The Prince of Peace floated on the lake in full view of Laibrook Inn, it being boom times for Rich Christianson’s Victory Eviction Services. His wife, Mary, sat perched at the prow like a freshly-painted figurehead; both of the boys were placed in between, and Rich himself commanded at the bow, his sure hand firmly on the tiller. He was a man whose family ran like a well-oiled machine, and he ran his business like he ran his family, firm. Due to his firmness, the Lord rewarded Rich with tremendous success through Victory Eviction Services, and Rich didn’t often take a day off to take the boat out with the family, but the boys were going to camp in the morning, so this time was a special treat.
“Jeremy,” Rich said to his eleven year-old, his eldest, “get your camera out and take some pictures of your mother next to me. Mary, get on back here with me.”
Liposuctioned, Botoxed, dyed hair permed, bleached teeth shining, Mary held her camera-face fixed, dutifully performing and showing off the implants. Later, glowing, she would praise the man whose wife she was for the strong way he commanded the craft. The well-oiled machine always needed fresh grease on the wheels. Tan-in-a-can wasn’t enough. Makeup could only make up for so much.
“Joshua,” Rich said to his youngest, who was nine, “don’t lean over so far. You’ll fall in. Mary, sit down there with the boys. Jeremy, toss me the camera.”
The boy hesitated, then reconsidered the ramifications of disobeying his father. The camera left his hand right when his mother moved per instruction and accidentally rocked the boat. It plopped into the water and disappeared with an oath from Rich and look of reproach stamped on his brow now furrowed at the boy. Firm. He had to be firm. It was the only way he’d ever get the boy to learn to throw. Just for good measure, he reminded his wife to ease off the sweets, citing her weight and comparing it with that of his favorite model of all time, Twiggy. This got a giggle from the boys, so Rich told them, “All right, that’s enough,” and reminded them about casting stones, even as he kicked off his sandals and stripped off his shirt. Laibrook Inn was closed, Rich Christianson well knew, but somehow the black windows at the far end of the lake seemed to stare like an attentive audience.
The lake being clear and the camera being waterproof, Rich had thought to simply retrieve it. Yet in the water visibility was low, and he had to come back up gasping for air twice before lucking onto the shiniest thing he could see at the bottom of the lake. He knew it wasn’t the camera. It was much too big for that. But he didn’t want to go back up empty-handed.
“What on earth is that?” Mary said when he dropped it in the boat.
“Looks like a meteorite,” Rich said toweling off. He seemed triumphant now. Mary started beaming pride.
“It’s the weirdest-looking rock I’ve ever seen,” said Joshua, eyes all a-goggle. Rich tousled his youngest’s hair and got it wet. “That’s right,” he said.
Half of the rock was pocked and scalloped with symmetrical scoops tapering to a less porous aspect on the other half which seemed more folded in appearance, like a giant wad of partially-chewed gum; the whole thing, roughly the size of a greatly distorted basketball, had the shifting multi-coloration of spilled gasoline, and none of the four could positively identify a dominant shade at all.
Mary was the one to wash it off at home. Strangely, the rock did not weigh much, and she was able to carry it back to the patio easily herself. Ordinarily, work of that sort would probably fall into Jeremy’s lap. But Jeremy was mowing the lawn, punishment for losing the camera.
The sun shone on the rock the next morning. Rich had gone to the office, and the boys were off at summer camp. Mary puttered with the TV morning show on for company.
“In the news today, if you can believe the numbers, unemployment has hit a record high, but take a look at this: Charlie the Dog, his owners the Kendersons say, is a three year-old Scottish terrier, and he has a pretty unique talent.”
“Very unique is right.”
Mary wasn’t sure where she wanted the rock. Secretly she hated it. She thought that it was weird and didn’t want it in the yard at all, but Rich wanted to keep it, and he knew best. He was always showing off strange things. Just a big boy.
“I see we have the Kendersons with us now. Good morning.”
“I understand that Charlie the Dog—is that his name?”
She could see the rock through the window. There was something different about it now. Something was on it.
“I understand Charlie the Dog does something pretty amazing. Can you tell us what that is?”
“Well he—yes I can.”
“Yes he—Charlie’s got a pretty special talent.”
“Go ahead. Yes. Go right ahead. Maybe if you could show us.”
Mary leaned forward in her chair. What was all that stuff on the rock?
“Well Charlie’s always been a very special dog. He really is just like part of the family.”
“Does Charlie have a mike?”
“Here, Charlie. Charlie, here.”
Mary wondered if she shouldn’t go outside for a closer look.
“I see we only have thirty seconds left.”
“Here, Charlie. Charlie, sing. Sing, Charlie.”
Mary got up and went out to the patio to see what all that stuff was that had developed on the rock.
The morning show never said anything about Rhapsody Grove.
Rich brought a guest home for dinner that night. Father Atticus Hatter represented the security agency responsible for protecting guests at the annual gathering in Rhapsody Grove. For one hundred and forty-four years now, select guests attended the private gathering. Mary, somewhat on the spot, nonetheless prepared a dish involving chicken, capers, and asparagus.
Rich and Father Hatter discussed the Death Penalty over dinner, and how desperately the country needed it. “Now, more than ever,” Father Hatter declared, tipping back a drink. Rich sat rapt with interest beneath the huge portrait of the Lord where down at the bottom ran in swirling golden script the words He Gave Unto the Poor. Rich told Father Hatter he couldn’t agree more with what he had to say about welfare mothers draining the system with their children.
And yet, during all of this, something was amiss. Rich’s lovely wife Mary seemed somewhat…off. The expression on her face looked too wooden to be a result of hardened makeup. Rich had to ask her what the matter was twice before she even noticed. Leaning toward her he hissed, “Wouldn’t you like to take the plates into the kitchen?” adding with a bit more grit the suggestion that she do so quickly.
“What are you trying to do? Make me look bad?” Rich had his hand on her wrist in the kitchen. He squeezed as he spoke, firmly, but she didn’t seem to notice. “What’s the matter with you? What are you on?”
“On?” Mary’s dry voice cracked. “There was something on the rock. It was growing.”
“The rock had things growing on it.”
“What rock? You mean the one from the lake?”
“I bent down to see what those things were growing out of the holes. They looked like macaroni, except they were wrinkly and brown and they moved. They exploded. It was oily and stank and I had to throw away my clothes.”
Rich grabbed his wife by the shoulders. “You listen to me. The chicken’s underdone! Snap out of it!” He grabbed the potholders from the magnet hook on the refrigerator. On one was stitched the word Mercy, and the other had Forgiveness. Rich shoved them up against Mary and told her to take the chicken from the table and put it back in the oven. Then they returned to the dining room and Rich greeted Father Hatter with a smile.
Father Hatter kept a good eye on Mary.
Later, when the wife was in the kitchen, Rich and Father Hatter retired to the deck for a drink and to talk some business. They had met on the links there in Laibrook some weeks back. Father Hatter, who provided the spiritual guidance for a great many wealthy individuals, held in his pocket the keys to unimaginable growth of business potential for Rich. For Rich, the eviction business had boomed so greatly that he was in the process of branching out into the security field, as well.
Father Hatter placed a hand on Rich’s shoulder. “I wasn’t planning on bringing a guest this year,” he said. Rich understood he referred to the two weeks of events at Rhapsody Grove which were to begin the following evening. “But, I think, maybe, the Lord just might be telling me to change my mind.” Rich’s heart nearly stopped. Father Hatter raised his drink to his lips. “I needn’t remind you how deeply members of the organization value discretion.”
Rich shook his head deeply with somber contrition.
“It’s getting late,” Father Hatter said, “but before I go, there is one other thing. I’d better have a look at your wife. I think she’s going to need my help.”
“Oh, I’m sure she’s fine,” Rich said. “She’s just been having trouble sleeping lately.”
“No Rich, it’s more than that. I sense something deeper. Perhaps even…a crisis of faith. I’m afraid that your wife’s very soul may actually be in danger. I’m going to have to see her before I go.”
“Well, all right,” said Rich, and he hurried off to find Mary. She wasn’t in the kitchen anymore. She had wandered into the downstairs bathroom, and was staring vacantly at herself in the mirror. “Come along,” he said to his wife, pulling her upstairs. He saw Father Hatter at the end of the hall, poking his head in the doorway to the master bedroom.
“Rich, this woman looks possessed.”
“My wife’s a little out of it tonight.”
“All right. Just bring her in here to lie down. Right on the bed. Just stretch her right out.”
“I don’t think—”
“I’m going to need to examine her. Rich, I’ve seen demonic possession before. Now, if you’d like to meet me tomorrow morning, I’ll be happy to let you join me at the gathering as my personal guest and introduce you to my friends. And if you’re smart enough to do that, you’ll understand that this woman is under my spiritual care. The Lord tells me that there is evil here, and it needs exorcising. You can shut the door on your way out.”
Rich slept downstairs that night. The couch in the den had a folded blanket draped neatly over the top. Sometimes sacrifices had to be made.
He didn’t see Mary the next morning at all. He made sure of that. When he stepped out of the house, and saw the tinted windows of Father Hatter’s town car pulling up, an insane moment flashed where he thought that he might not get in. But for Rich Christianson, getting in was what everything was all about. He reached for the door handle and grabbed the brass ring.
Women weren’t allowed at Rhapsody Grove. Cops out front screened everyone coming in, and did their damnedest to make sure that the rich white men inside enjoyed a nice safe private time together doing things they had to hide. Here they could do their Hillbilly Heroin unhindered by fear of reproach, for here they all had something on each other. More punitive punishment, greater freedom for government torture, increased weapons contracts, ideas for new invasions, ideas to increase corporate freedom and crack down on the people, these of course were the topics of choice always on everyone’s mind.
This was during daylight hours. Father Hatter introduced Rich to friend after friend after friend. This was a warm and accepting assemblage of open-minded, like-minded, conservative-thinking men who shook hands with well-oiled techniques geared toward economic opportunity and financial advancement, it still being daylight hours. Rich spotted the giant owl, the forty-foot owl carved out of wood that towered on the far side of the secluded lake, and wondered as he followed Father Hatter from friend to friend to friend, what was going to happen there before the owl that night.
Mary Christianson could not move. Even when the light through the window in the loft over the bed hit directly on her, Mary never moved a muscle, and was only dimly aware of consciousness itself, the one image playing like a mantra over and over in what was left of her mind being that of Twiggy. All memory of the night before was gone. No memory of family. No memory of self. Certainly no memory of the otherworldly rock her husband dug up from the lake, no awareness of her body condensing into hardened aspect, limbs lengthening and firming, no awareness of the tough and knobby solidness, only the one thought, the omnipresent mantra image, Twiggy, Twiggy, Twiggy.
The thing that was Mary rose from the bed and flopped on the floor around noon. In the mass of lashing tendrils might barely be discerned the vaguest semblance of a torso. Two of the thicker branches moved like legs, while two more resembled arms. There was no head, merely a misshapen knot. Clacking sounds of rubbing branches accompanied the thing’s attempts to extricate itself from what was left of clothing, and it trashed much of the room with its hard limbs flailing in the process, but finally freed itself, and stood still awhile as if in meditation, gently swaying in the middle of the mess. Then the thing that was Mary, which had become Twiggy, moved nimble as a spider out of the room and down the stairs. Splintering the front door, it scuttled outside and headed into the woods.
In front of the giant owl that night, faces flickered in torchlight. The white men were screaming together how unfair their lack of rights. The most important banker there wore a tall and pointed hood, it being part of the private tradition, and he introduced Gov. Mason, the most religious governor of all, unto the clamoring throng, and Gov. Mason said unto them, “My friends! These days, the women, the minorities, they get to have everything in the world a million times better than the Founding Fathers ever intended when they got together and created this country with their perfect union!”
Huge roars of applause.
“And I’ll tell you somethin’ else! Here in this grove I say to the world, if you don’t go to my church, then you don’t count for nothin’!”
Thunderous roars of frenzied applause.
“And if you don’t worship my God, the one God, the only God, my God who makes me rich, then you can damn well go to hell! And as Governor, I’ll see that you do! Personally! I love God! I love God! I love God!”
Then came the Firing of Responsibility, the part of the rites where the members of the secret club who collaborated privately on public policy for the betterment of all those included banded together and said, as Father Hatter explained to Rich, “We don’t care about anybody but those within this perfect circle.”
And when responsibility for knowingly causing harm to the people and the planet had been with pointed hoods and secret robes shining in the torchlight ritualistically expunged, then did the biggest wigs reveal the biggest priority of the gathering: Whether to dismantle the world economic system and governmental structure entirely, and hole up in their one-percenter castles of the super-rich and ride out the New Dark Age, or put it off awhile longer. Consensus on this issue, however, did not get reached.
Gunfire rang through the forest.
Immediately everyone froze.
Rapid bursts of rifles neared.
Immediately everyone panicked. Shouts of, “Oh my God, they’re going to kill us!” and, “I was only following orders!” rolled over the crowd. No one could tell from what direction the shots were coming until, behind the giant idol of the owl, the silhouette of a man, rifle in hand, appeared limned against the night sky.
“Shoot him!” several voices screamed.
The man with the gun was one of the Grove’s own security employees, but before anyone could manage to shoot him, something far more curious came into view. It tore the gun from the man’s hand, and from the torso tore his arms, dropping the body without ceremony as it came down on the crowd, rolling like a giant tumbleweed, limbs whipping, branches thrashing. Sticks bunched into bundles struck and smashed fascist backs.
Pushed by the panicking guests into the shallow, man-made lake, Rich splashed his way across to the other side, toward the giant owl, petrified politicians and CEOs in tow. Somehow he broke away from the group. He could look down now, crouched among the ferns, and see in the torchlight the monster murdering the men. What should he do? Should he try to run away? What if more of those things were waiting? Crawling for safer cover, his outstretched hand met something warm. Rich looked down. It was the face of the guard with the arms torn off.
Suddenly he remembered. The thing had thrown it. He looked over, saw the gun, scurried across and grabbed it as, down below, the thing had Father Hatter in the clutches of its branches. It raised him high overhead, though it had no head, and seemed on the verge of dashing the body to bits, or perhaps on the point of tearing it apart. That was when the gun went off.
Rich ran down past the giant owl, automatic rifle in hand, blasting splinters to smithereens as he screamed.
It would have been a miracle if Father Hatter had survived. But, rifle in hand, Rich Christianson never found out. In saving Father Hatter, he accidentally killed several of the other very important guests, by which time full security had arrived, trained marksmen with night-vision goggles, being sure, in the firmest manner possible, to do the shooting first, and ask the questions later.