A Boy in a Corner with Chalk in His Eyes
by Ian Donnell Arbuckle
part 1 of 3
“I knew something was wrong when the gun spit flowers instead of bullets,” said Troy. He was sitting in the grass on a hill overlooking Brahmton, Mississippi. There was a zeppelin drifting overhead like a cloud, blocking out the sun. “Not flowers, exactly,” Troy went on. “Just some green vegetable thing. Turned out that any sudden impact in that version of the world was a catalyst for plant growth.”
“How unusual,” said father Van. He was tall and stooped and covered head-to-toe in a brown fur, thin as a boy’s first beard. In Troy’s old world he had been short, stocky, and bald.
“That’s not even the worst of it,” said Troy, tearing up handfuls of grass, like a child unsupervised, and letting them blow away in the wind.
Father Van gave an animal grunt and sat down across from Troy. “What is the worst?” he asked.
Troy stared down at the priest, and then out over the valley. “Sometimes it’s easy, getting back into things,” he said. “Sometimes not much is different. Here, at least, the sky’s the right color.” He looked up, as if to prove the point, but one of the zeppelin’s was blocking his view. An unfamiliar flag decorated its pellet-like body. Troy had been a pilot for the Air Force back home; it had been the thrum of broken air against his ears that had drawn him to that profession. He figured he wouldn’t have the patience to drive a zeppelin, at the mercy of the wind instead of being its ruin.
“I’m glad that you approve,” said father Van, scratching one of his legs with the other. “But I have two appointments yet this afternoon, and, as I can recall, you have not told me anything that requires absolution. Do you consider harming yourself?”
“No, father,” said Troy. “Do you remember — do you know Deseret?”
“I am not qualified to absolve sexual sins, mister Danagog. Cardinal —”
“It’s nothing like that,” said Troy.
“Then what?” asked father Van. When Troy didn’t answer immediately, the priest stood and brushed dust off his pants.
“You married us,” said Troy, blowing a handful of grass seeds into the wind. Some of them got stuck in father Van’s fur. “Sorry,” said Troy.
Father Van picked out the seeds and crushed them between his fingernails. He gave Troy a look under arched eyebrow. “Should I be apologizing? Are there problems between you and —”
“Deseret. No,” said Troy. “No, I don’t know what is between me and Deseret; I don’t know how much of it there is, either. That first time, with the gun flowers, I stood up, baffled. My muscles were twitching as though hooked up to a current, kinda the way you feel when a spasm jolts you out of a doze, you know. I went out into the kitchen, where Deseret had been making dinner, and found a strange woman there. Deseret was five-foot-nine. This woman was, uh, height-challenged.”
“A runt,” offered father Van. He made a gentle turn and began to walk down the hill in the direction of the steeple. Troy pushed himself to his feet and followed. At their walking pace, they remained always in the shadow of the zeppelin.
“Yeah,” said Troy. “I can’t tell you how strange it felt, right in my skin, and deeper.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” said father Van. “I am quickly turned to nightmares.”
“Of course,” said Troy; then he laughed. “I’m sorry,” he offered father Van as explanation, though the priest hadn’t seemed curious. “It’s just little things that shock me, sometimes. Not even the fact that you’re covered in fur —” Father Van snorted — “not that there’s anything wrong with that! But it’s that the father Van I used to know sponsored Brahmton’s yearly Romero/Raimi marathon.” Father Van continued on, a minute shrug his only response. Troy caught up to him and buried his mirth. “We were married for a year,” said Troy, evenly.
“What happened?” asked father Van. They had reached the chapel. Troy stood with his hands in his pockets as father Van kicked at a thistle by the door, then retrieved his keys.
“I very nearly died,” said Troy. The chapel was cool and dark.
“The gun,” said father Van, dipping his paw into a font of holy water and making a circular design on his chest.
“It was an accident,” said Troy, dipping his own fingers in the water and making the sign of the cross. “I had been cleaning my pistol — my brother-in-law and I had been down at the range earlier — while Deseret fixed the steaks. She called me to come in and unwrap what was left of our wedding cake, you know, from all that tinfoil.”
“Of course,” said father Van.
Troy got the impression the priest wasn’t listening anymore, but he kept on, anyway. “So I wasn’t done cleaning, and I hadn’t pulled out the old clip, and somehow my thumb slipped onto the trigger, and —” Troy shrugged. “Boom. Flowers.”
“And the runt.”
“Yeah,” said Troy. “It was a boneheaded thing to do, I know. Went out to the kitchen, and nothing was the same. That was a year ago.”
Father Van nodded and disappeared into his office for a moment. Troy sat down on a pew and stared up at the altar. It was made of slat-wood panels painted a marbleized green. On his world, the altar had been white plaster. He thought about how Deseret’s dress had camouflaged her when they stood there to be married, how she had made him forget to blink.
“I have just clapped my hands to be sure,” said father Van, emerging from his office with a book in his hand,”but saw no resultant vegetation.”
“No,” said Troy, shaking off his reverie and standing. “That was in another world.”
“Ah,” said father Van. “I believe you may have chosen poorly to whom you confess.”
“I couldn’t take that world,” said Troy. “Not right off the bat. I went to the bridge, and I swear I didn’t even think about it. I jumped at low-tide.”
“I take it your efforts failed,” said father Van.
“I don’t think so,” said Troy. “I think, in some universe, it worked just like I planned. But I didn’t stay around to see it. Some other poor me got splattered in the mud flats.”
“Thank you for that image,” said father Van. There was a series of shouts from outside, like those of children on a playground. “My next appointment,” said father Van. “Or, I should say, my first appointment.” He put his arm on Troy’s shoulder and steered him toward the door. Just as he was reaching for the handle, the door flew open. There were two figures on the steps; the one holding the door screamed quickly and then covered its mouth. Troy couldn’t tell what gender either of the figures were; they wore the same trousers and loose shirts as father Van.
“I apologize, father Van,” said the one at the door. “Are we early?”
“No, missus Take, mister Take,” said father Van, nodding at them both. “You’re right on time. Excuse me for just one moment. Go on in; I won’t be much longer.” He grabbed Troy firmly by the elbow and escorted him down the stairs.
Once they had passed the Takes, Troy heard a low whisper, like the crack of a whip. It was mister Take. “You need to be more careful,” he hissed. Missus Take responded, but father Van had accelerated and left her words behind.
“Well, mister Danagog, I appreciate your coming to see me,” said father Van. “If you’ll allow me a moment of candor, though, I will say that it is disheartening to see someone maltreat religion as you do, and I do not find it funny.”
“I’m sorry,” said Troy. His lips had a natural curve in the corners, and even when somber he looked as though he were smiling. “I just wanted to talk to a familiar...” he trailed off, searching for the right word. He decided on “Name.”
“I’m glad I could be of service,” said father Van. “But if I leave the Takes unsupervised for very long, they’re liable to swear in the chapel.”
“Wait a sec, father. I do have a confession,” said Troy.
Father Van sighed, and to Troy it sounded like a horse’s neigh. “A direct confession?” asked father Van. Troy nodded. “A confession to be made under the sky, in the sight of God?” Troy nodded again and allowed his natural smile to broaden. Father Van ignored it. “Let’s hear it, then,” said the priest.
“Bless me, father, for I have sinned —” began Troy.
Father Van shook his head. “What is this? I can no more bless you than can you bless me.”
“It’s a custom on my Earth,” said Troy.
“Never mind,” said father Van. He glanced up at the sky. The zeppelin had made a slow curve around Brahmton and now was heading East; it would pass over them again in a few minutes. “What is your confession, my son?”
“I killed a man,” said Troy. Father Van said nothing. “Are you going to call the police?”
“Depending on the circumstances, I may be obliged to,” said father Van. “Though I might sooner call them after waking from a bad dream. Was this also an accident?” asked father Van.
“Nope,” said Troy. “This was on purpose. After the gun and the bridge, I felt like a gag, like some trick pulled on other people. I went to a bar. In this world — the world in which the surface tension of water was enough to gently support my fall — the bars served this stuff that was like syrup, but burned all the way down. I couldn’t swallow it fast enough. I don’t guess I was thinking clearly when I picked a fight with the guy in the corner. I felt like a sick man, like there was bile in my throat. The guy wasn’t doing anything; he was just sitting there with a pint and an open book. I asked him what he was reading, and he said something like, ‘There is a balm in Gilead’. Didn’t even look up. That just pissed me off, like I can’t even tell you. I mean, what was wrong with this planet? No common decency.
“Something was creeping up into my skull, like the syrup had gotten into my blood, and my own heart was pumping it where it didn’t belong. I knocked the guy’s pint away, and then he looked up. He would’ve looked familiar to you — or, no, he wouldn’t have. Not to you. But he did to me.
“‘Father Van,’ I said. ‘What are you doing here?’ He closed his book and said something small; I don’t remember what.” Troy cast his eyes up and to the left and took a deep breath. “His was the first familiar face I had encountered, really. The first time I saw that in a separate universe, a parallel evolution had occurred, and must have occurred in countless other iterations. I say it calmly, now, I know, but the concept — it felt more like fantasy — hit me like some needle sinking through my skull. It was sharp and cold and I wanted to yank it out. I wanted to scrub him out, retribution for doing this to me. I didn’t blame him for the whole problem, just for giving me ideas. I was in no shape for ideas.”
The zeppelin’s shadow crawled down the lane, leaping over kick stones and smoothing down the summer colors. “I did it with my fists,” said Troy. “I beat him to death with my fists, and I hardly even noticed. Like slowly boiling water for a frog, it started out benign. Who could believe he had the power to kill a man with his fists? I mean, look at them.” Troy held out his fists, so they got hit first by the zeppelin’s shadow.
With the sun blocked out, the temperature dropped in an instant. “Wait,” said father Van. “Wait until God can see you again.” The priest stared at Troy, long and unblinking. Troy couldn’t guess his emotion. The zeppelin passed overhead, its only effect intangible. Troy blinked when the sun came out of eclipse.
“You do not belong in this place,” said father Van. Something in his voice was burning. “I can not absolve you of the guilt of murder; to do so would require you to have a contrite spirit, or for me to find you worthy of absolution. Neither are present.”
“Don’t take it personally,” said Troy.
Father Van turned on his heel and strode back toward the church. Troy trailed along behind.
“I need your advice,” said Troy.
“You need nothing from me,” said father Van. “And I wish you would leave. Whatever world you like to live in, it does not overlap with mine.”
“You’re absolutely right, father,” said Troy. “A Deseret is out there, I know, in a world in which everything has evolved the same as on my Earth, except maybe she never met me, or maybe I never took up shooting. But I don’t want her in this place. I prefer my women somewhat more shaved. Truth be told, I really just wanted to see what you were like in this world, if you were in this world, and to apologize.”
“Yes, well, I feel no more dead than usual, so your apology is unnecessary.”
“Not for that,” said Troy. “Behind your back, after our ceremony, I said you had a voice like Tweety Bird would have if he huffed helium. Your neck was a lot shorter in that world. I had to fight not to laugh all through the vows. Until death us do part,” mocked Troy, his voice cracking.
Copyright © 2005 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle