Where is this? When is this?—Clark Humphrey
It’s really quiet in here. I may get scared of the quiet later on, but for now it’s a relief. “I can finally hear myself think,” to borrow one of my mother’s pet phrases.
Damn I miss her. Even if we disagree about a lot of things, she’s always there for me. Except now, but that’s not her fault.
I wonder if she’s thinking about me now? As far as she knows, I’m at a church youth-group retreat this MLK Day weekend. She expects me to walk in the door at home a day and a half from now, maybe tired, wearing dirty clothes, but otherwise rested and inspired to be a better person.
She stopped going to church after the divorce. Was I still in grade school then? I think so. I still don’t blame her. The old women at that church, under its old pastor, used to be very judgmental about spouses, especially wives, who abandoned the ol’ ’til-death-us-do-part. Even if those wives had really good reasons.
I know people drift apart from one another. My older sister has left, or been left by, more boyfriends than I can count. My mother herself never remarried, though she came close a couple of times.
The woman and man who’d just been in the car with me seem to be of a different type—the type of couples who can’t stand each other but can’t live without each other either. In Calvary Fellowship we don’t believe in “purgatory” or divide Hell into “circles;” but if we did, a relationship like that would certainly qualify as one of those.
Ever since that girl and I got back into the car back out by Beaver Springs Road, the woman (who drove the car this most recent leg) and the man were arguing. They didn’t get tremendously loud. But they also didn’t stop. They accused each other of betraying something they both claimed to care about. The “right,” they called it. Or was it the “rite”?
Even worse, they had the car radio on that late-night conspiracy theory and ghost story talk show. When they weren’t yapping at each other, they were listening to the radio guy yapping about some new cult group and its new prophecy for this new age. It says the “awakened” or “woke” peoples of Earth, the people who reject the New World Order’s agenda of destruction, are about to “ascend into a higher frequency” that will cause them to rise beyond the plane of what we think of as physical existence. Just like the Mayans and other peoples of history had done.
This sounds a lot like a different interpretation of what our former pastor used to preach about all the time. The End Times. The Darkness. It would start with the Rapture, in which the pure, the true believers, would be “harvested” from this life. Then would come seven years of Hell on Earth, led by the Antichrist, which our old pastor described as both Satan incarnate and as the ultimate communist liberal, who’d impose a UN One World Government to persecute everybody. Then after all that, the Messiah would descend from Heaven again and sort the Heaven-bound from the Hell-bound.
I didn’t say anything about this in the car. As I’m telling the girl from the car now, I’m still operating on the principle of trying not to get myself further into trouble. The girl says I’m getting further into trouble anyway, so my silence isn’t working. I don’t try to contest her on this.
She and I are out of the car again. It feels good. I mean it’s not objectively a bad place to be. It’s a nice late model white import sedan, with most of the modern convenience options. Metal and glass on the outside, various kinds of plastic on the inside. No dents, scratches, torn seats, or cracked windows. An engine that starts when it’s supposed to; brakes that stop when they’re supposed to. A working heater. If I didn’t feel so helpless, it would be what my more car-crazy friends would call “a nice ride.” I try to praise the Lord even under trying circumstances, so I silently thank Him for my relative safety and comfort this weird night.
And that includes the place where I am now. It’s an old house. It’s run down, and it’s cold, but it’s shelter. And it’s starting to rain outside. I can hear a leaky ceiling somewhere in another room.
The man and woman who’d been driving the car have deposited the girl and I here, then driven off. They didn’t say where they were going or when, or if, they’d be back. And I didn’t ask.
I’m not going to check where I am on the cell phone, not with its battery this low. I already tried to recharge it, but there’s no electricity here.
There is running water, cold. I wash my face and hands at the kitchen sink, and dry myself off with a tablecloth.
I feel beard stubble on my chin.
I take a deep breath, then another. These breaths, and the rain and the leak, are the only sounds I hear for a moment, until the girl’s footsteps resume along the creaky wood floor.
It’s dark in here, so I can’t really see the premature wrinkles on her face or the weird spot on her lower lip. She stands up straight as she walks toward me, with a confident stride I don’t remember seeing among the girls my own age.
She talks to me, in what might as well be riddles.
A few of the things she says I understand. Like when she says she needs to start making money again, but not so much that she can afford to get back on the bad drugs. And when she says weed’s OK but meth will drain the life force from you. She says the “F word” several times during this.
She talks about the woman in the car, whom she calls “Pseudo Mom.” She doesn’t say just what line of work she’d been in with the woman. But from the hints she drops, it was probably an illegal thing, maybe even several illegal things. (I remember her previous remark about “multiple streams of income.”) She says she hates Pseudo Mom sometimes, but can’t seem to break away from her.
She says only a few things about the man in the car. Apparently he and Pseudo Mom are only business partners, not lovers. The man has an ex-wife he’s still in love with, even though she’s a totally different person these days.
But she also says a lot of things I don’t get at all. Like when she says I’m not really as prepared as I ought to be for what’s coming next. She says “they” (the man and woman from the car? Somebody else?) won’t “be easy” on me. I’ve got to make myself psyched up for “the induction.”
I ask her what “the induction” is. She just laughs, telling me I know what it is. Which I don’t.
Otherwise, as I’ve done all night, I say little to nothing. I sure don’t tell her much about myself. Compared to her, I live (or lived, until yesterday) a very dull, “normal” life in a clean-cut subdivision. I get good grades in school, but not great. I don’t know what I want to study in college. I don’t have a girlfriend. I’ve got a sister who’s now in what used to be called a “community” college. I’ve got a mom with a decent enough job at a bank branch. Why would I tell her this? She’d probably just scoff at me, and she’d tell me (with a few “F words” interspersed) that I don’t know how the world really works.
After a moment of awkward silence, I sit down on a tired old overstuffed sofa, one of the few pieces of furniture in here. She follows me.
I try to think about what to do next. I know it’s just a short hike back to civilization, to a ride home, or a cop to report to. At least back to the convenience store, where I can call a cab or an Uber if they run this late, or hang out inside until dawn if they don’t.
As what the old pastor used to call “a strapping young lad,” I know I’d have the stamina to make the hike, even on no sleep. The girl presumably knows the way. I can ask her for directions even if she doesn’t want to hike with me.
Then it starts raining. Hard. The leak elsewhere in the house gets loud and steady, like a ticking grandfather clock.
I lie back on the sofa.
My mind gets fuzzy. The sofa feels so soft. I don’t even mind how cold it is.
I pass out.