Russell C. Connor has been writing about demons, serial killers, and the end of the world since he was five years old. His short work has appeared in “Black Petals Magazine,” “Alien Skin,” and “Sanitarium,” among others. He currently has six novels available, including the supernatural crime-noir “Finding Misery,” and “Whitney,” about hurricane survivors facing a deadly plague and a ravenous beast. His newest, a Bermuda Triangle horror novel called “Sargasso,” will be available in March of 2013. He lives in Grand Prairie, TX with his mistress of the dark, rabid dogs, and extensive movie collection, and has been a member of the DFW Writers’ Workshop for 7 years. For more visit: www.darkfilament.com
That Old Rugged Cross
By: Russell C. Connor
The box of bibles bounced on the seat next to Beecher as the car hit another uneven patch on the winding dirt road. One of the tomes on top, already precariously balanced, slid forward and made a valiant effort at escape.
Beecher took his hands off the wheel and snatched it out of the air before it reached the filthy floorboard of the vehicle; not much to worry about hitting if he ran off the road. The last house was miles back, nothing more than a dilapidated little log cabin with no air conditioning. He’d given his sales pitch there yesterday to a farmer with a craggy face and his rapidly balding wife. Both were sweating profusely and reeked of B.O. and they made it abundantly clear they had little use for the word of God, even when offered in a handsome and convenient leather bound travel size.
There were only extremes when these simple folk realized what he pedaled; out here they either foamed at the mouth in their religious fervor to buy a bible or ran him off their property with shotguns and pitchforks.
But the wife offered him a glass of water for which he was thankful—he’d been on foot taking orders all day, and the Mississippi sun had wrung every ounce of moisture out of him—until he followed her through the kitchen doorway. He at first thought heat waves caused the interior of the kitchen to shimmer, until he looked closer and realized it was a layer of flies, a thick carpet of tiny jostling bodies covering every surface of the room.
He politely declined the water.
And that was about par for the course out here in the backwaters of the country. For a kid from suburban Chicago, rural America might as well be another planet.
Beecher stacked the bible back on top of the others and glanced at his watch.
Thirty-five minutes after nine in the morning, and that meant he had a bigger problem than the local population.
He had to find a church, and he had to find it fast.
“Never happen,” he muttered to himself. “You’ll never find a church with a service this late out here. Screwed yourself real good on this one, Beech.”
These country folk liked their worship services at eight o’clock on the nose, nine at the latest. His own fault for going out this morning to deliver product to as many customers before service as possible, but the shipments were in, he had orders to fill, and he really needed the money or his current diet of tomato sandwiches was going to get even skimpier. He had intended to take a short trip and then double back to a tiny Church of Christ on the edge of his selling territory, but somewhere along the maze of unnamed back streets he made a wrong turn and got lost.
And just why did he have to get to a church so urgently? They weren’t allowed to sell at the houses of God after all, so why should he be so worked up about attending, other than you know, the salvation of his soul?
“Because the people who run this business are damned Nazis,” Beecher answered his own question. “Nazis disguised at bible-thumping business moguls.”
He never expected a summer of bible selling to be like this. Sleeping in a communal bunkhouse outside Biloxi every night with his fellow salesmen, up by six for a rigorous morning of calisthenics and ‘optimistic reinforcement,’ wherein they got one another fired up for a day of grrrrrreat sales (always grrrrrreat, like they were hawking cornflakes), and then out on the job from eight till dark. There was a whole manual of do’s and don’ts for the selling aspect of the job, but as far as personal lives went, the only restrictions were no smoking or drinking.
And one other.
They must attend a church service every Sunday morning, or forfeit all bonuses for the week.
Most of the time it wasn’t a big deal. They had Sundays off, and he just rolled out of bed and went with the other guys and the regional sales manager to a Baptist outfit in the city. But, if they went off on their own, they were required to bring back a signed pamphlet or some other form of authorization proving they attended elsewhere.
Nine forty-five now. He was out of options.
Beecher topped a short hill and came around a corner guarded by a thick copse of sycamore trees. He would settle for civilization now, somewhere he could stop and ask directions, get back to the main road and finish his deliveries.
And there, lo and behold, rising against the sky like a lighthouse beacon was a wooden arrow pointing the way toward salvation. He saw that old, rugged cross floating above the stand of trees. The road split off ahead, one branch curling back behind the copse and Beecher followed, knowing services must be over already but hoping for a miracle.
He began to catch his first glimpses of the temple through gaps in the thinning trees. The structure was made entirely out of badly rusted corrugated sheet metal, welded together at crude angles in a rather slapdash display. The wooden cross was mounted at the top of a steeply sloping metal roof that couldn’t be more than a single story high, canted crookedly and badly pitted and weather beaten. No foundation whatsoever; the whole horrid thing just sat right out on the dirt, ready to be picked up and moved or blown over by a strong wind.
A handmade church, no way it could have central heat or air or even electricity, and small enough for a congregation of no more than two dozen people.
And right now it looked like heaven.
A dusty dooryard with a rickety screen door set into the metal indicated the entrance to the building. Close to the road running in front of it, was a faded hand-lettered sign nailed to a stake in the ground that read, SERVICES HELD PROMPTLY AT TEN. That was all. No church name or catchy biblical quote, just short and to the point.
Beecher smiled. He had to be the luckiest SOB in the universe.
Well, Mr. Lucky, if worship is about to start, where are all the cars?
The thought popped into his head, and Beecher’s smile faded. Maybe they weren’t meeting this Sunday. Maybe they were on an annual pilgrimage to see some tortilla with Jesus’ face on it. Maybe they just figured it was too damn hot. He felt panic start to rise up and quelled it with a possible answer.
This was a church slapped up only for the benefit of the locals, all of whom were probably within walking distance.
You haven’t seen a house in the last ten miles. You telling me they walk all the way here in this heat?
Sure. Why not? He’d been to a place just last week where he pitched to a nice-looking couple on their front porch while the three of them sipped tea—all very nice and elegant, how he imagined the deep south really would be—while their approximately one-hundred and fifteen children played, screamed, and chased one another all around them. As he flowed into his bit about how a new bible could enrich their lives, a naked boy of no more than eight came strolling out of the house. Beecher, to his credit, hadn’t missed a beat as the child crossed the porch to stand next to him and began urinating with reckless abandon on the tacky green AstroTurf. The parents seemed not to notice, so Beecher took his cue and did likewise. The child then strolled over to the sparse flowerbed that ran the length of the house, ripped an elephantine palm frond out of a plant that looked half dead, and came back to the bright yellow puddle to begin slapping the frond down on it, splattering droplets of hot, foul-smelling urine all over the front of Beecher’s best shirt and his demo bible. The couple ended up buying a unit from him, but he had to wonder if his two dollar bonus was worth going home smelling of some hayseed brat’s piss.
Just went to show, these people had a ton of eccentricities he would never understand. It was a different culture, a different lifestyle, and nothing should surprise him anymore.
Okay then, at least tell me this: What denomination are they?
He didn’t care, and he was more than a little annoyed with this interior pessimist for bringing him down. He didn’t care if they called themselves the Fifth Church of the Macarena Zionists. It was a Christian church—that beautiful cross up there couldn’t proclaim it any more if it were written out in pink neon—and he just wanted to go in, sit through whatever kind of service they called worship, get the preacher to sign something for him, and get back on the road.
Beecher parked in the dirt beside the church under the shade of a stumpy sycamore and got out. The heat washed over him, beads of sweat popping out along his brow and arms at once. He walked through the dirt to the door, set under the shade of a metal eave that seemed to have been added as an afterthought to make the place look a bit homier.
He peered through the screen, but could see only a dim glow from within.
Beecher pulled open the door, which screeched on rusty hinges.
It was dark inside, especially after the brightness of the day. There was no electricity just as he predicted; the only light came from rusted Coleman lanterns hung on the wall at irregular intervals. The heat rushed out in its eagerness to claim him, and Beecher grimaced at the thought of going inside.
Snake handlers, his mind objected desperately, snake handlers can be Christians too, you know, but he shook this off. To get that bonus, he might consider taking a few venomous bites.
He saw footprints in the dirt and followed them inside. The door swung shut, closing out a vast majority of the light so his eyes could adjust.
Directly in front of him was a small chamber, with a corrugated metal wall blocking off the rest of the church except for a hole with a curtain hung over it. On either side, two men stood solemnly waiting with hands clasped in front of them.
The one on the right came alive at the sight of him. “Welcome!” He shouted, rushing forward with hand outstretched. He was dressed in black, wearing what appeared to be a priest’s cassock and robes, without the white collar. He was in his fifties and had a merry face—small glasses perched on a round bump-of-a-nose, twinkling blue eyes, and a quick smile. Beecher found himself accepting the dry, rough hand offered to him and smiling in return while he check for snakebites.
“Welcome,” the man repeated, pumping his arm like a water well. “I’m Brother Sweeney. I’m the preacher here at Found Faith. How are you today, son? What’s your name?”
“Uh, I’m fine,” Beecher said, trying to free his hand from the preacher’s enthusiastic grip and keep up with the speech. “The name’s William Beecher.”
“Brother Beecher, is it? Well, we’re so glad to have you this fine morning! We so rarely have visitors here at Found Faith. Isn’t that right, Brother Junior?”
Beecher glanced at the man on the other side of the door. He was rotund, a huge belly stretching out the waist of his filthy overalls. No shirt beneath, a carpet of thick hair covering his meaty arms and creeping on from under the front of the overalls on his chest. He grunted and nodded his piggy head, dull eyes taking in Beecher in one gulp.
“I’m…glad to be here,” he answered, and then added, “I’m a bible salesman, and I never miss a service.”
“Did you hear that, Brother Junior?” Sweeney beamed at Beecher. “A bible salesman! A spreader of the gospel! How nice!”
Beecher was getting the idea the man would stand here and talk to him all day if he didn’t find a way to get the show on the road. Runners of sweat were already trickling down his back, and he didn’t want to prolong his time in this hotbox. These two hardly seemed to notice the heat. “Well, I don’t want to interrupt your service. I saw that you start at ten…”
“Nonsense!” Sweeney waved the thought away, and then his hand froze in midair as a new thought occurred to him. “You know son, you could be our guest of honor!”
“Oh no, I couldn’t possibly.” Beecher raised his hands in polite protest.
“Sure you could! We haven’t had a guest of honor in such a long time! What do you think, Brother Junior?”
For the first time, Brother Junior showed some expression, his eyes livening and his lips curling up into the slightest of grins. He grunted like an ape. Probably the product of champion inbreeding, Beecher thought.
“See there, it would be our pleasure! Oh, please say yes! The congregation would be so happy!”
At the very least, it might result in a sales appointments. Beecher nodded. “Sure. Okay.”
Sweeney clapped his hands together once in delight, as exaggerated as a Disney character. “Wonderful! Let’s get you dressed, then!”
Sweeney put an arm on his shoulder and guided him away from the curtain in the wall behind him, toward another hole in the metal to the right that opened onto a tiny closet-like room. The heat was so constant, worse than any sauna, and he felt like he was swimming through the air.
“Step right in here Brother,” Sweeney said. “There’s a robe right inside. You can just slip it on over your clothes.”
Beecher frowned, sighed internally, and stepped into the little booth. On a nail to the right was a plain white robe covered in dust.
“Should have read the fine print,” he muttered.
He comforted himself by thinking of the cross outside. Whatever their practices, they were still a Christian church, but, much like when a species becomes geographically separated and evolves differently, these worshippers had been away from any like-minded brethren for too long and developed their own ideas about running a temple. But it would still all be the same rigmarole he’d been through a thousand times: blah blah blah, Jesus did this, Jesus did that, forgive your sins, Amen.
He would worry if he saw snakes.
With a smile, Beecher picked up the robe, shook it out, and slipped it on over his shirt, tie, and dark slacks. It hung to his knees and had a cloth belt that he cinched at the waist.
When he stepped back out, Brother Junior had changed into a robe of the same cut, but jet black and large enough to cover his gut. Sweeney held a large flat pan full of greenish water, and, before he could protest, the preacher dipped his hand in and flung some of it in Beecher’s face. At the same time, he rattled out a harsh series of syllables in a language Beecher had never heard, something that sounded like, “Fer dim shaggoth Maymar mi opij.”
Beecher recoiled, unable to stop a look of disgust slipping over him, and wiped at the substance on his face. Slightly greasy, with flecks of something in it that looked like spinach. It was too dark in the church atrium to examine the source as Sweeney placed it on the ground beside them.
“Come Brother,” Sweeney said cheerfully, taking his arm and leading him toward the curtain. “Service must start on time!”
They stepped through the curtain with Brother Junior right on their heels.
The room beyond the curtain was much bigger than it looked from the outside. Entering the narrow end, the room stretched out in front of him for a good twenty yards and the vaulted ceiling fell away into darkness. Here the heat was nearly unbearable, the stench of packed bodies and old sweat electrifying, and the few Coleman lanterns around the room were just sufficient to show him the backs of two rows of pews made from old wood. It was a packed house, at least thirty people, and the entire congregation stood in the pew aisles.
Men, women, and children, all wearing robes like the one Brother Junior had put on. They turned to watch Beecher with strange, solemn eyes.
“Brothers and Sisters!” Sweeney shouted, holding up the arm not around Beecher. “Brother Beecher has agreed to be our guest of honor! Let us begin our praise, so we may show him Found Faith has the gospel in our hearts!”
As one, the congregation of Found Faith opened their mouths and began to chant one of the words in that harsh language Sweeney muttered when he anointed him with the spinach water, a rapid but steady repetition of the word, “Maymar.” They turned away, toward whatever pulpit lay at the other end of the dim church.
The heat made him feel drugged, and Beecher suddenly wanted to be out of here, to run from this church and screw this week’s bonus. They were growing louder and fiercer with each utterance of that hypnotic word. Sweeney’s arm suddenly became ironclad, and then the man was leading him up the aisle between the two rows of pews.
They approached the front of the auditorium, and only with decreased distance was Beecher able to make out the pulpit. In front of him another, larger cross hung suspended from the ceiling, over a beautiful—and very out of place—white marble table with an ornately carved pedestal holding it aloft.
Both the tabletop and the dirt floor beneath were stained a dull maroon.
Beecher’s breath caught in his throat, and he cringed against Sweeney.
From a side door by the pulpit, another man in a black robe led in a goat by a leash.
“No, Brother Adams,” Sweeney shouted to him over the swelling noise of the congregation. “We won’t be needing that today. Brother Beecher has agreed to be our guest of honor!” The man with the goat nodded and silently retreated.
Sweeney released him at last and turned to the suspended cross and held up his hands in supplication. He began to speak in that sharp, guttural language.
Beecher spun in a drunken circle. It seemed the congregation had closed in, cutting off the exit, but he was sure part of it was sunstroke from the crushing heat in this place. Their faces floated around him, each of them dead and expressionless, their mouths opening repeatedly around the same two syllables.
“Maymar, MAY-Mar, MAY-Mar, MAYMAR!”
He completed his turn, coming back to Sweeney, and froze with eyes bulging from their sockets.
In the air in front of the cross, a shimmering black hole appeared, a swirling vortex at least five feet across whose interior darkness made the church look as brightly lit as a hospital. From its swirling center came clacking, chitinous noises that set his teeth grinding and his hair on end.
Sweeney turned to him, his chest swelled with pride. “Behold the true god Maymar!”
From the hole, multi-segmented legs began to emerge, each half a car’s length and as big around as sapling trees. They gripped the edges and strained as though attempting to pull something too big for the circumference through the hole.
“But…but…b-but,” Beecher stammered. “T-the cross! I thought this was a Ch-Christian church!”
“Well, son,” Sweeney said, grinning at him and displaying an extra row of needle-sharp teeth from somewhere far back in his mouth, “you didn’t think Christ was the only one to die on a cross, now did you?”