The Man Who Ran for God (pt. 13)

IV. My Mouth Will Tell of Your Righteous Acts

THE GOD WE DESERVE IS JUST A MAN

by Mary Jetson

When I ask Gideon Dodd, 42, why he wants to be God, his eyes glaze over in that way many would assume means he’s staring straight through them, cooking up some diplomatic, sound bite-ready answer.

But after wandering the plains of the Serengeti with him for nearly a full day without sleep, food, or water, this reporter knows the good reverend. That empty look isn’t the sign of an artful political dodge, or of mistrust in the media. Dodd is searching inward, dissecting his very soul.

He hasn’t, in fact, given any thought to this quandary before.

And it’s in this ten-second pregnant pause that the writer decides she’s going to vote for Gideon Dodd, because there’s an honesty, a truth in that self-reflection. Dodd is impetuous. He’s bull-headed. He has a terrible sense of self-worth and more neuroses than you could ever count. He has irritable bowel syndrome and a fear of flying.

He is, in a word, human.

When he finally answers, he says without the slightest bit of pretense or showmanship: “I see great suffering in the world. There may be a way for me to ease some of that suffering. If I am called to serve, I will serve.”

Only a human being, who has suffered loss and self-doubt, endured a crisis of faith, laid in bed with the flu, and — yes, devoured his share of babysitter porn — could begin to right the cosmic wrongs of the order of the universe.

Only a human being has seen them firsthand.

None of us seem up to the challenge.

None of us, that is, except Gideon Dodd.

Dodd famously wrote the best-seller God Don’t Care, after even more famously losing his wife to an absurd tragedy. (The writer will not recount it here.) Since then he has been catapulted from household name to stratospheric legend, the likes of which mankind hasn’t seen since the Buddha, King Arthur, or Joan of Arc.

Yet he puts his pants on one leg at a time, often forgetting to zip up his fly.

During our visit to the Hadzabe tribe in Tanzania…

[CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE —>]

V. All Authority in Heaven and on Earth

Maria’s article made for interesting, repeated reading on the flight to Italy. When the Papal Plane (offered by the Vatican as transport, and happily accepted by Kratz) landed on the tarmac strip inside the Holy City, the flight attendant had to shake Dodd’s shoulder to snap him out of his forty-eighth study of the op-ed piece.

He tucked it back into its floppy folder, slid that into his carryon bag, and clipped off his seatbelt.

A row ahead, Kratz— in a three-piece wool suit; wonders never ceased — twisted and reached over to knuckle Dodd’s forearm. Mal sat next to the image consultant, still wearing that loud orange necktie. Behind each man’s head was a silk doily, embroidered with the papal seal. Three rows ahead, near the cockpit so they could dart in and out of the pilot’s quarters, were the kids: Ellie sleeping, James engrossed in some hand-me-down, scuffed-up gadget. The hound, ever-present, lay curled in a violent dream, baring its teeth and pawing at the air with inch-long, black claws.

“Well,” said Kratz, “how is it? Did our girl screw you over or what?”

Dodd ran fingertips over his satchel, attempting to sense Maria’s words and thoughts through the canvas.

“No,” he said. “No. She’s a good writer.”

Kratz winked.

“She’s the best,” he said. “Only the best.”

The plane landed and the party stirred from their seats, stretching and grunting at intervals. Ellie, awake and upright, nudged and tapped her brother, who was still absorbed in the rust-framed, cracked screen of whatever doodad he’d stowed away.

“Son, look alive.” Dodd clapped. “We’re here.”

James swallowed some air, inhaled some saliva, and fought through a coughing fit as he pocketed the device and hopped onto the seat to reach the overhead luggage bin.

They disembarked, the six of them, Dodd counting the steps leading back to solid earth. Kratz suggestively fingered the burgundy velvet of the rope draped as a de facto banister, his pencil-stroke mustache ticking like the hand of a watch.

Ellie massaged her brother’s tensed shoulders on the way down. Their father asked her to stop and leave the poor boy alone.

Beyond, in the dusk, the Holy City appeared to be heaven itself, a platinum zenith of angelic achievement with its spires and clean streets, its domes and tinkling fountains.

Just shy of paradise, a bevvy of reporters and cameras undulated at the travelers’ heels. Their chatter grew more discordant and earsplitting as the space between Dodd’s shoes and the pavement shrank. Many of them babbled in foreign languages that sounded sour to the preacher’s ear after the soothing, oceanic lull of the jet plane.

Once they were off the steps, swarming journalists and adorers engulfed the new arrivals. The dog’s hairs stood on end, its tail at full erect attention. James clung to his father’s hip marsupial-like, and Ellie stood to the side, her eyes wide, soaking everything up: the prattle, the flashes, the television cameras swooping down on cranes.

“Mr. Dodd is very tired,” Kratz said, pushing to the front of the throng, “and I’m sure you can imagine he has a lot of work to do. He’ll be absolutely thrilled to field all of your questions tomorrow, when we’re celebrating his inevitable victory at St. Peter’s.”

Kratz, at arm’s length, held onto Dodd’s shoulder.

“Isn’t that right, sir?” he said. It was the first time he’d uttered the word “sir” since Dodd met him.

“Er—” Dodd blinked. “That’s right. Thrilled. Uh, tomorrow. Tired today.”

“All right, all right!” Kratz removed his spindly digits from the pastor and used both sets to lower a pair of particularly invasive Canons. “You got enough for your eleven o’clock bulletins. Give the man some room.”

Mal elbowed Dodd in the ribs. The preacher flung his arms in an reflexive jerk, giving Mal the chance to seize him by the biceps and puppeteer his fatigued limbs in maestro movements.

In response, the sea of people parted, made a tidy little aisle on either side of a long gold carpet, so the men, the kids, and the canine could pass.

At the end of it, Dodd saw, was a strange vehicle he’d only heard descriptions of: a boxy, gold car topped with an upright glass coffin. The Popemobile sat waiting to whisk them away to the inner sanctum of Vatican City. Its sparkling, bejeweled rims spun so fast, even with the car idling, that Dodd could barely tell they were shaped like crucifixes.

Up front a wide, chiseled driver in a black suit and sunglasses sat, thin-lipped and imposing, her white knuckles gripping the wheel. Ensconced within the bulletproof protrusion was His Holiness himself, hands folded in his lap. His frail figure drowned in a pool of immaculate white robes. He even had on that hat of his.

And he waved.

He smiled.

The Pope waved and smiled right at Gideon Dodd.

Chin stabbing the crook of Dodd’s neck, Kratz leaned forward, all teeth, mobile phone gripped in his flailing fingers.

“Landed — in — hashtag — Vatican — City,” he breathed, tapping away. “Warm welcome from ‘at-Pope-of-the-People.’ Italy has the best spaghetti and I love the Catholics.”

Dodd’s head pivoted so fast their noses brushed. “Huh?” he said.

“Smile,” said Kratz, and he snapped a photo not four inches from the preacher’s face. “Ooh, the makeup only makes your scabs looks worse,” he said. “Perfect. Annnd send.” A flourishing bap of the touchscreen, and he mugged. “If that doesn’t break the internet I’ll eat my shoe.”

The people in the throng, neatly parallel but fervent, reached out to touch, wave down, grip onto the nominee. A woman — black hair pulled tight, all prim properness in a tailored pantsuit — broke free and walked in stride with Dodd down the long carpet swath. In her hands gleamed a cylindrical aluminum urn of sorts.

“Mr. Dodd?” she said. “Shoshana Issachar, Professor of Human Studies — Tel Aviv University.” She reached out a plank-like row of digits beneath her cargo. Dodd pinched them with his thumb and forefinger and waggled. The Popemobile seemed further away now, the rows of cheering and hissing people stretching on to forever.

“I’m also on diplomatic assignment from Israel,” Issachar said, bouncing alongside Dodd. “We’re all very excited about your candidacy — and very hopeful for your odds. But really, what we’re most anxious to discuss—”

“You want my man to promise you the Promised Land when he wins,” Kratz said. His dog barked between his thighs.

Issachar swallowed. “We’d simply like the opportunity to present our case on the matter of occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. I think you really have a good shot at the entire Israeli — heck, the entire Jewish population’s vote, around the world here, if you just made a quick statement. Just made your stance known. You know, the current administration firmly asserts the Israelis’ right to—”

“What’s that?” Dodd pointed at the canister held at her waist.

“Oh,” she said. She hooked a finger through a ring on the top, pulled off the silver lid to reveal a gorgeous, photogenic cake. Smooth and brown, round and soft — artwork, really, with a constellation of nuts arranged just so in glistening icing.

“Chocolate halva,” Issachar said, “for you, Mr. Dodd. And your little ones.” She smiled at James and Ellie, both of whom stared back in lip-smacking interest. Accepting the cake into his hands, Dodd held it to the side where his daughter scooped it up. Issachar smiled and said, “It’s an old family recipe. An Israeli favorite. Just a small token of our people’s appreciation for your endeavor, and our bright future together. Right, Mr. Dodd?”

The reverend’s mustache twitched. Still marching onward, he looked ahead with longing at the idling car. Issachar’s shoulders drooped.

Mal leaned in, bowed a little. “We stand with Israel,” he said. “Thank you for the cake, and for your vote, madam.”

“Oh.” A spasmodic smile danced across the woman’s chin. “Oh, thank you.” She clutched her heart. “That’s— My friends back home will be very— of course you have our— oh, goodness…”

“You got it, sweetheart,” Kratz said, winding around the professor and taking her photo. “Team Dodd thinks Israel is-raelly special.” He winked back at her cocked head and pursed mouth before she disappeared, bewildered, back into the undulating mob.

At the same time the crowd spat out a spindly, dark-skinned man with a nose that could cut glass.

“Mr. Dodd!” he said, lifting a rough palm. “Mr. Dodd, what an honor to address you in the flesh.”

Kratz inhaled and raised an eyebrow at Mal. “Should I be live-streaming this?” he said, swiping away at his phone. “I feel like I should be live-streaming this.” He held the device out, horizontally panning.

The blade-nosed man bowed a little. “I am Farhat Teebi,” he said, and again Dodd found himself shaking a stranger’s hand, wondering how many steps and how many greetings it would take to bring him to the passenger’s seat of his getaway.

“Foreign affairs minister of Palestine,” Teebi said, prodding his heart with a thumb. “It really is an honor. Oh!” He reached into his pocket, withdrew a thumb drive, which the preacher would not know how to use. “Loaded this up with a little gift: Here’s a playlist of the most revered artists of Palestinian hip-hop, curated just for you, Mr. Dodd.”

Farhat Teebi pressed the drive into Dodd’s hand the same way the preacher had bribed hostesses for a good table at expensive restaurants.

“Was that Shoshana Issachar back there?” Teebi’s eyes narrowed, flitting a few feet back. “Because you can’t trust a thing that woman says. And her halva isn’t even that good. Look, Mr. Dodd, I’ve been sent— rather, I volunteered to come talk to you about how important it is for the Palestinian people to have a god that has their best interests — human interests — at heart. You know what I mean?”

“Is this about the bank?” Dodd said. “The strip bank, or whatever? In the desert?”

Teebi froze a moment, got a crotch full of dog snout for his hesitation.

“Er, yes, sir,” said Teebi. “Something like that. My constituents are— well, we’re at a— a…”

“I don’t follow politics,” Dodd said. “I’m sorry.”

With Dodd in the lead, his entourage sidestepped Teebi and left the foreign minister there, agape and stooped.

Glaring after the pastor, Mal seized Teebi’s hand and clasped it. “Your people have our support,” he said. “If we have yours.”

Teebi nodded, transfixed. “Mr. Dodd is a great man,” he said. “And he will be a great God.”

“Yes,” Mal said, “he will.”

Releasing the diplomat, Mal took great strides past the dog and the twins and the phone-wielding Kratz to jab Dodd’s ribs. The preacher yawned and looked over, scarcely jostled from his torpor.

“Who were those people?” Dodd asked. Mal stammered, said something about “never in my life,” but the preacher didn’t catch it all, finding himself staring down the minuscule lens of Kratz’s phone camera.

Like a gnat — worse than — Kratz circled the reverend, always that pinprick camera lens pointed his way. “‘Kay, now say, ‘A vote for me is a vote for salvation.’”

Dodd made a hieroglyph hand to shield his brow. “Put that away,” he said.

“Oh, come on,” Kratz said. “D’you have any idea how many Likes you’re getting here?”

“I wish you’d stop.”

Next thing he knew, a shower of rose petals danced in his hair, about his ears, against his cheeks. Members of the crowd, unable to contain themselves, shouted and stepped forward, laying hands on the preacher.

“I’ve already started praying to you! Have you heard me?”

“I’ll vote for you, I swear! Just stop me going bald!”

“My daughter said if you grow a beard, you’d get the women’s vote!”

“Heal me!”

“Heal my wife!”

“Heal my dog!”

“Heal everyone! Why not?”

Cheek muscles strained in forced smiles, hands waved, babies were smooched, and at long last, Dodd and his team found themselves in the shadow and exhaust plume of the Pope’s idling vehicle, bombarded by pleas and praises and gifts: fluttering doves, airborne sweets, blown kisses. Kratz popped open the door and urged a bewildered Dodd to scale three narrow steps up inside the bubble, where he plopped down next to His Holiness. Mal, Kratz, the dog and the kids all took their places in the leather-upholstered backseat.

“Mr. Dodd,” said the Pontiff. Only, it sounded to Dodd’s American ears like “Meester Daww-da.” Five pruny fingertips twiddled out of the draping cuff of the holy man’s robesleeve. Dodd jammed a clumsy hand up there and shook something that felt like crepe paper wrapped around twigs.

“It is an honor to meet you at last,” said the Pope.

“Honor?” Dodd bopped his temple with the heel of his palm. “Sir, I’m the one who’s honored!” He let the bony mottled mitt slide from his grip. “Not that I’m what you’d call hip to the Catholic scene. What is that gobbledygook language you chant in? Chinese?” The Protestant chuckled.

“You’re non-denominational, I’ve gathered.” The Pope inhaled a rattling breath. “How charming.”

The vehicle coughed up some exhaust and took off at a roll. As the scenery began to inch past, something tugged at Dodd’s pant leg.

“Daddy!”

Below, Ellie’s hand had reached through the opening down into the main car, bunching up the cloth around her papa’s ankle. A glistening hunk of deep-brown cake hovered beside it. “This Jewish cake is delicious!”

“Don’t say that,” Dodd said. “It’s impolite.”

“What?”

“Never mind.” Her daddy waved her off. He turned to His Holiness once more. “Thank you for hosting us in your beautiful city, sir. Y’know, I never been to Italy before.”

“Hmm.” The old man’s nostrils expanded, wiry silver tentacles dancing within. “Well, we have never had someone — quite like you — come calling. Mr. Dodd, it is an historic day. I have a gift for you.”

(Ah geef-taah.)

“Lotta gifts today!” Dodd chuckled again.

The Pope produced from within his billowing vestments a glitter-sprinkled gift bag, topped with a gold ribbon. Dodd took it, fished around in tissue paper, and yielded a small wooden figurine. It was about four inches tall, very well-crafted, sporting fine detail indeed.

It looked just like him.

It looked just like Gideon Dodd.

“You are something of an enthusiast, I am told,” said the Pontiff. “Here is one to add to your collection.”

The pudgy, grinning, handheld Gideon Dodd rolled around his much larger progenitor’s hands, spinning — through bent fingers the preacher saw a blur of teeth and eyes, hair and neck. Teetheyes/hairneck–teetheyes/hairneck.

“It’s way off-scale,” he said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“The model,” said Dodd. “It’s way too big. The people of Doddville are a quarter this size, tops. I’ll tower over them.”

The holy man lifted, with effort, a crooked pointer. “Ah,” he said. “Is that not most appropriate, Mr. Dodd?” And he winked — homage or mockery, Dodd couldn’t tell and didn’t really stop to ponder anyway. “We are most eager—” His Holiness said, “the Church, that is — most eager to work alongside your administration in the eternity to come. Most eager indeed. And most pleased.”

“Really?” Kratz’s head popped up, prairie dog-like, between the elevated men’s shoes. Curled over his pronounced canines, his upper lip morphed into a W, his eyebrows doing much the same. “That’s surprising, your honor. Aren’t you Catholics a bunch of stuffed shirts, with all the rules and the catechisms and the waking up before dawn? I’d think what my pappy here’s doing would come off a little… revolutionary for you types, no?”

When he laughed, the Head Bishop’s body threatened to diffuse like an open bag of flour smacked onto the counter. Seemingly sensing this, he held onto his own sides, steadying himself, but smiled down at Kratz’s head.

“The Church is more progressive than you might think, mister…?” He frowned. “I don’t believe I know your name, sir.”

“Sure you don’t.”

“Well,” the Pope blinked so slowly it could have constituted a catnap. “You might be surprised to learn, sir, that the Catholic faith has made great strides in the past few decades.” As if to contradict him willfully, the buildings outside passed by at a crawl; the car couldn’t have been going over fifteen miles per hour. “For instance, we have accepted the notion of evolution into the holy canon. Homosexuals may be ordained as priests…”

“What about women?” Ellie’s head appeared, too, from below deck. “Can girls be priests yet?”

“Erm.” The Pope swallowed, his entire uvula by the sound of it. “Perhaps we should continue this discussion at a later time. It is a big day, after all. Yes, yes… A very big day.”

“Gimme piece of that cake, Ellie.” Dodd patted his daughter on the head, his wooden mini-replicant propped upon his knee. When she and Kratz both sunk into the depths of the car again, the pastor leaned back and peered down after his daughter. Chin dimpling, he scratched his cheek and opened his mouth, closed it.

“Your Holiness?” he said. “I think we will have lady priests.”

Wobbling, the Pontiff’s head creaked toward his guest. Eyelids drooped like curtains over rheumy eyes; his jowls jiggled over some inner tremor. “Certainly,” he said. “Certainly.”

Dodd put a hand at his sternum, noting the lack of a seatbelt. He looked out the glass enclosure, watching the gilded streets, the ancient Roman architecture snail by. With a hooked claw he tapped on the clear encasement.

“This bullet-proof?” he said.

The Vicar nodded. “Of course,” he said. The bisected millipede that was his mouth tilted up on one side.

“We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you, now, would we, Mr. Dodd?”

VI. He Will Protect You from the Evil One

Something almost happened to Gideon Dodd about fifteen minutes later.

The Popemobile parked at the far end of St. Peter’s Square, unable to come any closer to the Basilica due to the gathered masses huddled within: thousands sprawled across the courtyard, an old obelisk jutting up in the center of the mob, a massive sundial casting a narrow strip of shade onto the horde. More people lined up in droves within the surrounding colonnades, spilling out of ornate columns. There was simply nowhere for the car to go, so the party exited the vehicle, its stern driver leading the exodus, her hand dancing above the gun hitched to her hip.

“Goodness,” said Dodd, scaling the steps down and out of the display case, “that’s gotta be half the world jammed into this place.”

“Voters,” said Kratz. He clutched his pelvis, thrust his lap forward and shoulders back, beaming at the sun. “They’re lined up for the polls. S’like this all around the world. Tel Aviv, New York, Beijing. Everyone gets a vote. Democracy in action, Padre.” The public relations man clicked his tongue, flashed those canines.

“How will we get in?” asked James. At his navel, he clasped a trembling pair of hands.

Kratz’s dog woofed, neck muscles rippling under its noir sheen.

“We will have to go through,” wheezed the Pope. He was draped over the driver’s thick arm, only the tips of his toes making contact with pavement.

“Through?” Mal frowned.

“It’s the only way.”

The driver scooped up the old man’s legs with her other limb and carried him, like a new mother, to the cusp of the crowd. Those at the rim of the cluster marveled, exchanged looks, gasped, shouted, reached out. The driver shot a look back at Ellie.

“Say, sweetie,” she said, “see that little canister attached to my belt?” She nodded down.

Ellie stepped forward, cake crumbs and a thin smear of icing still on her lips. “Yeah…”

“Grab it, won’t you, and pull the tab? Then just roll it toward those people?” Shifting the Bishop over her shoulder, she jutted her hip out toward the girl. “And here’s the important part, honey: Soon as you toss it, you step back, all right? And maybe hold your breath a few seconds.”

“O-okay.” Ellie, without trepidation, did as she was asked. With a quick yank the silver tube was in her hands, the pin wrapped round her little finger. A gold cross — to match the driver’s lapel — was soldered to its aluminum casing. Ellie pulled, squatted, and pushed the can down the cobblestone at a bumpy roll. White vapor began to hiss from the top of the cylinder — thin at first, steadily expanding to a billow. Ellie stepped back, hand over her mouth, and the group watched in mixed reactions — bored detachment from the Pontiff and his bodyguard, amusement from Kratz, stoic observation by Mal, and awed horror from Dodd and his children.

The gaggle of voters began to cough, hack, and rasp. Holding onto their throats, clamping their eyes shut, falling over neighbors, crying out — they parted, fumbling and screaming.

A neat path opened up amid the throng.

“In we go,” said the Pope.

Indicating a pouch strapped to her shoulder, the driver let the others help themselves to a set of disposable surgical masks. Once applied, the papal party entered the gaggle of hacking, sobbing supporters and made their way to the heart of the square, where a pair of wide decorated doors awaited them leading to the hallowed halls of St. Peter’s Basilica. Desperate victims of the driver’s vapor poison snatched at loose bunches of Dodd’s clothing, but he forged ahead, slipping from their pleading grasps. At the base of the stone steps leading to the church entrance, the pastor turned around in concern.

Many people had collapsed to the ground, hacking onto concrete, banging fists and curling up into tight balls of tense limbs and anguish. The reverend began a sentence — the first word was “What” — then found he couldn’t complete his thought.

“Hey! Dodd!”

A black-clad figure burst forth from the chaos, face concealed in a gas mask that brought to mind images from science fiction films. Something duct-taped across their chest; a small, wired device twirled in the stranger’s gloved hand, a thumb hovering over its red trigger.

“God damn you,” this person said — muffled, crackling through the filter of their mask. “God damn you to hell, blasphemer!”

They jammed the crimson button, held it down. Dodd felt his children crumple against the backs of his wobbling legs, and he understood that this must be the end — the end of his journey, of his time on Earth, of this whole ridiculous affair.

It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant notion.

But no end came.

The assailant turned their concealed face to the faulty switch, clicking it over and over. “What the…?”

A massive blur, streaked with a brush of blazing orange, burst forward. Mal, inhumanly fast and vibrating with unholy rage, wrapped the would-be assassin in a binding of bulging dark-fleshed muscle. The bum trigger clattered to the ground — dozens of incapacitated people screamed and army-crawled backward — and Dodd looked down, breathless. There was a deafening crack and the attacker slumped like a marionette in Mal’s arms. They collapsed to the ground in a heap, and Dodd’s political advisor brushed his hands against one another, stepping over his quarry to rejoin the group at the stairway.

A primal, clicking grunt puttered through Kratz’s open throat. He pressed a finger onto his hound’s tautly held head and said, “Abendessen.”

Frothing, howling, a red glint refracting in its eye from the bright sunlight, the four-legged beast leapt forward, landing at the fallen body to bend at the knees of its forelegs, its maw parting.

The dog thrust its snout downward, at the felled soldier’s belly, and tore through the abdomen as easily as it might have bitten through cobwebs.

The hound began to eat.

“Good— good grief!” Dodd covered his children’s eyes on either side. “Heavens to Betsy! Kratz!” He turned to his image consultant. “Call him off! Make it— Make it stop! I’m gonna be…” He belched, bent over.

“Pupper’s hungry,” Kratz said, and crossed his arms. “And I don’t have time for this bullshit. An assassin? Really? This late in the game? Fucking annoying.”

Dodd belched again, turned away. He scooped his children up into a huddle, pressed their faces into his paunch.

The Pope, from his infantile roost, cleared his throat. “Perhaps we are best to be going inside now, yes?”

The driver nodded.

One by one the company turned toward the cathedral doorway and scuffed up the steps on uncertain heels. James let out an audible moan, his sister holding him upright step-for-step.

The wet noises of rending and chewing growing louder over his shoulder, Dodd shakily came last, as the doors were being swung open by a very calm and unruffled Mal. The driver and her human baggage went inside first, then the kids, then Mal.

Dodd put one foot inside, stopped with a slap to his lower back. It was Kratz, scattering his hair with a set of long fingernails, eyes downcast. His mouth collapsed into itself, goatee shriveling.

“Um,” he said, “I think I’ll wait outside. If you don’t mind.”

Dodd sank into himself.

“Kratz,” he said, “my head is spinning. I need to sit down. I don’t know if I can get through whatever song and dance this Pope’s got prepared for me.” He swallowed. “Your— you— I think I’m gonna be sick. We just killed somebody.”

Mal killed somebody. Who was fixing to kill you,” Kratz said. His pinky swooped up, cradled under Dodd’s second chin. “We saved your damn life, Padre. I think you owe my dog a ‘thank you.’”

“We need to call the police.”

“I’m sure they’ve been called. You’ve got other work.”

Dodd’s nostrils opened up, gulped air like little mouths. “Come with us,” he said. “This all feels funny. I don’t wanna get bamboozled. I don’t think I’m in any state to— to stick up for myself, or spot signs of— of chicanery.”

Black tufts of greasy hair spilling between his digits, Kratz broke eye contact and sighed. “Uh, look, Gideon,” he said. “I can respect you’re a little spooked, a little queasy.” His cheeks ballooned. “What if I said going in that church would do the same for me?”

“Huh?”

“Houses of worship sort of… freak me out. I have a thing about it.” Kratz held out his hands, as if in challenge to judge or question further. Neither fellow said anything for a moment; all they could hear were the fading wails of pain from the gassed crowd, the smacking of dog lips against human flesh.

“I’ll be right out here,” Kratz said. “Don’t agree to anything. Don’t promise a bloody thing, not ‘till you talk to me. You’ll be fine.” Holding himself in perfect posture, only the slightly paler hue of his face betrayed any unease clanging around the campaign manager’s mind. “Go blow some minds, pappy. I believe in you.”

And Kratz leaned forward and hugged Gideon Dodd.

Dodd’s arms hung at his side, right up to his consultant’s back-pat coda.

“I have to tell you something,” said Dodd.

Kratz pulled back.

“You told me you weren’t going anywhere ‘till this election’s over,” he said. “And I get it. I— we shook on it. And we’re men of our word.” He dug fists into his pockets and swayed a little, a single vein writhing wormlike under the creases of his forehead. “But after this. If I win?”

When you win.”

“Right. Well, either way. When this is over,” Dodd waggled as a chill ran down him from neck to tailbone. “If I lose, we break ties. You owe me nothing, I owe you nothing.”

A little of the red color returned to Kratz’s cheeks. “But?”

“If I win, I won’t be having you on my staff. My cabinet, my host, whatever. I’ll be bringing Ray back to consult with me in Heaven. Manage the angels, delegate the miracles. I trust him. But you…” Dodd dared a glance at the feasting hound several yards away, bit down on one cheek. “Well. This ain’t workin’ out.”

Kratz stared at his client, stared through him — a palpable glare, the hyper focus of the man’s pupils and shrinking irises stung Dodd’s face, his chest — a blow dart shot into his solar plexus.

“You are only here,” Kratz said, “because of me.” A C-shaped hand floated toward the preacher, wrapped around his necktie, and pulled. “Every living person on the planet is casting a ballot today, instead of laughing at an insane person who wanted to challenge God Almighty in an election caper so conceptually, mind-bendingly stupid that Mad Magazine hasn’t been able to figure out how to make a parody out of it yet. I am your credibility. I am your success. I am this entire campaign, you blithering, dithering little shit.

“You want Ray Wachstetter to be your right-hand holy man?” Kratz pulled Dodd closer, and for a moment the pastor expected him to spit in his eye. “Ray Wachstetter’s never coming back.” He let go with a little push, sending Dodd tottering back until his keister collided with the doorframe. “So you’d better get used to me. We are going to be friends for a very, very long time, Gideon Dodd.”

With the building doing more to keep him upright than his own diminishing resolve, Dodd looked up at that tall, sallow, sunken-eyed creature he’d met at a crossroads Arby’s — and before that, had met spasming with the Holy Spirit in a fancy bathroom, though that memory was long gone.

“Y’know,” he said, “I think you’re maybe crazy.”

“And you’re just now realizing that?” Kratz did spit now, onto the concrete.

“I’m going in now. But we ain’t done here,” said Dodd. His wandering arm grabbled around for the handle at his buttocks.

“On that,” Kratz said, “we can agree.” He reached into his blazer, and Dodd winced, thinking of guns — bullets, rage, death. But what Kratz now brandished was far more innocuous, at least in theory.

“Now take this,” he said, handing the smartphone to Dodd, “and at least try to live-tweet some of the proceedings in there. You got a lot of followers on pins and needles.” His slender, chalk-stick finger tapped the sleeping screen. “Use the ‘at’ symbol to mention somebody—” at Dodd’s blank expression he added, “I mean, to summon someone. And the pound sign there’s a hashtag. That means— ah, fuck it, just put the pound sign in front of every other word. You’ll be fine.”

Dodd scowled — first at the device in his hand, then at his campaign manager. He pocketed the phone and stepped into the Basilica. Though nobody touched it to his knowledge, the heavy ancient door swung shut behind him with a slam.

It didn’t sound wooden, that slam.

It sounded like the iron gates of some gulag, latching shut forever.

VII. Be Hospitable to One Another without Complaint

In light of the horrors that had just occurred on its doorstep, the overwrought grandeur of the Church’s interior seemed, to Dodd, like the endless corridors in some nightmare of dogged, doomed pursuit. Tapestries, marble floors, golden torchlights, elaborate stained glass masterpieces that reached from the sparkling floors to the vaulted ceilings — every element of this meticulously designed space, so old and redolent with meaning, sent waves of discomfort coursing through him from the chest outward. The walls had ears, and eyes, and a soul.

He didn’t belong here, and he knew it.

They walked him down galleries that went on and on, everyone silent save for the clack of their soles against the floor. Here and there, glimpses through ornate windows into deeper recesses of the cathedral, where more — hundreds, thousands more — people stood in line waiting for their turn to cast a ballot. Every hundred yards or so was a cheap poker table, behind which sat a pair of grinning volunteers, ticking names off of lists printed on paper stacks thick as phone books. At each of these stations were boxes of Entenmann’s donuts and coffee. Dodd thought of asking to stop for some, but kept mum.

Even with such multitudes present, the halls were soundless. It was like every voter was holding their breath, stifling their steps. Out of respect? Out of fear?

Is there a difference? thought Dodd.

“Where’d they all come from?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” Mal’s concentration was everywhere but on Dodd: scanning, combing, scouring the scene at full attention. “From all over the world.” He seemed annoyed at the question.

“No,” Dodd said. “All the staff. The pollsters. Security. This is insane. Bigger than New Year’s at Times Square. Who organized all this?”

Mal’s head bobbed about his neck. A glance upward, and Dodd figured he was counting the CCTV cameras affixed to the ceiling. “Who do you think?” Mal said.

“Kratz works hard,” said Dodd.

Mal grunted. “For you.” With massive paws he clapped Dodd at the biceps, moved the trajectory of his gait and spared him tripping over a cluster of cords. “He booked Bon Jovi for the victory dinner. Think about thanking him, for once.”

Dodd’s fingertips found his heart.

“I love Bon Jovi,” he said.

They came to the end of the gauntlet, and James and Ellie turned around on either side of the porthole that capped it off, looking to their father for some clue as to what should happen next.

This entrance was medieval — that was the only way to describe it. Wooden, heavy slats stacked together, black metal strips securing their binding; a steel eight-foot latch set in place, to blockade not the entrance of newcomers but the departure of those already inside.

“Here we are,” the Pope breathed. “Mitzi, you can let me down now.”

The Popemobile driver lowered her master to the floor, though allowed him to hang onto one forearm for balance.

She knocked on the door thrice — a one-two, pause, three pattern — threw the plank upright and forced the portal open with a stiff shoulder. It budged an inch or two; she jerked her head at Mal, who joined her for an old heave-ho. The entrance was swung wide to reveal a surprisingly modern scene:

Red velvet drapes, lava lamps, leather couches, a Native American woven rug. In the far end, a bar — behind which a short, skinny, bearded man in a black suit and yarmulke stood mixing a cocktail.

Mal and Mitzi — the Pope a barnacle on her arm — went in. Dodd smiled at his children — where did he find that smile? — and, taking their hands in both of his, he followed.

Upon entering he heard music — Lena Horne overlaid with the earthy crackle of vinyl. There were others gathered here — an obese, freckled fellow with wisps of white hair lay back in a creaky recliner. A parakeet (is that a parakeet? wondered Dodd) or some such bird fluttered its wings from its perch on his shoulder.

And at the bookshelf, stuffing small square pamphlets in between ancient texts, there was—

“Dunwoodie!” Dodd exclaimed. He stepped forward, squinting, mouth open.

The kid threw his arms behind his back, cowered. “Mr. D-Dodd,” he said. “W-what a pleasure to see you a-again…”

Dunwoodie’s head dropped in a cringe. Dodd could see a white patch taped to his ear, speckles of blood seeping through.

“What happened to you, son?” Dodd said.

“What happened to you?” the boy said. The jerky pupils in his skull combed Dodd’s face, the healing pustules and scabs. Young Bennie’s fingers danced in a rippling twitch. “I mean— never mind. It’s nothing. My ear. Nothing. We’re— we aren’t here to— More important things…”

“Cut him a break, Gideon,” someone said from the far end of the swanky lounge. “I nearly gave him a slap myself, but just look at him: Poor thing.”

Ellie and James both lit up, hopped, and ran toward the speaker.

“Missus Stenson!” Ellie shouted.

“Huh?” Dodd looked over, stepped away from a relieved Dunwoodie.

Yes. There — her face basking in neon lava lamplight — there was Maria Stenson, reporter for Time (a.k.a. Mary Jetson). She had a highball glass in her hand, some amber liquid inside and a floating cherry. Looking at ease and not at all out of place, she stooped to hug the twins, giving each a little squeeze and peck on the cheek.

“Hey, kiddos,” she said.

“Maria,” said Dodd. His children scampered back to him — Ellie giggling, James a bit dumbstruck. “I never thought I’d see you again. W-what on Earth you doin’ here? In Vatican?”

The reporter gave a single snicker. One step forward, she panned the room with an upturned hand. “On assignment,” she said. “Biggest thing to happen since Adam blamed the apple on Eve, and it’s me gets to write about it. Couldn’t you die?”

From behind the bar, the yarmulke-wearing man snorted, said, “Tuh!”

“But I thought you couldn’t write about me anymore,” Dodd said, “on account of your husband.”

Maria sipped from her glass. “Not writing about you,” she said.

“What?”

“She is writing,” the Pope crackled from his new position on the couch, the soles of his white slippers pointed at Dodd and company, “about me. I myself invited her to conduct the interview, flew her in at my expense.” Eexpeens-ah.

“Crazy shit, right?” Maria prodded Dodd with a playful wrist. “I’m just getting acquainted with the gang here,” she said, waving her glass around the room, “but they said soon as you got here I needed to dally off and find something to do out of the way.”

“Yes,” the Pope wheezed. Mitzi the driver brushed his forehead tenderly. “Ms. Stenson needs to leave us for the moment. We will finish our conversation later. I trust it will be… quite… fruitful.”

“Sure, sure.”

Mal shook Maria’s hand, and Dodd was more than a little surprised to see how warm the greeting was. “Perhaps,” he said, kissing Maria on the cheek, “you could pass the time by casting your ballot, eh?” Dodd thought he saw Mal wink at her, then.

“Oh, God, no,” she said, and drained her glass. She set it on the bar — the Jewish fellow snatched it and wrung a rag through it straightaway — and shook her head. “Can’t vote,” she said.

“Can’t vote?” Dodd blinked.

“But you gotta vote!” Ellie said.

“Nope.” Maria made a referee’s Out sign. “Can’t do it — not with the magazine sending me out here on assignment. Conflict of interest. Plus, y’know, my husband begged me not to vote for you. Uh, sorry.”

“Then don’t vote for him!” Ellie stamped a foot, gasped and covered her mouth, shot her dad an apologetic look.

“I’ll just have to abstain,” Maria said, and shrugged. “Trust me, I’m fine with it. Better to be above reproach, eh, Father?” She rolled her eyes.

Dodd cocked his head, studied her through narrowed eyes. “But your article… You said you believed in me. Supported me.”

“And I do.” She shot a look at the prostrate Pope, the sighing rabbi bartender — she shifted on her feet; she wasn’t welcome anymore, and Dodd could tell she could tell. “I’ll just have to support you as Mary Jetson, in my thinkpieces.”

“What’s a thinkpiece?”

“If you don’t know, I won’t ruin your day by explaining.” The parrot-man, the big one, puttered his lips in the lounger. Maria looked longingly at the door. “I’m sorry, Gideon. You’d have my vote, of course you’d have my vote — but I can’t risk my journalistic integrity.”

“So you’re the only human being on the planet not voting?”

Maria held up two fingers. “Only one,” she said.

“And that’s not strange to you?”

She mock-pouted, making Bambi eyes. “Oh, Gideon,” she said. “This whole damn thing is strange.”

Then she kissed him on the cheek — inhaled a short shocked breath, gave her lips an admonishing pat — and, finding some grace, she waved the twins over.

“C’mon, kids,” she said. “Let’s let the grownups talk, huh? Maybe I can find you a nice Italian ice.” And with the reverend’s children in tow, she left the room.

Before he’d really registered that she was gone, Dodd felt the wet cool of a martini glass pressing against the meat of his palm. Reflexively he gripped it, looked down, saw the olive on its swizzle stick still swirling from a stir.

“It’s non-alcoholic,” said the yarmulke man, who lifted his own beverage. “To Gideon Dodd!” he said. Mr. Parrot raised a can of Pabst from the recliner. Dunwoodie scrambled, gnawing at the air, and grabbed a glass of milk from an end table, hoisting it shakily. Mitzi dangled a goblet of wine over the Pontiff’s head, enveloped in soft cushion. Mal clutched a neat whisky to his abdomen.

All the men said, “To Dodd!” and drank — the Pope being nursed by his chaperone — but Dodd himself refrained from sipping, following Mal’s scowling lead.

Mazel tov. Have a seat, Mr. Dodd.” The Yiddish bartender nodded toward a stool at the bar and took the one next to it. “Uh, drink up. It’s good for the constitution.”

Dodd sat, placed his drink on the counter.

“I’m Rabbi Hamish Fauntleroy,” said the drink-mixer. He indicated his companions. “Bennie you know, I think. That,” he flicked a finger at the big belly laying back in the corner, “is Garrett Marsten, President of the—”

“He’s President of the Mormon Church,” Dodd said. He threw one leg over the other. “I remember, my eighth book knocked his memoir off the top of the religious best-sellers’ list.” With stubby nails he scratched at his scalp. “Gentlemen, this is startin’ to feel like the mafia of western religion. Call me paranoid, but somebody did just try and blow me up…”

“A terrible turn of events.” The old Vicar buried his nose in his elbow. “Terrible.”

Dodd paused, closed his eyes and didn’t like what he found on the insides of his eyelids. So he lifted his drink and imbibed. “Well,” he said, swallowing, “I hope you don’t get offended when I say I’m a little jumpy. All this… clandestine scuttlin’ around? I’d just as soon hear what you have to say and close the book on all this mystery.”

“Oy, the silver tongue on this one!” Fauntleroy laughed. “Relax, reverend. We bring you tidings of joy.”

“Huh?”

The Pope snapped his fingers. Mitzi held out a tree-trunk arm and he grabbed onto it, collapsing upright. “Have you seen the results so far today?” he said. From his chair, Marsten of the Mormons pressed a remote, and a flat-screen television rose with a motorized purr from a slot on the bar. Though the volume was muted, and the bulk of onscreen text was in Italian, Dodd understood it just fine:

GOD — 14%

G. DODD — 79%

And the numbers did climb and fall, a little, second by second, but the meaning was clear.

“This time tomorrow, you will be God,” Fauntleroy said, knobby fingers spread on his wool-bedecked kneecaps. “When the polls close in two hours, and the final count is tallied, the fabric of creation itself will be putty in your hands.”

Dodd blinked.

“Huh,” he said. “Would you look at that?”

“So you understand,” the Pope said, inhaled, “our unique situation.”

“Well,” Dodd said, “I reckon you’re none too happy.”

“Ha!” Dunwoodie slammed his empty milk glass on the end table with a distinct crack. “Oh, you’re a smart-aleck, Mr. Dodd. A real sass mouth! What my mom, God rest her, woulda’ called a pissant!”

“Benjamin.” A rattle, and the Pope caught his breath. “Mr. Dodd is our guest.” Concealed by Mitzi’s arm from the nose down, his eyes turned to the pastor. “And we must earn his trust, his respect, if we are to be his brain trust from now on.”

“I’m sorry.” Dodd slid the olive off its toothpick with his teeth and bit down. “Did you say ‘brain trust?’”

“Naturally.” The Pope strained his chin up to a resting position on Mitzi’s forearm. “We all have one thing in common here: We are men of the cloth, sworn to serve God Almighty, our Lord and Savior. If that is you,” his head drooped forward a bit, “then the way ahead is clear, is it not?”

“But I’m not Him,” Dodd said. He stood, surveyed the room: Mal stood like a bouncer, wrists crisscrossed, at the door. The Mormon President’s bird flapped its wings and said, “Him!”

“Your Torah, your Bible, your, uh, your golden plates. Those weren’t written about me. I didn’t switch the lights on at the dawn of creation. I didn’t so love the world that I gave my only begotten son.”

“Debatable,” Fauntleroy said.

“Thousands of years of tradition, of worship, of devotion.” With a few steps forward, Dodd swayed, feeling the effects of his supposedly non-alcoholic martini. “And overnight you’re tellin’ me you’re all willin’ to back out of it — rewrite all those sacred texts and hymn standards?”

“Ah, it’s just a quick search-and-replace,” said the rabbi.

There was a squelching belch from the corner. “Well, that’s whatcha’ want, ain’t it?” Marsten pulled the lever on his recliner, and with a pop it sent him teetering forward. The bird did a little circle over his head and landed on his lap.

“I didn’t think you’d roll over so easy,” said Dodd. “I didn’t think…”

At the door, Mal shook his head.

“I didn’t think,” Dodd said.

“Mr. Dodd,” said the Pontiff, panting, “given the choice, no, we would not be here today. But what is important—” (eemportant-ah) “— is that our institutions remain standing. That our followers still have a home on every Sabbath.”

“That my mischpoken still looks at me and sees a man with answers!” Fauntleroy said.

“And we ain’t all outta jobs!” Marsten said.

“Outta jobs!” said his green-feathered pal.

“Told you he’d be a jerk about it,” said Dunwoodie. “Told you all he cares about is watchin’ us squirm. Hurtin’ our feelings.”

“Benjamin!” With a purple face and a renewed vigor, the Pope shot up and free of Mitzi’s support. “Would you like to wait downstairs again?”

Dunwoodie’s eyes found his toes. “No, sir,” he said.

Staggering backward, Dodd found his stool and reseated himself. Closed his eyes. Massaged his temples. Something bulged in his pocket, dug into his thigh. At his waist, he saw himself peeping up at him.

The Pope’s gift, little whittled Dodd, fell out onto the floor, rolling into the shag of one of the decorative rugs, stiff and wide-eyed, considering the skylight.

“Mr. Dodd is greatly humbled by your offer to worship and counsel him,” Mal said, coming fully into the room. He stood at the pastor’s side, nudged him with a pointed elbow. “He will consider your offer over the coming hours. For now, the voters await his final campaign speech before the polls close, and — democracy be praised — he naturally would be remiss if he did not cast his own vote before seven o’clock.” A thick rod of sinew undulated at his throat, like the rolling tide.

Mal’s low voice rumbled in Dodd’s ear, his lips brushing the lobe.

“The fat one has a gun,” he said. “He dare not use it with me here. They have seen what I am capable of.”

Numb-faced, a twitch in the cleft of his chin, Dodd wagged his head. With some help from Mal he found his feet.

“Y-yes,” he said. “Yes, gentlemen. This will take some deliberation. You get me. And a nominee’s work ain’t done ‘till the last vote’s cast.” He swayed; Mal caught him. Did they notice? he wondered. Nah.

Nah.

“Thank you for the drink,” he said.

Mal, hushed: “Do not thank them for the drink. It is drugged.”

“I’ll see you fellas later!” The reverend tried to smile, found he could not. For the second time in his life, he was physically incapable of smiling.

His behemoth political advisor led him to the door, kicked it open, and muttered in a predatory purr, “You are lucky I am here. There were otherwise only two ways out of that room: Under their thumb or under the ground.”

“My figurine,” said Dodd, looking back toward the chamber door — now two doors, shifting in opposing focuses, overlapping and pulling apart.

“We will come back for it,” said Mal.

And they went into the bowels of St. Peter’s Basilica, the infinite queues of voters, and — somewhere in here — a plywood-and-drapery polling booth.

VIII. Eat and Drink and Find Enjoyment

“I choose Gideon Dodd.”

In another time and place — about a year prior and Paris, France, respectively — the stressors, anxieties, and pressure of the celestial campaign trail would have been unthinkable to Gideon Dodd. In this where and when, Gideon Dodd wasn’t the target of an assassination plot spearheaded by the Pope himself. In this moment, he was having what would amount to the nicest time of his life.

Reunited with his wife, on a lavish vacation, and not at all dreading his return (for he had only his quaint, charming little parish awaiting him — that and two well-behaved, charming little children), the preacher man and his wife mirrored one another’s serene smiles across a candlelit table. A live three-piece band played Strauss’s “Blue Danube,” reduced to gray blurs in the unlit corner of the restaurant. Outside, night had fallen. Later, the couple would walk the Seine.

After that, they’d pay a visit to the Eiffel Tower. Why not?

For now, Gideon popped a slender fork into lovely Tamara’s mouth, and she slurped the unidentifiable delicacy off of it.

“My God,” she said. “That’s delicious. Here, try it.”

Like her husband, she dipped her two-pronged fork into the mystery dish — red, curly, flesh-like sprigs striped with a black sauce — and dipped it into his willing mouth.

Gideon choked, tears in his eyes, and spat a red blot into his cloth napkin.

“You don’t like it?” Tamara looked remorseful but disbelieving.

“Wrong pipe,” said Gideon. He lifted his wine glass. “No problem. Let’s toast, hon’. To us.”

“Hear, hear.” She raised her vino, too, and they clinked and drank. “You know,” she said, sampling another bit of the red thing, “you’re a good man, Gideon Dodd.” Crunch, crunch. “I can’t imagine what screw came loose in my brain to ever make me think otherwise.” Swallow.

“It doesn’t matter.” The preacher smiled across the table, took one of her hands in his.

“No, no,” she said, blinking rather a lot. “It matters.”

“I wasn’t any kind of husband,” Gideon said. “Or father. Or preacher, for that matter.”

Not disagreeing, she shifted gears: “I wasn’t without fault.” Tamara ran a fingertip on the rim of her glass. A loose-fitting bracelet jingled under her wrist. “I went around years thinking such unfair things. It wasn’t ‘till Roger told me you had no idea about that Midian Speculations that I realized I’d been a real boob. And what a boob I’d been.”

“What’s Midian Speculations?” her husband said. It did sound familiar — rang a little bell.

“See?” She patted his hand. “Innocent as a babe.” She leaned over the table and kissed him, then — as if the touch of his cheek to her mouth had drugged her — her chin sank, her shoulders drooped.

“Gideon,” she told her napkin, “I have to tell you something else.”

“Hon’?” He attempted to catch her eye.

“There was someone,” she said, “while we were separated.” She looked up and rested her gaze just to the left of his ear, disorienting him. Brushing smooth the tablecloth, she said, “I mean, I went on —” she rolled her eyes “— a date. Some friends set me up. It was stupid. But, we…”

Without realizing it, Dodd let go of her and folded his hands at his belly.

“We kissed,” she said. “Me and this — total — dimwit. Ugh,” she dabbed the corner of one eye, though for the life of him Gideon saw no evidence of a tear. “Sorry,” she said. “I just thought you should know. It’s embarrassing.”

“No.”

“Anyway — that’s nothing. Long over.” She sipped wine again, the smile gradually but assuringly returning to her face. “I choose Gideon Dodd.”

Gideon nodded. With a violent stab he forked a sliver of salmon-and-radish and stuffed it between his teeth. Mouth full, he snuffed and said, “I forgive you.”

The band played on.

The Seine, out the window, twinkled like cellophane.

The nicest night of his life had taken a little dip.

So what the heck, he thought.

“There was someone else for me, too,” he said. Munch, munch. “Actually, you know her.”

Tamara’s earring swung like a pendulum after she dipped one side of her head.

“That Gutierrez woman,” said the pastor. “That reporter.”

Sideways as it was, Gideon read her face left to right, like a book. Chin, frown, flared nostrils, dancing eyelashes, curling brows.

“You mean,” she said, straightening up, “the woman who wrote that article about me?” Her mouth opened, closed, opened. “The one you raved about in all those sermons?”

Gideon tickled his septum with mustache bristles. He nodded.

“The Blue Danube” ended. All the couple could hear was the crunching and crackling of pages as the band shuffled through their sheet music.

The trio dug into something new. Chopin. Something.

A few bars in, Tamara’s mouth cracked open in a full-on grin. She closed her eyes and laughed.

“Oh, good Lord,” she said. “What a couple of boobs we’ve been.”

Gideon Dodd couldn’t help it: A couple little chuckles forced their way out of his throat. Then a few more. And a sight louder.

“Yeah,” he said, nodding. Guffawing. Having a real nice night. “Yeah.”

“Anyway,” he added — when they’d finally collected themselves — “I choose Tamara Dodd. Naturally. Obviously. Forever and ever, amen, say ‘hallelujah.’” His fingers flapped “yes” at a waiter who’d come by with more wine to pour.

“And I don’t figure I’ll see that Maria again the rest of my life.”

IX. Multitudes, Multitudes, in the Valley of Decision!

Here and now: Needlepoint tingles lit up Dodd’s right hand under Mal’s iron grip on his wrist. Mal barreled toward the cathedral apse, dragging the loopy preacher behind him. On the raised platform, from which esteemed bishops and vicars, the Pope himself, would intone Latin liturgies on a normal day, there was — today — a row of six plywood polling booths. A deep red curtain hid the insides of these democracy cubes from the thousands of individuals amassed within the church. Crammed like Tyson chickens, these folks claimed any space they could: on and around the mahogany pews, pressed against marble walls, in some cases even hoisted upon the shoulders of bronze statues of Popes past.

There was a profound sense of shared exhaustion and frustration in the room. When Mal pushed Dodd through the crowd membrane, this collective malaise eroded at the candidate’s appearance into their midst. Voters began to stir and whisper, applaud and hold their neighbors, shivering with delight. There was swooning, some fainting, a lot of laughing.

A lot of love.

But not enough to calm woozy Dodd, or keep him looking over his shoulder. In his current state, every hundred people looked like two hundred. And all of them could be after him. The golden overhead enclave seemed to be closing in, its embossed biblical scenes stretching and spinning, contorting into images of evil. Jesus Christ Himself looked rather cross, to Dodd’s drugged mind.

Mal yanked Dodd near, linked arms with him, the sides of their torsos pressed together — one soft, one taut.

“Do not stray from me,” said Mal. “So long as I am near they will not dare touch you. Keep close and try to keep it together. Your constituency expects to hear from you.”

“Now?” Dodd closed one eye to stop the double-vision Mals sparring.

“If you do not make one final speech before the polls close,” Mal said, “Kratz will have my head removed.” He pointed at the third polling station from the left. “We will take that one,” he said. “Before you go in, say a few words, then step inside and cast your ballot. Then we leave. Get you to safety. Do not speak to any news crews. Do not shake any hands. Stay close. We will survive this.”

Dodd swallowed. The fact that such an assurance was apropos ruined any comfort it might have provided.

But Mal was already leading him to the stage. The humidity of thousands of breathing mouths glued Dodd’s shirt to his back, collected as dew drops on his forehead. His footsteps were almost entirely Mal’s doing now, his faculties diminishing under the influence of the rabbi’s brew.

And before he knew it he was onstage, like old times, like those easy Sunday mornings where nobody wanted him dead. There was a microphone in his hand; it slithered and wriggled in his grip. The carpet sagged beneath his feet like a trampoline. Behind him thrummed a movie theater-sized screen — a real-time command center of scrolling tweets and photographs from all over the world. Central to this glowing array were two numbers, changing by the second.

GOD — 19%

G. DODD — 77%

“Dodd. Dodd?” Mal waved a hand across the preacher’s vision. Dodd staggered back, getting nowhere with the bigger man’s guiding hand holding him in place. “I just said, ‘Mr. Dodd would now like to say a few words to the people.’ Is that not right?”

The preacher blinked. Somehow he and Mal, all those people, the cathedral itself — they were falling, all falling, falling forever into nothing. When he nodded, it felt that his brain was trailing behind, gone rogue.

“Yes,” he said, patting the roof of his mouth with a sandpaper tongue. “Yes, I got somethin’ to say.”

He cleared his throat — in reality, this throat-clearing lasted almost a full minute — and almost swallowed the microphone head. Teeth clacking on netted metal, he thought, just a few words — and then he said some.

“Thank y’all for bein’ here today,” he said. “I know some of you come a long way to vote in this sacred space. I know you got kids, jobs, responsibilities. But you’re here now. That says a lot.”

Mal rolled a wrist, eyes bugging. Hurry it up.

“We’re all ready for somethin’ new,” Dodd said. “And God knows — oop!” He bounced a flat hand against his lips. The crowd tittered appreciatively. “I know I ain’t perfect.” Heart pounding, eyes roving — for danger, for reassurance, he couldn’t decide — his gaze settled at last, “Where’s Waldo” style, on Maria Stenson, sipping a coffee with Dodd’s children standing arm-in-arm before her. They were but three faces in a sea of them, detached from body and person, and in fact they shimmered and bubbled so inhumanly the preacher considered for a moment they may be hallucinations — but it was good to see them there all the same.

And the sight of them, combined with the effects of whatever foreign compound was coursing through his veins, pulled more words out of him, an endless hankie from a magician’s sleeve.

“I ain’t perfect, no. In fact, I— I never figured I’d get this far.” Leaving blurry afterimages, his arm swooped up to indicate the monitor overhead. “And now chances look pretty good I’m gonna win.”

Everyone cheered.

Dodd help up a palm. The pounding in his skull echoed, creaked like the hull of a ship. A knee buckled. “What are you people thinkin’?” he said.

Everyone laughed.

“Don’t you know what a boob I am?” he said.

Someone shouted, “We love you, Gideon!” Then another, and another.

“Well, the writing’s on the wall,” said the preacher. “And I got no plan. I got no clue. I ain’t even sure this is real.” Next to him, Mal’s intense chiseled face sharpened. “But here we are,” Dodd said. “And I can promise you one thing for sure. Well— two things.”

Maria’s swimming, dancing face pulsated, radiating warmth from her white teeth.

Her teeth.

Dodd clasped the molar swinging at his sternum.

“First thing,” he said. “When the polls close and all’s official, you’re all invited to come enjoy a performance by the one and only Mr. Jon Bon Jovi.”

A fresh round of manic applause whooshed up, blew past his ears and through his hair.

Slippery When Wet!” shouted the same guy who’d told Gideon Dodd he loved him.

“And second,” said the reverend, “when I take office tomorrow.”

And suddenly the room ceased its spinning, its endless fall. Maria and his children were gone. His mind cleared. His joints locked into place. The microphone was weightless in his hand.

“The first enemy that shall be defeated is death.”

A chant began:

“Dodd for God! Dodd for God!”

“Thank you,” said Dodd. He raised his voice to match the tumult. “Now, I’m gonna go in there and do my patriotic duty, like you fine folks, and cast my ballot.” He took a step toward the booth, looked up and over. Read:

GOD — 12%

G. DODD — 83%

“I’d say ‘God bless,’” he said, “but I doubt He would.”

Then he dropped the microphone — Mal caught it — and stepped through, the dollar store curtain crinkling against his person.

Inside the polling booth was a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare: three scratched wood walls, scant light. Nothing more than a glorified casket.

Facing opposite its new occupant was a trifold plasterboard, bringing to mind a science fair project of James’s from years ago. It enclosed a tiny tabletop, upon which a golf pencil, a paper slip, and a mechanical tray were immaculately arranged in trinity. On a hanging nail there rested a little roll of stickers, the loose end flapping. Dodd leaned in, squinted:

I Voted, the stickers said in red, white, and blue.

Dodd bent forward and stared at the ballot. It was mostly white space, with only two small circles and a single word next to each.

GOD

DODD

Below that, a string of fine print explaining how to use the ballot.

The preacher discretely knelt in the corner and vomited.

Then he stood, wiping his mouth, and picked up the No. 2 pencil. He stared at it a moment: its pointed tip a little spear, capable of such destruction. It could put out an eye, pierce an aorta. And the pink rubber of its butt, promising second chance after second chance.

Funny little thing, he thought.

Licking his lips, he steadied the slippery ballot with two fingers.

And he cast his vote.

Fed it to the hungry device: With an electric whir it slurped up the thin strip of paper.

That done, he closed his eyes.

He tore off a sticker from the roll and patted it down over his heart.

From outside, a loud bang rang out, and screams. Reflexes stunted, he didn’t jump until a second later. Faltering, he turned and tripped one foot over the other, fell out of the box and landed on his chest, exposed from the belt up to witness the unfolding chaos.

Through Mal’s calves he saw a series of suit-clad men and women in sunglasses, all with crucifix lapels like Mitzi’s, rushing the stage — leaping majestically toward him, firearms drawn.

Mal turned his head. One bloodshot eye fixed upon the pastor.

“Get back in there,” he said.

Dodd dragged himself backward, swallowing tiny puffs of muggy air. Before the curtain draped over his face he caught glimpses of his political advisor, fiery orange tie twirling about him like a gymnast’s ribbon — tossing the Pope’s men to the side with less effort than it took Dodd himself to hoist a bag of dead leaves. Mal snatched guns out of hands, ducked and dodged firing bullets. Snapped bones and necks like wishbones.

Dodd cowered on the floor inside the polling station. Gunshots, lifeless bodies hitting the stage floor, and thousands of terrified cries mixed together in a skin-crawling auditory stew.

He thought, James.

Ellie.

With a deafening thunk, Mal’s head hit the stage, splintering wood between the preacher’s splayed hands. It lolled lifelessly — Dodd had only a second to register that it might not be attached to its host body anymore — and that was when he felt the floor pinch him.

A thin seam between the floorboards had caught the flesh of his elbow. He had time to run the tip of a twitching thumb over it an inch or two before it widened, an unhinged jaw.

The orchestra pit fell open like a trap door.

And the church swallowed Gideon Dodd whole.

 

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