V. Fight the Good Fight of the Faith
“God Don’t Care?”
Six weeks or so after Paris, Gideon Dodd slapped a heavy manuscript onto his pal Ray Wachstetter’s desk.
“Just in time for Christmas,” he said.
Ray repeated himself, his bifocals casting a white glare on the title page. “But, Gid— God Don’t Care? Do you think that’ll play? It’s a bit sacrilegious, not to mention a grammatical nightmare—”
“Someone’s got to stand up to Him,” said Dodd. “Someone’s gotta call Him out on His baloney.”
Wachstetter shuffled a wetted thumb through the paper stack. He grabbed at messy horseshoe-hair tufts and frowned. “You’re the most devoted Christian I’ve ever met. This— This is a declaration of war on God.”
Dodd fed a peace sign through either side of the wire around his neck. Tamara’s tooth dangled between his knuckles.
“He started it,” said Dodd.
VII. The Second Death
“Go on,” said Kratz. He sat kicking his feet over the bell tower ledge childishly, hands in his lap. “Just speak from the diaphragm. You got it in you.”
Dodd’s hands were swollen and halfway to blue. The wires binding him in a middle-ages splay were nestled half an inch into his dermis. The curve of the old bell grated against the natural contours of his back.
The people were waiting on his address, hundreds of feet below.
Celebratory trappings in the atmosphere had diminished, but an occasional balloon floated past as the confetti settled. One of these with trailing ribbon, Kratz caught and clung to, adding to his infantile appearance. All he needed was an oversized lollipop.
With the jab of one lengthy fingernail he popped it and let the tattered rubber drop. He hopped to his feet again and stood with half his sneakers over the bell-side edge, then leaned forward, stiff as a board, in a sort of trust fall.
Dodd thought it might be suicide, for one insane second — but Kratz caught himself, palms clapping to the bell on either side of the preacher. His body could have been a little bridge for, say, mice and squirrels to climb up onto the bell — the long drop an open architectural sore under his heaving bare belly.
He kissed Dodd’s first chin — a little peck. The purple gooseflesh under his eyes folded up into rising cheeks.
“One last speech, and you’re in. Don’t be shy now. Give the devil his due.”
“What if I don’t accept?” Dodd said.
Kratz’s cheek-hills flattened; he gripped Dodd’s forearms and hopped the gap, wrapping his legs around the preacher’s hips. Hanging there koala-style, he prodded his hand entire through Dodd’s necklace, closed his digits around it and yanked, snarling. It snapped — the focus of the break right in Dodd’s ear, a thunderous crack — and Kratz fisted the molar.
“If you don’t accept, I’ll swallow this motherfucker,” he said.
The pastor wriggled and squirmed, his face purpling.
The only loose part of him, his head, tapped the bell and flung forward, bashing Kratz in the too-close mouth.
The campaign manager swirled his tongue around. “Heh.” He grinned, his teeth pink, his lip split.
From his floating O mouth he spat a white pebble, dripping in blood. He held it between his lips like the world’s smallest cigarette and pressed his nose into Dodd’s breast to drop it into the reverend’s shirt pocket.
“Tooth for a tooth,” he said, and leapt off Dodd’s torso with a painful pinch, his adroit footwork catching the ledge. “C’mon, Padre. Speech! Speech! It doesn’t have to be ‘Ask not what your country can do for you,’ — or even ‘What your definition of is is.’ Thirty seconds, tops, and you’re down, and then the fun really begins.” From this distance he looked unhinged and dangerous —black blood dripped down his throat and chest; his eyes unfocused, drifting and wide and marbled.
For Dodd, the world was one smeared blob — a blurry mess, save for the hyper-focused form of his image consultant. Kratz looked overdeveloped to him, sharpened, like a weatherman poorly green-screened. He felt an invisible hammer tap against both sides of his head.
“Sure,” he said. “You got it.”
Gideon Dodd drew a breath. A cacophony of opening remarks clanged around his swirling mind. Words came easy to him, always had. So had smiles, come to think of it.
From here he could see now the more distant streets and alleys of Vatican City — and even beyond, a little. Every available square inch of space was filled with people. At this height and distance the crowd of — millions? — looked a bit like a very large bowl of sprinkles.
And each of these sprinkles, he knew, was a human being.
Was one of them Maria? Or James, or Ellie?
There was only one way to know. It was the same way he would get down from this dang bell, and the same way he would at last meet God (the Old God), and the same way he would see Tammy again.
“You got it,” he said.
He thought of himself as a well, his voice as water. He recalled his elocution lessons and voice coaching, from back when he got his first radio gig. The deepest of that water was what he wanted now, so he drew from the bottom of his being, forceful, intent, focused.
The result surprised even him.
“HOWDY, PEOPLE OF EARTH,” he said.
Kratz’s mustache twitched.
A hush fell over the city — perhaps the world.
He had their attention, all right.
“I’M NOT SURE HOW I GOT HERE,” he said. “AND I DON’T JUST MEAN STRUNG UP TO THIS HERE DING-DONG BELL.”
An impossible sound rose up to him, of untold droves laughing together. Friends and enemies, every race and creed — having a nice little yuk-yuk at the new God’s little joke.
“I NEVER EXPECTED TO GET THIS FAR, TRUTH BE TOLD.” The rumble of his own voice rattled his insides to jelly. That was okay. “I THINK SOMETIMES I BEEN DUPED, MANIPULATED, AND YOU BEEN, TOO. I JUST WANTED TO KNOW WHY MY WIFE WAS TAKEN FROM ME. I LET THINGS GET OUT OF HAND. I GOT A BIG HEAD. I LISTENED TO THE SYCOPHANTS AND THE LIARS, AND IGNORED THE HONEST PEOPLE WHO MEAN THE MOST TO ME.
“I LET MY KIDS DOWN. DISAPPOINTED ONE FRIEND, BETRAYED ANOTHER AND LOST HIM MAYBE FOREVER. I ACTED LIKE A SNEAK AND A JERK AND I DRAGGED PEOPLE THROUGH THE MUD TO GET MY WAY. IN OTHER WORDS, I BECAME A POLITICIAN.”
More laughter. Laughter that could heal the world, that kind of laughter.
A mighty gust of wind blasted through the opening of the bell tower, pelted Dodd and dried out his eyeballs, made Kratz’s baggy workout pants billow. A cadre of gray clouds were beginning to gather, to the East.
“BUT YOU GOOD FOLKS SEEN SOMETHIN’ IN ME,” he continued. “YOU ALL BELIEVED IN ME. BELIEVE IN ME. SO MY DOUBTS DON’T MATTER. MY REGRETS DON’T MATTER. IT’S NOT FAIR FOR ME TO DECIDE THIS LATE IN THE GAME THAT YOUR HOPE AND YOUR FAITH AREN’T IMPORTANT. THEY’RE MY RESPONSIBILITY NOW.
“SO IT IS WITH A HUMBLE AND OPEN HEART THAT I ASK YOU TO FORGIVE ME FOR ANY TOMFOOLERY WHAT CAME BEFORE. AND IT IS WITH THAT SAME MEEK AND REPENTANT HEART THAT I PROUDLY—
“—MODESTLY ACCEPT YOUR WILL — AND MY NEW POSITION AS YOUR GOD.”
And the people of Earth were overcome with joy such as they had never known. For when in the vast and endless history of the universe had the people ever had any say in how things were run? When had humans ever held any sway, in the grand scheme of things?
Never. Not until now.
Dodd wasn’t sure if it was another blast of wind that pummeled his face, or if it was the collective force of millions of cheers, whistles, sobs, claps.
What happens when everyone on the planet applauds at once? he wondered. Earthquake? Typhoon? Gosh.
Even Kratz was clapping. There was a hungry look about him, and he did not just then look unlike his own hound.
Dodd grinned back at him.
“I WANT TO THANK MY CAMPAIGN MANAGER, MR. KRATZ, FOR HIS DEDICATION AND CEASELESS ENDEAVORING TO GET US HERE. LET’S ALL GIVE HIM A ROUND OF APPLAUSE.”
They did. The pallid, ragged man did a ringmaster’s bow, one arm at his stomach and the other overhead.
“YOU DID A FINE JOB,” said Dodd. “YOU HAVE EARNED YOUR EARLY RETIRMENT.”
In the gathering ashen clouds Kratz turned gray. The frame of his goatee collapsed; the dimples in his quivering chin imitated a golf ball.
“IT’S TOO BAD I CAN’T HAVE YOU ON STAFF IN HEAVEN,” said Dodd — and in saying it, he found, he felt good. Lighter. It occurred to him he wanted to laugh, and so he did a bit. Yes, this was right.
Even the sallow, gargoyle-chiseled look of rage of the consultant’s face cheered Dodd.
Kratz’s bloodied teeth bared. His shoulders beat like wings, his breathing labored and random.
“GOODBYE, MR. KRATZ. GOOD LUCK IN YOUR NEXT PROJECT, WHATEVER SHAPE THAT MAY TAKE.”
The campaign manager clutched at his anemone locks and swayed. He stamped a foot and bellowed disbelief, betrayal.
Dodd tried to look past him. Tried to convince himself he was alone up here.
“A NEW DAY HAS DAWNED,” he said. “I’M READY.”
He closed his eyes, ignored the hissing and sputtering from his erstwhile advisor, concentrated and dismissed the rising whine of gathering storm blowing in from above. Such things did not matter now, he figured, if he was truly the most powerful being in existence — beyond existence itself.
He thought, Tammy.
Tammy, come back. I’m here. I’m here, I’m here. You can come back now.
He opened one eye, saw only the deranged man on the ledge before him, twisting and pounding his thighs.
Clamped his eyelids tight. Thought harder.
Tammy. Come on, now. Nothing’s stopping you now. Find me. You’re free.
He looked around.
There had to be some trick, he figured, some method of exerting his newly all-powerful will upon the forces of nature. Maybe, he thought, he’d have to swear into office first, or learn to wiggle his nose like that blonde from Bewitched. It was difficult to think, strapped up like this — the weather was distracting, at any rate, and Kratz was still here, acting a fool, pacing like a cat on a picket fence.
Kratz made sure he and the preacher had locked stares before he stuffed Tamara Dodd’s tooth — string and all — into his wide mouth. The following gulp was over-the-top and sideshow-esque, as one came to expect from Lucky Kratz. His throat muscles stretched the skin to its limit, bobbing and bulging. He let out a satisfied ahh when he was finished and smacked his lips.
Thunder rumbled, not far off.
“You can go on home, now. You’re done here,” Dodd said.
“Do you know what I said to James?” said Kratz.
The oily hair on Kratz’s noggin danced like a nest of vipers. He hunched now, whether in defeat or the power of the wind, drooling black-red. One eye was half-closed, one leg bouncing.
As he spoke, the weather grew louder. He raised his voice.
“In the hotel. In Tanzania.”
Dodd strained. Strained his ears, strained his limbs, his heart.
Kratz said, “I told James what you were — told him the Adversary of God can only have one kind of a son. I told him what he’d become if you won, that the unholy hordes of hell were bent over in prayer that the day would come they could bow before him and carry out his wishes.”
“It’s not gonna be like that,” Dodd said.
A full-on storm had begun; rain, lightning — louder thunder, wilder wind. Kratz was screaming now.
“I told him what happens when God loses! I told him of the rejoicing in the pit and the bedlam Earth-side, the chaos, and the pain, the death of all hope.”
“It’s not gonna be like that!”
A torrential rain fell in streaming sheets. It soaked Kratz, blew in past him, spattering Dodd through his clothes. Where they weren’t vibrant with red thread, Kratz’s eyes were — Dodd could swear it — turning bright, sickly yellow in the murk of the storm.
“And I showed him my face,” said Kratz.
He peeped a pointed, spotty tongue-tip through the fresh hole in his gums.
“I showed him my real face, Gideon.”
The mad advisor slid a pair of thumbs into his waistband and gave the elastic a pull. There was more thunder, greenish yellow in the ill clouds.
“Would you like to see it?” Kratz said.
Dodd tried to close his eyes again and found that now he could not. Something had caught his attention beyond this horror. Now there came toward the tower a spring-coiled, spinning gust of gray-black cyclone — snaking through wild voltage and billowing vapors.
Kratz jerked and squirmed, ballooning his cheeks and squinting against the powerful atmosphere. One hand he kept tucked into his pants — rather deep, in fact — the other brandishing a small, very old pocketknife. This he popped open like a 1950s greaser, and pressed the blade to his cheek, slicing down — drawing a thin rivulet of that off-color, tar-like fluid.
“Do you want to see my face, Gideon? Because I sure as fuck have seen yours!”
He jumped — like a howler monkey, right for Dodd. But halfway through this lunatic leap, his trajectory was cut short. He simply hung there, a confused and hideous marionette. The gyrating gale snapped at the tower window — Kratz looked around just in time to see it split apart stone and send concrete chunks flying through the air, its circular vacuum roaring as it bore down upon him.
“Oh,” he said, his features softening in a sudden, calm understanding. “Oh, you bastard.”
And then he was consumed, pulled into the gaping maw of the wind-worm.
Quite literally coming apart.
Now Dodd did look away, because of the black-and-red spray that had been Kratz, seconds before — because of the twister rattling the bell, spreading, engulfing him.
The roof of the tower blasted up into the stratosphere, a shingled rocket. Brick and mortar scattered in all directions. The crowd below attempted to disperse, to get clear, and found there was nowhere to go — there were simply too many people. They crawled and climbed and clawed, by the thousands; none of them recognized that the storm was far above, that the falling rock and wood hadn’t struck anyone, that they were quite safe and all was — in a sense — under control.
Inside the twizzling squall, Gideon Dodd was confronted with profound silence. If every storm has an eye, then this was its pupil. He could hear his own heartbeat (erratic, troubling), his own exhausted breathing, the bristles on his mustache settling.
For the third time, he heard that bone-rattling, dazzlingly eloquent voice from the debates. The so-called Voice of God.
GIDEON DODD, it said. YOU HAVE WON FAIR AND SQUARE. I WILL CONCEDE THIS RACE.
With each intoned syllable, a spark of weather flared somewhere in the wall of wind.
CONGRATULATIONS, the voice continued.
COME. WE HAVE MUCH TO DISCUSS.
LET US HAVE A BEER SUMMIT, YOU AND I. I’LL SHOW YOU AROUND YOUR NEW OFFICE. ANSWER ANY QUESTIONS. THEN I WILL HAND OVER THE KEYS, SO TO SPEAK.
“Wait,” Dodd said. His focus was everywhere. “Right now?”
NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT.
“Well— in— wait— in your office?” The bonds around his arms and legs had loosened somewhat. A downward glance and he noted they were becoming frayed, disintegrating. With one kick of each leg he broke those free. Bent his crackling knees. Oh, it felt good. It was heaven.
IT IS YOUR OFFICE NOW, GIDEON DODD.
“In person?” Dodd busted loose one arm. “Face-to-face?” And the other. The tornado’s centripetal force left him glued a la flypaper to the bell.
HAVE YOU NEVER BEEN TO A BEER SUMMIT BEFORE?
“I don’t know what that is.” At that, Dodd felt a minute buzzing at his tailbone and jerked, momentarily coming unstuck to the copper dome. For a ridiculous second he thought he’d messed himself, dropped a little surprise — but what had fallen from between his legs and onto his shoe was the cell phone Kratz had given him. Something so commonplace and ordinary in the midst of this unbelievable phenomenon seemed absurd to him. His first impulse was to kick it away. Mobile phones, after all, had not been his friend of late. But then he noticed:
Its screen glowed, there from the length of his loafer; the preacher lifted his leg with much strain and teeth-gritting — saw there the now-familiar blue bird. With equal effort he reached down an arm and lifted the mobile. In a white rectangle next to the birdie was some text:
“Mentioned by @ReporterStenson: @Real_Giddy_D — Kids and I r safe. Got out ok, headed to airport. Will wait for u.”
The pastor/deity crumpled, collapsed — felt tears sting his optics, a lump boxing his uvula.
Into his creased palms he whispered: “Sie ist gerettet.” It felt like something Kratz would have said, and that bothered him. He didn’t know what it meant, how he knew it, where or if he’d ever heard it before. But it felt true.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m ready to go now.”
YES. YOU CERTAINLY LOOK IT, the voice of God responded.
At this, the stormy tube enclosure pulsed and rocked, coming loose once again, and wild as nature would have it. The bell snapped free from its overhead structure with a crack and a dong, and Gideon Dodd fell down the length of the tower right along with it.
Everyone in Vatican City heard the bell toll when it hit the ground.
It was no small thing.
VIII. In My Father’s House Are Many Rooms
Gideon Dodd rubbed his eyes, stretched his jaw.
He was in a hard faux-leather chair, tucked into the corner of the showroom floor of his favorite hobby-and-craft store. He came here about twice a week — or used to, before all this malarkey — to buy paints, glue, soft pine and such. For Doddville.
The owner’s cat — what was its name again? — rubbed itself against Dodd’s shin. That must’ve been what had awakened him. How long had he been here? What a dumb thing, to have fallen asleep in the store, of all places. What a boob!
Stretching, he gave the place a once-over. Nobody else was here. He was alone among the shelves of carving tools and paintbrushes, the displays of model trains and toy cityscapes.
Falling asleep again wouldn’t be hard, he thought. The smell of crafting wood, the dim lighting and the muzak, the homey décor and familiarity of the place put him in a state of nigh-total serenity. To tell the truth, he felt a little loopy. Like right after hanky-panky, or on the way home from the dentist.
Dodd put his fingertips to his clavicle. It was empty. No necklace there, no tooth.
Oh, he thought, that’s right.
He pushed on the chair’s arms to rise; the cat (What was his name? This was going to drive him crazy.) hopped into his lap, easing him back into the lousy lumbar support of the old seat.
Scratching the kitty behind the ears, he noticed his chin was wet. With embarrassed haste he wipe the drool from his mouth. The cat (Abraham! That was it! Oh, he loved little Abraham. What a sweetie.) purred in his lap, pushing its cheek into the massage of his knuckles.
“Oh. You’re up.”
Dodd turned, saw behind the counter a pretty, aging black woman with sharp glasses and affably unkempt hair. She looked familiar — not as an employee here, no — but familiar, somehow.
“I was about to come splash water on your face. We’re closing,” she said and gave him a smile to let him know it was quite all right that he’d fallen asleep, it happens to the best of us, don’t it?
“Mm’sorry,” Dodd said, yawning. “Not sure what happened. Just zonked out.” Abraham bounced off his legs when he made to stand. Wobbling a tad, the reverend found his footing and stepped forth. “Are you new here?” he said.
The woman leaned over the glass counter, all its Warhammer and Pokémon figurines. “Been here quite some time,” she said.
“Sorry,” Dodd said again. “Do I know you?”
As he drew closer, her features came into clearer focus and that sense of familiarity niggled at him harsher than ever.
She shook her head, still smiling. Oh, she was pretty. “We’ve not met,” she said. “But you know my daughter.”
“She go to my church?” Dodd asked. “I’ve got a pretty big congregation, you know.”
“She did,” the woman said, “for a while.”
“Hmm.” Dodd rubbed his lips. “I’m sure I’d know her if I saw her picture.”
The woman’s smile spread. “Oh, I’m sure you would.”
At the counter now, Dodd put one hand and half of his weight onto the case. He blinked several times and yawned again. “Groggy,” he said, bashful. “Was I gonna buy something?” he asked. “Do you want to ring me up?”
“Actually,” the woman pulled back, “I was just closing up.”
“Oh.” Dodd looked toward the window to see how low the sun was, to try and get a sense of how long he’d been here. Outside was only a shadowless pane of pure stark white. “I can get out of your hair,” he said.
“No,” she said. “You stay.”
She tapped some beeping buttons on the cash register and it opened with a ka-ching. With painted nails she reached in and scooped up a handful of human molars, stuffed them into her purse, and walked around the counter.
“Will you lock up after me?” she said.
“Um.” Dodd swallowed. “Sure.”
“You are sweet,” she said. “She wasn’t just whistlin’ Dixie.”
The woman kissed Gideon Dodd on the cheek.
“I’m sure I’ll see you,” she said, “down the road. Good luck.”
“Thank you,” said Dodd, pressing the fresh red smudge on his cheek.
He looked out the window again, attempting to reconcile his expectation (trees, a setting sun, a parking lot) with the reality (white, just white). When he turned around again, the woman was gone.
Abraham hopped onto the counter. Dodd reached to pet him, but he refused, instead loping for his food dish at the far end.
The preacher walked over toward the display models. Often enough he’d gotten ideas looking at them — the opera house in particular, he’d never have thought of if not for these frequent browsings. Although he seemed to recall this as a quaint mom-and-pop establishment, there were vaulted ceilings overhead so high he couldn’t see where they ended. The aisles of colorful houses and roads, whizzing tiny cars and spinning mini-Ferris wheels, stretched on endlessly into stark, far-off shadows.
He chose one of the rows and walked, stopping here and there to admire the craftsmanship of these sundry scenes. Here was a little redwood forest — so realistic! There was a Chinese city, full of detailed little men and women standing shoulder to shoulder. What expertise!
Down a ways was a small poker table with a model home half-built on it, open paint sets and a water cup with a brush still swirling within. On either side of the in-progress house set was a canvas lawn chair, each with a little netted cup holder dangling from one of the arms.
A bottle of beer protruded from the baggy pocket of both armrests.
Gideon Dodd hadn’t had a beer since before the twins were born, but he found the idea of one now so enticing that he smacked his lips. He picked up his pace and made for the chair on his side of the aisle. It took longer than he’d anticipated to get there — the aisle just seemed to stretch on and on before him — but at last he reached that quaint little oasis and sat down, grasping the ice-cold bottle, an anticipatory grin slapped across his chin.
For a moment he forgot the beverage, distracted. Inspecting the model on the table, he found himself impressed and amused at the likeness. It looked just like his own house: not the mansion in Baltimore, but the little bucolic cottage/parish he still owned but hadn’t visited since those few good rural years with Tamara and the kids, just before the Paris trip. Inside was a detailed, spot-on replication of the dining room, the garage, the kitchen and lounge. In the kitchen there were a few carved figurines, about the size of chess pieces, seated at the breakfast nook. They were the spitting image of himself, James, and Ellie.
He smiled. They were very good.
Reaching forward, he wrapped a palm around the beer’s bottle cap and twisted. It didn’t budge; rather, it punctured the flesh of his hand with a round, jagged leech bite.
“Ouch,” he said.
“Sorry. Those aren’t twist-offs,” echoed a voice from the far end of the hall. The shape of a man, backlit and indistinguishable thanks to the store’s halogen overheads, came toward him at a trot.
Dodd knew who it was.
When his company came forward and took the folding chair opposite Dodd, the preacher was unsurprised and undisturbed to find that he was looking across the square table at himself.
Or, at least, a very fine likeness.
“Are you the owner?” asked Dodd.
“Of?” The other Dodd raised an eyebrow, leaning back in the chair.
“I was,” said Dodd Two. “It’s yours now.”
The preacher nodded. “You look just like me,” Dodd said, as if remarking upon the weather.
“Did I not make you in My image?” his new friend asked. Dangling from the Dodd-pelganger’s finger was a bottle opener keychain. He placed it in the pastor’s hand, and Dodd opened his beer to take a first sip.
“Did you make this?” Dodd asked, indicating the model of his one true home.
“I did,” said God. “Do you like it?”
“Very much,” Dodd said, sipping again.
“It would seem we share a common interest,” the Creator said. He took the pop-top back and opened His own brew with a funny hiss. A puff of cool vapor danced at the rim, and both Dodds watched it. “I’ve admired your work, as well,” said God.
Dodd gulped again and let out a soft belch, unembarrassed. “I voted for You,” he said.
“Yes, I know.”
“But I suppose it didn’t make a difference,” said Dodd. He crossed one leg over the other, fiddling with a frayed thread on the chair’s canvas bottom. “I still won.”
“Oh, I think it made all the difference in the world,” said God.
Dodd swirled his beer around. It tasted so fine, he wanted it to last. Watching the amber liquid slosh, he dropped his voice and asked, “Am I really the devil?”
God frowned Gideon Dodd’s frown. “Who told you that?”
“Kratz,” said Dodd. “Is it true?”
God breathed, and His mustache fluttered the way Dodd’s would. “You might be.”
Dodd crumpled in his chair.
“But — then again — you might be a better God than even Me. Time will tell. Certainly I think your vote, the one you say didn’t matter, is telling of the kind of deity you might become.” God, Yahweh, Jehovah — He took a long pull of ale. “I suspect we both have a lot to learn from recent events. But yes. There were some parties — your Mr. Kratz among them, I believe — who were intrigued to see what your victory might portend for them and their self-interests. Individuals backing you for less than noble reasons.
“But it’s all ultimately up to you, I should say.”
“What was he?”
“Kratz.” Dodd squinted at his mirror image. “What was he?”
God sighed, long and mournful. He seemed to be thinking.
Finally, He said, “Troubled.
“Very, very troubled.” He took an even deeper drink.
With his mouth wrapped around it like a baby bottle, Dodd finished off his beer. He rattled the empty container, disappointed. “Shoot,” he said. “Killed it.”
“Are you enjoying it? We brew it locally.” He-Who-Is-Called-I-Am snapped His fingers. “There’s more where that came from,” He said.
Indeed, the bottle in Dodd’s damp hand was full to the brim once more with the delicious sudsy beverage. He took another sip, relishing how refreshing it was. Like manna from—
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” Dodd said. “For a long time.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I have a lot to say to you.” The preacher took another swig.
“Well,” God said, “seeing as you’re the new man in charge, I would say it’s only fair I listen. I can’t well refuse the new Ruler of Creation, now, can I?”
With a forearm, Dodd wiped foam off his hairy upper lip. “Right,” he said.
It must have been a million times he’d imagined this moment — what he’d say, how he’d say it, just really lay into the Guy, let Him have it. It was a long time coming. And Dodd was angry.
Only, now he was here — it was almost as though he’d left that anger at home. Plum forgot to pack it. He’d checked into the hotel and realized he left his undies rolled up on the bed back home. Drove into work and remembered he left the coffee pot on.
“Well?” asked Yahweh, with Dodd’s mouth and hand gestures. “What did you want to say? You have My undivided attention. I am your captive audience.”
So Dodd blurted out the first thing that bubbled to the surface of his mind. It was what he’d been asking, all this time, to no reply.
“Why did You take Tamara from me?” he asked.
“In Paris. She fell. She died.” Dodd nursed from his beer, a scant comfort. “Why did You take her? Was there a reason? Some— some divine purpose? Were You testing me?” He uncrossed his legs, leaned in over the replica of his broken family. “Did You cut her life short so I would end up here, in this chair, to fulfill this— I dunno, this destiny? Was my heart’s breaking and life’s destruction just a— a dinky domino You knocked over to start the chain of events that end with me taking over Your job? Why me? Why’d I have to be Your target?”
The Other Dodd blinked.
He swirled a thumb and forefinger over His cheeks, puckering His lips in a wet oval.
“Gideon Dodd,” He said, “I did not ‘take’ Tamara. She does not belong to Me. Do you honestly believe I consider you and your wife as game pieces?”
Across Dodd’s cheeks and nose was a tightening, a chill. “No,” he said. “No, not at—” The chill melted over the flushing heat now spreading across his face. “Well, sort of. Yeah! It is sorta like a game, ain’t it? Like tiddlywinks. You just flip a chip, see where it lands. ‘Ope! This one hit Fatal Fall and that one landed on Tamara Dodd. Looks like I’m ruinin’ that fat Southern preacher’s life today!’”
Jehovah laid a hand — a Gideon Dodd hand — palm up on the table, just next to the flowerbed of the tiny home. He flapped it, bounced His gaze down and up. Dodd did not accept His invitation. He did not take God’s hand.
The Lord sighed nasally. “Do you remember Doodle?” he asked.
Dodd drank, scowling. This was beginning to feel patronizing. The disdain and anger he’d left at home was catching back up to him.
“The heck’s my childhood hamster got to do with anything?”
“You begged your parents, remember? Did chores for weeks to show how responsible you could be, that you — at eight years old — could care for a living creature and love it with all your heart.
“And then you got Doodle. It was fun at first. Having him on your shoulder as you watched television. Feeding him baby carrots. But then what happened, Gideon?”
Dodd crossed his arms, bottle tucked against his chest.
“Gideon? What happened?”
“He got loose.” A salad fork could have been held aloft by the crease where Dodd’s nose and scrunched brow met.
God-as-Dodd smiled, the way a father smiles when he knows his child is about to learn a valuable life lesson. Dodd hated that smile, coming from Him.
“Did Doodle get loose because you didn’t love him? Didn’t care?”
“Of course not,” said Dodd. “I just — I had school, I had chores, I had my paper route and Bible study. I couldn’t be there all the time. Doodle figured a way out when I wasn’t around, and… that was the end of it.” Dodd sipped.
“And when James and Ellie were born.” God scratched at His chin and lip. Some thick stubble had begun to sprout there — a white five o’clock shadow. “What a joy. Those two little pumpkins, swaddled on your lap or snoozing in their cribs. So at peace — parents and children alike. But children grow. They find their footing, they tumble down the stairs or hide in laundry hampers until you call the police to report them missing. They develop ideas, and hopes, and dreams — doubts and fears. They get expelled from boarding school. Did these things happen because you did not love them?”
“Stop,” Dodd said. He belched again, louder this time, punctuated with a cute little hiccup. “I get it.”
“No,” said God. “I don’t think you do.” He snapped his fingers again, refilled His and Dodd’s bottles.
“A long time ago, I got a — well, you might say, a ‘bug up my butt.’ I felt creative, and bored, and lonely. So I made these adorable little critters — you lot — and I fell in love with them, took care of them. But the moment I turned my back, they pulled a Doodle.
“And just when I thought I had things under control again? They multiplied. Imagine the pressure of parenting James and Ellie, and multiply it by four billion. All My Little Ones, My Prides and Joys, all of them growing and leaving the nest to come up with harebrained schemes and get into playground scrapes, walking too close to the edge of the road, eating junk food and sneaking into sweethearts’ windows in the dead of night — it’s too much to monitor. Too much.
“People are born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upward.”
God closed His eyes in palpable melancholy. “And that’s not even scratching the surface, Gideon Dodd,” He said. “That’s just My children. But every living creature on the planet, from aardvark to zebra, those are My pets. Every last microbe, every virus — even the barnacles, which happen to be My favorite. Very low maintenance. They’re all Mine. Mine to care for, Mine to keep watch over, Mine to mourn and to worry and fret about.
“You couldn’t keep an eye on your hamster?
“How do you think I feel?”
The Heavenly Father planted the upper half of His head in a weary grip.
“I am so tired, My son. Is that an excuse for what happened to Tamara Dodd? Is that an excuse for the suffering that slips through My fingers like sand? For famine and rush-hour traffic, for stubbed toes and forest fires, broken hearts and food poisoning?
“It is a poor excuse, at best. But I am. I am so tired.”
At this last, He buried Himself ostrich-style into the spread-eagle crooks of His arms, bending at the waist over the table.
It was a strange sort of out-of-body experience for Gideon Dodd to see himself, sitting there in such a submissive pose of utter defeat — and one so spot-on reflective of how he felt inside. It was doubly odd to understand that, actually, this browbeaten figure was God Almighty.
The cherry on top: When God lifted His head, uncovering His face from the nose up, tears pooled at the crests of His swollen cheeks — and He had changed. Now He wore the punim of Dodd’s father, the way Dodd remembered him, a little younger than Dodd’s current age.
Gideon Dodd’s actual father had never cried, not that he knew of. It felt no better to him, to be staring at a weepy version of Poppa.
In fact, it disgusted him a little.
“Stop crying,” he said. “It’s unbecoming.”
(Which was in fact something his father used to say.)
The Creator sat upright, wiped His nose, pinched off the remaining waterworks. “I’m sorry,” He said. “You’re right, of course.”
Both parties imbibed a good third of their current bottles.
“Can’t see how You of all people are crying about Your job,” said Dodd, between slurps. “Y’know, some of us have real problems. If You don’t like how things are going, change ‘em. You can do anything! Your Will is law. You could make the sky green and the grass blue. You could make horses talk, or— or eradicate disease, if You really cared to. I don’t buy into Your sob story, Sir.” He waved a hand. “No, no, I won’t.”
“Well.” God began to tick off His fingers with the weary air of having had to prove the same point many times before. “There’s the Northern Lights: green sky. There’s certainly bluegrass. I sent the creator of Mr. Ed the idea in a dream. Gave you doctors and scientists.” He looked between splayed digits at Dodd and raised His eyebrows. “All things considered, I’ve accomplished a lot, I’d say.”
Dodd grunted. “Smart-aleck. I’ll show you what I mean.” He rolled up his sleeves, aware that it was a showy gesture. “Where’s Tammy?” Rising, he teetered a bit from the beer and knocked over his lawn chair. He had to use the table for support. “I’m bringin’ her back to life. First act as the New God.”
“Tammy?” God blinked up at him.
“My wife. Where is she? I’m givin’ my kiddos their mama back.”
But Yahweh only shook His head — a lot, as folks do after a few brewskies. “Gideon, Son, it doesn’t work like that. I could bring anyone back from death at any time. Of course. That’s a piece of cake. I’ve done it twice to great success.
“The problem isn’t that I can’t — or won’t — resurrect the dead. Do you really believe that?”
He grabbed Dodd’s hand now, whether Dodd wanted Him to or not.
“It’s that they don’t want to come back. And neither does Tamara.”
Fuming, Dodd jerked out of God’s embrace. “No,” he said. “Tammy will. Tammy will. Just let me see her.”
Now God — with Dodd’s father’s face — seemed so forlorn it was almost painful to gaze upon Him. “Gideon,” He said, “I can’t make her see you if she doesn’t want to see you.”
“But she must— Well, I can—”
“And neither can you. It’s up to her.” He smiled a weak apology. “That’s the thing about free will.”
Now it was Dodd’s turn: He fell to his knees, crossed his arms on the tabletop, and buried his nose in the gap between them. “Why wouldn’t she?” he said.
“She’s not ready,” said God. “Or, she believes you aren’t.”
Dodd laced his fingers through a pate of graying curls. “I hate this,” he said.
“The only reason I’m here at all is to see her. All of this was for her.”
“Well,” Dodd heaved a tortured breath. “Now what?”
“I think you have a job to do.”
Toot, toot. One of many toy trains clacked past on plastic tracks, spitting out white fog from its petite exhaust pipes. It entered a scale model tunnel and disappeared into shadow.
“I guess,” Dodd said into the table, moist breath hot on his lips, “I ought to get started. Hadn’t I?”
The Being with Dodd’s father’s face nodded. “Would you like to see your Throne?” asked the former God.
The New God, who had once been a preacher and a bestselling author, plus a radio host, husband, and father, was nothing more now than a heaving mass of shoulder blades and flabby arms. Buried in himself, he answered into a muffled cavern of bent elbow, his nose smashed into plastic-coated plywood.
“Okay,” he said.
IX. The Blameless and the Guilty
A four-by-four section of the floor, upon which the once and the future Lord were centered, lifted from the ground in a steady climb, table and all.
One leg of Dodd’s lawn chair teetered off the edge. He flailed and cried out in surprise.
“Careful,” said God, smiling in an “ain’t-you-cute” sort of way. He drained the remainder of His brew.
Within seconds they were, at least, a hundred feet in the air. The antechamber of model cities and hobby supplies went on and on, Dodd saw, in every direction. Above, a sort of self-sustained atmosphere developed: clouds, stars, that sort of thing.
“Where are we going?” asked Dodd.
“To work,” said the Lord.
Dodd suckled his mustache. “Will Tamara be there?”
God closed His eyes. “Stop that. You know she won’t.”
Crossing his arms, Dodd kicked at the levitating floor, leaving behind a faint scuffmark.
As they continued to climb, the preacher began to comprehend that this place was not just vast but infinite. The concept was staggering, confusing. He tried to think about other things. All he could come up with was Tammy — and that hurt.
God began to hum, tap a toe.
“You know,” He said, “this is nice. I haven’t just visited with anyone in ages.” With Dodd’s father’s face, He shook His head and chortled. “It’s funny. You retreat into Your work, get preoccupied — people paint you as this introvert, this hermit. Next thing You know it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I mean, I like this. I’m having fun.
“Aren’t you having fun, Gideon Dodd?”
Gideon Dodd did not answer.
At long last the lifting platform came to a stopping point somewhere in the stratosphere. It locked into place at the base of a long dock of sorts, carved of marble, kind of bobbing there in the clouds. It jutted out like a long stiff tongue — narrow, considerable, and ending with a translucent set of gates.
The gates themselves were underwhelming. It wouldn’t take much to scale them, as they weren’t tall; it would take nothing to simply walk around them, as they were connected to nothing — just freestanding, purposeless, a vanity.
Nevertheless, God led Dodd straight for them — removed from his Dockers pocket a long, thin, white key and held it to Dodd’s nose.
“Yours,” He said. “No copies. Don’t lose it.”
Dodd took it. Slid it into the keyhole at the center latch of the gate and turned it. There was a satisfying click as the lock opened. God wrapped a hand around one of the opal bars and pulled. The gate swung open. Dodd pocketed the key and with God, he stepped through.
Inside it was astonishingly cramped — a jarring change of pace from the never-ending sprawl outside. Here was a horseshoe-shaped column that stretched up and up into forever, closing in tight around a lone chair. To call it merely a chair might be unfair, but to call it a throne would be overkill.
Parts of it were gold — the arms, the base. But most of it was upholstered with the tight-knit, bouncy material of an expensive office chair.
“Lumbar support,” said God, as Dodd stepped forward and pressed a finger into the springy mesh. “It’s sedentary work. Me, I like to set a reminder to get up and stretch every hour. Otherwise it’s killer on the lower back.”
Dodd turned from the heavenly throne, looking back at what looked like his father. “This is it?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Dodd tapped the gold armrest with a nail. “It’s a little small.”
God shrugged. “You won’t need much space.”
The preacher pressed fingertips together. “Is there a coffee pot?”
“We can get one. Absolutely.”
“Hm.” Dodd rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, should I—” He pointed at the seat. “I mean, do you mind if I…?” His voice echoed upward off the constricting curved enclosure.
“Oh, sure.” God dipped His chin, grinning. “You’re God now. So— God away.”
Dodd’s head didn’t nod so much as vibrate. “Right,” he said. “Of course. It’s my seat now. Of course I can sit in it.” Butt hovering, zeroing in, he wrapped fingers round the armrests and studied Yahweh’s face for any sign of objection, distaste — and found Him to be entirely placid.
Gideon Dodd sat.
“All right,” God clapped. “Orientation. Let us begin, shall we?”
The Lord took a knee — Dodd jerked forward, meaning to protest: He was uncomfortable with the idea of God bowing to him. But Jehovah was not bending over in supplication. No, He was just fiddling with a dial affixed to the base of the chair. It looked a bit like a thermostat, one of the old ones from homes of the ‘70s.
When satisfied, God planted Himself there on the floor, knees bent up to the chest, hands supporting at a diagonal behind Him.
“What do I…?” Dodd began, but something erupted in his gut and chest. His face flushed, the wind knocked from him. It wasn’t painful, per se — more like shame, a juvenile embarrassment. It kind of took him back.
God, in his campfire pose on the floor, looked up at him in a twinkling leer.
Dodd heard a crackling, boyish voice. It seemed to travel down from the overhead conical opening and land to rattle around the base of his skull, at the roots of his teeth.
Dear God, it said.
It’s me, Jeremy. I’m sorry, God. I forgot to study last night and I swear I’ll never do it again and I swear oh I swear God I really do mean it—
And Dodd winced in humiliation, burned with it. Jeremy’s voice funneled in from above, yes, but it was inside him, too. And Gideon Dodd was Jeremy.
Jeremy’s thoughts were his thoughts, his feelings were Dodd’s feelings.
Just oh Lord oh Heavenly Father please don’t let Mizz Martell call on me. I didn’t study oh I’m so stupid such an idiot God please don’t let her call on me I’ll never forget to study again I’ll never sneak an extra cookie again just please don’t make me get up in front of the class and look stupid stupid stupid idiot—
Something clouded Dodd’s vision somewhat. In a haze, a transparent visual overlay, he could see a classroom, though his actual physical space was still visible beneath. Ghost-wisp boys and girls sat at desks all around him, the woman he understood to be Ms. Martell clacking a piece of chalk against a blackboard. He looked down and, see-through over his own arms and legs, he was at a desk, too. He was thin and freckled and wearing acid-wash Levi’s.
Please God please.
Through the tingling nausea that Jeremy broadcast into him, Dodd managed a wry smile.
“Sure, Jeremy,” he said. “You got it, pal.”
Intuitively, he snapped his fingers. Dodd half-saw Ms. Martell dab a finger in the direction of Abby Burble (Little Miss Know-It-All). He pseudo-heard Abby say, “Diatoms, Miss Martell,” and then the vision faded, a vapor puff.
Dodd blinked, seeing through only one pair of peepers again. He found himself with a clear mind, no more invading emotions — simply sitting on his ergonomic throne with the former God on the floor next to him.
In spite of himself, Dodd smirked down at his predecessor. “Not bad, huh?” he said. “And I think little Jeremy learned his lesson, whaddayou say?”
God bowed, twirled one hand. “Very nice,”He said — and made a subtle swipe at the dial.
Something goosed Dodd — a sharp pain at his tailbone. It flared, and he went stiff, a perfect L in his throne.
Another vision, at half-opacity, spread out over his true optic field, so he was here — but in a hospital room, as well. A doctor pointed at an X-ray, sympathy in her eyes. Dodd’s other ghost feet spread out before him, scantly covered in a thin polka dot gown.
Oh, God, came a booming voice down the vertical tunnel, into his very heart: Hear my prayer.
Looks like broke my coccyx, Father. Won’t lie: hurts real bad. Can’t barely sit — but if can’t sit, how sleep? How work, drive, watch TV? Oh, God, think I’m gonna die this hurts so bad. Please heal fast. Please help. Amen.
And it did hurt. If the pain being transmitted into his own heinie was any indication, this poor soul was really suffering. Dodd was sweating a little already.
So he snapped his fingers.
“You’re healed, bub,” he said.
The doctor’s office vanished. The pain ebbed and left Dodd’s backside.
“Easy-peasy,” he said.
Yahweh nodded. “You’re a natural,” He said — just like Dodd’s pop had told him once, during baseball practice in the second grade.
He was getting the hang of this. In rapid succession he spared the life of a young woman in Guatemala (didn’t wear seatbelt, flew threw windshield, preferred not to die); eradicated the crippling grief of a little boy in Melbourne (grandmother dead, first brush with concept of mortality); and secured a job for a middle-aged divorcee in Cleveland (trying to start over and scared she was too old, not experienced enough, just plain dumb).
In solving these problems, Dodd also empathized with them. Felt every dab and dollop of physical, mental, emotional discomfort that accompanied each one — and an even stronger sense of accomplishment when each was dealt with. A swell of pride that — he couldn’t deny — inflated his head a bit.
“See?” he said and wagged a finger at the Being seated at his heel. “It ain’t so hard to just listen. Give folks the time of day.” He leaned back, relaxed. “Things are gonna be different now,” he said, and yawned a drowsy post-beer yawn. “I got to admit I’m not half-bad at this.”
“I’ve very impressed,” said the Old God. “Now why don’t we try taking the training wheels off?”
The Creator of Yore leaned forward in stoicism, His face a total blank, and cranked the meter on the side of the chair. “You’ll never get anywhere,” He said, “if you leave the filters on for very long.” He rubbed His hands together, blew into them. “Trust me.”
Before he could respond, Gideon Dodd was overcome with a torment, an agony so profound and piercing it was beyond human imagination. Mind, body, and soul were torn asunder as the reverend died a thousand, a million deaths at once. Anguish: Everything and everyone he’d ever known or loved was ripped from him. A family pet, a job, a fortune, a child — all gone, countless times over.
Suffering: Arthritis and the side effects of chemotherapy, childbirth and an epileptic fit, broken bones and a knife slid between his ribs.
Abuse: Horrible epithets rattled in his brain, directed at him; welts rose all over his body; he was assaulted in every way he knew a person could be assaulted and many he did not.
Gideon Dodd felt all of these things — this being but a fraction of the misery and torture that bombarded him from the inside out, sent him writhing and crying out from his chair. It lasted a hundred lifetimes, this onslaught; twelve of these lifetimes it took for him to raise a hand in protest. When he did, he saw before him not his hand but a curdled, shriveled black root of a thing — like a fungus burnt to a crisp. He touched his face. Felt bone. Felt pieces of himself falling away like shingles in a tornado.
“Suh-stop,” he said, a pitiful breath.
“What’s that?” The Voice of God felt further away than ever before — salvation an impossible dream.
“Stop it.” Even Dodd himself did not hear this.
Without a word the Lord reached over, head between His knees, and spun the chair’s dial.
As suddenly as it had walloped him, the pain left Gideon Dodd.
He had never been so happy.
“Well,” the First God said, leaning back again, “that was commendable. I didn’t think you would last that long on your first time.”
Panting, Dodd wiped his mouth. He trembled, asking between desperate gasps, “How many years have I been sitting here?”
The Creator cocked His head. “It’s been about six seconds,” He said.
At this point Gideon Dodd began to sob.
They were fading, trickling like water from a punctured bottle, but for the moment he held within his mind every memory of the experience. The pain of every man, woman, and child on Earth was his to bear, for now.
Heaving, he said, “I want to die.”
“Well,” said the Lord, “that’s not really possible, I’m afraid. We’re already in Heaven. You’re God.” With a finger He began to trace concentric, idle circles in the mushy floor under His feet.
The God-elect panted, grasping handfuls of empty air. Even with the thoughts and doubts and pleas of billions roiling in his brain, he felt alone. Empty. A husk.
“If we’re in Heaven,” Dodd said — now balled up into a tight cluster as the chair spun lightly — “then where is everyone? My loved ones, the angels, the cherubs?”
God sighed. “They’re all outside. No one comes in the office much. There isn’t really time for visitors,” He said, “if you want to get anything done.” From His khaki pocket He drew, impossibly, a liter of sparkling water. He got to His knees and held the bottle rim to Dodd’s lips.
Dodd suckled like a babe.
“You’re doing great,” said Yahweh. “It’s no picnic, I know. I told you how tired I am. Twenty-four hours a day of that and you’ll be tired, too.” Half-empty, He pulled the water away. “Breathe,” He said. “That’s it.”
Dodd felt a gentle hand rub his knotted back. From above, Yahweh said in dry regret: “I wish I’d answered you. I wish I’d heard you. But— all this noise.”
“It’s too much to bear.”
“I am sorry, Gideon Dodd. I hope you believe Me.”
The Dodd-wad rocked, vibrating. “I don’t want this,” he said into his chest. “I never wanted this. Not this.”
“You thought it would be easy?”
Through a self-made slat of forearm, Dodd’s eyes appeared before the Lord. “Well,” he said. “Not. Not easy. But.”
God the First nodded, put the bottle into Dodd’s willing hands. As the new deity drank, the old one said, “Why don’t you come down from there?”
Dodd rolled off the chair onto the soft ground with a plop.
“Catch your breath. Take five. Then you can start again refreshed.” Grunting, He stood. “I’ll get out of your way,” He said. “You have a job to do, after all.”
The bottle fell from Dodd’s hands. “Whuh-wha-where’re you goin’?” he said. “You’re not leaving…?”
The Creator of the Heavens and the Earth shrugged.
“I don’t work here anymore,” He said.
Dodd collapsed. Partly on his knees, partly his elbows, he clutched panicked bundles of pant leg at the Lord’s ankles.
“You can’t!” he said. “No, no, no, You can’t leave. I can’t— Don’t think I can—” His bawling resurfaced anew, bounding up the claustrophobic office enclosure. Dodd belched wetly, tugging on his forerunner’s pants.
“Please don’t make me,” he said.
Jehovah raised an eyebrow. His lips did not quiver in a suppressed cocky smile. His eyes did not sparkle with any “I-told-you-so’s.”
“Gideon Dodd,” he said, “are you abdicating already?”
Dodd sniffed. “What?”
“Resigning. Are you quitting on your first day in office?”
Without shame, Dodd nodded — a fervent, certain, blurred nod.
“Well,” said God, “that is too bad. No longer being God, I cannot force you to stay.” He scratched the white stubble of his chin. “But, I think, neither will I resume My post.”
The preacher’s bones gave out. He fell apart, full of jelly, in a heap. “What?”
“The people have spoken,” said the Lord. “They do not wish Me to carry on my duty. And, I will be frank with you, I am not disappointed to hear it. I wish it were not so — I feel ashamed to tell you, my son — but I am somewhat relieved for the forced retirement. You understand.”
“So…” Dodd found his knees again, trembling. Moist eyes glimmered upward. “If I don’t stay, there’s… no God?”
“I suppose not. No one else ever really clamored for the gig — until you.”
“Well.” Dodd let go of God’s chinos, saw the wet spots where his hands had been. “W-well, what about all them people? No one answers their prayers, watches over ‘em, if I go? And— and the bad guys: Who’d stop ‘em?”
“All good questions.”
“And You’re never comin’ back?”
The Lord thought on this. Stuffed His hands into pockets, scratched the back of one knee with a foot.
“Never say ‘never,’ Gideon Dodd. Old men like Me — so often, I find, they get bored in retirement.”
“My papaw went back to work at eighty-one,” Dodd said, hushed.
“Case in point.”
“I— I guess I could stick around,” Dodd said, looking over his shoulder at the strange chair. “For a little while.”
The man from Baltimore held out his hands, twiddling revived fingers that, moments before, had been warped, black curls.
“No,” he said, looking back and forth at his spread palms. “No, I couldn’t.”
God — or whatever He was called now — turned to leave.
“Perhaps we will meet again. That’s a nice thought, isn’t it?” He took a step away.
“Wait!” Dodd said.
The former Lord looked back.
“How do I leave?” Dodd asked.
The Old Man — in the guise of Dodd’s old man — smiled.
“Just want it,” He said, and stepped around the odd curved wall, disappearing — perhaps forever.
On protesting legs, Gideon Dodd stood.
Just want it? Of course he wanted it! What a stupid thing to say! He had never wanted away from somewhere so badly in all his— was this life anymore?
He thought about home. About James and Ellie. His congregation and all his things — the beautiful house and the cars and the Brionis. Of course he wanted to go back to them. How could he not?
Was it possible, could it ever be possible, to face humankind again? What would his children think of him — abandoning the most Holy and Sacred of offices? Leaving the world to the wolves? What kind of lesson was that for the kiddos?
Well! The Last Guy did it before me!
There was precedent.
If anyone was that bent up about it, he’d gladly give them the Seat. Sure! Let them take the burden, if they raised a hand.
“‘The God we deserve is just a man,’” he said into the thick, empty air.
“You ain’t even a man, Gideon Dodd.”
Just want it.
The last thing he wanted was to see the look on his children’s faces when he explained to them why Daddy quit his job on day one.
To read whatever opinion piece Maria Stenson would write in response.
To look upon the devastation he had wrought on Vatican City, and the world beyond, and know he could have done something about it — hadn’t.
So. What did he want?
And he thought.
And he was gone.
His chair: vacant.
X. Let Him That Is Athirst Come
The sun set red on the Tanzanian landscape.
The honey-guide bird fluttered an inch from Mwapi’s ear, chirping its intimate secrets — and darted forward.
It pecked and pecked at a bulging, crackled knot of one tree several yards ahead, across a thin stream of water bubbling with the activity of fish. Lately, the fish had been ample. Honey wasn’t sustenance anymore — just dessert.
Mwapi the Hadzabe tribesman inhaled, nodded once, and followed.
Balling up a callused fist, he thrust and busted the tree open. Thick, delicious, and golden, a mother lode of sweet treat trickled over his hand. The bird, his companion, went wild. It dipped its beak and feasted, twittering in ecstasy and fulfillment.
Mwapi licked his hand, closed his eyes — and jerked to taut attention. Something moved in the brush, a few short steps east.
The Hadza fellow bent, reached for his discarded spear in utter silence.
Lifted it. Drew back his arm.
And let the weapon clatter back to the ground.
No beast or enemy emerged from the tall grass. When the brown foliage parted, he could not believe his eyes. It was a friend. It was the Great One himself — that American, the God of Gods!
Here came Gideon Dodd!
The Holy One fell to his knees, winded — did a clumsy tuck-and-roll for the stream and dunked his head into it. Something fell from the bedraggled pouch at his waist — a pearly, thin, treasure with a ring at one side and tiny teeth at the other. It plopped into the flowing water and was carried downstream.
Dodd drank. Slurped and gulped a long time before coming up for air, turning, finding his native acolyte — whom he now eyed with the look of a little one caught taking an extra helping of meat.
Mwapi exclaimed, spread his arms, leapt forward and crouched to give the Great One a sticky, heartfelt hug. Kissed him on both cheeks thrice.
He held out a strong arm and helped the Holiest of Holies to his feet.
Gideon Dodd patted Mwapi meekly on the back — actually touched him, what provenance! The tribe member asked his Savior, in a tongue he couldn’t understand, if he would like some honey.
Dodd stared back at him, rubbing the sides of his hips.
A single tear traced the crag of one holy American cheek — those crags being much deeper than Mwapi remembered.
“Why do you cry?” he asked in Hadza. The bird, in its own tongue, asked much the same thing.
“Mwapi,” said the Great One.
He knew Mwapi’s name!
“I was wondering,” Dodd said. He knuckled the wet off his face, scratched and scritched at the back of his head.
He took a deep breath.
Looked old Mwapi in the eye.
Then Gideon Dodd asked his friend:
“You got room for one more here?”
WITHER THOU, O LORD?
by Mary Jetson
History is a fickle thing, is it not?
Ten years later, and perhaps the most important event in the history of humankind seems like a distant dream. The Election for God, and pastor Gideon Dodd’s victory over the Almighty, could not feel more distant or diminished.
Most people have written the entire affair off as some zeitgeist, hive-mind fever dream. “Mass hysteria,” the Pope called it famously.
But this reporter remembers differently.
I was there on the campaign trail with Gideon Dodd. I went to Tanzania with him. I should know; I won a Pulitzer for my essay about our travels.
I was in Vatican City when the election was called. I witnessed the devastation that followed. Saw men and women gunned down in senseless acts of violence leading up to the poll closings. For God’s sake, I was tied up and tortured under St. Peter’s Basilica that day. That was no fever dream. I still have the scars around my wrists. Still have the nightmares.
But then — what is God’s sake?
God seems to have vanished, as completely as Gideon Dodd himself vanished that Election Day.
I looked for him. As did many. But Gideon Dodd, we can all agree, is not ruling from on high. He is not keeping his many outlandish campaign promises. And our prayers fall not on deaf ears, but on no ears at all.
So what happened?
We can all agree the last ten years have been rotten. But all things being relative, can we say definitively they were more rotten than the ten before that?
Are things really any worse on this planet than they were a decade ago? (Well, until President Bulkiss’s second term ends, I would have to argue a resounding ‘yes’ — but put politics aside for a second and go with me here.)
Is it true that we’ve been left to our own devices — for the first time in human history, without any cosmic being ruling from on high — and has it made a difference? Would anything improve if God returned, or Gideon Dodd, for that matter?
This is the beginning of a ten-part series that will seek to answer those questions and many more. For the next six months, this reporter will do her abject best to…
[CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE —>]
Eliza Dodd closes the laptop.
In her office, she picks up the telephone and dials a number she has not rung in several years. But when the other line picks up, it’s not the person she wants to speak to on the other end.
“Hello?” Fred Stenson says.
“Fred,” says Eliza. “Is Maria around?”
“No, I’m afraid not. She’s on assignment.” Fred takes an impatient breath. “Well, self-appointed assignment. Nothing that’s gonna pay our cable bill.”
“Can you tell her Ellie called?” Eliza says. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Preaching to the choir,” Fred says. “If she calls, I’ll let her know.”
Ms. Dodd hangs up. She rises from her chair, stretches, breathes into her hands haltingly.
She steps out into the hall. Looks around at the handpaint splotches taped to the wall, the illustrated Bible stories pinned all around. A young boy exits the men’s room, freezes in her wake, staring at her in childish reverence.
“Pastor Dodd,” the boy says. “Didja see my painting?”
Eliza smiles. “I did,” she says. “What a beautiful job, Joey. It looks just like your mommy.”
Joey smiles, proud.
“Get on back to class,” says the reverend. “Almost snack time.”
Joey half-skips down the hall.
In the other direction there comes winding down the corridor the sound of music. It’s crude and unpolished and lovely.
Eliza heads thataway.
Stands in the doorway, unseen by the preschool kids sat on the floor. Christina — that’s Jim’s wife, what a doll — smiles back at her from her perch at the front of the room, with her guitar. She keeps singing, the little ones a step behind. It’s a cute song, an oldie but a goodie — “Father Abraham.”
“Had many sons.
“And many sons had—”
Eliza Dodd turns away, continues the trek through her tiny corner of the world, feet padding the worn carpet of her small-town church.
She reaches the sanctuary. Opens the little closet, grabs the broom, steps into the aisle between pews.
Standing at her preacher’s podium, a slumped and exhausted somebody. Baggy, sweat-stained Oxford shirt. Bald head.
He hears Eliza.
The man turns around, and Eliza Dodd drops her broom. It clacks against the hardwood floor, and she leans onto the back pew, swallowing air.
The visitor is rail-thin. Face lined with the marks of a life not easily lived.
But he doesn’t look sickly. Spry, fit, sinewy. His shirt is three sizes too big, at least.
It’s the mustache that gives him away.
“Daddy?” Eliza says.
Gideon Dodd stares down the center of his old stomping grounds at his grown daughter. He does not smile. He looks terrified.
“Ellie,” he says.
The preacher runs — sprints — to the pulpit to meet her father, embrace him, hold him and feel his solid form in her arms. He smells like she remembers. And when she pulls back, still clinging to him, he smiles like she remembers.
Smiles his dust-jacket smile.
“Daddy,” she says. Her face is already sopping. Mouth trembling.
“Oh, Daddy, where have you been?”
Gideon Dodd opens his mouth.
“No,” Eliza says. “Later. Doesn’t matter now. You’re here now. That’s what matters.” She kisses his cheek. Looks down.
At her father’s feet are three woodcarvings. Not like the ones he used to make. Sloppy, archaic, wild things — as though whittled by sharpened rocks, painted with berry juice and animal blood.
Even so, they don’t look unlike her papa, her brother, herself — how they looked a long time ago.
“Are you hungry?” she says.
“A little,” he answers.
“Can I walk you to the kitchen?”
Gideon Dodd limps to sit in the front pew. Holds his face. “Oh, baby. I’m sorry. I— I thought I was ready. Thought I could—” He pounds a fist on his thigh. “Thought I could tell you — explain. Figured it was high time.” He swallows. “I’m a dope.”
She sits beside her father in the church that once belonged to him. Where they used to worship the Old God, the Real God. Where they still do, and always have.
“You look ready to me.”
“What must you think of me?” He falls into her, wets her shirtsleeve.
“I think you must have a doozy of a story,” says Eliza. “I should call Jim— uh, James. Oh, Christina’s here! You’ll like her. She’s a doll. Jim wouldn’t set foot in church until he met her. She practically saved him single-handed. Now they’re here every Sunday, if you can believe it. And the kids…”
Gideon Dodd shudders against her.
She nods, chin grinding into his shoulder. “All right,” she says. “You’re right. Later. Later.”
Takes his hand.
“Dad,” she says, “will you pray with me?”
The muscular, worn hand in her grip tears free. Her father stammers, rubs his chrome dome, looks very old, very tired, very sad.
“Ellie,” he says, “oh, sweet girl. How do I tell you this? Oh, baby. All this time.”
He won’t look at her. Finds a grape juice stain on the floor to talk to, instead.
“There ain’t anybody to pray to anymore. God — He’s gone.”
He really should eat. Can barely keep his head up.
“He up and left, Ellie. S’my fault,” he says. “My fault.”
Ellie Dodd is surprised at herself: She laughs.
It’s not that she’s mocking her father. Oh, no. It’s just that he’s being so silly.
She picks up both of his hands. Squeezes. Waits for him to meet her gaze. He smiles, uncertain and human.
Their matching irises lock onto each other.
From afar, she can still hear it.
“Had many sons.
“And many sons had—”
But here in the sanctuary they are alone. They are together. He has returned.
“Daddy,” she says, “how can you say that?
“When right now I’m looking at the answer to all my prayers?”