Well, it’s been a few weeks but the new chapter is finally here. If you’re wondering what the heck this story is all about, you can start from the beginning here, or download the whole book including the new chapter here. As always you can get to the main landing page for this book by clicking the cover on the right, or by clicking here.
WARNING: This chapter contains some offensive language and violence. For more information see last week’s post.
The basement was hardly as Reverend Marcado remembered it, to the point he hadn’t been entirely sure it was there. Though he was at the church daily, most of his time was spent either in the sanctuary or his office. The AA meetings he attended once a week used to meet down there, but that was at least a decade before his time. This particular church basement was like any other, relics of decades of church plays scattered amongst old choir robes and stacks of retired hymnals and Bibles, all covered in a thin layer of dust. The unceremonious flipping of ceiling and floor had littered their path with all sorts of random fabric, torn pages, and broken props.
He had no idea where he should go next. The basement was a labyrinth, as most church basements are. Somewhere would be a service closet that should have the sewer access that was their next logical step, but Marcado suspected it would take hours of wandering randomly through these corridors to find it. Marcado and his young companion walked slowly and silently, the younger man shuffling in a daze, the older lost in thought. Disasters were like that. In the moment things are moving too quickly for you to do anything but act on instinct. But after the immediate moment of danger there is so much time and silence.
Marcado was thinking about his wife and daughters, something he hadn’t had time to do while he was counseling this young man. The kid at least had the certainty that his girlfriend was dead and maybe in a little while the comfort that there was nothing he could have done about it. Marcado was not so fortunate. He didn’t know if he should be mourning his family, or desperately trying to find them.
Like most professional men, Marcado saw the world and what was happening in it largely in terms of its relation to himself. He was going to be at the church until the late afternoon, so he didn’t need to remember the movements of his wife or his children unless it directly affected him. What did it matter if his wife went to the store or the mall, or if she had just stayed home as long as he knew where they’d be when he got home?
His children’s lives were fairly regimented between school and extra-curricular activities, but what if one of them had become sick during the night and stayed home? He hadn’t seen them since about 9pm last night. In the early morning he’d made coffee for himself, eaten breakfast alone, and left without waking anyone, not even turning a light on in the kitchen, like a thief in the night.
If his wife hadn’t left the house then she might already be dead. The foundations of this old church were already beginning to creak ominously. A two-story home, even one with a basement, wouldn’t hold up long under these conditions. Even if she had wedged herself in the crawlspace, she would probably only have extended her life by a couple of hours.
His eye caught the open page of one of the fallen hymnals and he chuckled bitterly to himself. The foundations of faith may be built on the word of God, but even stone buried into bedrock wouldn’t hold against these forces for long.
His children were probably in school and safe in the care of others. They might even have an easier time getting into the sewers than he was having in this maze of a basement. If his wife … If Rachel … had gone out she might be safe as well.
But what if they were dead and he was left alive? What was he supposed to do then? What were any of them supposed to do? Marcado had never contemplated suicide, but there were times in his life when he hadn’t been particularly interested in living. There’s a hole in everyone that needs to be filled with something for us to be complete. Marcado had tried the bottle first, and when that finally didn’t work he tried God. God gave him a wife, a family and a purpose, and now he’d taken it all away.
Some people would consider it blasphemous to be angry with God. Everything that happens is part of his plan, meaning that everything terrible happens for a reason. Some people are comforted by the notion that bad things are either part of a divine plan, or punishment for sin. Marcado had a different view. God doesn’t cause bad things to happen in the world, he just makes the best of a lot of bad situations, starting with us. But sometimes it was okay to be pissed off at God for not stepping in sooner. God wanted to have a relationship with his creation, and people in relationships fight.
So how was God going to make the best of this bad situation? Was Marcado supposed to save this unbelieving kid, all while skirting around the issue of his girlfriend having died without faith? What kind of salvation did he exactly have to offer? The world seemed to be operating on Old Testament logic again.
“I thought only Catholics used the real thing,” the young man said abruptly.
“Excuse me?” Marcado said, shaking his head out of a thick fog.
“This,” the young man said, holding up a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. “Must’ve survived the fall by landing on someone’s old vestments.”
Marcado scanned the small pantry and found several other bottles and a jagged corkscrew dangling from the wall. Like everything else in the basement, this little corner had been long forgotten.
The young man frowned, “I probably can’t drink any of these, can I?”
Marcado shook his head, “That’d only be a problem if the bottle was specifically blessed, which typically doesn’t happen until shortly before the service. And we haven’t used real wine for communion in all of the years I’ve been preaching here. They’re probably older than you are.”
“Hey, anything’s good as long as it’s not Manischewitz,” the young man exclaimed.
Marcado chuckled, “People still drink that stuff?”
The young man nodded, “Mostly college students trying to show a sophisticated side on an unsophisticated dollar. Better than a 36 pack of Nattie light I suppose.”
Marcado had been more of a whiskey man himself, but like all good alcoholics he’d known times of not being choosy. Without realizing it, he noticed he’d been holding one of the bottles in his left hand, finding the familiar weight an odd comfort.
“What d’ya say rev? A toast to the end of the world?”
Leaving aside the fact he hadn’t had a drink in eight years, he didn’t think it was the best idea to dull his senses when they were having a hard enough time finding solid ground. Even when the rest of the world was falling away, sobriety and faith were things he could hold onto.
“Yeah,” Marcado nodded, “I could use a drink right about now.”
* * *
“Ya think ‘cause this jersey has my number on it, I’m entitled to it, right?” Franklin asked as he pulled hangers off a flipped circular rack.
“You want the child sizes,” Conesta said. “They’re in the corner behind the t-ball sets.”
“Fuck you,” Franklin said casually as he kept flipping through. “Hey, Eddie! I think I found one of yours.”
He held the shirt up and examined the tag, “You’re in luck, Eddie. It’s marked down 95% clearance so it practically isn’t even stealing.”
“Knock it off, Franklin,” Manny said impatiently. Franklin just kept chuckling at his own joke.
“We’re not here to loot,” Stankowsky interjected. “A souvenir shop is not a place to find food.”
“Not unless you like big league chew,” Conesta quipped.
Franklin stuck out his tongue, “That stuff’s worse than chewing on toe-jam. Where do they get off claiming that stuff tastes like grape?”
“I’m sure there are trace amounts of grape, and 79% used shoe leather,” Conesta retorted.
Stankowsky just shook his head, “Come on, there’s a concession stand just around the bend.”
Franklin picked up the bat he’d leaned against the rack, but not before stuffing a couple of the jerseys into his bag. He tossed Eddie the jersey he’d found, laughing and patting him on the shoulder as he passed. Eddie rolled the jersey around his hand before letting it fall in a tight crumple.
The concession stand was a mess. Popcorn from oversized poppers had spilled all over the floor, mixing with a noxious looking yellow substance. Conesta picked his shoe up in disgust. “What the hell is this stuff?”
“Nacho cheese,” Eddie offered.
“Yuck! Better it’s on the floor. That stuff always tasted like warm jizz anyway,” Conesta said, scraping his shoe against the pricing board.
“And you know this from personal experience?” Franklin asked.
Eddie cracked a smile. He didn’t like vulgar humor especially, but right now it was just good to get a laugh from something.
The pricing sign was soon torn away from the ceiling and tossed casually on top of the layer of nacho cheese and popcorn. The plastic creaked with every step as they piled behind the counter. Most of the hot dogs had been in sealed steamer containers. Eddie wasn’t too sure how long the dogs had been soaking in their own juices, but he was too hungry to care. He cracked one of the latched doors, letting the juice and hot steam flow out onto the floor and mix with rest of the mysterious liquids at their feet.
Once the stream had stopped, he slid a dog out into his palm and latched the door shut again. The dog tasted thin and limp, but it sat somewhat satisfactorily inside his stomach. The rest of the guys started taking dogs out for themselves, finally dumping the contents into a flipped over baseball cap.
Everyone ate with abandon, with no thought to rationing or to the limits of their stomachs. With no refrigeration the dogs would spoil in half a day anyway, so it was better to eat what they could now. It was the best meal any of them were going to have for a while.
They hadn’t given any particular thought to their surroundings, or to the noise they were making. Most of them had dropped their bats against the back wall, far out of reach. When a quiet voice asked them for a hot dog they didn’t even hear it at first.
The gunshot that followed was heard by all.
A young teenager, not older than 15 or 16 was holding a pistol unsteadily in their direction. His first shot had embedded itself in the wall about six inches from Franklin’s head. Rather than being scared, or grateful for being alive, Franklin was furious.
“You nearly killed me, you little shit!” Franklin spat.
The kid’s aim was shaky; the gun was twitching to the side every few seconds from trembling hands. An unlucky spasm might cause the gun to go off again.
“I said I want a hot dog,” the kid replied with surprising bravado, even for someone holding a gun.
“Where the fuck did you get the balls to fire that thing anyway, cause yours certainly haven’t dropped!”
Franklin had more to say but Belanchek put up an arm to silence him. “It’s alright, there’s plenty for everyone.”
“The hell there is!” Franklin said, “Who’s he to threaten us?”
“He’s not threatening,” Belanchek said calmly, “he asked nicely before and just lost his patience a bit. Isn’t that right son?”
The young man’s grip was loosening slightly, but Eddie could see the tension in his shoulders. Unless the kid had somehow snuck the gun past security, there was only one way he could have his hands on one now. A closer glance at the kid’s shirt and knuckles gave some hint as to how he had come by the weapon.
“My sister’s hurt. She needs something to keep her strength up. I just need some food and maybe a little water so I can help her.”
“Bullshit,” Franklin said, “We’re supposed to buy whatever sob story you make up just because you’re waving a gun in our faces.”
The kid lowered his gun a few inches, “I’m sorry about that. I just … look she’s really hurt.”
“I bet you don’t even have a sister. I bet you just want to stuff your face, you fat fuck,” Franklin said.
The kid’s grip tightened again, “Are you gonna help me or not?”
“You want a hot dog so bad? How about you suck my….” Franklin was cut-off mid-sentence by the top of his head splattering against the wall. He’d had more colorful things to say, but at least he’d gotten his general point across before sliding into a lifeless heap amidst the hot dog juices.
Conesta screamed in anger and grabbed the kid’s arm. The gun fired wildly, ricocheting off the metal grill and refrigerator before striking Stankowsky in the arm. Belanchek stepped forward and chopped down hard with his right hand into the back of the kid’s elbow, loosening his grip and sending the gun clattering to the ceiling.
Stankowsky was running on adrenaline, not even noticing the new hole in his arm as he picked up a bat. He held the bat by the middle and swung wildly at the boy’s ribs. The young man crashed into Conesta under the force of the new onslaught. Conesta managed to roll out from under the kid while Stankowsky took a few steps forward to stand over him. The boy lifted his left arm to protect himself, which Stankowsky swiftly broke with his next swing.
The blows fell quickly after that, alternating between the ribs, knees and any available soft tissue. Conesta had regained his feet and picked up his own bat, joining in on the festivities by shattering the boy’s right collarbone before swinging the bat down hard on his throat.
Belanchek pushed Conesta back but the damage had been done. His last blow had collapsed the kid’s windpipe. His eyes bulged from lack of air and he convulsed violently, each jolt of pain from his freshly broken bones sending him into a new fit of spasms.
Eddie picked up the gun, the grip sticky with yellow slime. He raised his arm calmly, and without a word fired three rounds into the kid’s chest. With a final spasm the kid kicked up and collapsed back, dead.
Eddie handed the gun to Manny and quietly took the bat from Stankowsky. The ball in Stankowsky’s throat looked like it was about to burst its way out. He just kept staring blankly at the slowly growing pool of blood as it started to mix and swirl with the yellow liquid on the floor. As he kept staring, Eddie pulled one of the jerseys out of Franklin’s bag, tore a section out of the middle, and started to dress Stan’s arm.
All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.
Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube