said.
“I wasn’t. I didn’t.”
“What time is it?” I asked.
I rose and walked around to the front of my desk. “Come
here.” My hands tingled, and the warmth from my head flowed down into my arms
and chest. Whatever was about to happen, I was ready.
Brittany shambled toward me, fighting almost every second
to keep her balance. She came right up close, almost nose to nose.
“What time is it?” I repeated.
“Time for you to get a watch?” she said, then laughed—blasphemy,
dishonor, and now naked disrespect. A scarlet haze fell over my eyes. I was not
in control, but then I thought, I had never been. The path of my Lord was
clear. I grabbed her by the shoulders, intending to shake the mocking smile
from her face. She fell into me, then jerked back. Somehow our legs got tangled;
I lost my balance and pitched forward, smacking my forehead on the floor. But
even through the stars filling my vision, I could still see her smiling, laughing
Clumsily she tried to crawl away, but I rolled her over and
pinned her arms over her head. She looked deeply into my eyes. In that moment I
saw you, Julianna, staring from inside our daughter. Your gaze held me in place,
filling me with a new kind of heat.
Brittany’s lips parted and I heard your voice. “Darling,”
Brittany’s long tresses squirmed and coiled on the floor.
They reached up and wrapped around my arms, soft and sensuous, one around her
throat. Her lips looked so firm and wet, like yours. I was certain she would
feel like you, taste like you. I hungered.
Miraculously, my Lord intervened—but not through me.
Something changed in Brittany’s eyes. You were gone, and then it was just her
looking up, eyes bright with fear and anger. She twisted her hips and got her
feet up to push against my stomach. I rocked back and she attacked with a
vicious flurry of kicks. The solid wooden heels of her shoes struck my gut, my
chest, and finally—at least as far as I can remember—squarely on my chin.
Fireworks of pain exploded inside my head. I toppled over as the room spun into
I don’t know how long I was out, but long enough for the
spikes of pain in my head and torso to have dulled into throbbing waves. I
stumbled to the entryway. The door stood open. I prayed that Brittany was long
gone. The weight of my animal sensations hung on my shoulders. A serpent had
struck some time ago, and the venom had spread throughout me. I was rotten,
Time was a new enemy. The town would come for me once
someone found Brittany and heard her story. My family...my congregation...my
town. They’d welcome the chance to overthrow me. Fellowship was a comforting
lie to draw me in, smear me with their own filth, and smile all the while...and
There was only one being I would submit to, but would my
Lord take me as I was? How could that be possible? I prayed while I went to the
garage to get the gasoline can for the lawn mower. It was almost full—nearly
five gallons. I soaked the floors and walls of the downstairs hallway as best I
could. The parsonage is old, the wood well dried. I lit a dish towel and tossed
it at the front door, then ran to the kitchen and the basement door.
And that’s how it is that I’m here with you now, Julianna.
I squeezed myself into the cistern, holding you against my shoulder—your head,
cradled in the crook of my arm, hair like a wet rag against my skin. From above
I hear the crackling flames. Hot, itchy smoke tickles the inside of my nose and
mouth. I understand now why all saints have to die. There is no pure virtue but
in death. That’s the only place where sin cannot touch you, where salvation is
I pray for that gift from you, Julianna. If I am to be
taken, I want to be taken by you. My fingertips tremble as I reach to uncover
your face. I am ready to see all the way to the bottom.
I am ready for you now, my darling. I’m taking off the
Scott Dixon, email@example.com, of Lanesboro, MN, wrote our featured tale,
“Salvation” for BP #82 (+ “Leave ‘Em Laughing” for BP #51 and “Bloodburn” for
BP #45) His “day job” is being a resident company member with a small
professional theatre in Minnesota, and his chief claim to fame thus far is
playing the role of the brilliant (but mad!) Dr. Smirnoff in the film, Mutant
Swinger from Mars from DarkArt Entertainment. He created a
non-dance adaptation of The Nutcracker, The Nutcracker & The Mouse King
and wrote the (E.A. Poe) play, Midnight Dreary; his short stories have
been published in City Slab, Night Terrors and Outer