When the sinner plunges into the darkness, who among us may call him back from damnation.”

A voice bubbled up from the darkest parts of my mind, and I found myself standing at the dusty crossroads of dream and memory in a place I recognized as Last Chance: a wide spot in the road in Colorado where we’d stopped on our way back to Chicago for gas and repairs. The distant horizon was illuminated with the faint glow of wildfires bearing down on me from every direction.

“Do you believe in God, stranger?” The voice floated to me out of the darkness again. The speaker emerged into the light revealing a man who called himself Reverend Walter Simon. A preacher with cold, moist hands and a smile like a mouth full of diamonds.

I turned to face him, guiltily aware that Gorey was stealing the brakes off the Reverend’s church van on the far side of the lot where we stood.

“Does it matter?” I asked.

It didn’t. The Reverend continued as if I hadn’t spoken: “I believe our paths have crossed for a reason. God has brought you to me so that I can save you from His Judgment.”

“You’re wasting your time, Preacher Man,” I told him. “No heaven in the damn universe is going to take me.”

“Come to our revival—perhaps you’ll feel the call.” The Reverend gestured to the far side of the road where a Fourth of July barbecue was underway, redolent with the smell of roasting pig and illegal fireworks. Half the crowd was dressed in white: devotees of the Reverend’s church that styled themselves as Sweet Believers.

“I’d rather fuck a rusty cheese grater.”

The Reverend gestured expansively as if to say ‘do what you will,’ and light glinted off an object in his hand. A pocket-watch. An antique mechanical pocket-watch in a silver case. My pocket-watch.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked, trying to sound casual.     

“Purchased it from your silent friend. He needed the money,” the Reverend said, dangling it in front of me like a fishing lure. It was the one thing in the world that I couldn’t live without, and Tombstone knew it. “Always happy to help a friend in need.”

“That’s mine,” I said. “He shouldn’t have sold it. It was my grandfather’s. Family heirloom—” I reached for it, but my hand closed on empty air. The Reverend tucked it into his pocket. He didn’t bother to hide the dark pleasure on his smug face.

“C’mon, I’ll buy it back. How much d’you pay for it?”

“The path to redemption does not lie in the pursuit of material things,” the Reverend said. I reached for it again, but again the Reverend backed away.

“Says the man refusing to sell me my own watch.”

The Reverend just shrugged and retreated to the edge of the light. “Store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Then he stepped out of the light letting the darkness swallow him up.

*          *          *          *

“That was my grandfather’s fucking watch!”

Tombstone was holding court on the far side of his RV in the midst of an impromptu yard sale. Our personal belongings were laid out in a heap on a ragged tarp; for sale to the highest bidder. Tombstone himself was seated in his folding lawn chair beside the RV’s door with middle-aged woman counting twenties into his hand in exchange for a handful of pills from an Altoids tin. He leaped to his feet and stood his ground as I stormed across the asphalt toward him.

“Calm down!” A girl’s voice floated out to me from the doorway of RV. Sweet Evangeline; a wild, wayward local so keen to get out of town she was willing to do anything, or anyone, to get a ride. Up until an hour ago, that someone had been me. Now it was Tombstone, the ginger fuck.

“It was my idea. You needed money, now you got it.” She reached into Tombstone’s pocket and pulled out a fist-sized roll of cash, flipping through the bills for my benefit. “You’re gonna need it to get out of town, and now you can take me with you.”

“And you went along with this fuckwittery? What the actual fuck, Tombstone?” I demanded. Tombstone shrugged sheepishly and put his arm around Evangeline’s waist. Could I blame him? I forced myself to take a deep breath, but it didn’t do much to cool my rage.

I surveyed the remainder of our collective personal effects, now sheened over with dust from the dirt lot. Everything of any value had already been sold. Most of it was junk anyway—sentimental, but not valuable. Out here on the ass end of nowhere, it was a miracle that he’d gotten any money for it at all.

“Gorey!” I shouted. “Get the fuck over here!”

Gorey emerged from beneath the Bandwagon with an annoyed groan and approached, wiping his hands on a rag. “What’s up?”

“Tombstone fucking sold our stuff.”

“Shit, dude, that sucks,” Gorey said. “You wanna know what else sucks? Getting busted in the middle of Bu-Fu Egypt for grand theft auto. Which is what is gonna happen if I don’t finish those brakes. Quit buggin’ me and let me work.” He pointed to the remains of the yard sale. “Pack it up, Honkey. Be ready to skip town.”

 Tombstone folded his battered lawn chair and stuffed the heap of belongings into the side door of the RV before holding the door for Evangeline with the gallantry of an antebellum gentleman. She tripped inside, giggling. Tombstone kicked off his snakeskin boots, tipped his hat at me and Gorey in turn, then followed her inside, slamming the door behind him. After a minute, I could hear the strumming of his guitar.

There was only one way that was going to end.

Under ordinary circumstances, there was no force in the universe that would have compelled me to get within a thousand miles of a church revival, but there was no way I was leaving town without my watch. I was prepared to endure any trial, up to and including snake handling and speaking in tongues if that’s what it took to get it back.

Hidden in the shadows, I skulked around the edges of the gathering to get my bearings. The Reverend had taken up residence on the cement stoop in front of some kind of community barn and was proselytizing to a crowd of faithful and skeptics alike. His Sweet Believers swayed, with hands raised, punctuating each statement with whoops of praise and amens.

“The Lord knows the hearts of all sinners!”

“Yes, he does!”

“All those who do not obey the gospel of God shall have their place in the lake burning with fire and brimstone, which is the second death!”

Overhead, an exploding firework punctuated his words, casting a pall of sulphur-scented smoke over the crowd.

“Hallelujah! Praise Jesus!”

Around me, even the most salt-of-the-earth ranchers shifted uncertainly: aware, perhaps, of the burning pit barrel, the decimated pig’s carcass, the flowing moonshine, the exploding fireworks…I had to admit the Reverend knew how to turn a crowd. That was showmanship.

            “The time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God,” the Reverend held up the pocket-watch to the crowd like a talisman. “What power can save us, brothers and sisters? When the sinner plunges into the darkness, who among us may call him back from Damnation? None but God!”

His voice had become low and sonorous, and the gathered crowd drew in close as if it were their only beacon of hope.

“Who will step forth to be saved?” His eyes scanned the crowd and settled on me. He held up the watch to the light. “Who will be called back from your path of darkness to return to the loving embrace of Jesus Christ the Savior?” With a gesture he singled me out, and the locals nearest to me backed away until I stood alone. “Let him who has heard the call say ‘Here I am, Lord!’”

This was his show. I could play along or I could go to Hell.

“Here I am,” I said.

“Say it, brother!”

“Here I am!”

“Louder! Proclaim it!”

HERE I AM!” I bellowed with the full force of my voice.

The Reverend descended from the stage and approached holding out his hands as if telling a storm to subside. There was an unearthly quiet.

“Kneel, sinner,” he compelled me. “Kneel and be saved.”

I sank down to one knee, and then the other on the dry grass.

“The Lord has sent us a wicked sinner!” He pronounced. “A wayward and prodigal son! He has filled his cup with the devil’s promises living a carnal, venal, decadent life of sin and corruption.” The watch glittered in front of my eyes just out of my reach.

“You’re a sonofabitch,” I muttered, smiling through gritted teeth.

“Confess your sins, brother. Lay yourself bare to the Almighty Lord!” He laid a hand on my chest over my heart, raising the other hand heavenward waiting for me to bare my soul for the sake of his fucking teachable moment.

 “Bet you wish it was Evangeline’s laying herself bare, don’t you?” I muttered so quietly only he could hear me. His eyes flickered at her name. I’d hit a nerve. “That’s right, where’s your Sweet Evangeline? She’s the one you want to fill with the Holy Spirit, isn’t she, Preacher Man?”

His victorious smile faltered.

 “Oohhh, God!” I moaned in falsetto, low and breathy, just loud enough for him to hear.

“What are you doing?” He hissed through clenched teeth.

“I feel the call, Reverend!” I shouted. “God, yes! Ohh, God…”

The Reverend struggled to save face and raised his arms. He feels the call, brothers and sisters!” he thundered to a breathless tide of hosannas from the Sweet Believers.

            “Bet Evangeline’s feeling it too,” I said. “I bet she’s down on her knees right now, calling the Lord’s name.” I grabbed him by the belt and pulled him close, closing my fingers around the watch chain. I threw my head back and rolled my eyes back. “God, yes!” I squealed in falsetto, louder, breathless, gasping. I writhed against him in apparent ecstasy, grinding my face against his crotch. “Ohhh, God, yess! Yess!”

The Reverend recoiled; his fingers tangled in my hair as he tried to peel me off his groin. There was a ripple of scandalized gasps in the congregation, and a few barks of nervous laughter.

Get off me!” he hissed.

“Save me, Reverend! My flesh is weak in the face of temptation!” I tightened my grip on his belt, holding the Reverend. My scalp was on fire, but I let him yank my head back.

“Bet you know something about the temptations of the flesh, don’t you, Preacher Man?” I slid the watch out of his pocket and palmed it. “Oohhh, Lord, Oh, God, come in me! I want to feel you inside me!” I howled, letting go of his belt and falling to the grass, writhing in the dust as I built to a climax. I worked up a rabid froth in my mouth and spewed it at him, digging my heels into the dirt and arching my back as if possessed by unclean spirits. “Oh, God; Oh, God! Oh, ohhh, ohhhh, OHHH!”

I reached an apparent climax and fell silent; sprawled on the ground, breathing hard. For a moment there was appalled silence while the crowd tried to figure out what they’d just witnessed. The Reverend just stared at me, dumbfounded. No one had ever upstaged him before.

Oh! Oh, God! Oh, ohhh! God, yes!

The sound of moaning still echoed in the dense, warm air, but it wasn’t coming from me anymore. It was a woman’s voice now, and it was coming from the direction of the RV which was creaking and rocking on its shocks. One by one the onlookers turned toward the sound.

“Holy smokes!” someone joked. “It’s contagious!”

There was a titter of laughter in the crowd. The Reverend’s spell collapsed.

“I’ll have what she’s having!”

“Go girl!”

The Reverend looked stricken as he listened for sounds that he didn’t want to be hearing. Across the street, I heard the unhealthy cough of the Bandwagon’s engine struggling to turn over and got to my feet. Looming over the Reverend’s shoulder, I spoke directly into his ear:

“Sounds like someone’s filling her devil’s cup right now. Sounds like she’s enjoying it too.” The Reverend whirled on me with hatred in his eyes: no longer bothering to try to hide it under righteousness.

“You goddamn bastard…” he whispered.

I wiped the dust and spit off my face and spread my arms wide.

“Hate the sin not the sinner,” I said as the Bandwagon’s engine finally caught. “After all, the road to redemption doesn’t lie in material things, does it, Reverend?” I opened my hand to dangle the pocket-watch in front of his shocked eyes with a savage grin and then sprinted across the road to where the van was idling.

“Drivedrivedrivedrive!” I shouted to Gorey as I vaulted into the passenger side window like Bo Duke. Gorey didn’t need to be told twice. Laying on the horn, he revved the engine to the point of flooding before throwing it in gear. Gravel sprayed behind us as the van dug for traction. Caught it. Lurched forward. He pulled the van in a wide, skidding donut across the dirt lot.

“What about Tombstone?” Gorey shouted over the roar.

“Fuck Tombstone!” I said. We lurched out onto the road in a squeal of rubber and roared off toward the burning horizon.

I didn’t look back.

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 13: MELODY will go live Monday, September 20th , 2021

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