Excerpt from Topheth

Posted: February 22, 2012 in The Writing Life, Topheth

Okay, so here’s the excerpt to Topheth that I promised. This’ll give you a taste of what the novel’s about, and an idea of why I’ve wanted to rescue it from the dustbin. From Chapter Nine:

He stood across the street from the One Way Holiness church, watching the line of people filing in and out the building. The building was old, with dark brick rising starkly from the concrete to assert its presence against the evening sky. Faded lines of crumbling mortar formed a bluish grid against the shadowed blocks, and the concrete stairs faded into gray obscurity, marked here or there only by the rigid black of exposed re-bar beneath its steps. The paint on the sign above the door was chipped and peeling, but the image of a single finger pointing straight to the faded pearly gates announced the congregation’s faith in the exclusive way to salvation.

The Sunday evening services had just let out, and people were still milling about, enjoying the afterglow of the prayer meeting. Quiet laughter filtered across the street to touch lightly on his ears. He breathed out a long sigh, watching them. Most of the congregants were black. Dark faces against the night, showing only the whites of their eyes and smiles, like the Cheshire Cat of Alice’s Wonderland.

Ashley loved the cat. She always wanted to know how he disappeared and left only his smile behind. How can something smile when it’s invisible? How, Daddy, how? The corners of his mouth turned up just a bit. She made him read her that story over and over again, till he nearly had it memorized. He should bring her here. Seeing these faces might answer her question.

He put his hand in his pocket and fingered the glass bottle of gasoline stuffed deep inside. Of course, she couldn’t come. Not now. The only way she ever came back was in the fire.

Same as the way she left.

He curled his other hand into a fist and pressed his teeth together until they hurt. Not now. He couldn’t do this now. He could feel her tugging at him, wanting him to walk away, wanting him to let her go. He shook his head. Not hard. But firmly. He was still her father, and when he said no it meant no.

She wouldn’t leave. He wouldn’t let her. If it meant sacrificing those who killed her to keep her with him, then so be it. Let justice be served.

A fragment of scripture played through his mind. The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. He thought maybe it was from Proverbs or one of the Psalms. No. Ecclesiastes. They’d recited it at her funeral.

He swallowed and turned his eyes to the dark heavens. “No,” he whispered. “You can’t have her yet. Not as long as I can bring her back, and punish those who took her from me.”

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

“No. I won’t let you.”

Let me go, Daddy.

No.

A chirping reached his ears, shattering his reverie. He reached inside the inner pocket of his overcoat and pulled out his cell phone. The particular song told him he had mail. It was an update from the local news station, one that was automatically sent from their website, and was once again about the fires. Plugging in an earphone, he watched the report. There were night shots of the flames, with fire trucks assembled to quench the blaze. He stared with growing excitement as the roof of the First Presbyterian Church caved in, sending a burst of smoke and sparks spiraling into the night sky. The newscaster reported the church was a total loss. The report went on to say that sources close to the investigation have informed them that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sent in an agent from the Behavioral Analysis Unit to assist with the case.

After a moment, he removed his earpiece and flipped the cell phone closed. So that’s who she was—this woman who looked like Ashley. A profiler. He stared back at One Way Holiness. There were a few white faces mingled among the African Americans. One or two younger ones wanting to be cool. A few older ones who looked as though they’d been in the neighborhood forever. All of them were few and far between.

He’d stick out like bird droppings on blacktop. No, there was no way he could slip in unseen. Not yet.

He leaned back against the post and waited, blowing a long sigh into the deepening blue. His breath was a smoky vapor trailing away into nothingness.

What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

He snorted. That one was easy. Book of James. He looked into the sky and let his lips part in a tiny snarl. “You can quote to me all you want.” He spoke his defiance quietly, the time for angry shouts and wailing jeremiads long past. It had been that way in the beginning, when the unreality of God’s crime was lost upon him. First, there were screams, ribbons of torment torn from his throat. Then prayers. Not the ‘Bless me, Lord, I pray,’ kind of prayers either. Long, loud, begging, bargaining, bleating prayers that were little more than groans. Cries for mercy, for miracle, for meaning. These eventually subsided, and at long last came the questions. Why?

He asked that one a thousand times. Why. It wasn’t even a question anymore. It was an accusation. How could You let this happen? What kind of God takes a fourteen year old girl and burns her in a fire? What manner of Deity delights in such sacrifice, and then demands unquestioning loyalty from the bereft?

What kind of God is that?

For a while, he debated whether any such God might exist at all. Perhaps there was no God. No one to answer for these crimes. No one to pay.

He shook his head, reaching for a cigarette. He tapped the pack against his open palm and pulled free a slender stick of paper and tobacco leaf, bringing it to his nose to smell the aromatic scent. His lighter flared in the blue, and he turned his face away from the crowd by the church, lest they see and recognize his features. In seconds he sucked the fumes into his lungs, blowing them out again in a sigh.

No. He’d decided a capricious God was better than no god at all. No god at all meant Ashley meant nothing at all, either. No god at all meant her life was meaningless. Her death less tragedy than senseless joke. It was simply not something he could accept.

Therefore God was cruel. Capricious. Culpable. And if he couldn’t punish the One who stole his daughter from him, he’d find other ways to work out his wrath. He took another drag off the cigarette and turned back to the church. Most of the people had filtered away from the church, slipping down the street to their cars or homes, leaving nothing but a scant trickle of humanity still lingering in the night. At last the few remaining drifted away from the door. The lights in the far back of the church winked out.

It was time.

He crushed out his cigarette against the telephone pole and stuck the butt into his front pocket. Wouldn’t do to leave any DNA at the scene for some enterprising CSI to stumble across. He crossed the street, glancing quickly both ways before scampering up the steps and inside the darkened vestibule.

The church’s sanctuary was much as he’d pictured it. Long rows of wooden pews with ornately carved sides stood gracefully on either side of the room. A wide aisle surged through the center, with crimson Berber carpeting spilling toward the front, where an altar squatted with the ubiquitous candles and cross. The pulpit was large, with broad panels on either side made for pounding a point home. A slender, silver microphone stand curved toward where the speaker’s mouth would be—a useful if completely unnecessary appendage in this small of a room. On the left, behind the railing up front where the penitent could pray sat the choir loft: three rows of pews that could seat maybe twenty five to thirty people. The projector and video screen on the wall behind the pulpit suggested the church was at least making the attempt to come into the twenty-first century. Idly, he wondered how much they’d paid for it.

From deeper within he heard the sounds of someone moving about. The minister or janitor or someone responsible to lock things up. He peered into the shadows but saw no one. Ducking behind the pews, he eased his body beneath the wooden bench, wiping his mouth on his sleeve as cobwebs clung to his lips. He tasted dust and sweat. The floor beneath him was cool, but hard, offering no comfort to his neck or back. His exhalation was loud and ragged in his ears, and he forced himself to calm down, easing his breathing to a whisper. Footfalls told him someone was coming.

He stared up at the bottom of the pew, seeing the faint stencil of the manufacturer’s name and logo still visible after all these years. The date on the pew said 1934. He wondered if the church itself had been here that long, or if they had purchased the benches used from some other congregation. No matter. The pews would burn. More fuel for the fire. More time with his girl.

The footfalls were nearer now. Heavy, plodding steps parading down the carpet. The sound was muted by the Berber pile, but he felt the vibrations in his back. He peered out at the corridor, willing himself unseen. A pair of heavy brown shoes appeared, beating out an even path to the door.

He held his breath, feeling a bead of sweat run down the width of his forehead and crash to the ground, almost certain its impact would reverberate, deafening against the hallowed floor.

The footsteps paused, and then turned in his direction. He could just see the leather toe of the shoe, hesitating near him. There was a resounding click! and the room plunged into darkness. A moment later, the front door closed, the key turned in the lock, and the footfalls retreated down the steps.

Gradually, he let his muscles relax. He hurt all over, and his breaths came out in tight, rapid pulses of air. He swallowed and pushed himself out from under the pew and stood there a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. He moved quickly over to the window, where clear plastic replaced the broken stained glass on at least one pane. His knee slammed into the back of the pew and a small yelp escaped his lips. He bit his tongue, refusing to cry out. Peering through the plastic pane, he watched as the figure he guessed was the church custodian ambled down the sidewalk until he was lost in shadow.

Finally, he let out his breath and sat down on the pew nearest the window. In the light that filtered from outside, he pulled out his fire-making kit. The bottle of gasoline caught in his pocket as he removed it, forcing him to turn the pocket inside out to free it. It came loose with a wispy thread caught on the lid. He tucked the pocket back inside his pants and set the bottle on the bench beside him. Next to it he set the lighter. He sat upright and looked around again, startled by how eerie the church felt, ensconced in shadow. Pale light filtered in muted hues from the stained glass windows, caressing the backs of the pews and glinting daintily off the far wall. He clenched and unclenched his fingers, wiping his sweaty palms on his pants several times to dry them.

Don’t do this, Daddy.

He pushed his palms into his face, not wanting to see. The memory came anyway.

Fire blazes before him, roiling clouds of black smoke smelling of burning vinyl, fuel and rubber. Glass shatters and crackles as the flames press against the van’s windows. Inside is Ashley. Little Ashley. He screams to her but she doesn’t answer. He reaches for her but a wave of heat slams him to the ground. Ashley, Ashley!

Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.

His sob broke the silence and he looked up, startled by the sound.

Let me go, Daddy.

No, Ashley. It’s time to come home.

Please, let me go.

Come home.

Daddy—

Now.

He picked up the bottle and the lighter, striding quickly to the front of the church. He splashed the fuel across the altar, the pulpit, and the new screen for the projector. He ran a line of it along the back bench of the choir loft, watching it dribble in sagging streams down the back of the pew. He dumped more on the carpet in front of the altar.

No, Daddy!

“It’s time to come home, now.” He bent forward and lit the cigarette lighter, holding the flame close to the fuel-soaked carpet.

“Obey your Daddy, now.”

A burst of orange and blue flame shot out along the carpet, flickering whimsically under the altar. It reached the line of gasoline that had fallen down the right leg and started lapping greedily up the table. He stared at the flame, fascinated by the demon’s pulsations. The fire climbed up the altar, and the line on the floor spread to the pulpit. Heat pushed against his face. It was a dance of hunger, a gyrating pulse of pure desire caressing, embracing, licking, gorging itself upon the wood.

Ashley.

The heat stroked his face, inviting. He gave himself to it, fingers of warmth gracing his neck, his arms, his torso, his loins. He was aroused. Later, he’d feel guilty for this foreplay. Right now, he wanted to give himself to it, to let the spirit that claimed his daughter’s life bring him to climax. He pushed out a heavy breath and retreated to the far pew. He fished out a fresh cigarette and stuck it between his teeth. The heat hadn’t reached the rear of the church, and the back of the pew still felt cool to his touch. His desire subsided.

That was always the danger. The demon wanted him. It craved his flesh, to possess him body and soul—a lover whose embrace would kill. But the demon also carried his daughter’s essence. He could bring her back, but only through the fire. The succubus brought her with it, dangling her presence, her smell before him, bait to lure him into the infernal coitus. It was a treacherous courtship, letting the demon woo him. He gave the spirit the churches instead, letting it satiate its hunger on those who’d wrought his grief.

He took a drag from his cigarette and leaned his head against his closed fist. God, how he missed her! Firelight flickered before him, brightening the church with its intensity. A clump of ash fell away from his cigarette, collapsing on the floor like a delicate, gray snowflake. A single touch would smear it into oblivion.

Something fell up front, sending a shower of sparks toward the ceiling. He started, looking up at the front of the church engulfed in flames. Outside the church flashes of red pulsated against the windows.

He’d stayed too long. Swallowing hard, he pushed himself from the pew and darted for the exit. He grabbed the handle and pulled, stunned when the door refused to budge. He tugged again, but it wouldn’t open. Behind him, he heard the demon laugh. He turned around, staring wide-eyed at the entrance to hell he’d opened up. The abyss of fire and smoke stood yawning before him. He turned and yanked on the door. Frantic. He raised his fist to pound on the frame, to scream for help.

He saw it. The knob of the deadbolt turned horizontally in the door. The firelight flashed against its shiny surface. He grabbed it and twisted. The deadbolt slid back. The door flew open. Cold air rushed into the building, a torrent of fresh oxygen eager to feed itself to the flames. Heedless, he burst through to the outside.

Lights from fire trucks and police cars surged toward him. He leaped over the steps and stumbled down the sidewalk. His legs scrambled for their footing on the concrete, but then they caught their stride and propelled him forward into darkness. He turned left at the corner and stumbled up the side street, then dashed right at the first alleyway. Only when he’d made three more turns and was sure he was now several blocks away did he slow to a walk, feeling his lungs burning for oxygen, his throat raw and warm with sputum. He was sure he tasted blood.

He put his hand against his heart and kept walking. His heart beat rough and heavy through his shirt, slowing only a very little as he turned again and worked his way toward his van. It couldn’t have been far. That’s when he noticed it. The smell of smoke heavy in his clothes. He fairly reeked of it. He pulled his collar close and breathed in her scent, her warmth. Oh, Ashley, Ashley! I’ve missed you, so very much!

He reached for his cigarette pack, and stopped. He’d left it behind. His cigarette. The one he’d lit in the church—no doubt still smoldering. When had he dropped it? He couldn’t remember. He closed his eyes and sighed. It could’ve been anywhere.

He pulled a cigarette free and lit it as he worked his way back toward the street. There was nothing to be done about it now. If they found it and guessed it was his, they’d have his DNA on file. They’d be able to put him at the scene of the crime, at least. Still, he told himself, that wasn’t in itself proof of anything. And even with the DNA off a cigarette, the church was a public place. There were lots of people who might stop in, not just him. Would they even be able to identify the saliva as his? Who knew?

It was a chance he had to take.

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