Sunday, 3:00 a.m.
THE first thing that went through Terry’s head when his cell phone buzzed at three in the morning was, Oh God, it’s Dad’s heart again! But the voice on the other end of the phone wasn’t his sister. It was a young man—a teenager, by the sound of it.
“Hey.” A quiet cough and then, “Hi. Is… this the gay men’s group?”
It was and it wasn’t. Terry hadn’t given out his personal cell number in connection with the group since he stopped printing up flyers over three years ago. All the “regulars” had it, of course. But they knew better than to give it out. If they wanted to introduce someone new to the group, they’d just bring him.
“How did you get this number?” Terry asked, sounding a bit more curt than he’d intended. But part of him suspected this was a prank.
“I’ve had it for a while.” The voice sounded distant. Not like a bad phone connection, but just… far away. “I guess I shouldn’t have called.”
Something in the young man’s voice disturbed Terry. The kid sounded so… lost.
“No, wait!” he said quickly, before the boy could hang up. “This is the gay men’s group. But do you know what time it is?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s just… it’s so quiet and cold here. I wanted to hear another voice.”
Jack had come out of the bedroom. The moonlight coming through the living room window softly illuminated his beautifully sculpted, naked body as he crossed the floor to Terry’s side. “Who is it?” he whispered, concerned. “Is it your dad?”
Terry shook his head. He put his hand over the receiver. “I think it’s one of my students.”
That wasn’t such a far-fetched conclusion to jump to. Terry didn’t recognize the voice, but Crystal Falls Regional had fewer than a hundred students, all told. Chances were good that this kid had been in Terry’s music classes at least one semester.
He wasn’t surprised to see Jack’s eyes go wide. Terry wasn’t exactly out at the high school where he taught. Gay rights may have come a long way in the past decade, but that didn’t mean the school board would look kindly on a gay teacher. Did the kid know who he was talking to? Terry hoped not.
But he was less worried about that right now than the sound of desperation in the boy’s voice. “Look, don’t worry about it. You needed someone to talk to. I understand.”
“No,” Jack whispered, and Terry could practically see his lawyer hackles rising. “You tell him to talk to his parents or the school guidance counselor. Then you hang up.”
The guidance counselor? The same guy Terry had heard laughing about Eric Jacobs being a “fag”?
“I had sex with another guy. A bunch of times.”
“Okay,” Terry said carefully, ignoring Jack. “Was it something you both consented to?”
The boy laughed bitterly. “Why would that matter?”
Oh God. Not a rape. Or molestation. Jack was right; Terry wasn’t trained to deal with shit like that. “Look, son. Maybe you should—”
“I mean, yeah, we both wanted it, but he’s not saved. I’m the one who knows the Bible better than… well, practically anybody. I should have been the one to save him. Instead, I brought him down even more.”
Christ. The kid was a Bible-thumper. Terry really wasn’t prepared to deal with that. He’d turned his back on religion decades ago. He could barely remember anything he’d read in the Bible, apart from the passages he was always hearing the religious right spout off. And he couldn’t claim to know those well, either.
“I’m not really a religious man, myself,” he said, floundering. “It’s never made sense to me that God would have a problem with two”—he almost said “consenting adults”—“people doing something together they both enjoy, and that really doesn’t affect anybody else.”
“What are you telling this kid?” Jack hissed at him. “If his parents have told him that homosexuality is wrong, and they find out you’re telling him it’s okay, that’s corrupting a minor!”
Terry waved his hand at him to be quiet. The boy was at some kind of crisis point, and Terry couldn’t just turn away.
“It’s against the way we were designed. And God hates imperfection. It sickens Him. If Christ hadn’t intervened, the Lord would have cast the lot of us into Hell two thousand years ago and started over.”
Terry restrained a groan, while Jack paced back and forth behind him, muttering darkly about Maine state law on sex offenders. “Just like he almost did with Noah and the ark, too.”
“See, I don’t get that. What’s so wrong with imperfection?”
“I don’t know. I always thought it made people more interesting, myself.”
“But it isn’t for us to question the Lord.”
“Well….” Just keep him talking. Was this kid depressed enough about all of this to do himself harm? Kill himself? Terry desperately wished he had some kind of intervention training. “Look… maybe we could talk better in person. Can you tell me where you are?”
“At the edge of the abyss.”
Terry laughed, trying to sound casual. “I know the feeling. Especially since I moved to Crystal Falls.” Maybe the boy would feel safer meeting somewhere public, where he could get help if this older man on the phone turned out to be creepy. “Maybe we could meet at the truck stop diner? It’s open all night.”
“No!” Jack’s eyes went wide with alarm. He reached for the phone, but Terry twisted away from him.
“It’s too late. I gave up trying to fight it a long time ago—I know I’m not strong enough. But every time I give in, I drift farther away from the Lord. I have to do something to stop that.” The boy sounded apologetic. “I really shouldn’t have bothered you. I guess I was just being selfish, hoping for a little sympathy.”
“I do sympathize! Of course, I do.”
A soft laugh. “Thanks. I’ll let you go now.”
“No, you don’t have to hang up!”
Terry made one last desperate attempt. “Can you tell me your name?”
“My name is ‘God Is My Judge’.”
Then the line went quiet.
Well, that was melodramatic, Terry thought. But his hand was shaking as he stared at the phone. He looked at the display, hoping he could call the number back. It was blocked.
“You don’t ever arrange to meet up somewhere with a minor!” Jack snarled at him, snatching the phone out of his hand. “Especially to talk about sex! Do you want to spend the next five years in prison?”
But Terry could barely hear him. All he could think about was that he’d failed. He didn’t know what he could have said or done differently, but that didn’t matter. Somewhere in town, at this very moment, something terrible might be happening. And he’d just lost any chance he had of preventing it.
Sunday, 6:00 a.m.
JONAH woke to the sound of his mother screaming. He jumped out of bed, grabbed his robe, and nearly collided with his mother’s twenty-six-year-old boyfriend in the narrow hall outside his bedroom door.
“Christ!” Bill snarled, though Jonah couldn’t tell if it was aimed at him or at his mother. The man rubbed his eyes, growling like a bear awoken from hibernation. “What the fuck is all the racket about?”
Bill was naked, though apparently too groggy to care. He staggered down the hall ahead of Jonah and stopped at the entrance to the kitchen. The boy had to stretch his six-foot-two frame to see over the man’s freckled shoulder.
Shirley Riverside was standing against the wall near the fridge, her gaze fixed on the floor, her mouth trying to say something. But no sound was coming out. Jonah had never seen her looking so frightened.
Pressing up against Bill’s back (but not too close) he was able to see that his mother had walked through a puddle of something in the early morning half-light. Her bare feet had left a trail of dark prints on the worn linoleum. Her hand was still on the light switch beside her, the one she’d turned on to see what she’d stepped in.
It was blood.
Somehow a large puddle had formed in the center of the floor. Jonah saw something small drop into the pool, causing ripples to spread on its surface. The boy looked up and saw that the blood was seeping through the suspended ceiling, spreading along the seams between the tiles and collecting at the corners to drip down.
“Jesus H. Christ,” Bill muttered, and it was an indication of how frightened Shirley was that she didn’t rip him a new one for taking the Lord’s name in vain. Never mind running around bare-assed in front of her son. “Call 9-1-1,” Bill ordered. Then, when she didn’t appear to hear him, he added impatiently, “Can you do that?”
Shirley was staring at her bare feet now, as if she wanted nothing more than to get the blood off them, but she nodded mutely.
Jonah had to flatten himself against the wall to let Bill get past him. The man turned on his way to the bedroom and pointed at the boy. “You’re going upstairs with me to check it out, soon as I get some pants on.”
Jonah didn’t see any reason to argue. “Okay.”
He was disgusted with himself for letting his eyes linger on Bill’s tight ass as the man turned to enter the bedroom. Jesus, forgive me for lusting after my Mom’s boyfriend. But Bill wasn’t all that much older than Jonah, and hours of putting up sheetrock had made the man lean and muscular.
A few moments later, Shirley was sobbing into the phone as she tried desperately to wipe the soles of her bare feet with a wet paper towel. Her hand was covered in blood.
Bill emerged from the bedroom in ripped jeans, still shirtless and barefoot. Jonah followed him out of the apartment and through the beauty salon his mother owned in the front of the building. Bill grabbed the key ring hanging on a nail just inside the door and stepped outside.
On the side of the building was a staircase leading up to the second floor, made of unfinished wooden boards that the sun and rain had bleached over the years.
The sun wasn’t up yet, and the sky was slate gray, the air sharp. Jonah hadn’t thought to grab slippers, and the damp, red maple leaves on the steps felt icy cold on the bottom of his feet.
He followed Bill up the stairs and through the locked door at the top. They didn’t bother turning on the light switch. The pale light coming in through the dusty windows was enough to see by.
The entire second floor was one large room, and it had been rented from Shirley for the past nine years by the Assembly of Christ church. The décor was Spartan: a beat-up old piano, a folding card table in the back for coffee and cookies, an old bookcase for Bibles and hymnals, and a simple podium at the head of the room where the reverend stood. Behind the podium was a large acrylic painting of Jesus, its edges yellowed and curled up with age. Jonah no longer remembered just how long it had been there, or who painted it. There had been talk of building actual pews, but no one had gotten around to that yet, so most of the space was taken up by the same metal folding chairs that had been there nine years earlier.
But what caught Jonah’s attention right now was the young man lying on the bare wooden floor between the chairs and the podium. He was stark naked and lying in a huge pool of blood. Most of the blood was on his crotch and on the floor near his waist, as if he’d cut his wrists while they were in his lap, then lay or fallen back, spreading his arms out as he did to spray the blood in sweeping arcs at his sides. The pattern made by the spray resembled crimson wings, and to Jonah he looked like an angel, fallen to the ground and shattered. He certainly had a face like an angel: sandy-blond curls and delicate features like something carved by Michelangelo.
His name was Daniel. He was the reverend’s son and one of the most popular kids in school. Jonah knew him through the school choir but mostly through the church. He couldn’t really say they’d been friends, though he’d always thought Daniel was cool and amazingly attractive. That last part was the problem. Whenever he’d looked at Daniel, the stirrings in his groin drove all thoughts of Christian fellowship from his mind. It was bad enough that he was feeling these… urges toward other boys in school. But the reverend’s son? That was just sick.
Now, for the first—and last—time, he was seeing Daniel naked. If it hadn’t been for all the blood, he would have been beautiful. As it was, Jonah’s dick didn’t seem to be aware of the fact he was looking at a dead body and it started to stiffen, which disturbed him. He forced himself to look away.
Bill was squatting by the boy’s head, bare feet standing directly on some of the bloody marks on the floor, as he pressed his fingers to Daniel’s throat. “Pretty sure he’s dead.”
No shit. Jonah had thought that was obvious. And wasn’t there some law about messing with a crime scene? Suicide was still a crime, wasn’t it?
It certainly looked like a suicide. The razor lay on the floor right next to Daniel’s hip—one of those old-fashioned straight-edge kinds that nobody ever uses anymore. Although Jonah figured somebody had to use them, or they wouldn’t still sell them. But what the hell was the pharmacist thinking? Well, would you look at that! I haven’t seen a teenager buy one of those blades since Kennedy was assassinated. You want shaving cream with that? No? Well, suit yourself.
He followed Bill back outside and down the steps to find his mother standing at the bottom. She’d thrown her pink winter jacket on over her nightgown and covered her curlers with a scarf. Jonah assumed she’d had time to wash her feet, because she was wearing her slippers now.
“What is it?” she asked anxiously.
“The Thompson kid. Killed himself.”
“The idiot took all his clothes off, then cut his wrists. It’s a fuckin’ mess up there. Go see for yourself.”
“Bill Kendall,” Shirley replied sternly, “if that poor boy’s dead, I have no intention of going up there to gawk at him! You show some respect.”
Bill snorted. “He didn’t show me much respect, did he? I’m the one who’s gonna have to clean that shit up, sand that mess out of the floorboards, and put up new ceiling tile in the kitchen.”
“You stop that kind of talk, right this instant. Somebody’s died!”
Surprisingly, Bill did shut up. He even had the good grace to look embarrassed. “You gonna call the boy’s father?”
Jonah’s mother hesitated before saying, “The sheriff is on the way. I’m sure he’ll call the reverend.” She shook her head. “The poor man. This is going to destroy him.”
Before Jonah realized what was happening, his mother had grabbed his hand and one of Bill’s. “Link hands, you two. Let’s pray for that poor boy’s soul, and for his father.”
Bill rolled his eyes but lowered his head. Jonah took the man’s callused hand and closed his own eyes as his mother began to pray fervently in the odd, choked voice she reserved for passionate prayer. Jonah tried to put the strength of his own prayer behind it, reaching out desperately to Jesus. But he was having trouble concentrating. He couldn’t get the image of Daniel’s blood-spattered body out of his mind. That and the fact that his bare feet were freezing to ice on the pavement.
Sunday, 6:30 a.m.
AS usual, Reverend Isaac Thompson was up, showered, and dressed before the first hint of pink crept into the morning sky. He strode past Daniel’s closed bedroom door and permitted himself a moment of smug satisfaction that the teenage athlete was still sound asleep while his old man was already preparing for the new day and whatever the Lord had in store for him.
The Lord liked self-discipline, and the reverend’s life had been a testament to this ever since he set his foot upon the path of righteousness. He’d built up a small but passionate congregation. Last year, they’d added their voices to the protests against the ludicrous “gay marriage” law forced on the state by a misguided legislature, and God had granted them victory at the polls. That was proof enough that he was right with the Lord. But he was also blessed with good health and, despite thinning hair, the women in his congregation still seemed to think him handsome. More than one had hinted that she was available, should he ever think to remarry.
Most of all, he had a son no father could be more proud of. Daniel was strong and good-looking, and well mannered. The boy was a straight-A student, and last spring he’d won a medal for track. The church choir director said he sang like an angel. All of this was through God’s grace, of course, but Isaac couldn’t resist giving himself a small pat on the back. He’d raised the boy right, and it showed.
It was while he was drinking his orange juice and going over his notes for this morning’s sermon that the phone rang.
This can’t be good. Nobody in his congregation ever called him at this hour, unless they were depressed or fighting with their spouse.
“Reverend,” Sheriff Taylor said in a gruff voice when Isaac answered the phone, “I, um… I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Some very bad news. It’s about Daniel.”
I’m sorry, Mr. Thompson, but your wife.... She’s been in a car accident.
Isaac pushed aside the sudden chill the sheriff’s words evoked in him. This wasn’t Beth. The Lord would never do that to him. Not again. Not after how hard Isaac had worked to get his life back in order, to make Jesus the center of his world.
The boy must have gotten into some mischief, that was all. It was a little hard to believe. But Daniel was a teenager, after all. Teenagers sometimes got into trouble, no matter how well they were raised.
Isaac took a deep breath. “What is it, Sheriff? Is he in some kind of trouble?”
“Well…. Dammit—sorry, Reverend—there’s just no way to break this well. Daniel’s dead.”
Looks like she ran a red light and struck another car.
“Daniel hasn’t even gotten up yet.”
We have reason to believe she was drinking at the time.
“Reverend, I can see him right in front of me.”
Isaac was running down the hall toward Daniel’s room before he even realized he’d knocked his chair over getting up. He threw open the door while the sheriff droned on inanely on the handset about how sorry he was. The room was cold and empty, the bed not slept in.
It wasn’t possible. Not again. Not again.
Somehow Isaac navigated the rest of the conversation—he wasn’t sure how—standing in the bedroom doorway, his free hand outstretched and pressing so hard against the door frame that it lost all feeling. Daniel was dead. He was lying naked on the floor of the church, covered in blood from his own wrists. Wrists he’d sliced open with a razor blade. And the Lord had turned His benevolent face away from Isaac Thompson.
As he drove to the church, memories of the death of his wife came flooding back to him, jumbling together with this new horror until he could barely tell them apart. Isaac hadn’t been a minister back then. Just one of the faithful whose life was floundering without direction. His wife, Beth, had claimed to love him. But she loved drink more. She spent nearly every night at Kelly’s bar with her girlfriends—at least, he’d never heard of her actually cheating—staggering home drunk around two in the morning.
Until the night the police came to his house instead, to inform him that he was now a widower and his five-year-old son motherless. He’d learned a harsh lesson that night. He’d thought he was loving his wife by accepting her as she was, by tolerating her vice. But tolerance was the siren call of the devil. It promised compromise and freedom from conflict. But if you truly loved someone, you couldn’t stand idly by while they lost themselves in their sin. Ultimately, it would destroy them.
As the sheriff led him into what had been his sanctuary for the past nine years, Isaac felt as if he were looking into the depths of Hell, standing at the edge of the abyss and gazing down at the broken body of his son. It was a scene of incredible violence, like something from a horror movie—a satanic parody of the Crucifixion, with blood sprayed everywhere and Daniel’s genitals displayed for all the world to see.
And that, more than anything else, didn’t make sense. Just a few years ago, the boy had come home in a panic because his coach expected him to undress in the locker room in front of other boys. He’d eventually gotten over his shyness. But what would possess him to spread himself out so indecently? Why would he want people to see him like this?
Suddenly the metallic stench of the blood overwhelmed him. Isaac felt his gorge rise and knew that he would defile the church further if he didn’t get out now. He ran for the door, shoving Deputy Reed out of the way, and barely made it through before hurling the contents of his stomach over the wooden railing.
Then someone was handing him a paper towel to wipe his mouth, and Shirley Riverside’s voice said, “I’m so sorry, Reverend. If there’s anything I can do….”
There was nothing. He didn’t even want her there, didn’t want her to see Daniel looking like that. In truth, though Shirley gave the church a good discount on the space rental and almost never missed a service, the reverend didn’t much care for the woman. It was bad enough that her son was the bastard of some nameless trucker. But the boy had grown up watching his mother spread her legs for a never-ending parade of men. She’d batted her eyes at Isaac more than once. Her latest infatuation was scarcely twenty-five, by the look of him.
Isaac could only pray that Jesus would help her eventually give up her licentious ways.
But right now her hand was rubbing his shoulder tenderly, and it was enough to undo him. Though it embarrassed him, Isaac could no longer keep back the tears. He leaned against the wooden railing, sobbing into his hands, crying for the loss of his boy. And crying for the God that had abandoned him.