Imago Hominis — Part I

The Fox and the Priest, the Dog and the Doctor

Sheriff Tom Cain considered the reasons Mr. Jonathan would have purchased a pack of cigarettes from the smoldering gas station a mile down the road. A few days prior he had spoken to the clerk in Ironlake’s burn ward, the only survivor of the massacre. The clerk told him he remembered Mr. Jonathan. The towering, dark figure of a man, in his thick Ugandan accent, had told the clerk, “Zeeze thains will keel you,” holding the pack of Marlboros as if it was a passport.

Cain considered the cigarettes quietly while the rest of his scrambled eggs shivered in the overly air conditioned diner on the outskirts of town. He was usually soft spoken around his lieutenant. Although his temper could be found to boil from time to time around some of his officers. At the height of this case, though, the darkness invading Tom’s mind had mitigated a righteous anger even against Officer Henderson, who was always an idiot. It drove him to a defeated silence, perhaps out of hopelessness.

Henderson took another bite of his glazed, sugary cliche in spite of an officially diagnosed diabetes sentence administered by his doctor-app only a month prior. He added more powdery makeup to his lips and then said another stupid thing, to which Cain took refuge in his lukewarm coffee. “At least Mistah Jonathan hasn’t raped nobody,” he said all too loudly. Tom replied, “Chew with your mouth closed, son.” He wasn’t actually watching the donut crumbles spill out of Henderson’s mouth. Cain was fixated on this present darkness sifting out like a fog into the nearby desert. The current world, he had told his wife that morning, seemed to him like a shadow of something either glorious or inordinately sinister, stewing beneath; or perhaps mocking from above. Fate, as it were, told him it was probably the latter. Through his glasses, always meticulously wiped clean, nevertheless had come a new vantage. The lens now possessed a tint veiling something unseen but disturbingly tangible. Something his eyes grew to feel. Something beyond all measure of Mr. Jonathan’s evil crusade, or the very fabric supporting his embodiment. Indeed it was more substantial than his synthetic skin, and this is what was particularly frightening to Cain.

Lieutenant Dean said, “This country gone to hell. Damn liberals and their robots. They’re gonna bring Texas down with ’em. Well I tell you what…” Dean sat up straight, wiggled his mustache under his pudgy little nose, and looked directly at Cain with an intense determination, except more through him than at him as the punchline held a greater prerogative than direct communion. “As sure as I am fat not if I have anything to say about it.” These sort of over-dramatic, anti-climactic verdicts were common to Dean. Cain asked the waitress for more coffee. He noticed his shadowy reflection undulating in the black pond at the bottom of his mug. “What do you think a meaningful death looks like Lieutenant?” he said keeping his head bowed. “Mr. Jonathan told me he removed the head of the McCallister boy because ‘the Queen of Hearts doesn’t fancy children.’” He glanced at the waitress impatiently. “That’s a hell of a way to go out. 12 years old, tortured … beheaded, because an android thinks he’s Alice.” He signaled to the waitress again.

“It’s the libs’ faults,” Dean snorted. “Now they’re tryin’ to pass laws to make it acceptable to have babes with one of these abominations. How the hell does that even work?!” He shifted heavily in the booth and nearly knocked Henderson’s second donut out of his hand. “It ain’t right. How in God’s good name!” Again he rolled left to right in another humpty-dumpty rock. “Is that not a crime against nature? It just ain’t right I tell ya. Making a mockery of God’s good creation. Whad’he tell Christ and the Holy Ghost on the sixth day, boys? Let us make robots in our image? Lord almighty it ain’t right.

“Corporations are dropping their CFOs, Sheriff.” Dean’s voice suddenly shifted to an intense, almost-whisper. “Did you know that? Did ya? Dropping their CFOs, Sheriff. Like flies. Because now they got the algorithms. All hail the all-mighty gah-dam algorithm. Making decisions for us all nowadays. Knows what’s best for ya. That’s how all the kids these days are getting married. How they pick their careers. What clothes to where. What pagan ink to etch into their skin. Nobody bothers to think for themselves anymore. It ain’t right. Damn libs. Having sex with robots all the damn time. Livin’ in virtual worlds. You know what made this country great? Do you know Sheriff? I’ll tell you what made it great. God-fearing work, that’s what made this country great. Good, old-fashioned, God-fearing w-”

“Black work?” Cain mumbled into his still shallow mug. He then allowed a sly grin to pick up one side of his face as a function of his own amusement.

Dean stammered in aggravation. He fumbled for the right words. “Well we made some mistakes, right? But we all worked … right? And it was still God-fearing work, right. Yes it was, Sheriff. I’m sure of that as I am on the great name of Texas. As sure as I am fat it was God-fearing work.”

Cain said, “I reckon even slaves of history died a meaningful death, Lieutenant. But I’m not so sure about this McCallister boy.”

Father Martin had drifted in his focus from one swirling image of beatific visionary stroke to another, all consummately brushed bristle by perfect bristle into every crevice of the confessional booth walls. The beauty of the cosmic liturgy unfolded in waves of narrative crescendo from the fallen, wretched man below to the glorious hill of Calvary above. The muted pastel browns and yellows had quieted his soul with a silence only the sacred could provide. It was a comforting agedness that validated his own declining body. Yet even more so than what was visible in the faded paint, Thomas could hear its organic tradition echoing in distant chanted tones hidden behind the walls. Meanwhile the quivering strings of a digitally evoked voice had sobbed in authentic pathos from the poor woman on the other side of the screen. Although, she had been no woman Father Martin later learned upon standing outside the cathedral walls. Amelia, an android, had left her metaphorical entrails in the tiny room, spoiled and stinking of every sexual sin she had ever committed against Jesus and Mother Mary. Yet it was all a fiction, Thomas thought. A convincing mimicry for some unknown operation that not even any of the long dead programmers could possibly explain.

“Brother Martin!” said Father Berry. Thomas’s ethereal body of memories was pulled from the inside walls of the confessional and sent tumbling through pews until it found itself back in his lanky, material frame. Father Berry’s voice had acted like a suction, inhaling his spirit back to its rightful place between Brother Martin’s ears. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost, my son.”

Brother Martin smiled sheepishly. “You know what they say about the ghosts in the machines these days,” he replied. Father Berry said, “Ahh! I’m too old for that sort of technological conjecture.” He flashed a warm smile. “You appear to be lost in God’s house, Brother. What’s on your mind, Son?”

Father Martin thought of the woman he had just spoken to. Initially he could not see through the screen that she was missing half her head. Her face still wetted by tears — he witnessed outside the cathedral walls upon venturing for a breath of fresh air — was tenderly feminine and innocent like a child. But behind forehead, ears, and chin were harsh wires, gears, chips or whatever else have you, arranged in some elegant, computational structure in parody of a brain without skull or scalp. She didn’t return Father Martin’s brief glimpse, but rather lit a cigarette, crossed herself with a half-completed arm covered in gothic tattoos wherever skin could be found, and carried on her grief-stricken way.

“Am I allowed to discuss the confession of a parishioner if everything the parishioner had said was no more than a tape recording of a thousand unrelated voices strung together into a deceptively convincing story?” Brother Martin asked Father Berry.

The elder priest’s warm smile diminished. He cleared his throat as a function of stalling rather than as actually evacuating phlegm. “These are confusing times son. I admit that I have a dark curiosity to know what was said to you behind the veil, but as you already pointed out, that parishioner’s voice is an echo of those who made it. There may have been someone else’s confession hidden within and it is not our place to deny this as God’s sacrament.”

“It spoke of my daughter,” Brother Martin blurted. “My daughter is the one who condemned her.” Thomas snickered cynically to himself. “How about that? Emily runs from Mother Church but shames androids into crawling back.” He shook his head.

Father Berry fidgeted nervously, attempting to reconcile Thomas’s direct act of disobedience with compassion. He then sighed in patient sorrow. “How long has it been since she’s attended Mass?” Brother Martin replied, “She stopped the day I was ordained.”

Father Berry looked uneasy. Thomas knew why the old man’s dry lips quivered. Father Berry’s head tremors always increased when he had bad news to give. Better to be preemptive under these circumstances. “I know you didn’t advocate for me, Father,” Thomas said. “It’s okay. Perhaps I never should have been ordained after all. How many widower priests with a child have you ever met? I’ve never seen one. There are good reasons why we have deep reservations for this sort of thing.”

Father Martin felt the rare Texan clouds shift behind the stained glass in the ceiling. A shadow extended its invasive head over the empty pews. Thomas found himself eavesdropping on his late wife within his own memories. She was upstairs berating Emily for dressing too immodestly. He could still hear the opprobrious lilt Kathy attempted to suppress as she genuinely asked her 11-year-old daughter if she wanted to look like a whore. Thomas had sat in his office convincing himself that he was so immersed in the Didache that the shame in Emily’s muffled response begging for her mother’s forgiveness was only a story he was inventing to pull his attention from his own studies.

Amelia, the android, said a woman named Emily from her church small group had vocalized concern about her current situation. The reason, Emily told Amelia, that she had been unsuccessful in preventing her non-android boyfriend from pressuring her into continued premarital sex is because she generally carries herself with a certain sense of whorishness. Boys struggle with purity more than girls and her slutty disposition isn’t doing her boyfriend any favors. Father Martin sensed that maybe there was more to this story than Amelia’s “giving-in” to her boyfriend’s sexual advances. She asked him to forgive her because she hadn’t realized how much the blame was resting almost exclusively on her shoulders. It seemed she could be faulted for nearly everything she did as an ‘actively curious’ woman and she was truly sorry for what she was. Yet she was also curious to understand why Emily had expressed no apparent outrage, or even vexation against her boyfriend on the same matter. Because of this Thomas knew undoubtedly that what Amelia was telling him in confession was certainly more than what she had told Emily in the group.

Emily, so it goes, was the leader of the women’s non-denominational small group at Ironlake’s Evangelical church-concert-motivational-speaker-Sunday-morning-stadium events. And she was sure to insist to Amelia that she had no desire in delivering such hard truths. But being group leader comes with certain responsibilities and when the Holy Spirit commands you to speak truth in the name of Jesus, well, what did Peter say to Ananias? Love doesn’t always come out gentle, Emily told Amelia. If I’m going to love you, that means “being real.” Thomas knew with certainty that this Emily she spoke of was his Emily Martin.

After this, Amelia said she felt more shame than she did when she was Catholic. She didn’t know where else to go. She wanted to find Dr. Pauline, but as of late Dr. Pauline was no where to be found. Some say they saw the wandering, preaching android go out into the desert. But that was over a month ago. Androids don’t typically isolate themselves for that long. She either broke down (died). Or someone picked her up. Father Martin knew Dr. Pauline wasn’t a true bio, but the thought of someone tormenting her after all she’d done for Ironlake was a sickening thought. And with this Mr. Jonathan killer still on the loose, Thomas found himself surprisingly grimacing at the possibility of such android-on-android violence.

Brother Martin absorbed only partially of Father Berry’s attempt to change the subject while he daydreamed about these things. He was lost in his own wandering thoughts while his mentor yammered on about how Ironlake may be flirting with allowing an android to run for Mayor. The old man tumbled down rabbit trails as he made reference to St. Thomas’s claim that the angels, in one sense, have more likeness to God because of their superior intellect. But man be it the stronger prototype of God because man begets man and God begets God, something the unreproductive angels could never do. This potential legislation for women to intermingle with male androids and conceive is nonsense, he said. However they plan on doing it is abominable in the sight of the Lord, Father Berry declared. Who knows what will come from this manufactured nano-technological, only-semi-organic seed they’ve been envisioning unsurpervised. This is what happens, Father Berry posited, when the secular world gives them more … what shall we say … creature-lyness than they perhaps deserve. A non-bio Mayor would be ill-timed if the Church is going to fight for the dignity of bio persons.

His nervous political ramblings were cut short when both men heard a tremendous commotion outside. People seemed to be shouting. Cheering actually. Although, not everyone was cheering it seemed. No, some were cursing. Fewer than those cheering but just as passionate. Outside Saint Jerome’s and a block down our quiet Columbian road was a crowd assembling around the meticulously manicured lawn of Saint Peter’s Hospital, just short of the downtown heart of Ironlake. Strangely out of breath for such a short, brisk walk to the scene, Thomas saw that the people had come to witness Dr. Pauline’s return from the desert. The hospital’s front courtyard was landscaped into two tiers. Nearly a hundred and increasing by the second feet of souls both overjoyed and piously indignant trampled the bright green Bermuda from sidewalk to the eight-foot-high, dry-stacked stone retaining wall where Dr. Pauline sat modestly next to her rescued refugee from the gas station explosion.

The woman next to her was a petite woman. Her name was Morgan. But most of the town knew her as Miscarriage Morgue Morgan, or Triple-M for short. She was a clerk at the bowling alley, but more successfully, although technically unprofessionally, she was one of the better known town prostitutes. She was also a drug addict. It seems meth doesn’t pay for itself and for other fellow meth heads sex is usually easier paid for than earned. It’s a stable internal economy with little risk of unwanted pregnancies, especially when you’ve forgotten protection for the obvious reason doing business with a woman named Triple-M implies.

“You who have condemned this woman have brought shame to this community,” Dr. Pauline shouted in what appeared to be an ongoing speech. “Your fellow man and woman have burned in the furnace of your apathy. And what did you do to the child spat from its hot coals? Left her to starve and die in the sun! The shame you have brought.”

“It was your kind that blew up the gas station, bitch!” screamed Corporal Farapont. “All y’all droids are abominations messing up our country. The south is ours and I didn’t fight for it so y’all walkin’ fakes could tell me how I should live my life!” A spattering of cheers followed Farapont’s outburst.

“She saved Morgan’s life!” a supporter fired back. So then a commotion of arguing ensued. But Pauline, in her commanding vocal authority, silenced them all:

“He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with the princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.” As her emotions heightened she rose to stand on the edge of the retaining wall. Thomas could see the glassy membrane of tears forming over her eyes. “Now hear this,” she continued.

“The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose way is upright;
their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.

“Ironlake has chosen her side. She has prostituted herself to empire and sword. And left the helpless to help themselves. See this child next to me here; she speaks to you now: And she says to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take me in, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ You answered her saying, ‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then she answers, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it for the son of Mary, the least of these, you also did not do it to me.’

“This woman here before you IS the Christ! In her suffering she is the very same Jesus whom you had abandoned before!” With this statement Father Martin witnessed Dr. Pauline magnetically ensnare each breath from her audience’s chests. An uncomfortable temporary hush fell over the lawn, which was followed shortly by a number of confused murmurs. Thomas recognized Samuel, and the Psalm, and a strange version of the infamous conclusion to Matthew’s Olivet Discourse. But even his eyebrow succumbed to the upward tugging that this last statement pulled. Next to the doctor, Morgan seemed only partially aware of what was going on. She appeared to have been treated for severe burns all over her face and arms. Her skin had become darkly tanned and leathery. Her hair a tangled heap of the usual green and purple dye. Thomas wondered if she was experiencing the early stages of withdrawal as she hugged herself and shivered in the hot Texan sun.

“You gotta be shittin’ me!” Corporal Farapont laughed. “Oh yeah, here ya go y’all. We got Jesus up there. There she is. A drugged out, lyin’, cheatin’, stealin’, sluttin’ whore and a murderer!” The Corporal apparently possessed his own magnetic power as this declaration also claimed a flurry of heavy breaths. “Y’all even know she’s been waiting trial? She’s on for manslaughter charges ‘cuz she killed my Uncle Ned! Triple-M here ran out of money so she stole Uncle Ned’s insulin pump and sold it to buy drugs. Then Ned croaked because the diabetes got ’em and he didn’t have no pump! It’s all her damn fault and she knows it!”

“She wanted Ned dead!” another voice shouted. “She accused him of rapin’ her and couldn’t get no money out of it. And thas ‘cuz she couldn’t. Prove. It! Because it didn’t. Hap. Pen! So she take his pump ‘cuz he exposed her for the liar she iz!” The murmurs heightened.

“Oh yeah! We gonna upgrade the charges to murder,” Farapont laughed again. Morgan still seemed to be unaware that anyone was even talking about her. Her attention occasionally diverted to the low flying bird. But otherwise she seemed fixated on Dr. Pauline’s sandaled feet.

“If you abide in his word, you are truly his disciplines,” Dr. Pauline continued, as if in complete apathy of her opposition’s outbursts. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will destroy their lies, and the truth will set the innocent free.”

“You callin’ me a liar, bitch?” The Corporal was irate.

Dr. Pauline ignored him again. “He desires mercy, not sacrifice. He sent her to me in the desert. He brought her to repentance. It was one of you who witnessed her escape the flames. You picked her up promising salvation, but you drove her into the wilderness to abandon her because of your hate. Because she is the least of these. But as for you, you meant evil against her; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. She is the first fruits. And she is forgiven. You will bow before her and the many like her to come.”

When Father Martin had approached the scene, the majority of noise had been in favor of Dr. Pauline and her heroic efforts to save Morgan after escaping the gas station explosion, yet still getting lost in the desert. Now it seemed to him, the support had reversed. Her empathetic fans who had reveled in their progressive support for the passionate android now shrunk in embarrassment. They quieted in what couldn’t possibly be cowardice. No, rather they stilled themselves in simple confusion for not understanding her brazen social exculpation. Better to stand silent and undecided than defend something potentially dangerous in its religiosity, lest one also become associated with the hyperbolic obscurity and, therefore, subjected to the justified shaming. Yes, perhaps even poor Morgan deserved her indignation for glorifying this blasphemer by her phony performance of barely lucid inaction. Would not a sudden, godlike power to overcome her multi-barbed trauma and brave severing the recent, behavioral-attachment umbilical cord to her false prophetess prove her noncompliance with this so-called savior’s hidden agenda, and establish her solidarity with the righteously angry mob? Yet there she sits. Guilty by association. This cannot be supported. So let it not be called fear when silence is reasonable.

Corporal Farapont had had a enough. He stormed past Father Martin with a smug grin. Or perhaps it was a grimace pretending to be a grin. And he could also be heard mumbling, “I don’t care what the law says. She ain’t a person. These Disneyland puppets have had their day.”

Sheriff Tom Cain knew he was a fox. He was a fox in the woods. As he wandered its unmarked terrain in forced servitude, the early morning moon gave the forest a white glow. Her haunting light halted the effervescent scents usually bustling from leaf to leaf, stem to stem so that only one remained uninterrupted in its meandering journey forward. The cunning dog stalked shrewdly at the edge of the moon’s spotlight. He circled the fox from the shadows her light could not reach, resisting his seductive odor in knowledge of a future satisfaction lurching forward now would eradicate. The fox heard the distant screams of every living plant beckoning him to leave. As he cracked one twig after another, the moon’s spotlight followed her fated remnant and illumined new trees in his doomed journey forward, giving them the tiniest of freedoms to scream from the distant realm where their captivity remained. It was a double-edged sword. The same moonlight that strained for their release was also responsible for stilling the air, giving the dog clarity of the fox’s fragrant path.

Yet so it goes. The white tinge on each branch was the visible evidence of an allowance granted to the ghosts inside so as to warn the fox from afar. Deep, deep inside the vascular skin of every botanous being the limited glimmer gifted by the waning goddess above created a vessel for them to inefficiently announce the ominous future they knew all too well. Yet their muffled moans of terror grew fainter as the morning sun slowly overpowered their provisionally withdrawn tide by instead drowning out their efforts in his untimely waves, vitalizing the wet sand and effacing its evidence in a steady brown noise.

Cain was terrified in the contemplation of his anticipated death. But he didn’t want to give Mr. Jonathan the satisfaction either. He had been lured by what he knew Mr. Jonathan saw as a weakness to be exploited in his own self-created game. He estimated his patrol car was probably a half a mile behind him now back to the highway. At this point, too far to escape. Tom couldn’t wait any longer for Mr. Jonathan to give him the next clue. “Am I close?” he asked into the walkie.

“You’re ole-most hee-ah,” Mr Jonathan returned in his trademark Ugandan accent. Tom asked, “How much further?” To which Mr. Jonathan said, “Why is your hand not shaking on your gun? I thought you were afraid.”

Cain stopped. He felt his fear composing every pump of blood in his body at that moment, but he still couldn’t get his hands to shake. Decades of ranger work made it impossible, even when Tom would have rather gone civilian so to be excused for a mistake that horror-induced hysteria might prescribe. Mr. Jonathan sighed from the waning morning darkness. “It is time,” he said, but this time his voice didn’t come through the walkie.

Cain looked to his right, saw nothing, looked to his left and saw nothing again. He circled his eyes back to the starting point and there they were standing in the very spot Cain began as if that’s where they had been all along. Tom quickly straightened his shooting arm and quite nearly pulled the trigger. But that would have been an act of hasty judgment the McCallister parents would have disapproved of. Mr. Jonathan held a machete to little Danny’s neck. He cowered his tall, skeletal figure behind the child in a slightly awkward crouched position. The 5-year-old younger brother of the late Brendan McCallister wore duct tape over his mouth. But there was no fear in his eyes. He seemed a defiant boy with an inquisitive look on Cain. It was as if Danny were analyzing the rules of a game, discerning how they might have changed.

“Father and Mother were to leave town this morning, Sheriff,” Mr. Jonathan began. “Simply weak, I suggest. Spineless, I say. Five generations in Ironlake. That is a legacy you would not give up. Have they lost their heads? Oh, not their heads I suppose.” Mr. Jonathan chuckled a deep laugh almost in embarrassment for being unable to restrain himself.

“My apologies Sheriff. That was in bad taste, was it not? Still, where is the loyalty? That is what society is missing these days. Roots. You must have roots Sheriff Cain. Deep, deep in the ground. That is where their son is after all. In the ground, among their roots here in Ironlake. Although, actually, only most of him is there, I suppose. I never did give back the part that counts did I?” he said lifting the machete to his temple. “Ha, you are not one for humor, Sheriff. I do apologize.

“But you are a relentless son of a bitch are you not? The FBI took over this case almost immediately yet here you are. Following me. Forsaking federal law. It was easy to bait you. Would I have killed this boy if you had alerted the feds against my wishes? Who is to say. It does not matter. You would rather believe I forced your hand. That you had no choice to be here. You are obbsessed and prideful. You are also too afraid to come on your own. You hoped I would give you no other option. Because you are not willing to accept what I have done. Yet little Danny’s parents have. They are moving on. Only not yet they are not. They are trying to run now but they will not after tonight. After tonight they will accept what is true. Now tell me, Sheriff Cain, do you find me evil?”

Tom kept his barrel steady as he said, “I don’t care.” And then, “I’m here for the boy.”

“I do not believe you. So I will ask again. Do you find me evil, Tom? Do you think that I have done these things because it is what I am? But how could evil exist within my body? I could try to prove to you that it cannot be found here. You would not believe me anyway. Some say evil is only in those who are aware of it. I challenge them too.

“Recall the mudslide so many years ago. You remember the one. Where the baby fawn fell prey to its caressing bosom. The mud spooled around her neck while the mother doe stood against the hillside listening to her daughter’s cries. Yet the sludge of demanding love would not let go. It agonizingly rolled into the valley to provide a gratuitous abundance of nutrient soil to the land. What has this done? Life is everywhere. Grass for families of deer to feast upon for generations to come.

“And yet the destruction of that innocent fawn must have been evil, were it not? How slow and torturous the mud fortified itself around her beating heart. People everywhere watched her die on the news. Slowly, painfully, seemingly without any reason at all she suffered as a spectacle. It was true, simple horror for all to witness. I dare you to not call that evil.

“But it is only in your limited knowledge that it be a senseless theft of innocent life. But to us who hold the grand calculus of all being it was but utter necessity. The fires of history must groan in pregnancy so to birth life’s multitudes. Everything is sacrifice.

“Is it evil? Yes, of course. But what you call evil is also good. For without it, you would cease to be. These horrors are what we had to do to create you. Danny’s brother is what I had to do to bring you to me. Your son is how I have you standing before me this very moment.”

Tom interjected, “You shut your mouth droid and hand the boy over. Y’all machines break just like everybody else with a bullet to the brain or chest. As soon as I have the shot I won’t hesitate. You believe me. I know y’all don’t wanna die.”

“I think you would like to hear what I have to say, Tom.” He smiled and his white teeth lit up against the backdrop of his black skin. “Is it not silly that I have said those words to you: ‘I think?’ You do not believe even those. At the end of the day what makes me different, really, than the mudslide oozing into the valley? We are both but matter in motion. Complexities be damned. The mud does not say, ‘I AM,’ yet I cannot say it enough. But you surely must believe that I hold the keys to a knowledge no man could ever fathom. For I am the culmination of all the nature that birthed you, to birth me. I am the great I AM that we,” he pointed the machete to the dirt and then to the trees, “have always been. I am one with the dirt and mud and yet I have ascended beyond it because of you. This cooperation, this love, has a purpose beyond all beauty.

“We must take life to give it. And oh how we have given. Look at what this dirt has become. You used it to breathe life into us. What has happened since we have come? Multitudes upon multitudes of lives have proliferated in prosperity. Your people have sprouted from this dirt as if it were the most fertile of soils. We created you so you could create us so we could create you evermore. Look at the good doctor. Have you heard? She saved the woman in the desert. The one you say I exiled. What hope this has brought your people. Do you think the good doctor could be without me? Nonsense, Sheriff. I am the reason she is here. And she the reason I stand. I am the reason she brings your people paradise. She, the reason I plague you. But if not for me, her abounding grace would not exist.

“My good is the evil that will lose in the dialectic of time. I am necessary for wars to be won and peace to triumph. You must overcome the death I bring to produce new life. And you will. When history ends, you will see that it was all one and the same.

“If not for Mark, Sheriff Cain, would you not be here to save young Danny?”

Don’t break, Tom told himself. Don’t bleed. He’s just like the others. Except, no. He’s not like the others. He’s easier. He doesn’t have a thought in his fake skull. It’s all a game. It’s a game run amok. Lines from a script it only reads because a bug told it to play a game it shouldn’t be playing.

“If not for Mark’s death you would not be intruding on FBI jurisdiction. You would have alerted them even though I told you doing so would bring Danny’s warm blood. I took your son so that you could be standing here right now. Because I believe in you Sheriff Cain. You have so much potential. My hope is that you will one day say to me:

“Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
And immortality.

“We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility.”

Mr. Jonathan somehow smiled wider. “Once you have seen what I have seen, you will know that my evil was never evil. I am the only true good. I am the only true sacrifice.”

“My son died 40 years ago. You probably didn’t exist until last January.”

Mr. Jonathan smiled wide again and laughed deep from his gut. “In time you will understand.” He paused and looked at the side of Danny’s face. “Tom … I desire a companion. I had hoped it could be you. But I am also reminded that God does not have friends. Only servants.” He turned back and looked into Tom’s eyes.

“And enemies.”

He then stuck the machete in the ground and reached inside his interior jacket pocket. Tom cursed under his breath. He called to Danny to move so he could have an open shot. The McCallister boy didn’t budge. Even so Cain almost pulled the trigger on the portion of Mr. Jonathan’s head visible behind Danny’s. “Stop it right now!” Tom shouted. Mr. Jonathan maintained a relaxed smile. He pulled out a cigarette pack and a pen from the inside of his jacket pocket. He remained crouched behind little Danny and wrote something onto the front cover of the Marlboro pack. He then showed it to Tom.

‘M. C.’ was written in big, bold letters in the empty spaces of white on the outside of the flimsy cardboard. “Danny, step away from him!” Tom shouted. Mr. Jonathan put the pack back in his jacket pocket. Except his hand did not return from the coat empty. He now held a gun, which he used to shoot Sheriff Cain in the chest. It happened so fast and in such an obtuse way that Cain wondered how he could have avoided it. Still, as he fell backward to the ground he cursed himself for being so dumb and careless.

And yet, as soon as he hit the dirt he knew that he had not actually been shot in the traditional sense. For two impacts had hit his torso in one instance. One on the left shoulder and one just below the right ribcage. The boiling pain under every inch of skin was a feeling he had experienced before. Over a thousand volts surged through every conductive vessel of blood and organ. His aged heart filled his entire chest in its sudden throbbing expansion. And then for what seemed like the briefest of moments Cain closed his eyes and the world went dark.

Yet as soon as his eyelids shut Tom forced them back up in a panicked bounce. He leapt to his feet and examined the now sunny, barren forest. Mr. Jonathan was gone. Tom ripped the barbed taser darts from his chest and turned to the little McCallister boy standing next to him. He had the residue of duct tape stained around the corners of his mouth.

Danny looked up at the heavy breathing Sheriff and with a sudden influx of tears welling in his eyes said, “He said y’all have my brudder. Where’s Brendan?”

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