Time to Kill
And who’s the little girl?
Never mind the girl…
Matters of Life and Death
Neither Feller nor Earthen girl say a word on the drive to the church. Gene doesn’t see it as awkward – what do a grown man and a (maybe?) pubescent girl have to talk about, anyway? – but for Sarah the awkward is real, too real, excruciatingly real, real to the point of physical pain, although the pain is mostly due to the pins and needles. She’s experienced them before, usually gets them when things take a turn for the tense, but never like this. They spread from her legs to her torso, her arms, she can even feel them in her skull. It’s like a sadistic practitioner of acupuncture took the puncture park of their profession a little bit too seriously.
‘Maybe it’s these cops who are taking their profession a little bit too seriously,’ Sarah thinks to herself as she watches the trees turn to front and side yards of houses owned by folks who would never kidnap a defenseless child after murdering her parents right in front of her in cold blood on an open public road with a convenient (and probably planned, now that she really thinks about it) lack of witnesses driving by… but does she know that? Does she know that for sure? A chilling thought comes to Sarah now as they pull into the desolate, sans smart car, parking lot of the church at the end of Madison Avenue: ‘Maybe the police thing has something to do with it, but… maybe they’re really doing this just because they’re dusty white folks. You never know what dusty white folks get up to when nobody’s lookin’ at ‘em…’
Sarah looks at Gene Thorton. Gene Thorton is staring keenly at the smart car parked in the back of the lot as if the driver was mortified of the idea of somebody else parking near his whip. Well you got your wish, buddy. Boy did you ever get your wish.
‘Vern said he took care of that smart car,’ Gene thinks to himself. It passed by the scene of the double-murder-abduction yesterday, all of the Fellers saw it. Chief sent Vern to chase after the driver and take care of him, and Vern said it was handled. Everyone assumed that meant Vern killed him and pulled the car into the woods, never to be seen again, but… ‘But it’s right there. Ain’t nobody else drives a smart car in this town, that’s the same one.’
What feels like a mosquito ramming his arm with all its tiny might through the police uniform and the Feller uniform underneath it brings Gene back to the moment. He turns and sees Sarah looking up at him with all sorts of expectations.
“What is it?”
“We’ve been sitting here for a few minutes, Sir,” Sarah says, averting her eyes. “I–… I’m sorry, I–”
“You’re fine, Sarah,” Gene says, then hits the unlock button. “And I told you, just call me Gene. It’s not a big deal.”
They get out of the police cruiser; Sarah lingers for a moment, as though she was thinking about reaching over, slamming the driver-side door shut and hijacking the car, thinking about taking her life into her own hands now that there’s nobody left to hold it and breaking out of Wuester, thinking about going back to Bur City to live with her relatives in the projects where there are more crack rocks than cracked rocks on the streets and the windowless white vans roam like the deer do around here – only when nobody’s lookin’ at ‘em, that is, as the deer (and the windowless whites) are smart – and then slides herself out of the car. Sarah has no idea what in the world the police officers have planned for her tonight, but whatever it is, it has to be better than life in Bur City. Has to be, and she’ll keep on telling herself that until she believes it.
Sarah walks around the side of the cruiser and starts heading towards the church, but stops halfway there. Something’s wrong. She can only hear her own footsteps. She turns and sees Gene standing stock still next to his cruiser, one hand on his halfway unholstered handgun, the other hanging limply at his side. He’s staring at that little smart car parked in the back of the lot again.
“Gene?” Sarah asks smally, not sure if he hears her. “What is it?”
He definitely didn’t hear her. She closes the gap and pokes him.
Gene looks down at her with eyes that suggest he forgot she was there. “Oh, uh… sorry.”
“What’s with the smart car?” Sarah asks, staring at it now herself.
“It’s–” not my place to say, Gene almost says, but the car has nothing to do with tonight. Well… it may or may not have something to do with tonight, time will tell, but regardless… yeah, he could tell her. Why not? “Uh, it… it passed us yesterday when we pulled y–… on the side of Cannonball. Chief sent Vern to go take care of it, and he said he did, but…”
“But what?” Sarah asks, trying to pretend she isn’t following.
“But it’s right there.”
“So?” ‘Jesus, Sarah, why don’t you just ask him to say it?’
“We thought Vern would’ve killed the guy, dumped the car in the woods,” Gene says a bit too nonchalantly for Sarah’s fragile state of being. The pins and needles don’t come back, at least, but her heart’s pumping double-overtime now.
Sarah doesn’t say anything more. After a couple more minutes of watching the empty smart car they walk up to the church and let themselves in. Aside from the pews and the framed pictures and crucifixions depicting Jesus at various points in his life, the place is totally empty. Lights are all on, but nobody’s home. Weird.
“Where is everybody?” Sarah asks from Gene’s side. The side with the handgun hanging from it, the loosely holstered and very easily grabbable handgun.
“I don’t know,” Gene says, looking at the gigantic gold crucifixion behind the pulpit. He can’t take his eyes off it, in fact. “Maybe this was a mistake, maybe we should go.”
“Oh, oh no,” Sarah says, her mouth watering a little bit. “No, I feel safe here, can’t we stay a minute longer?”
Gene mumbles something, Sarah doesn’t really hear him. She watches him put his hands on the small of his back, exposing the gun. All it would take is a quick grab and a squeeze of her finger and boom, she’s free, she can avoid whatever dusty white folk shit the cops are go’n’a put her through tonight and she can get the hell out of Wuester. Just a grab and a squeeze, that’s all it will take. Beating heart, sweating pores, jagged pins and needles be damned. Just a grab and a squeeze.
Sarah reaches for the handgun. The church’s door swings open behind them. Sarah freezes. It’s just what she was afraid of: an old white preacherman, dusty as the cavity beneath the strange chunky man’s bed, with a kind of face that makes you feel all sorts of secure and protected just lookin’ at it.
“Well hello there,” the preacherman says, spreading his arms in welcome. “I thought I heard someone come in, welcome!”
“Thank you, Sir,” Gene Thorton says, extending his hand for a shake. The preacherman accepts, then smiles at Sarah. Sarah doesn’t know how to smile back. “This is a church, right?” Gene asks, as if all the Jesus wallhangs weren’t enough to make as much obvious.
“Yes, we go by the name of Saint Wuester’s,” the frail preacherman explains. “I’m Reverend Campbell, but you can call me Neil.”
“Good to meet you, Neil. My name is Gene Thorton; if you couldn’t tell by my dress, I’m a police officer in town.”
“I could indeed tell, Officer,” Campbell says politely. He looks down at Sarah again, smiling. “And who’s the little girl?”
“Never mind the girl.” Gene Thorton rests his hand on the butt of his loaded gun. Campbell doesn’t mind the girl. “Are you of Christian or Catholic faith here, Reverend?”
“Neither, to tell you the truth, Officer,” Campbell says sheepishly. “I work with an organization which recently acquired this building, all the decorations were here when we moved in. Seemed like a hassle to take them all down.” He waits for Gene to ask why he calls the place a church, but the question doesn’t come. “We, eh, we stole the word church from religion, but we do not practice nor preach. I like to think of this church as a place to be when there’s nowhere else to go.”
“I see,” Gene Thorton says after taking a moment to mull. “That eh, that smart car out in the lot – that belong to you?”
“Yes it does, Officer,” Campbell says smilingly. “Why do you ask?”
Gene blinks at the preacherman. “Were you, eh… did you get pulled over on Cannonball Road yesterday? In the early afternoon, right around two o’clock?”
“Why, I did indeed,” Campbell says, looking deeply into Gene’s eyes. “The officer – Vern VanDunk, I believe his name was, told me you were looking for an escaped mental patient, might have possibly been dangerous. I told him I didn’t see anything suspicious.”
“That right?” Gene asks skeptically. Vern said there was some weird guy driving the smart car, dude in his thirties with black hair. Old boy here has a thin carpet of gray up top, and by the look of him he probably doesn’t remember his thirties. “You eh, you said you didn’t see anything?”
“Yes Sir,” says Neil Campbell. He hasn’t blinked once, nor has Gene’s hand left the handgun. “Didn’t see a single thing.”
They stare at each other intently for a few seconds. Sarah Hammond feels like she’s drowning.
“Is there anything I can help you two with?” Campbell finally asks.
Gene thinks for a moment. “Where were you when we first came in? The smart car was empty.”
“Out back,” Campbell says without missing a beat, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. He then chuckles despite himself and points off towards the back of the church. “There’s a small greenhouse back there, my boss wants me to get a community garden ready for when the weather gets a little nicer. We just got a shipment of pots and planters, I was moving them around, trying to find a setup I like.”
“Uh-huh,” Thorton says without parting his teeth. He looks down at Sarah, sees the girl is sweating enough to water the plants in the reverend’s alleged greenhouse, then decides to do what he came here for. “So you’re not a real reverend, then?”
“No, I’m afraid I’m not,” Campbell says, cheesin’. “We stole that title from the real churches too, but I’ve been around the block a few times. Is there something on your mind?”
“There is,” he says, then glances down at Sarah. “My uh… my friend here – please excuse her being so quiet, she’s dreadfully shy – has been wondering about matters of life and death lately.”
Sarah’s eyes open wider than a pair of car tires.
“Specifically if there is life after death, and what that afterlife might be like.”
Water in her mouth, her stomach, both of her lungs; the pressure is building inside of her head, making her skull feel like it’s going to burst; the pins and needles return with a dastardly vengeance; Sarah Hammond is drowning, and there’s no lifeguards in sight.
“Well that’s some heavy material to be wondering about,” Campbell says, now looking at Sarah the way he was looking at Gene Thorton when they were discussing the smart car. “May I ask why you’ve been thinking on such things, little one?”
“You may not,” Gene answers for her, bringing the old man’s eyes back on his. “You’re not a real reverend, but I’m sure you have some opinions on the matter. Most everyone does, I think, whether they know it or not. Why don’t you share some wisdom with her?”
“Oh, eh, well… well what do you want to know, little one?”
Sarah Hammond says nothing. The strength to speak is no longer with her. Neither is God, evidently, and how fitting it is that she learns this terrible truth of life in a building masquerading as a church.
“I… see,” Reverend Campbell sees. “Well, I’m not sure how much this will be worth because I’m not truly a man of the cloth, but I do believe there is an afterlife. In fact, I believe there is a beforelife, too. I think the place we go after we die is very similar to the place we come from when we are born, though that’s not to say they’re the same place, but…” He looks into Sarah’s eyes again, looks at her like he’s reading a book. “To tell the whole truth, I believe in a higher power, in many higher powers. I don’t believe in the God of the folks who originally operated out of this church, but I do believe there is something at the top, so to speak, and I believe there is a lot more between whatever’s at the top of all things and us than there is between us and whatever’s at the bottom of all things… does that make sense?”
Sarah gives no indication of whether or not that makes sense. She can hardly hear the old man; breathing requires an extraordinary amount of focus and effort at the moment.
“For all we know, what we know of as our current life might be the afterlife of our beforelife. Perhaps we just go from one life into the next on and on into infinity, or perhaps there is no reincarnation, perhaps we live once and then whoosh, the candle’s burned all the way down to the wick’s end.” Campbell looks up at Officer Thorton with his peculiarly questioning eyes. “But, in my opinion, reincarnation is much more likely.”
“How do you figure?” Thorton asks quickly, hands on his belt like when he first walked into the bedroom back at Maxwell’s house.
“Well, if there is no reincarnation then that’s just it, there’s no reincarnation. But if there is, well, there are a great many different ways it could work. One to a great many, Officer; statistically speaking, the great many is more likely – and perhaps reincarnation doesn’t work in merely one way. Maybe there are a great many ways it can work, maybe it all depends on the individual soul.” Campbell smiles at himself, then shrugs. “I could go on and on, but I feel like I’m going to start rambling soon. You two look like busy folks, I don’t want to keep you.” He looks down at Sarah then, right into her eyes. “Does that settle your fears, little one?”
No it does not, not at all, which is plainly obvious from the distressed look on the girl’s face, even Gene can see that, but the old boy must be getting hazy in the eyes because he looks right back at Officer Thorton with a satisfied smile.
“Is there anything else I can help you with today, Officer?”
“No, Reverend Campbell, I think that just about covers it,” Thorton says. “Come along, Sarah. Time we get back home.”
“Please, come back anytime,” Campbell says as they walk away. Sarah looks over her shoulder as Thorton is opening the door to see the reverend staring directly at her. “I mean it, the doors are always open. Come back anytime.”
Sarah feels a pull on her arm, then is quickly shuffled out. The reverend stares at the door of the church for a few moments, then he hears the engine of the cruiser roar up. He nods to himself as though he was confirming something in his mind, then goes out the door himself so he may return to whatever it is he does back behind St. Wuester’s Church.
Hello Commons, this has been the tenth subchapter of the third chapter of Under the Hood: The Imprisonment of Jonathan Knox, a novel about a man who likes to eavesdrop on his neighbors.
Under the Hood: The Imprisonment of Jonathan Knox is the second book in the W-2222 series, a series of books which take place in Universe W-2222.
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