excerpt – Vernal Promises

Vernal PromisesChapter 15:
An Evident Token

Jacob tried to call Amy the day after they’d made love. He drove to her dad’s shop. For three days he left messages, which she never returned. Then one night she came over to the house with two guys Jacob had never seen before. He wanted to tell her how he felt about her, but she was drinking and flirting, teasing, giving him the slightest bit of attention. After a few drinks, she went to find the bathroom, and he waited for her in the hallway. When she came out, he motioned her into his room. He took her hands in his and told her he needed her. She wrapped her arms around his waist and kissed him, falling into him like she was pushing something down inside of him.

“That was a good day we had,” she said; “just what I needed.”

“It was good being with you,” he agreed.

She smiled. “You’ll never believe what I did after I left.”

He shook his head. “What?”

“I went home and told my dad exactly what happened. He was so pissed, I thought he was gonna beat me, that’s how mad he was.”

“You told him?”

“Serves him right for trying to run my life.”

“Is that why you slept with me?”

“No, silly.” She reached up and stroked his cheek softly. “I slept with you because you turned me on. It was a good afternoon. We should do it again sometime, don’t you think? The next rainy day.”

“Yeah,” Jacob said, “I guess so.” He looked away.

She kissed him. “I need to get back,” she said.

That night he started drinking and didn’t stop for three weeks. When the doctor took the bandages off his ribs, he didn’t go back to work. He stayed home, drinking and smoking all day, never eating much but never feeling hungry because his stomach always had beer in it. After a couple of weeks, Mickey started asking questions, wondering if he was going to pay his half of the rent. “I’ve got a bankroll stashed away,” Jacob answered one day. It was the money he had set aside to send to Pam.

One night just a few days before Christmas, Dwayne came over to try out some good hash he had bought. People said he was using meth; he was always wired and had lost a lot of weight.

Jacob said to Mickey, “Let’s go somewhere over Christmas. You’ve got time off.”

Dwayne said, “Do you really want to take a trip? I mean really?”

“Yeah,” Jacob said, “anything, as long as it’s not here.”

Dwayne said he knew a guy who had a cabin on the edge of the Shoshone National Forest. “We can go up there and get in touch with God,” he said. “I’ve got some LSD that’ll clean out your soul.”

Jacob didn’t think he wanted to clean out his soul. He wanted to pour beer down his throat until he drowned. He wanted to smoke dope until he choked. But a little LSD wouldn’t hurt the process.

On Christmas Eve, the day before the trip, it was windy and cold. Mickey was working as usual, gone every morning before Jacob woke up. It was cold in the house. Jacob had his first beer at eight that morning, and everything after noon became a blur.

That night he had a nightmare that he was in a luxurious car in a rich new subdivision he had never seen before. In the dream he was himself, but sober. He drove into the driveway of one of the houses and looked around. Every house was brand new and all of them looked alike. In the dream nothing belonged to him. He walked to the front porch. He knocked, and an obese woman in a black negligee opened the door. She had red hair, a round face, mounds of cleavage, pimply thighs. Jacob walked past her to see people, women and men, dressed in underwear, lingerie, pajamas—the women grotesquely fat, the men deathly thin like holocaust victims. No one was fully clothed except Jacob. People talked and laughed and ate from trays of expensive food, drinking wine and whiskey straight from the bottles. Some of them were wantonly kissing and touching each other like animals feeding.

A double-chinned woman approached Jacob. Her makeup was ridiculously overdone in brazen orange tones. She rubbed her plump hands up and down Jacob’s chest. He walked past her into the kitchen and then into a walk-in pantry, which was empty except for two black plastic garbage bags. The garbage bags were heavy. He carried them to the car and put them in the trunk.

He drove until the expensive look-alike houses disappeared, until the subdivision was nothing but a street with sidewalks and empty lots of bare soil. A lone garbage dumpster stood at the end of a cul-de-sac. After looking to make sure no one else was in sight, he took the bags out of the trunk and threw them into the dumpster. At that moment, he understood that the bags contained human body parts.

The nightmare made him sit straight up in bed, fully awake in the darkness. Mickey turned on the light. “Dude, what’s the matter?” Jacob squinted at Mickey, standing there in boxers, his round belly falling over his waistline. “You were screaming,” Mickey said. “I heard you in the other room. You okay?”

Jacob rubbed his eyes against the light. “What time is it?”

“Your clock’s right there, man. It’s 3:30. You okay? We got a big day tomorrow.”

“I’m fine,” Jacob said, already wanting to distance himself from the feeling of that dream.

“Go back to sleep,” Mickey said and turned out the light.

The dream was a sign. Jacob sensed that lying there in the darkness. He wondered what kind of pervert he had become to have such a dream. He fell asleep feeling contaminated and obscene, remembering a movie he had seen in school, a movie about Nazi Germany. In the movie there was a long pit of naked bodies. A man stood at the edge of the pit with a limp body on a shovel—a skeleton with skin. This was evil, Jacob thought, and it made him sick. The mouth of evil was deep and wide. The jaws of hell were gaping open. But the path toward it was hard and he was losing strength. He didn’t know if he could take another step.

When Dwayne showed up at about ten o’clock that morning, Mickey and Jacob were waiting for him, both quietly smoking cigarettes and watching TV, their wet hair slicked back and combed like first-graders waiting for picture day. They loaded Dwayne’s truck and got onto highway 191 going north.

As they headed out, Mickey said, “Should we pick up some beer?”

“You don’t want beer,” Dwayne said. “You don’t want to spoil an acid trip with beer.”

“Let’s stop and get some food, though,” Jacob said. “You guys ever done acid before?” Dwayne asked. “I never have,” Mickey said. “What’s it like?” “It’s a hallucinogen,” Dwayne said. “It makes you see things. People say you see things that aren’t there, but I say it makes you see what’s really there, things no one else can see because we’re too focused on the natural world.” Dwayne looked over at Jacob. “You ever done acid?”

“I did it once in high school, a long time ago. I remember feeling like I was on some kind of super speeder.”

“It’s a stimulant. It heightens the sensation of food, music, anything sensory. Even a cigarette tastes better when you’re tripping. But it’s a good, clean high. It’ll heal your soul.

They stopped at a mom-and-pop grocery store in Farson so Mickey could get chips and cookies, all kinds of junk. Jacob bought vegetables and fruits and juices. He wanted something healthy to get the feeling of the dream out of his system.

Before they left Farson, Dwayne pulled into a vacant parking lot and took out a tiny metal pipe. He put a clear chunk of crystalized meth into the pipe, lit it, and inhaled a single hit. “You guys want some?” he asked. Mickey took a hit, but Jacob didn’t. He wanted his trip to be pure. He opened up a bottle of guava juice and downed half a bottle in the first swig. He could feel the vitamins entering his system.

When they crossed the continental divide, heading up Wyoming highway 28, Mickey read the sign and asked what the continental divide was. “I’ll tell you how my dad explained it,” Jacob said. “If you take a leak on that side of the divide, it’ll drain into the Pacific Ocean. If you take a leak on this side, it goes down the Mississippi and into the Atlantic.” Mickey turned to Dwayne and grinned. “Is that true?”

“Something like that,” Dwayne answered.

“How much acid you got, Dwayne?” Mickey asked.

“Ten sheets,” Dwayne said, “with 250 hits on a sheet.”

“That’s twenty-five hundred hits!”

“At ten bucks a hit,” Dwayne said, “that’ll bring in $25,000 when I sell it.”

“Damn,” Mickey muttered. “I need to do something like that. That’s about how much money I need–enough to start my own taxicab company or something. I got a call from a buddy who just got out of the pen. We were talking about getting money to start our own business. This guy kept saying, ‘It takes money to make money.’ Ain’t that the truth?”

No one answered. Mickey finally shook his head. “It’s the truth,” he said.

When they got into the higher elevations near the Shoshone National Forest, a light snow was falling, adding to the days-old snow that lay on the ground. The highway was slushy and slick, but the scenery was as beautiful as a Christmas card.

Near Beaver Creek, Dwayne pulled off onto a gravel road that led toward Limestone Mountain. It was fifteen miles or so of slow going, then another road that led into a box canyon where the cabin was. Jacob and Mickey were surprised to see a modern A-frame house with an electric generator.

When Dwayne unlocked the door, they stood there for a moment, taking it all in. Beyond the kitchen was a big living area with a hardwood floor, thick rugs, two big couches, and a fireplace. In the center of the room was a beautiful varnished table made of hewn logs, low-set like a coffee table. Overhead, on each side of the living area, was a loft that was accessible by ladder. Each loft had a bed and a chest of drawers. The bathroom was in the back corner of the main floor and was the only walled-off portion of the house. The wall opposite the kitchen was full of windows and had a door that led out to a deck. Beyond that were pine trees and a beautiful, snowy view.

Mickey whistled approvingly. “Nice,” he said.

“No doubt,” Jacob added, pleased with the beauty of the whole scene.

Dwayne set up a boom box on the kitchen counter and put on some new age music, “Mood music,” he said, “to get us ready for the trip.” They brought in enough wood from the woodpile outside to last a couple of days, although some of it was wet.

“They ought to leave a little wood inside for a time like this,” Mickey said, brushing snow out of his hair.

“Too bad we don’t have any charcoal lighter fluid,” Jacob said.

“Mickey,” Dwayne said, “go out into the truck. Behind the seat, there’s a can of starting fluid for the carburetor. We’ll douse these logs with that. They’ll light right up.”

Mickey came back with the starting fluid. “Did you get lost?” Dwayne said.

“No, I had to take a leak.”

“We got a bathroom in here,” Jacob said.

Dwayne sprayed a good dose of starting fluid onto the logs. Mickey threw in some old newspaper and Dwayne sprayed that, too. He lit a kitchen match and tossed it in. The flame erupted, engulfing the logs in a single blaze. Once it was going steadily, Dwayne said, “You boys ready to trip?”

He assembled them on the floor around the table. He spoke in reverent, hushed tones. “When I drop acid,” he said, “it’s a religious experience.” He took out a small waxed paper envelope and softly blew it open. It had three hits of blotter acid inside, still joined on their perforations like three postage stamps.

“What kind is it?” Jacob asked.

“Black Skull,” Dwayne said. He held it up so they could see the tiny black skull and crossbones on each hit.

“When I did acid before,” Jacob said, “it was called King Tut. It had these little green crowns on it.”

Dwayne separated the half-inch squares and passed them out. “Just put it on your tongue,” he said. “Don’t swallow it ’til I say so. It’s okay if the paper starts to fall apart.”

Jacob placed it on his tongue. “How long ’til we feel it?”

“Twenty, thirty minutes.”

Mickey took his hit. “How long will we be tripping?”

Dwayne looked at his watch. “It’s a little after twelve right now. We’ll trip for twelve hours. After that, we’ll still be speeding and won’t wanna sleep. That’s why we need a day to recuperate.”

He looked at Jacob. “Tomorrow’s when you’re gonna need those vegetables.”

The CD was playing music that sounded like planets flying through space. Outside through the big glass windows in front of the deck, the snow was gently falling like tiny feathers on a cold breeze. “The mood up here is perfect,” Jacob said.

“Everything’s got to be right to have a good trip,” Dwayne said. “The reason people have bad trips is because they go into them with bad feelings. I knew a guy who’d just had a fight with his old man when he dropped acid and all through his trip, whenever someone walked toward him or moved too quick, he thought they were gonna beat the crap out of him. He ended up stabbing someone with a pocket knife.”

Jacob looked at Mickey who was nodding breathlessly.

“But we’ve got this beautiful scenery.” Dwayne gestured to the window. “We’ve got good music. We’ve got good company. We’ve got all these footholds to help us trip.”

Jacob sat back relaxing, waiting for the first signs. Dwayne closed his eyes, his palms flat on the table. When he opened them, he said, “Every trip is like a shaman going to the mountains, seeking answers, seeking revelation. The Pueblo and the Anasazi used mescaline from peyote. The medicine men went on sacred missions, secluding themselves in caves, chewing on peyote buttons, seeking the spirits of truth. If we do this right, each of us can find what we need to understand.”

Jacob knew his nightmare had been an omen, some kind of vision of carnal excess. He wanted to know what it meant, and he had a feeling he would. This cabin was magical. The snowfall, the music, the charm in Dwayne’s voice all came together. Answers were afoot.

“Is your hit coming apart?” Dwayne asked.

“Mine is,” Mickey whispered.

Jacob nodded. The little piece of paper was nothing but a wet glob of fibers in his mouth.

“You can swallow it then,” Dwayne said.

“I’m gonna get up,” Jacob said softly.

“Whatever,” Dwayne said. “It’s your trip.”

Jacob slipped into the kitchen. At the store he had bought peppers, onions, steak meat, spices, cheese, tortillas, and cooking oil. He got the vegetables and meat out of the fridge and brought them to the Formica counter that doubled as the kitchen table. He was going to take his time to relish the moment. If he timed things right, he’d be eating just as his trip started.

Before he knew it, he had lost track of time and Mickey was suddenly sitting across from him on a bar stool, rolling a joint. Dwayne was sitting cross-legged in front of the fire, taking a slow toke on the meth pipe.

“You’re going to get addicted to that stuff,” Mickey said to Dwayne, laughing.

Jacob sliced a beautiful yellow pepper and started to feel strange sensations. Electricity flowed through his body. The pepper appeared to be flourescent. He could smell and feel its yellowness. He heard its yellowness when he sliced it. He put a piece to his nose, and it nearly knocked him over, it was so sour and sweet and strange. He took a bite. It was beautiful.

He looked at Mickey who now had a joint hanging loosely from his lips. He sat there frozen. “Taste this,” Jacob said.

Mickey was staring awestruck at a tiny mound of marijuana on the counter before him. “This dope is golden,” he said. He looked up. “Dude, you look different,” he gasped.

Jacob looked in Dwayne’s direction, calling out, “This is good stuff,” but Dwayne wasn’t there. Jacob wondered how long it had taken to slice that pepper.

Mickey looked over where Dwayne had been. “Whoa!” he said. “He must’ve gone outside. Did you hear anything?”

“I didn’t hear him,” Jacob said.

“Maybe he’s a Ninja.”

They both laughed at this. Jacob said the word “ninja” and it sounded funny.

Mickey began to smoke his joint, occasionally passing it to Jacob, who was cooking fajitas. Everything about the cooking process was beautiful—the texture of the raw food, the sizzle of the meat in the frying pan, the colors and sounds and smells of the vegetables as they cooked. Even washing the cutting board was sensuous. The feel of dish soap on wood was slick and oily, the oddest thing he had ever felt—soap and water and wood—and he thought it was odd that it would seem odd.

He located some plates and carefully arranged two fajitas, one for himself and one for Mickey. He spent a long time making them look right.

He soon discovered that the only thing more sumptuous than making a fajita was eating it. A thousand tastes filled his mouth. Occasionally Mickey said something, and it sounded funny, no matter how stupid. They ate their fajitas and taco chips and drank cola and laughed and listened to Dwayne’s spacey music.

When they finished, they threw the dishes into the sink and sat down on the couch. Jacob took a puff on a cigarette. “This is the best I’ve ever smoked,” he said.

“Acid makes everything good,” Mickey agreed, slouching into the couch, “just like Dwayne said.”

They puffed and talked until Jacob felt a cold hand on his cheek … or a burning hand, he couldn’t tell. Mickey screamed and they both jumped up. Dwayne stood behind them grinning mischievously. Jacob looked at Mickey, who was holding his cheek like it had been burned.

“Did I scare you?” Dwayne asked.

They burst out laughing like a switch had been thrown.

“Come outside,” Dwayne said, “I wanna show you something.” Next to the cabin, a little shed had snowshoes and gloves and ski suits. “Let’s go for a hike.”

It was beautiful outside: pine trees, birds, snowflakes falling like a dream, a blanket of snow on the ground that muffled every sound. Their voices broke out into the silence of the wilderness, hushed to sleep by the powder on the hillsides. Jacob could sense their words as they rose into the air and sank into the snow. The sight of a sparrow in a tree behind the cabin was like a vision. Jacob noticed the brown wings with white speckles, the black throat, the yellow bill. It was amazingly beautiful. The trees, on the other hand, seemed sad. Their boughs were weighed down by icy fingers that would melt slowly in the springtime after months of killing cold. Nature was expanding and growing, never stopping to make sense of itself. One event fed the next. Nature reached into the sky, growing but never becoming full-grown, like an explosion that never stopped or started. That’s what life was. Jacob let his mind sink into it, gladly melting into the being of things. Everything seemed to be at peace with the sad trees and the beautiful sparrows, everything just existing—purely existing.

“This blows my mind,” he said, surprised at his voice.

“Good trip?” Dwayne asked.

“Look at the snowflakes,” Mickey said. “They’re going the way we’re going.”

“They say every snowflake is different,” Dwayne said. “You think that’s true?”

“I think so,” Mickey said. He stopped and held up a gloved palm to catch a few flakes. He bent toward them. “They are different,” he said, “totally.”

“He’s tripping,” Dwayne said.

“I am, too; this stuffs good,” Jacob said. “Let’s keep walking.”

They walked for an hour through the saddle behind the cabin. When they came to the crest, they stopped and enjoyed the view. Dwayne said, “Boys, that’s Limestone Mountain, more than nine thousand feet at its peak.”

“I want to go on to that next swell over there,” Mickey said, pointing to the next ridge.

“That’s half an hour away,” Dwayne said. He turned to Jacob. “You wanna go on?”

“Is that the only way without having to come back the way we came?”

“There’re two ways we could go from here,” Dwayne said. “You could take that path down here on the right and be back at the cabin in thirty minutes or you can take that path Mickey’s pointing to and come on around an hour later.”

“I wanna go the long way,” Mickey said. He looked ahead like he was seeing something in the distance.

Jacob’s feet were cold. He couldn’t tell if they were burning of freezing. He didn’t want to think about them charred like ash or black with frostbite. “I wanna go back,” he said.

“I’ll head back, too,” Dwayne said.

“I’m heading up,” Mickey insisted, walking toward the next swell without looking back.

“Don’t get lost,” Dwayne said.

Mickey waved. He didn’t turn around. “No problem,” he said.

Out of their snow shoes and ski suits, Jacob and Dwayne stoked the fire and put on a couple logs. Jacob took off his shoes and socks and checked his feet. His toes were pink, wet. He got some dry socks out of his backpack while Dwayne sprayed the new logs with starting fluid. The hot coals sparked a burst of flame that surprised Jacob. Dwayne seemed unmoved, even though he was squatting just a few feet away.

Dwayne put the starting fluid on the log table and looked back at Jacob who was rubbing his socked feet. “You okay?” he asked.

Jacob nodded. “I got freaked out while we were walking because I thought my feet were turning black.” But this was the revelation that Jacob had as they stood and warmed their backs at the fire: heaven could not be better than this.

Dwayne got out his crack pipe and handed it to Jacob. “You mix this crack with your LSD,” he said, “and it gives you a beautiful combination of passive aggression.”

Jacob was tripping too much to care about a pure high. He took the pipe and let Dwayne fire it up. The rock bubbled in the bowl and then caught fire and began to smoulder. Jacob felt a rush of power, a strength that flowed right into him. He went to the couch. “This is good,” he said. “I haven’t felt this good for a long time.”

Dwayne looked at him squarely. “You needed this.”

Jacob remembered how Dwayne struck him that first night at Arley’s as a sort of know-it-all guy and self-impressed. “Sometimes you talk like you know something,” he said.

“I do,” Dwayne said. He sat down. “I’ve got something to show you. I’m going to teach you something. That’s why I brought you here. I’ve been reading the Book of Mormon. I had the missionaries over and asked them questions, but they couldn’t answer them. One of them got sent home for using the drugs I gave him. I had to do it. I needed to understand you so I could help you.”

Jacob looked at himself, at his body, his chest and arms and legs. He felt like a temporary tenant, a renter in this skin.

“You’re different,” Dwayne said. “That’s why I brought you.”

Jacob found it hard to concentrate. “How am I different?”

“Look at Mickey. He spends his whole life worrying about distractions, never going anywhere, all along thinking he’s living.”

Dwayne lit a cigarette. “Think about it. Mickey’s on probation. One day the cops will pick him up and he’ll go right back where he came from, which is probably what he wants anyway.”

Jacob watched Dwayne puff on a cigarette. The smoke trickled around his face like tiny ghosts. “How do you know that about Mickey?”

“I see inside people.”

The back of the couch felt strange to Jacob, as though he had sunken into it, as though part of his body was actually inside it. He couldn’t see his feet and was afraid they might have gone through the floor. He didn’t know how to get them out.

“Mickey wants to be confined,” Dwayne continued, letting out another puff of ghostly cigarette smoke. “He wants to be protected.”

“You’re a trip!” Jacob said, trying to pull himself out of the couch. He lifted his feet, first one and then the other, trying to pull them out of the floor. It was the meth that was doing it, he decided, the meth mingled with the acid.

“Listen to me, son; I’m here to help.”

“What did you call me?”

“I know things.”

There was silence in the room that was strange and utter. Jacob looked around. Everything seemed different, weird. Dwayne’s cigarette smoke—streaks of ghostly haze—were dancing before his eyes.

“I know things about you that you don’t know yourself.”

Jacob put his hands on his legs so he wouldn’t slip away. “What do you know?”

“You’re hiding what you really want.”

Jacob wanted to be confident and self-defensive, but he couldn’t find it inside him. He was lost in the renter’s house. “Okay,” he said, “tell me what I want.”

Dwayne’s face was almost touching his. “You want Jesus Christ to leave you alone.”

Jacob focused on this like it was something in the room with them, a spirit that had just walked in and sat down.

“I know how you feel,” Dwayne went on, “surrounded by God’s will, choked by it, hating your life, hating your body for having desires, hating the God who gave you the desires. I know what you think when you look in the mirror. You condemn yourself, don’t you? You try to damn yourself to hell. You say the words, but it doesn’t damn you.”

“How do you know that?” Jacob asked.

“I’ve been there, pal. I’ve been sent to show you the way. God isn’t the only one who hears prayers, you know. It just depends on what kind of salvation you want.”

Jacob heard a sound. He looked around but nothing was there. “What do you want?” he asked

“I don’t want anything,” Dwayne said. “The question is, what do you want?”

Jacob felt a door open. Maybe Dwayne really was a magician or sorcerer. Maybe what people said about him was true. Sensing for the first time the weight of his own part in this, he asked, “What can you do?”

“It depends on you.”

“Okay,” Jacob said, “I’ll tell you what I want.” He closed his eyes, letting his hungers speak. “I want to do whatever I feel like doing and not feel bad for it after. I want all the drugs and the drinking and the money … and women, especially the women; I want it to feel like it’s supposed to. I want to drown myself in it. I want to … ”

“Damn it!” Dwayne said, gritting his teeth. He crushed his cigarette in the ashtray. “Those are distractions! Are you an idiot like Mickey? That’s Hollywood! I’m not here to make a deal. I came to show you the way to freedom. Can’t you see that? I’m talking about the only way to be truly free from everyone and everything.”

“Okay,” Jacob yielded. “I’m sorry,” he said. He bowed his head, pushed his hair back through his fingers. “I guess I don’t know what you mean.” He felt like this was a test and he was failing it. He couldn’t remember how he had gotten here, where Mickey was. He wondered if this was real.

“Do you want what I have to offer?” Dwayne asked.

Jacob didn’t answer.

“What do you have now? Look at who you are. You have nothing. How much money do you have?”

“Not much. Two hundred dollars.”

“How far will that get you? What are you going to do with two hundred dollars?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Look at where you are and where you’re going. Look at the world around you. It’s wicked. The rich and strong and beautiful are the ones who survive and the rest get thrown out like trash. Survival of the fittest—that’s the world you live in and you can’t run from it. Your fantasies won’t change it. The women you dream about, their beautiful bodies—they’re gonna rot in the grave. The fantasy world you want is all false. You know who they say made the world? God did. And who’s going to save it? Jesus is, right? That’s what your priests teach. He’s gonna save a world that isn’t worth saving. But you and I know better because we’ve been chosen. We know that nothing in this world is worth saving, including ourselves. Do you want God’s salvation? Do you think you deserve it?”

Jacob looked at his hands—the ones that weren’t even his.

“Well,” Dwayne demanded. “Do you? Do you deserve salvation?”

“No,” Jacob answered.

“No, you don’t. You never will.”

Dwayne had a look that was more hateful and bitter than any Jacob had ever seen, more hateful than his own face when he damned himself in the mirror. All his life he had watched others. He knew who would succeed—the happy people. He felt like he had missed something. He had never been happy for more than five minutes in his life.

“Here’s the question,” Dwayne said. “What are you going to do?”

A door had opened in Jacob’s soul. All he had to do was step through it.

Dwayne leaned closer. He reached out and turned Jacob’s face toward his own. “There”s something you have right now,” Dwayne said, “something you can do. It’s the thing that’s inside of you and fighting—the same thing that gave you the strength to come here.” Dwayne’s gaze burned a hole through the artificial layers of Jacob’s life. Jacob knew that his whole existence, all the defiance and sinning he had ever done, amounted to nothing. He knew he amounted to nothing.

Dwayne spoke slowly, reverently. “You have only one thing,” he whispered. “It’s the will to resist, to never submit or yield. You discovered it. That’s what makes you different. That’s what drew me to you.”

“I’ve got free agency.”

“That’s good. Your Mormonism can take you that far. Now you’ve got to go past that because it’s more than freedom to do right or wrong that I’m talking about. It’s the power to stand and deny, to absolutely defy—to look at the face of God and absolutely refuse to submit by the sheer power of your own individual will. It’s power like you’ve never known before.”

“God can’t make me do anything unless I agree to do it, is what you’re saying? Neither can you or anyone else.”

“That’s right. That’s the truth.”

“If God really loves us, why does he let us destroy ourselves? Why doesn’t he save us from ourselves?”

“All he wants is obedience. All that business about unconditional love is a lie,” Dwayne said bitterly. “Do you really think God loves Satan or anyone else in hell? He loves his own. That’s who he blesses. He heaps misery on the rest because he’s a tyrant pretending to love when what he wants is obedience to him! He’ll beat you to death if you don’t give him what he wants.”

Dwayne leaned toward Jacob. “Now tell me … I think you’re beginning to learn. Say the words you have to say. What is it that you want?”

Jacob felt inspired by devils—himself and Dwayne and all the others he couldn’t see. “I want to be free,” he whispered.

“That’s right. And Jesus is in the way, isn’t he?”


“So what is it you want?”

Jacob said the words: “I want Jesus Christ to leave me alone.”

“Good,” Dwayne whispered. “Now, here’s how to do it. It’s so easy it makes me laugh.” He spoke the words with power. “Defy and deny. That’s it. Everything that comes to you, every choice, every thought … You’ve got to stand for yourself, refuse to submit. If someone tries to love you, turn away–not like a wild animal that’s out of control. You’ve got to turn away with indifference, cold and raw. They’ll abandon you. You’ll find out what a self-serving herd of sheep the human race really is. It doesn’t matter what else you do here as long as you defy and deny the very face of all goodness.”

Dwayne was talking more and more excitedly: “Stand your ground in this world and the next. This isn’t the only place where you can shape your eternity. Read your scriptures. When you die, they’re going to come after you, just like they do here—the spirits that teach submission. I’ve seen them flock around the dead, pouring over them with sweet words. You’ve got to resist them there, too, and you can. The spirits howl and whine all the time; they stand on the highest mountain and curse and rant, always, at everything, howling like wolves.”

The thoughts that surged through Jacob’s brain were racing like electricity: hatred, freedom, sheep, wolves, snowfall. It was so perfectly clear and purely evil. He rubbed his face and felt a million new sensations in his skin. Dwayne sat there staring at him. He couldn’t keep track of everything Dwayne was saying. It was all so big. He felt like the top of his head was flying off and everything he had ever known was rushing out. He blinked and rubbed his face. When he glanced at his friend, Dwayne was howling like an animal. Dwayne’s neck turned rapidly, dog-like, on his neck. “Look!” he snarled, eyes burning. “No one’s doing anything! No one can touch me! No one dares. I’m free!” Jacob blinked his eyes, not knowing if Dwayne was real or a hallucination.

“There’s one more thing.” Dwayne leaned forward, looking Jacob directly in the eye. “This is just talk unless we make it real. We’ve got to bring this spirit into the world of flesh. Gods and devils don’t like empty talk.”

Jacob’s head was reeling.

“Are you listening?” Dwayne demanded. He took Jacob by the shoulders, reining in his attention.

“Do you want to live by empty words?”

“No,” Jacob answered weakly.

“Good, stay with me then. I can help you now more than ever.”

He took Jacob’s right hand and laid something cold and heavy in it. Jacob looked down. His hand was holding a gun.

“Do you know what that is?” Dwayne asked. “That’s a nine-millimeter Berreta Cougar, a beautiful, sacred, violent instrument.”

Jacob held it up. The weight and authority of it were awesome.

“It’s loaded,” Dwayne said flatly.

Jacob watched a slow motion film of someone else’s life. The person who dwelt in his skin calmly placed the gun at his own temple, ready to pull the trigger, waiting for someone like Dwayne to give the command.

Dwayne asked, “Do you know where Mickey is right now?”

Jacob didn’t know.

“Mickey is walking toward this cabin. He’s slow and fat and tired. He’s sweating like a pig. He’s disgusting. No one back in Rock Springs cares if he lives or dies.”

Jacob could see pitiful Mickey walking through the snow in those awkward snowshoes, lost.

“Let’s kill him,” Dwayne said. “Let’s kill Mickey. You pull the trigger.”

Jacob looked at Dwayne dumbly.

“Mickey’s a child of God,” Dwayne said. “Isn’t that true? He’s in the image of God, and he’s pathetic. If he had half the chance, he’d be the same kind of tyrant God is, always demanding obedience just like every merciless father who’s ever lived.”

Jacob whimpered like a child failing to understand the rules of a strange new game. “I don’t want to kill …”

“You have to,” Dwayne demanded. “Don’t you see the perfect symmetry of it? It’s the only way you can seal your defiance. You want to be free, don’t you?”

“Free?” Jacob didn’t know what the word meant.

“You have to do this,” Dwayne said. “You’ve already said that you want Jesus to leave you alone. Don’t you want to be free?”

“I don’t know what I want.”

“You’re a coward,” Dwayne hissed. Lovingly, perversely, he began stroking Jacob’s hair. “If Mickey comes through that door, you put a bullet in his head. Is anyone going to stop you? Will God send angels to stop the bullet and save both of you?”

“No,” Jacob said. He brushed Dwayne’s hand away from his head.

“No, he won’t save you because he doesn’t care. He says he does, but he lies. He wouldn’t lift a finger to stop you.”

Puddles of tears filled Jacob’s eyes. “No, he wouldn’t,” he said.

“God won’t do anything, so you have to. You have to prove to him what you’re made of. Seal your testimony with blood. It doesn’t matter whose blood. Mickey Rickles’s blood is as good as anyone else’s.”

Jacob’s throat ached with a desire to cry like a baby. Dwayne was right. No one would care, no one would stop him.

“You pull the trigger,” Dwayne said, “and I’ll do the rest. We can do whatever you want after that. You have to. It’s him or you.”

Jacob could see it happening. He would lay on Mickey everything he had ever hated. He could put all the ugliness in the world into the being of Mickey Rickles and then kill it.

“It’s him or you,” Dwayne grimaced. “You and God are in the ring. It’s a death match. You and Mickey, you and truth.”

“He goes down,” Jacob said flatly.

“That’s right.”

“Then I’m free.”

“It’s the only way.”

Jacob looked Dwayne in the eye. He saw hatred there, but it didn’t frighten him. He didn’t care. He didn’t fear it. Nor did he want it. His head cleared. “No,” he whispered, “let me die. I don’t care.”

“You can’t turn back,” Dwayne said. “You wanna lose yourself, don’t you? You wanna free your soul?”

“Not that way.”

“It’s the only way. There’s either defiance or submission. There’re two choices.”

“I’m not killing anyone.”

“I’ve just given you the secret of life! This is something that kings would kill for. I’ve just handed it over to you on a silver platter! You have to make a decision.”

“I have made a decision. I won’t do it!” Jacob stood up, the gun in his hand. He was walking away from Dwayne, from everything.

Dwayne grabbed him from behind in a bear hug and wrestled him down. The gun slid across the floor. Dwayne held him down. “You can’t get away,” he cried. “Your Mormon God won’t take you back now. You’re over the line. There’s too much blasphemy and fornication and pollution of your temple to turn back now.”

Jacob fought and cried out, “No!”

Dwayne straddled his back, sitting on him like a school-yard bully. “One of us will die before I let you go.” He grabbed the can of starting fluid from the log table. He took Jacob by the hair, pulled his head back, wrenching his neck, and sprayed the aerosol into his eyes.

Jacob reached back and grabbed Dwayne’s wrists, the starter fluid running down his face. His eyes burned. Fiery flames burst into his blackened vision.

Dwayne was screaming now, shouting blasphemies. “Let me show you what suffering is,” he shouted. “Let me show you what perdition is.”

Jacob bucked and heaved to break Dwayne’s grasp. Dwayne had one hand on Jacob’s throat, the other across his burning eyes. In a voice that shook the cabin, Dwayne wailed, “Behold the works of my hands!”

With his eyes clenched shut, every image of horror Jacob had ever seen flooded into his mind. He saw monsters, butcher knives, clowns, corpses, ghouls, machine-gun toting soldiers in Asian swamp-lands. The horror of it sent his mind reeling.

Dwayne grabbed Jacob’s head by the hair and began to smash his face against the floor, again and again, the sound hollow and divorced from the sensation of any real pain. Against his clamped eyes, Jacob saw naked, emaciated bodies falling dead into pits. He saw the bodies being bulldozed into mass graves. He saw the bodies rise up, dead and torn and bloody, and kill each other all over again.

He tried to force this vision out of his eyes, but a parade of torn bodies and laughing, tormented faces flew past him like a legion of devils. Then he heard the sound of Mickey Rickles screaming, shattering the vision like a broken mirror. Then there was silence—and the sound of a gunshot.