by J. B. Hogan
|part 1 of 2|
Stephen White is a lumpy, likeable guy with a good job, good friends, a pretty girl to long for, and a mostly boring small town life. Boring that is, until from out of the blue he develops a surprising and often terrifying ability to travel in time and space.
Quickly and without warning, he may find himself in the middle of a band of berserking Civil War-era outlaw raiders, lined up for execution with Fyodor Doestoevski in a St. Petersburg Square, or staring down the rifle barrels of modern-day poachers in Africa. Stephen’s adventures take him anywhere, any time.
Through it all, he is precariously balanced between confusion and understanding, between action and passivity. He has no idea what the next journey will hold for him but he is certain that it’s coming, and that it will, as always, catch him off guard. All Stephen can do is ride out this storm to wherever and whenever it may take him. It’s his new world, his new reality; he’s just going to have to get used to it.
Stephen White was a lapsed Catholic. A very lapsed Catholic. So lapsed, in fact, that he had not attended mass in over five years. He knew he should go to mass and soon.
“I need to go to mass,” he said out loud in his cubicle at Animatec, “and soon.”
“What did you say, Stephen?” Lisa Backman asked with a laugh, peering over at him from her adjacent cubicle in the second floor software engineers’ bullpen area of the Animatec building just off the square in Nevada, Missouri.
“What... what?” Stephen muttered, embarrassed. “Did I say something out loud?”
“You said you had to go to mass soon, or something like that.”
“Oh,” Stephen said sheepishly.
“I didn’t know you were a Catholic,” Lisa said.
“Uh, yeah,” Stephen said, gazing into Lisa’s beautiful light-green eyes, feeling their gaze on the pasty whiteness of his sun-starved face. “I am. I mean I was. I guess I still am.” Lisa laughed again, finding Stephen’s equivocation both amusing and touching.
“You don’t sound so sure,” she said kindly.
“I’m sure,” Stephen said, averting his eyes. Lisa was so pretty and he was so enamored of her that he was afraid if he looked at her too long she would see how he really felt and stop being his friend. That would be more than Stephen could bear. “I’m just bad about going to mass.”
“How long has it been?” Lisa asked.
“I don’t know,” Stephen answered, “maybe two, uh, three or four years. Something like that. I need to go to confession. I need to take communion.”
“What would you have to confess?” Lisa wondered. “You don’t ever do anything bad.”
“Oh, my God,” Stephen shook his head, “you don’t need to be a murderer to sin, you know.”
“Well, go to confession then.”
“I’d feel foolish now, after all this time.”
“You shouldn’t feel foolish about your faith,” Lisa said.
“No?” Stephen wondered.
“I’m not Catholic,” Lisa said, “but I bet they would welcome you back without a word. Besides, they wouldn’t know how long it had been since you last confessed or took communion would they?”
“At confession they would.”
“Maybe you should just do one thing at a time,” Lisa suggested. “Ease back into it.”
“You are so smart, Lisa,” Stephen said, his true feelings for his lovely co-worker boiling up dangerously close to the surface. Lisa went back to work in her cubicle. Stephen tried to cover his mild slip. “I mean, thanks.”
“No problem,” Lisa said over her shoulder. Stephen could hear her keyboard softly clicking away. He sighed deeply and went back to his own work.
* * *
Stephen went to the ten o’clock mass at his local church the very next Sunday, but it wasn’t an easy thing for him to do. He stood outside the heavy wooden front doors for close to ten minutes before he could work up the courage to enter. Many worshipers passed him by, giving him odd glances as he stood there shifting his weight back and forth from foot to foot. He was afraid they all knew of his sins. Knew how bad he was.
And he was afraid to face the priests now that he had gone to confession. He was sure they would all be able to look out into the crowd and see him — the biggest sinner of all. He had gone to confession Saturday afternoon and spilled his guts, at least the last five years of living guts anyway.
“Bless me father,” Stephen had said upon entering the confessional booth, “for I have sinned.”
“Tell me about it,” the hidden priest had said, with a strong twinge of sarcasm, Stephen thought.
And Stephen did tell the priest about it, all of it. How he had taken the Lord’s name in vain, failed to honor his father and mother, abused himself — very frequently — and thought bunches of impure thoughts (though he never mentioned Lisa by name). At the end, Stephen was sure he heard the priest yawn and then declare a very lenient ten Hail Mary’s and ten Our Father’s as penance.
Stephen fairly leapt from the booth at the end and immediately did his penance. Now it was Sunday, the very next day, and he was filtering into the church with the other worshipers, already feeling guilty and sinful. Finding a mostly empty pew towards the back of the church, Stephen sat down with a deep sigh.
Contrary to his expectations, mass went just fine. Stephen easily remembered all the correct responses when the priest cued the believers, and he did his genuflections with the others and at the appropriate times. By the end he was feeling pretty good, and when it was time for communion he went to the front of the church with some aplomb and confidence.
Kneeling devoutly, Stephen opened his mouth like a little bird when it was his turn to take the holy wafer, the body of his Lord. He closed his eyes when the priest hovered over him and placed the thin, white wafer directly onto Stephen’s tongue. Stephen closed his mouth to protect the wafer from an accidental slip onto the floor and allowed it to absorb into the skin of his saliva-covered tongue. Unexpectedly, the wafer had an odd, acidic taste to it. With a light crunch, Stephen broke the wafer in his mouth and then swallowed its tiny, super thin shards.
“What an odd taste,” he thought, as he moved away from the communion area and found an aisle leading out of the church. Outside, it was a beautiful, bright and cool day. Stephen decided to drive over to a local park and just reflect for awhile on things in general.
By the time he got to the park, he noticed his stomach was a little upset and that he was developing a bit of a headache. Finding a space at the end of the asphalt lot closest to a small hill overlooking a large duck pond, Stephen parked his 1987 white Ford Bronco and shut off the engine. With a deep breath, he locked the driver’s side door and walked into the park.
At the top of the grassy knoll overlooking the dark, brackish green water of the pond, Stephen decided he felt like sitting down for a spell. The grass was dry and soft and Stephen quietly watched several mallards slowly paddling around some cattails at the edge of the pond. A wave of sleepiness slowly worked its way through Stephen’s consciousness, inexorably overpowering him. Closing his eyes, he gently fell back onto the grass. In seconds he was out cold.
* * *
When Stephen opened his eyes again, he was standing up, his back against a dusty, hard, rock wall. There was a terrible stench in the air, nearly enough to gag him at first, and he was in the middle of a fair-sized crowd — a crowd apparently waiting on something, or somebody.
At first Stephen couldn’t understand what was being said by the throng around him. The people seemed to be speaking in two or three different languages but amazingly, in just a few moments, he began to pick up bits and pieces of conversations. Soon it all became clear. It was a smelly, dirty place, but he could tell what they were saying.
“They will be coming by this way, won’t they?” a light-haired man to Stephen’s left asked another man who stood just inches ahead of them both. Almost all of the people Stephen could see close by were dark-haired, short, skinny like they were four meals away from being full, skinny like pictures he’d seen of third-world countries in books and magazines. They were dressed in dirty, tattered clothes that were more like filthy blankets tied around their waists with small lengths of rope.
“It’s the only way to the killing hill,” the light-haired man’s companion said. This fellow was small like the rest of the crowd, with an olive-complexion mostly buried behind layers of dirt and grease and equally greasy and dirty dark hair. The odors were almost more than Stephen could bear again. He slid a couple of feet down the rock wall away from the two men. It was a little better there. “They always pass this way, you must know that by now.”
Stephen ventured a glance to the front. Beyond the crowd, which was three to five people deep in most places, he could see a pathway, maybe it was a road, irregularly lined with stones. The road was probably half rock and half just dusty dirt, Stephen estimated, although when he looked off to his left, toward the “killing hill,” the road became not much more than a worn-down trail, one rutted with tracks of heavily-laden carts. Squinting into the distance towards the hill, Stephen thought he saw what looked like thick sticks or logs sticking out of the ground there but he couldn’t be sure.
To his right was a city. Not a huge city but a busy one. He could see many people moving around the narrow streets closest to where he stood and there were several round-topped buildings that reminded him of middle-eastern temples or synagogues he’d seen in picture books. The people in the crowd around him were looking for something coming from the direction of the city because they kept turning that way and making a kind of clucking noise. Stephen peered that way but could see nothing.
Since no one in the crowd seemed to notice him, Stephen moved around a bit, trying to take in his strange new surroundings with its equally strange people and unexpectedly powerful smells. At the sound of cries coming from off to the right, Stephen slid back into the crowd, back where he had started, next to the two men.
“They must be coming,” the light-haired man was saying.
“These displays disgust me,” the second man said boldly.
“Hush,” his friend warned him, eyes darting around at the nearby people. “Someone may hear.”
“I don’t care,” the second man said, “they’ve done nothing but crush us since they came.”
“Look,” the first man said, trying to shift the attention off of himself and his wild-talking friend, “here they come.”
Because he was a full head taller than those around him, Stephen was able to see over most of the crowd and he could see to the right a small contingent of people working their way up the cobblestone and dirt roadway.
“Can you see him yet?” an old, scraggly-haired woman to Stephen’s right asked no one in particular. Stephen leaned forward for a better view and the woman suddenly jerked away.
“What is it?” an equally old woman beside her asked.
“Lord God,” the first old lady said. “I thought I saw something beside me.”
“Devils,” the second woman said, cringing. She aimed two fingers of one hand at the spot the first woman indicated. “It’s the Devil’s day.”
To try and avoid anyone else detecting him, Stephen carefully moved back in behind the first two men. One of them turned his head in Stephen’s direction but didn’t seem to take any undue notice.
“They’re here,” someone shouted. “It’s them.”
“How many?” someone else asked.
“Four,” the first voice said.
Copyright © 2006 by J. B. Hogan