|Challenge #1 - If Music Be the Food of Life
||[Mar. 20th, 2005|10:20 pm]
Writercize Writing Challenge Community
|||||Egg Radio - Bruce Springsteen||]|
Ugh, I'm still trying to troubleshoot the damn archive, which insists on centering the text on stories. Sorry for the wonky display in the meantime.
Anyway, here's my response to the challenge (on the archive here):
Title: Of God and Pancakes
Genre: Original Fiction
Summary: Maggie's little brother talks to God, but when she tries to determine if he's full of faith or fanaticism, the stability of their family is threatened.
A/N: This is a rough second draft - I'm still hoping to hone this one down some more.
If there's one thing my little brother loves more than a good gab session with God, it's pancakes. Slightly burnt, with loads of grape jelly on top.
I grabbed a jar off of the shelf and set it on the table, wrinkling my nose slightly at the smell. No matter much he likes them, burnt pancakes have a charred scent that makes my sinuses twinge. There's no glory in burnt batter that gets smothered in globs of what amounts to grape-flavored sugar.
Still, he loves the stuff, and since Joshua is a little bit, well, different, I like to keep him happy. He's delicate, see, very sensitive, and I can never be sure that something like expertly cooked pancakes with butter and syrup won't set him over the edge.
"I spoke to God last night," he announced conversationally. I was standing at the sink, absorbing the steam from the dishwater into my pores and wondering if I might have time to grab a 7-11 coffee on my way to work. A great silence hung in the kitchen after he spoke, until a lawnmower started up a few houses down.
"Really," I finally said, "again?" I don't like to admit that I live somewhere between awe and amusement when it comes to Joshua. "And what did he have to say for himself?"
"He said that He's getting ready to send me on a mission for Him. There's something that only I can do to prevent an event from happening that will have major historical implications."
He said this in an everyday voice, as if it was no big deal. On one hand, when Joshua talks about God, you can hear the capitals. It's just implied. On the other, he talks about Him like He was a buddy that Joshua hung out with after school, or Someone he might stop and chat with in the tackle store on a Saturday afternoon while buying worms for fishing bait.
See, the thing is, maybe it really isn't that weird that Joshua considers himself on a first-name basis with Our Lord and Saviour. He's been spending hours at a time in prayer since he was 6 years old, and about two years ago, he started having "visions." "Products of an active imagination" is what the shrink calls them, actually, and "bullshit" is what my dad, who will not win an award for Most Sensitive Father of the Year, proclaims them to be.
Me? Well, I call them strange, or scary, or magnificent, depending on how Joshua looks when he's talking about them. The rapture that creeps over his features would be more at home in a tent revival than on the face of an eleven-year-old boy, but he believes deeply in what he sees, and I don't doubt him. Or his conviction, at least.
"Well," I told him as I dried the cast-iron skillet with a dishrag, "make sure that this mission doesn't interfere with your multiplication tables. Surely God doesn't expect you to be able to save the world from some awful fate if you can't figure out 7 times 6."
He grinned at me, just an ordinary boy about to leave for school so he could battle pop quizzes, warm milk at lunchtime, and the sevens multiplication tables. It was absurd to think about him doing anything of consequence, especially some holy mission. It hurt a little, but I was almost inclined to dismiss his statements as "bullshit," like my father, even if a small worry nibbled at the bottom of mind.
No matter, though. I pushed the worries out of my brain and started making sense of the chaos that always surrounds a little boy on the way out the door.
I forgot about my conversation with Joshua until later on, when I had five minutes to myself to finally sit down and think. I have never been a fan of lawyers, especially considering the fact that I grew up with a part-time dad who has always been more interested in making partner in his firm than in spending time with his kids, but it was somewhere to go during the day, so I put up with the overbearing bosses and boring administrative work without complaining too much. Also, although my dad did finally make partner, my mom's hospital bills are still very expensive, so the income I bring in is a big help.
I've often wondered if Joshua isn't the way he is because my mom went crazy when he was three. I think the talks with God started when he was old enough to understand that something was wrong with his mother, although his relationship with the Almighty has always seemed to be mutually beneficial for both involved parties, at least from Joshua's point of view. Still, it always bothered me when he got too "out there" with his obsession, and I worried that having a mom who was a few levels above catatonic might not drive him into his own kind of dementia.
I sat on the toilet before lunch, one of the few places I can get a five-minute break, feeling my forehead wrinkling from thinking too much. Worrying about Joshua makes me feel like laughing over his inane God trips while calling a psychiatrist to doublecheck his sanity.
That's crazy, I know, but you can't understand what it's like to stare a sweetly sticky face, shining with some alien light and talking of all things, madness and grace, over a plate of browned pancakes unless you've been there. I wondered idly if it wasn't really wasn't time to call the shrink again to get Joshua in for an appointment. Maybe myself in for one.
Still, I thought as I walked out of the bathroom and back into the office, there wasn't much I could do about it right now, so I resolved to put the matter out of my mind unless he mentioned it again.
A few weeks passed without incident, the days getting longer as we inched closer to summer. Rather than ride his bike with friends, Joshua spent an increasing amount of time in his room, although he seemed happy and relaxed when I checked on him. I remembered the holy mission at random times throughout the day, and my worry grew, sometimes in small steps, other times in leaps and bounds. It seemed that the more content Joshua seemed the more nervous I became.
Finally, one morning, I broached the subject with him while watching him eat his pancakes.
"It sure has been nice weather out, don't you think?"
"Yes, really nice. It makes me not want to be in school." He shoveled in a forkful of pankcake-jelly mush and grinned at me, breaking my heart a little with his grape-covered freckles.
"I know, I'll bet you can't wait until summer."
"Yep." Another forkful, another grin.
"I'm surprised you haven't been outside enjoying it a little more," I told him. "You've been in your room an awful lot lately."
"Oh," he said, "I've been working on some stuff. I'll get out soon enough. I've got the whole summer, you know."
"I know," I said, sitting across from him and nervously picking at the label on the jelly jar.
"Joshua, you remember a few weeks ago, when you told me you talked to God?"
"Well, is that what you're working on?" I continued on in a rush, wanting to finish, to get it out on the table. "I'm sure God doesn't expect a kid your age to stop playing around with his friends so he can work on some kind of holy crusade."
He pushed the empty plate away from himself and stared at me. His eyes were amused and disgusted at the same time.
"You want me to see the therapist again, don't you."
"Look, it's not that-"
"I've already seen the school counselour, you know." He said this with an almost smug satisfaction at having put one over on me, and his face showed a hint of triumph at the look of surprise I gave him.
"How come I don't know about this? They should tell us about this kind of stuff when it happens! What did they send you for? God, I can't believe they didn't-"
"I gave the letter to dad," he said. And then, almost apolgetically, "You seemed really stressed out about work, I didn't want to bother you. It's no big deal, anyway. Mr. Barter thought I was showing antiso- antisocial tendencies," he continued, mouthing the words carefully, "and he wanted me to talk to someone."
"Why did he think you were being antisocial?"
"Because I've been staying in at lunch and recess," he admitted. He looked, I thought with a touch of fascination, the way someone who had been caught reading a porn magazine might look. Like the guilty pleasure of the action might be worth the punishment and embarrassement of being caught.
"To work on your mission?"
"Yes," he said. He sighed a little and I thought how little he looked like a young boy anymore. Ever since the damn visions he had seemed like a 75-year-old pope trapped in a kid's body. "But it's important! God told me I have to do this, or mankind will suffer! And I'm the only one who can do it!"
"Joshua..." I had no idea how to procede. The marathon prayer sessions were one thing. The visions were worse, but still manageable. But a pre-teen boy eschewing friends and family in order to prepare for a task put upon him by the Almighty...it worried me more than anything else had. He was too like...well, mom, really. Too wrapped up in his sense of responsibility to see that he was closing himself off.
"Maggie, please don't make me stop. Please. I have to do this, it's the only way that I can make things right. He'll be so sad if I let Him down..."
"Joshua, did it occur to you that God is tasking a young boy with an awfully big load? Moses and Noah and those guys were at least grown-up."
"He wouldn't have asked me if He didn't think I could it," he said stubbornly.
"You're going to be late," I murmured, glancing at the clock. "I'll drive you to school."
"It's all right, I'll just walk. It is really nice out, you know." Another lopsided grin and he was off.
I looked down at the jelly jar in my hand. The label was shredded into a myriad of little pieces.
I waited until I was sure Joshua was ensconsed in his bedroom that night, doing God-knows-what for God-knows-who, because I didn't want to think the he was doing anything of consequence. Goofing off like kids do is one thing. Working to prevent some type of catastrophe that was reputed to have "historical implications" is quite another, more sinister situation. Kids shouldn't be compelled like he was. Nothing holy would ask that of a child.
"Dad?" The approach to the study was in shadow, but I could see him sitting in the lamplight, the glow more cheery than I knew him to be.
"What?" he said. He jumped slightly when he said it, and I saw a shadow of guilt flicker across his face. Funny, but I had never noticed before that it was the same kind of guilt I saw on Joshua's face this morning. Like whatever he was doing - ignoring his family, letting his daughter raise his son so he could sit and read the latest law review - it would be worth it when he got caught.
A worn copy of Black's Law Dictionary sat on the shelf behind him, and I stared at it, just up and to the right of where his eyes were, focusing on that rather than him. My father has never raised his voice to us, but I think I fear the censure in his gaze more than any beating he might have given if he had been a less controlled man.
"It's...it's Joshua," I said. "I'm worried about him. He's got it into his head that he's spoken to God again-"
He snorted, a harsh, derisive sound, and I was torn between agreement and the desire to defend Joshua from his ridicule. He was special, after all.
"Look, he believes it's real, regardless of what we think, and I'm ok letting him have his fantasties. It's more than he gets from either of us."
That look of guilt again, only this time it was less sure and more...petulant, I think. Guilty and knowing that there was little to refute the guilt.
"But he's started isolating himself from everyone, at school and lunch and when he comes home, and I'm worried that he's, I don't know, slipping away or something. Like..."
"Like your mother, you mean."
I stared at him for a moment and then focused on Black's Law again. He rarely spoke of my mother, although he visited her once a month in the hospital. Joshua and I didn't visit her that often, because her doctors felt it would be more damaging for us to see her like that than not, but he never missed a visit. And he almost never spoke about her.
"Well, sort of. Not really, I mean. He's very lucid, still. But he's got this idea that God has set him on some holy mission of some sort, and it's not normal for a kid his age to working on an extra-credit project from God!"
He smiled at that, actually, and I was surprised into smiling back. It was a rare moment between the two of us. My father does not love easily, especially after the trainwreck of his marriage, and although I don't doubt his love for us, he keeps it tucked away in a secret pocket where I don't often remember it's there.
"Well, I suppose you could schedule him an appointment with the psychiatrist again. Although the man was full of shit... Hell, I don't know, do you want me to talk to him?"
"No, I'll just, I'll take care of it. I just wanted you to know. You'll get the bill and all, you know."
Another rare smile. I thought about the he was smiling at me, and the way Joshua smiled at me this morning, and I felt dizzy for a moment.
"Yes, I always get them, don't I? Well, do what you think is best, and let me know if you need me to get involved."
He bent his head over his reading again, the latest law review, I supposed, and I walked out of the room.
Upstairs, Joshua continued his preparations.
"Well, I don't think there's anything wrong with him. You know, he has a very active-"
"...imagination," I finished for him.
Dr. Slopes was very kind, very thorough, and, so far, very useless. He would run test after test on Joshua, looking for everything from spinal meningitis and brain tumors to paranoid scizophrenia, and always he came back with the de facto answer of imagination.
"Well, he is exceptionally bright for a child of his age. It's not unusual for children to shut themselves away from the world for a time, and with smart kids, they often create some sort of project to keep themselves occupied. Chances are, he just doesn't feel challenged by his school work and he's giving himself something more interesting to do."
"But he's so...adamant that he's talking to God," I said. I love the concept of Occam's Razor, where, all things being equal, the simplest answer generally tends to be right, but I live in a household where my mom was committed and my dad is a bystander in my life, so I don't find that easy answers are usually right.
"Well, who's to say that he's not talking to God? You seem so sure he's delusional. Did you stop to think that maybe he's really doing what he says he's doing?"
"But that's weird, don't you think?"
"Ms. Bellster, do you pray?"
"What?" I was taken aback, as if he had just asked me if I masturbated. Considering that Joshua is the devout oddball in a family full of half-assed Catholics, it was about the same as if he had asked me that.
"Do you pray?" he prompted again.
"Uh, yes, sort of, I guess." I felt like I fumbling the ball in an important football game, and I was offended by his question and intrigued as to why he asked it. Maybe I was cracking up? Would my admission of an occasional prayer be my ticket to the loony bin?
"Well, when you pray, do you think you're actually getting through to God, or do you think you're just talking to air?"
I smiled a little, feeling a bit like an asshole. Sort of like I do when I pray, hopeful, yet vaguely like I'm being had.
"I guess maybe I think there's something there. I mean, sort of. I'm not really sure, you know."
"But you think something might be there, right? Because otherwise, why waste your time?"
"Well, that's faith, Ms. Bellster. Maybe not the kind you'll find in a Baptist church during revival week, but faith all the same. Maybe Joshua's faith is of a stronger stuff than yours. That's all I'm suggesting."
I thought about what he said all the way back to Joshua's school, where I dropped him off with an admonishment to please get some fresh air. Later on at work, I was still so engrossed in thinking about what the doctor had said that I dropped a two-inch thick case file on my way to the copier and had to get down on my hands and knees to pick all of the papers up, to the jeers and catcalls of my coworkers.
I wonder if Joshua gets down his knees when he prays, I thought. For all of the time that he did it, I never actually witnessed him at it. As I said, we're rather lacking in our religion, a fact for which I have become deeply grateful, as I had never relished the thought of Joshua sharing one of his visions with a priest and ending up in The National Enquirer. I could see an endless line of people coming to worship at our backdoor because Joshua saw Mary's face in the jelly on his pancake.
Stupid, I thought. It doesn't matter how he prays, just so long as he's not obsessed with this damn holy mission. Dr. Slopes had been no more help than usual, simply suggesting that we let Joshua's fixation run its course.
"Next year it will be Playboy and marijuana," he had said, "and you'll miss the day he was praying all the time."
Stupid, I thought again. Get it together and just get back to work.
Things went on as usual for a bit longer. I noticed that Joshua was looking a little peaked, and he would rush through dinner as though a devil as on his ass, pardon the pun. I grimaced a little when I thought that, because for all I knew that was exactly how he did feel. The stress was getting to me, so I finally broke down and called his teacher and talked to him about Joshua and his missed recesses.
"I'm worried, Maggie," he told me. I had gone to high school with Kevin Barter, and he was always level-headed, laidback. His concerns set my worries newly aflame.
"He's not eating lunch, I don't think, and even when I make him go out at recess, he sits off to the side, writing in a notebook and ignoring everyone. The other kids started to make fun of him at first, but then they just sort of stopped. He would look at them with such an intensity, I think it scared them a bit. He's so focused, much more so than a boy his age should be. Do you think it's time for another visit to the psychatrist?"
I snorted, an indelicate sound for the ears of my kid brother's schoolteacher, but one that expressed my sentiments nonetheless.
"What, and waste another two hundred bucks? I've already taken him back to that one, and he said to be happy it wasn't porn and pot."
"Well, maybe it's time for a second opinion? I don't want to tell you how to run your life, Maggie, and God knows you've taken on more responsibility than someone your age should ever have to, but I think that first guy is wrong. There's something going on with Joshua, and I don't want to chance it, considering..."
"Considering my mom's in a nuthouse."
"Well, I was going to say 'considering your family history of mental illness,' but yeah, that's basically what I mean. No one really knows how much of that runs in the genes, or how much Joshua was affected by your mother's breakdown, but if he's this introverted right now, I think you need to seek additional help."
I sighed, thinking about the upcoming conversation with my father, but I took down a name Kevin gave me, thanked him, and hung up.
I don't really know that Kevin Barter knew the full extent of things like I did, but he was right in thinking Joshua's withdrawal was indicative of a greater problem. I suppose the holy crusade hadn't been mentioned to him, or he would have called me instead of the other way around, but I decided that he was right. Like it or not, I was going to have to call in the big guns.
A few days later I was feeling better. I made an appointment for Joshua for a day not quite three weeks away, when he would be out of school. The new shrink's office didn't seem too phased when I told them my brother was talking to God, and I was hoping they could figure out what was going on and then tell me how to fix it. I didn't resent God for his relationship with Joshua so much as his intrusion on our lives and the fact that felt totally helpless to stop what was happening.
Joshua, for the most part, seemed both better and worse. I questioned him mulitiple times about the Great Holy Crusade, as I came to think of it my head, but he refused to tell me anything more than what he already had, claiming that secrecy was vital to his success. He had lost weight, and I fed him more pancakes in the mornings to stop the shrinkage of his already slight figure any more. He ate all I gave him and even asked for more once or twice, although he refused to eat anything with the pancakes taht might give more nutritional balance.
Still, he seemed more relaxed than even before, and when I asked him about the other kids picking on him at recess, he looked up at me, obviously excited.
"Oh, Maggie, it was the coolest thing. These guys started hasseling me, and I just asked God to stop it, and he did, right then and there. All of a sudden they just walked away, and no one has given me any trouble since. It gives me so much more time to work on my project."
"Joshua, honey, will you please tell me what you're doing? I'm so worried about you.
He looked so sad then, like he was truly sorry for worrying me, but I could also see the steel in his eyes, and in my heart, I didn't think he would acquiesce.
"Maggie- Maggs, I can't. It's too important, and I'm too close to the end to ruin it now."
I reached out and touched his hair, just once finger sliding across the smoothness of the blond, baby-fine strands, and he smiled at me, a smile of such sweetness and sadness that I thought my heart would break in my chest. It didn't, but I have never been able to picture my brother in my mind in any other way since then. That smile...it burned a brand on the soft gray tissues of my brain, and this is how I always picture him, sweet and sad and somewhere, always, knowing.
Remember I said we were half-assed Catholics? Well, Joshua, being who he was, managed to wheedle his way into going to mass at least once every few months. He was gearing up for his Confirmation in a few years, something he has been looking forward to since took his First Holy Communion. He was so into his faith, and I think the most precious thing he owned was the St. Christopher's medallion he wore. It was gift from a great-aunt since passed away, who found his devotion touching, and he had not taken it off since receiving it. Later on, it was the one thing of his that they found, other than the note he left me at the breakfast table.
It was stuck underneath a jar of Welch's grape jelly, appropriately enough, and I remember how cold my hands were while I read it.
I've gone off to fulfill my mission now. I know you won't understand, and I know Dad won't, but just believe me when I say I'm all right.
He does take care of all of us, you know.
I love you bunches -
My hands have been cold ever since, although I have run them under hot water enough to make them crack.
When I found the note, I looked through the house first, thinking, hoping, praying that Joshua was having me on. He would never do this to me, I thought, never, although I knew that wasn't true. He was loyal to another besides me.
I waited until school would have started, and then I called the office, asking to see if he had come in. I didn't actually talk to Kevin Barter, but he was the one who came to the house and found me. He told me later the school secretary paged him when I stopped talking. Apparently she could still hear me breathing on the phone, in and out, in and out, and she had enough sense to get someone to help. Kevin came and called my father for me, and then the police.
They never found anything, no body, no evidence of foul play. The sheriff said the note made it sound like a suicide, and I heard later on through the grapevine that they suspected Joshua had drowned himself, maybe, that it would explain the lack of a body, anyway.
As if he would ever.
My father refused to speak about it, and after the fifth week of him ignoring me while I stood in the doorway to his study, I finally gave up.
I made burnt pancakes every day for breakfast and would eat them, covered in grape jelly, before going down the hall to the bathroom to vomit.
I managed to keep going, somehow, going through the motions at work after taking a five-day break right after Joshua went missing. I received a courtesy call from the sheriff's office two months later, informing me that they had closed the case due to lack of evidence. It was no funeral, but it was the best I could do.
Kevin Barter was a rock for me during the first month, and then his concern seemed to change, and he asked me to dinner. I haven't called him since.
I received a strange call not too long after the sheriff called, from St. Edwards, the Catholic church we went to, when we went. Father Callas is a nice man, and he overlooked our lapse in religious devoutness in our time of need. Well, in my time of need, since my father found solace in the baptism of torts and motions for judgment.
He was very kind when he called, explaining that he had something that he thought I might want. I made arrangments to meet him at the sanctuary the next day, and I spent an inordinate amount of time preparing myself for the meeting. I'm not a priest-chaser, you know, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to be on my best behavior in front of someone who arguably had a better relationship with God than me.
For Joshua, you see?
I sat in his office for several strained moments, listening to his condolences, accepting his hand when he bent next to me and prayed - was that how Joshua had looked, slightly hunched over and humble before his God? - willing the time to pass by so that I could leave. It was a mistake coming here. I was hoping to find Joshua and instead found emptiness in a cold stone building.
"I have something for you, Ms. Bellster. Something that belonged to your brother. I thought it might...bring you comfort as you grieve your loss."
I looked at him, frankly wondering what he might have that had belonged to Joshua. We weren't here that often, I thought, so it couldn't have been anything of consequence.
He opened a drawer in his desk, took out a small envelope, and poured something into his hand. It glinted in the soft light, and I thought of sand, silver and sparkling, falling from some great hourglass into the hands of God. He leaned forward and I reached my hands out, clasped together, for the world like a repentant pilgrim accepting forgiveness and the wafer.
It spilled into my hand, the sand, and I saw through the blurring of my eyes that it was the St. Christopher's medallion that Joshua loved so much.
"I found it in the sanctuary, next to one of the pews. I knew it was his because of the engraving."
I turned the small silver disc over and thought of him, Joshua, part my mother and part my father and, apparently, all God's child.
"If there's anything I can do for you, Ms. Bellster."
"Yes," I murmured. "I'd like to spend some time alone, in the sanctuary, if I may."
He led me to the door that connected the rectory to the chapel and then turned back. A door closed softly behind me and I was alone with my Creator.
I touched my hand into the cool holy water as I entered, and then I wandered around for a time, trailing my fingers over the backs of the pews, studying the devotional candles. I spent a long time wondering what troubles and woes had brought people here, to this cool, dim place, to appeal to the Almighty for aid.
I clutched the necklace in my hand, and I did not pray.
I ended up in the choir loft, finally, staring out at the pulpit from the left side of the alter. I sat, half-slumped, eyes unfocused and full of tears.
Finally, I looked down at the St. Christopher's medallion. I had been gripping it so hard that the sharp edge of the disc cut through the skin of my palm and a thin line of blood, no more than what you would get from a papercut, drew up through the opening, and I felt something in my mind click, and then I could focus. I gazed at the cool gleam of silver and the well of blood in growing wonderment.
No wonder, I marvelled, that Joshua had been so driven. He had seen all along what I had just discovered, and I felt my amazement supplanted by anticipation.
That was four months ago, and I have never wavered in my convictions since that time, although I have been examined by three doctors who spend a great deal of time theorizing what it is that drives me. I could tell them, only they won't listen. It's easy, I say, but they ignore me.
Prayer, after all, followed by a vision, was what brought Joshua closer to what he sought. Sheer force of will and blind, rockhard faith.
I have that, of course. It runs in the family. And if what I seek is Joshua, then that's the way I'll find him.
If he can do it, if my mother can do it, then so can I. Some may call it madness, some may call it a journey to the Divine, but I know it for what it is. A vision of something so blissful, so true, that everything else ceases to exist.
I know that my vision, a freckled little boy eating jelly-covered pancakes and smiling a strange, sad smile up at me, is within my grasp, and nothing will stop me from reaching it. No matter how many doctors come to review my case, no matter the shots and group and endless days in a white-walled institution, I'm in for the long haul.
I can see myself holding that medallion in a choir loft, ready for the ride, seatbelt buckled and in for the journey of my life.
Just prayer and a vision, and then I'm there.