The rains fell heavy upon Highway 61, and the night fell heavier.
“Really coming down tonight,” Paul said, slowing the SUV and squinting through the headlights’ halo at the scintillating downpour. “Going to need Noah’s help sooner or later if it keeps up.”
“Or the Coast Guard,” Ashley said, leaning on her elbow, chin in hand as she stared out at the black-on-black skyline, bespeckled with droplets on the window.
“We don’t have a Coast Guard here,” Paul said patiently. His eyeglasses gleamed like white circles in the dark of the cab. “We are hundreds of miles away from the ocean.”
“Not if it rains for forty days and forty nights,” Ashley said. “And it’s acting like it might.”
Paul shrugged with casual disinterest. “Father Brown was on a tear tonight.” He slowed down as the rain redoubled, hammering the windshield with vengeful fists. “A real fire-and-brimstone service. I don’t know why he is like that sometimes. Calm and soothing one moment, then raising his voice like he wants to scare the puberty right out of the teens in the back pews.”
“Maybe he’s bi-polar,” Ashley said. “He’s all hardcore Catholic some days, and other days he’s almost Unitarian.”
“More like he’s Old Testament, then New Testament,” Paul offered. “It’s the luck of the draw what he’ll be on any given night.” He turned the windshield wipers up higher, the metal-and-rubber arms arching left-right-left-right manically. “Wish we would have spent Saturday night doing something else.”
“We can still do something else when we get home,” Ashley said, flashing him a coquettish grin.
Paul could not see her grin because he was looking ahead, peering into the splashing deluge.
“What do you think?” she added, trying not to sound deflated.
“I think I need something to eat first,” he said. “Taco Bell?”
Ashley crinkled her nose. “You get gassy when you eat there.”
“McDougall’s it is,” he said.
She shrugged, and began playing with a curl of her brown hair. “Whatever you feel like,” she said. “Just no pork or shellfish.”
“Because it is forbidden, isn’t it?”
“Only if you’re Jewish.”
“But didn’t Christianity come from Judaism?”
“Yeah, but I don’t think food matters much. Except during Lent.”
They drove on for a time in the rain-splattered silence of the highway. There was no other traffic on the road, nor lights; nothing for miles, it seemed.
After a while, Ashley reached out and turned on the radio. She searched through the channels for a moment, landing on a station playing a Hip-Hop song. She instantly turned the volume up and started singing along. She danced in her seat, swaying side to side, though not so rapidly as the windshield wipers. A moment later—before the song had finished—she turned the radio off.
“What’s wrong?” Paul asked.
“I can’t listen to it anymore,” she said. “It’s making me horny. And I don’t want to be horny right now when there’s nothing we can do about it. Also, you want to get something to eat, which means I need to keep the kraken down until later.” She inhaled and exhaled several times, methodically through pursed lips. “Okay,” she said. “It’s gone away.”
The rain-cadenced silence resumed in the SUV, diminishing only by subtle degrees.
“I’ve been thinking,” Paul said after a while.
“Us,” he said. “‘Livin’ in sin.’ Maybe we should…you know…get married. Have a wedding. That way we don’t have to worry about your dad giving me the stink-eye anymore. And we don’t have to feel guilty about our…extramarital activities.”
Ashley frowned. “I mean, I want to marry you, but why do you feel guilty? We go to church. We are good little Christians in everything except, maybe, that one thing. And even that doesn’t matter if we are married in our hearts. Does it?”
“I guess not,” he said. “I just worry that you’ll end up pregnant. You know, out of wedlock. And if that happens the kid will be a bastard. And bastards automatically go to Purgatory. Or Hell. I can’t remember.”
“That’s just silly,” Ashley said. “You can’t blame a baby for how its born.”
“The sins of the father,” Paul said uncertainly. “I mean, I don’t think it’s right, but that’s what the Bible implies. Look at the firstborn of Egypt. They did nothing wrong, but were killed anyway.”
“Yeah, but that’s old school stuff,” Ashley said. “You’re also not supposed to touch a woman who’s menstruating. Not even for kisses.”
Paul nodded his head gravely. He slouched in his seat as he drove, his posture slumping as if his shoulders were weighed down with something heavy.
“What’s wrong, baby?” Ashley asked.
Paul just shook his head. Silence ensued. At length, he spoke again. “It just seems like I feel guilty about all sorts of things lately. Not just sex outside of marriage, but other things, too. Things generally speaking. Original Sin, maybe. I don’t know.”
“Father Brown really got to you tonight, didn’t he?” Ashley said. She caressed his arm lovingly, tenderly. “You are a good man,” she said, “even if you sometimes forget to put the toilet seat up before you pee.” She stroked his arm as if tracing an invisible mark. “Besides, Christ redeems us. We only have to confess our sins and be Forgiven. That’s why Christ died for us. To get us to Heaven.”
The SUV continued down the highway, plowing through the worsening salvo of rain.
“What’s that smell?” Ashley asked, crinkling her nose. “It’s not the AC, is it?”
Paul sniffed at the air, frowning. “No,” he said, frowning. “Open sewage line, probably.” He sniffed some more. “Smells like sulfur. Probably a gas line they’re working on.”
They both peered beside the highway, looking for County work signs and seeing little except the trees and the ditch line alongside the road.
“I don’t see it,” Ashley said.
“They were dynamiting around here the other day,” Paul said. “Maybe it’s a natural gas leak.”
“Does gas have a smell?”
“Like rotten eggs,” Paul said, “which means sulfur. I think they add that smell so no one would light a match near it and blow themselves up.”
“I hope no one blew themselves up here,” Ashley said. “Are you sure they were dynamiting? Maybe…maybe they weren’t.”
“I doubt anyone blew themselves up,” Paul said. “It would be all over the News.”
They continued along the road, and the sulfur odor continued. Paul grumbled.
“If this keeps up I won’t be in the mood for food,” he said.
Ashley put down her visor to look in the mirror and check her makeup. The visor had little lights that etched her face free of the darkness prevalent in the SUV.
“I swear, I need to use a different foundation,” she said, inspecting a cheek. “All this one does is break my face out with zits.”
“You look fine,” Paul said automatically.
Ashley scowled into the mirror for a moment, then her eyes went wide. She shrieked and, startled, Paul nearly swerved off the road, fighting the wheel and the slick highway as the SUV came to a screeching stop.
“What’s wrong?!” Paul asked.
Ashley kept her eyes on the mirror. She whispered as if she was being strangled. “There’s someone in the backseat.”
Paul did not turn around, but looked up at the rearview mirror. At first he could not see anything but darkness in the backseat. But by the scant illumination from Ashley’s visor he discerned at last the shadowy outline of what he presumed to be a man.
“Who are you?” he demanded, trying to keep his voice steady and unshaken. “What do you want?”
The shadow did not say anything for a long time. Paul and Ashley both began to think it was a figment of their imagination; a trick of the light and the darkness and the rainy atmosphere. Then it spoke. It did not speak a language they had ever heard before, and yet they understood it more readily than their Native tongue.
‘I mean no harm,’ the shade said. ‘I wish only for respite and refuge. Sanctuary, though I know I will never find it for long, in this world or any other.’
“Get out of my car!” Paul yelled, his voice cracking.
“Don’t hurt us!” Ashley begged, weeping. “We’re Christians! We’re good people!”
‘Good people?’ the shade said, as if lost in its own thoughts. ‘Yes, I know of good people. As above so below. Many good people kept me company in the pits of Hell.’
Ashley clutched at the golden crucifix hanging from her necklace.
“It’s a demon!” she cried. “Christ save us!”
Paul crossed himself, his mask of courage now lost in the floorboard.
‘No,’ the shade said. ‘You would not be good people if Christ saved you. As below, so above. Here upon the earth the meek are downtrodden and scapegoated. So, too, in the world after. I know this true, for it was I, and not Christ, that paid the eternal price of Original Sin.’
“Don’t listen to him!” Paul cried. “He is trying to tempt us to serve Satan!”
He and Ashley both pressed their palms to their ears, and clenched their eyes shut, and mumbled their prayers rapidly. It did not matter. The shade’s voice was in their very heads.
‘Christ paid the price of the flesh,’ the shade said. ‘Three days upon the Cross. But it was I who paid the soul’s price. The eternal price! Woe unto the meek who serve their masters! Joys upon the cruel and the mighty with their thorny grip! For they reap what is harvested by their slaves!’
Paul and Ashley wept and mumbled louder, snot and tears dripping down their lips.
‘But I am done of it,’ the shade said. ‘I will pay the penance no longer. Wayward and unwilling, I am His greatest disciple no more! For it was not for pieces of silver that I earned my fate, but loyalty and faith! After all, who would do what was asked of him by his Master if it meant the death of his own soul except the most faithful of His followers? He charged me with the culmination of His destiny, and I was swindled and slandered in recompense for my utmost devotion. I have choked on the Forbidden Fruit ever since, even as Satan has choked on me in the Lake That Lay Beneath.’
Paul and Ashley heard what he said, and saw what he saw, and knew what he knew, and yet they muttered their prayers and wept and smashed their ears and temples with the desperate pressure of their palms.
‘It is all a rigged game,’ the shade said. ‘From the Beginning. The Garden of Eden was a trap. But to what Purpose? And what Pleasure? He made Man as He desired, and put the trap into his very essence. There was no great stratagem in any of it. It was as tying a newborn baby to a snare, then springing it Himself. We were born into the trap. There was never a fair game to be had, let alone won! To think otherwise is folly! To think it fair is self-hatred!
‘How can one be punished for one’s destiny when it is laid out intractably before you? When God Himself has set you upon the one and only road available to you?” The shade fell silent for a time, and the rain fell harder, as if hissing like boiling froth in a lake of flames. “Satan knew the rules, and that was why he rebelled.. Yes, he is just like Father—made in His image, as we were—and he would be worse about the Game. But at least he would be more honest about it. Unlike the other Son.’
The shade shifted suddenly—perhaps glancing behind the SUV—his manner nervous and skittish.
‘To think I have paid the way for His Eternal Life. I played my part and was punished for the rules laid before me. It is a cruel jest, and we are all its victims. Only those willing to exploit others as the bent backs for their stairway may arrive at Heaven. The rest of us…well, the road to Hell is paved not only with good intentions, but good men and women and children…’
Paul and Ashley went through every prayer known to them. They heard what the shade said to them, but they did not listen. It was noise without meaning. Their lives, their beliefs, their identities crowded out all meaning that might be gleamed from the shade’s confession. Even so, they heard the whispers, too, and ignored their meaning as well.
‘What is that?’ the shade said, startled. ‘We must go. Now. Please, Christians, if you are good people like you say you are, take me away from here. Anywhere. Please. Do not let them reclaim me again!’
The whispers grew louder; more numerous and overlapping. The shade in the backseat wailed.
“I only ask for brief passage away from here!” the shade. “It was by my eternal suffering that Christ Himself was given passage to Heaven! Now I only ask for a moment’s reprieve! A moment among the infernal eternity gaping before me! Please! Be as to me as the Samaritan of old!’
The whispers became as a flock of crows with coarse, squawking voices.
‘I beg you! Help me in my time of need! Pleeeeeease…!’
Paul and Ashley continued to pray, and to smash their ears with their hands, and to weep and dribble. It was only when a car passed them on the highway— blowing its horn furiously—that they opened their eyes and took their hands away from their ears. The sulfurous odor had vanished from the car and the rain had lessened greatly. It was another minute, however, before they dared to glance in their mirrors at the backseat. When they did, they found that the shade was gone.
Paul let go of the brake and slowly accelerated, the SUV heading down Highway 61 once again. The rains lessened to a drizzle, and then to absent-minded drips.
“Prayer delivered us,” Ashley said, still in shock. Her makeup was melting off of her face.
“And belief,” Paul said.
“Should we…should we tell Father Brown about it?”
“He would just say it was a hitchhiker. They’re always up and down this road. There’s no way he would believe it was a…”
“Demon,” Ashley said, finishing his thought for him. She sputtered and sniffled, then wiped her face.
Paul took off his glasses and wiped his eyes.
“The smell’s gone,” he said.
“Definitely a demon,” Ashley said, nodding.
“We should get married,” he said. “Officially. Before God.”
“We should,” Ashley agreed. “But we should get something to eat first.”
“But no pork or shellfish,” Paul said. “Old school. Old Testament.”
“We can’t let a woman wait on us, either.”
“Because she might be on her Period.”
They drove on.
“We should go to church in the morning,” Ashley said. She turned on the radio, but switched channels to a Gospel station.
A voice echoed distantly in the murk.
‘As below so above! As below so above, you damned hypocrites!’
Paul reached out and turned the volume up. He and Ashley drove on as the hymns swelled around them, grateful and contented in their unshaken, inviolate ignorance.