If you're new to the site, maybe you've missed the adventures of The Thin Hungry Man. Julie has kind of forgotten about him, bless his heart. Since we don't have a picture of the Thin Hungry Man, Morty let us use his picture, but with the understanding that Julie will get back to writing and get him back on his way in the next few weeks. In her defense, she's been working on another book which will hopefully be published soon! In the meantime, enjoy!
THM 1 - The Thin Hungry Man Has An Idea It Hurts
THM 2 - Into Nothing
THM 3 - Bright New World
THM 4 - Lunch at the End of the Tunnel
THM 5 - At Long Last Lunch
THM 6 - An Unwelcome Guest
Jarad has been inspired to start writing a short story that features another Sacred Chickens employee, our Uncle Mortimer. Be sure to check back on the blog to see how it plays out (if he ever manages to finish it)! In the meantime, here's a sampling of what he's written so far!
“Are we going to be playing tic tac toe?” he asked, amused.
“No,” she said, sat down, and began drawing on the concrete porch, next to an old iron kettle full of red flowers that reminded him of a witch’s cauldron. While she concentrated, he picked up a piece of chalk, and for a reason unbeknownst to him, drew a pentagram on the table. And then another, followed by three more on the ground beside him. She saw what he was doing and inspiration from it.
It wasn't the concrete fountain that was magic, that's for sure. It simply stood in the center of the Church Park, slowly collecting long forgotten pennies, quarters, dimes, and discolored nickels. A girl with red hair tossed a nickel in once, probably wishing for a boy or a new top. Her father threw a coin in too, likely in the hopes that the boys of the future wouldn't be too much trouble. A widow dropped in a coin, maybe a single hope for a new life beyond her recent loss, closing her eyes as it clinked at the bottom of the pool. Whatever the wish may have been, the change fell to the bottom and snuggled in with the rest.
What are we recommending this week? The New Guard Vol. VII, a collection of short pieces, poetry, and stories. There's something in this volume for everyone. And there's a special surprise! Julie has a piece in this volume, in the letters section. This year's theme is "Letters to Aliens." Julie's piece is entitled "Dear Essie" and you can find it in the very front of the book.
Tales from the Other Side
With Uncle Morty
Some of you have been asking about your Uncle Morty’s condition. How? You ask. Why?
No offense, but the flesh-covered are dense, stuck in the material world like flies buried in Jello. I’m not sure I can really explain my condition to you. As to how? It’s complicated, technical and a little boring when you get right down to it. Why?Let’s just say I might have crossed a few metaphysical boundaries here and there while I was embodied. I might have broken a teensy rule or two on the other side too. Anyhoo…my bad luck is your learning experience. I’ve decided to publish a few tidbits of conversations from the other side.
Here begins Morty’s transcription of messages from beyond.
By Julie Carpenter
So this was it. The Thin Hungry Man was finally going to get to eat. His quest was going to be fulfilled. He was so excited he hardly knew what to think. For one thing he could hardly believe that this was happening. Some part of his brain refused, point blank, to believe it at all, but since it had no better plan it decided to go along for the ride. Unfortunately, in its excitement, his brain had ceased to remember that it was in charge of his body. The Thin Hungry Man could hardly stand up. In fact, he soon found he couldn't stand up at all. He took two steps forward and then fell over backwards and lay there waving his arms and legs like some huge and hideous insect. His feet and legs were going opposite directions and his arms were so eager to be up and gone that they simply waved around his head instead of helping to push him off the ground.
Adelaide stood staring at this performance. It made her no more eager to bring the Thin Hungry Man in the house to feed him, certainly. She sighed and walked over to him and grabbed one of the excited waving hands and pulled him off the ground.
"Come on, you idiot!" she said roughly as he popped to his feet. "Do you want lunch or do you want to lay in that flower patch thrashing around like a lunatic?"
The Thin Hungry Man was happy to be on his feet, but he was a little afraid of falling down again so he held tightly to Adelaide's hand, smiling.
Adelaide jerked her hand out of his. "You're up aren't you?"
The Thin Hungry Man tottered this way and that, but held his position and as soon as he steadied himself he followed her towards the house.
Before he could reach the house, however, she turned and looked at him. She stared at the bloody shirt and dirty hair. He had, over the course of his wandering in search of food, acquired a lot of dirt and grime. Bathing is completely secondary to someone who is starving. Besides, he had no friends to tell him how stinky he was (a greatly underrated advantage of friendship). Adelaide wrinkled her nose. The thought of this grimy twit setting foot in her house was not appealing to her. But he was pitiful. From somewhere deep inside, sympathy welled up, a sympathy that surprised her and made her uncomfortable.
"Come here." she commanded the Thin Hungry Man and headed around the side of the house. He followed her with some concern, eyeing her suspiciously. He thought she had said lunch was inside. In the history of the universe, few people have been more ready for lunch than the Thin Hungry Man.
"You're going to eat, you silly man, just not until you're a little cleaner." Adelaide picked up the garden hose and looked at him. "What you really need is a bath of course, but I can't even put you in the bathtub looking like that. It would never come clean again. Just stand there while I clean you off with the hose. And take that horrible shirt off. And your shoes and socks while you're at it. Just take off everything." She went inside for a bottle of dish liquid.
When she returned, the Thin Humgry Man stood staring at her.
"Do you want lunch or don't you?" said Adelaide.
He took off his shirt. And his shorts and underwear. Adelaide squirted the blue dish soap on him from as far away as she could, told him to close his eyes and keep them closed then turned the hose on him and did her best to clean him up. She squirted water behind his ears and over his head. She sprayed his feet and did her best to spray his legs. He needed scrubbing but she could barely stand to look at him, much less touch him. She turned the hose on full pressure. He toppled over and popped up covered with grass and wet dirt clinging to him. She turned down the hose. When all was said and done, she had completely emptied a half gallon bottle of dish soap and he was blinking one eye like a mad man from the soap but he stood comparatively clean, nude and angular in her soft, sweet green garden, like a strange little gargoyle on a forgotten corner of the church that makes you feel more sad than frightened.
“Better than before," she sighed. "Stand right there and don't move. I'll be right back."
Adelaide ran into the house to get some clean towels.
"He can’t put his dirty clothes back on," she muttered. "But what should he wear?"
She finally decided that he was certainly thin enough to wear some of her clothes and she found a pair of old shorts, shirt that she hated, and some rather itchy purple lace boy leg panties and took them out to him.
When Adelaide walked back outside she found the Thin Hungry Man standing firmly and stiffly where she had told him to. He had not come this far to lose out on lunch by angering the one person who had offered it to him. It felt strange to be standing there without his clothes although he wasn’t sure why.
Adelaide handed him the clothes. "Here are some towels and some clean clothes. Get dried off and then get dressed." She tried not to let her glance fall on him at all, but she couldn’t help stare. His starving body was riveting and revolting. Maybe a muumuu would have been better if she’d had one. She just wanted to do this one thing. This little thing. Then she wanted to send him on his way.
The Thin Hungry Man immediately obeyed, covering the skeletal body with the clothes she had given him, unfortunately initially interpreting the panties as a hat. After they had smoothed that over, Adelaide sighed and turned toward the house.
She did her best to remain angry with him. She felt more in control when she was angry. He stood barefoot and eager outside her door. What a dope.
"Come in," she said..
He walked into the kitchen and stood there smiling.
"Sit down," she said with a sigh and pulled out a chair.
He looked delightedly at the chair and sat down. She pushed him a little from behind.
"You have to sit up closer to the table stupid," she said. "It isn't like you're not entirely likely to make the world's biggest mess anyway."
He smiled at her. "Where's lunch?" he asked.
Adelaide glared at him. "Shut up and let me get it," she suggested.
So he shut up and waited eagerly at the table.
"Hmmm," Adelaide mumbled. She thought about what to give him. On the one hand, she really did feel a little sorry for him. On the other hand, she didn’t want to feed him so well that he kept coming back for food or something. She thought briefly about the ice cream and thought a bit about the lovely brie that had fallen out of the void. She looked at him and decided he wouldn’t properly appreciate the brie. She had already assuaged her guilt by telling herself that the filet mignon would take too long. Peanut butter. Adelaide didn’t care too much for peanut butter, but sometimes you just had to take whatever fell out of the void. She dug through the cabinet and found it.
There were two loaves of bread on the counter. She looked at them carefully to make sure she was picking out the oldest and stalest one. She spread the peanut butter on the bread and started to put the sandwich together. She turned and looked at her guest. He was smiling and rocking himself gently back and forth. His right hand had seemingly gotten out of control. It was moving around loosely on his wrist, fingers flexing madly. His left hand however was well under control and he smiled down at it frequently as if to reward it for its good behavior.
Adelaide sighed loudly. She went to the refrigerator, took out a jar of grape jelly and slammed the door. Thunk! The jelly smacked against the counter. She smeared about a teaspoon on the sandwich and smushed the pieces of bread together. Peanut butter oozed out the sides.
She slid the sandwich over to the Thin Hungry Man, and handed him a glass of milk. "Here you are. Go ahead. Eat."
The Thin Hungry Man picked up the messy, oozing sandwich and looked at it in awe.
"Food," he whispered reverently. He poked the sandwich at one side where peanut butter and jelly were oozing out the side. The index finger of that uncontrollable right hand jabbed itself between the bread and frolicked briefly in the goo. Convulsively, he jerked it out, as if he were having some difficulty stopping it. He lifted the index finger of his right hand to his mouth -- controlling it by lifting it with his left hand -- and popped it in.
A rather grotesque sucking noise followed, a look of sheer delight spread out over his face. And then his right hand lost control. It grabbed the sandwich, rather too hard because the bread smushed and the insides oozed out everywhere. He looked startled and darted out his left hand but it was too late. The right hand picked up the mushed sandwich and shoved it into his mouth. He gobbled the sandwich down in a few bites. Then he picked up the milk and took a delicate sip. And belched.
He smiled up beatifically at Adelaide, a great circle of peanut butter and jelly surrounding his mouth. A blob of jelly hung from the end of his nose and there was a little piece of peanut stuck in it, the last peanut butter to have fallen into the void having been of the chunky variety. He sipped his milk slowly now and again, exuding great sighs of pleasure.
Lunch. At last.
Catching up with the Thin Hungry Man
THM Chapter 1
THM Chapter 2
THM Chapter 3
THM Chapter 4
By Julie Carpenter
The girl stared at the Thin Hungry Man who was busily sniffing the flowers. He seemed quite content. His clothes hung in rags. He had a pair of what might have once been khaki shorts that continually slid down from his waist and caught on the bones of his hips. What might once have been a white t-shirt had a gaping hole under one arm and it was stained green and brown. He did not have shoes and his feet were rather ghastly with thick, calloused skin. He had strange patterns on his arms that appeared to be….blood. She had never seen anyone thinner. His elbows stuck out sharp and pointy and his knees….he was a bag of bones encased in pale white flesh, with only a breath of air to fill him. The only thing that appeared healthy about him was the shock of curly brown hair above his eyes. There seemed to be a terrible cowlick in the front and it stuck up and then bent back over into his right eye.
The girl walked over to him. "Who are you? Did you say you were my cousin." She assumed the little red haired bastard had been lying; but you always wanted to get the story out of whatever freak landed in the garden. Then you could convince them that there were people who wanted to buy their insurance in the forest or circuses to join a couple miles away or you could give them fake maps to fairyland or the North Pole. It took some effort but you could usually have them on their way to nothing before too long.
But this time a sudden vague uneasiness washed over her. There was something unsettling about the strange man. She reminded herself that all of the creatures that she met here made her uneasy. No, that was wrong. Most of the creatures she met annoyed her or flat out made her angry.. He definitely made her uneasy and a little sad. And maybe a little angry. How had he let himself get into this shape? She let her self go with the anger. She was annoyed that he had decided to drag his starving carcass here and make her feel sad. She felt a little more in control now that she was angry instead of sad. She felt a little more equal to getting rid of him. That was the important thing.
“Well,” she said, “Did you say you were my cousin?”
He stared at the girl. "What do you mean? What’s a cousin?" he asked.
The girl looked at his thin happy face and tried again. "Where did you come from?"
"I was with those guys," here he pointed vaguely in the direction of the dwarves' house "and we were throwing beer bottles and then he brought me here," said the Thin Hungry Man.
"I know that, but I also happen to know you couldn't have been there long. I just talked to their mother yesterday and she said nothing about you. Where did you come from? Before the dwarves’ house I mean?"
The Thin Hungry Man looked in the direction of the void. He pointed. "From the blackness." he said.
"That's odd," murmured the girl, really more to herself than to the Thin Hungry Man. "You don’t often see people fall from the void. And they don’t usually know they’ve been in the void. They always have some cockamamie story about their lives and where they’re going."
The Thin Hungry Man smiled hopefully. The girl looked at him. She sighed deeply. She was in no mood for foolishness today, or any day for that matter. He made her uncomfortable. It wasn't that hard to find food on the edge of the void.
She looked at the Thin Hungry Man. "What is your name?" she asked him.
"What do you mean?" he cocked his head like a confused and stupid beagle. A confused, stupid and painfully skinny beagle.
"I mean, what did people call you where you came from?" she explained, none too patiently. "For example, my name is Adelaide, so when someone I know sees me they say, 'Hello Adelaide.’ That sort of thing."
"Well," said the Thin Hungry Man slowly, "There weren't any others like me where I came from. Just me." A great sense of inadequacy came over him. He felt sad again and his stomach rumbled so loudly that the girl jumped back from him.
"There were no others, no names and no food," he said sadly.
"No food?" the girl asked him. "When was the last time you ate?"
"Never" said the Thin Hungry Man. He looked sadly at his finger, which had recently quit bleeding.
Adelaide looked at him, bloody and ridiculous, so thin he looked as though he might break. Flower petals fell from his hair now and again and a deep sadness had spread over his face.
"I know I'm going to regret this," she muttered to herself, shaking her head. "Come on in and have some lunch."
"Lunch?" said the Thin Hungry Man.
"Food." Adelaide explained. She was seriously annoyed at herself. Why didn't she just send back out to the void to pick up some snacks? It seemed wrong somehow. Well, she would feed him but then he had to go.
By Julie Carpenter
The dwarves murmured amongst themselves about the best way to get rid of the thin man who sat in the middle of the bed, covered with straw. The red-haired dwarf stepped forward and looked at the man from about a foot away. He picked up the alarm clock from the rubbish on the floor and tossed it at the man's head, as an experiment in how well the usual method worked. The clock bounced off the man's head and began to ring. The Thin Hungry Man picked it up, delighted. He smiled and shook it. He held it to his ear. He bounced it neatly off the dwarf's head and screamed, "Take that you little red-haired idiot." It was a phrase he’d heard often during the fighting. It seemed an appropriate greeting.
Colvin, for that was the name of the red-haired dwarf, stumbled a bit and fell backwards into the biggest dwarf, a black-haired lumpy faced creature, who immediately used his somewhat lumpy head to catch Colvin in the middle of the back and send him sailing forward into the bedpost, knocking the wind out of him front and back.
"I told you it was a stupid idea," said the black haired dwarf.
When he could speak again, Colvin sputtered out, "I suppose we should have followed your advice and closed our eyes and counted to three and seen if he would go away, then?"
"Not a bad idea," said Marvin. The other dwarves muttered in agreement.
“Well then let's try it, shall we?" Colvin asked.
"Not too likely to work now is it? Now that you've bashed it on the head and all. I mean now it’s obviously not going to work." Marvin muttered darkly. He was considered the smart one by all of the others, except Colvin. Colvin was always the odd man out. He hated the rest of the dwarves. He hated their stupid, green pointy hats. He thought that lederhosen were a terrible idea as well. He always made sure his own pants came down past his ankles and he never wore a hat unless he had to.
The Thin Hungry Man sat and stared happily. He wasn't sure what was under discussion but he wanted to be ready the next time someone threw something at his head. He wondered whether they were waiting for him to throw something else at them.
"Imagine me sitting here and bouncing things off people's heads," he said. He was so happy he felt he could burst.
The dwarves looked at him. They weren't sure what to do with him and they were much too tired to throw things at him until he left.
"So now what, you little idiot, smarty-pants?" said Marvin. "I suppose you know we have to get rid of it before Mother comes home."
A murmur of assent and worry went up among the other dwarves, and they crowded behind Marvin and Colvin.
He looked up. "Dang! The idiot has made a hole in the roof. What do we do about that?" He would be the one that fixed it, of course. If anything went wrong, Colvin always had to fix it.
Marvin smiled that odd secret smile he smiled when he was about to do something unpleasant to Colvin. He had frequent practice smiling that smile. He stepped back from the bed and all the other dwarves gathered around him. They all stared at Colvin smiling.
Marvin stepped forward. "We have decided that someone has to take him to the girl. And you are just the stupid lump to do it!"
"No way," said Colvin. "I'm not going over there. It's a long walk and I'm too tired. Forget about it." Colvin did not enjoy the company of the girl. Well actually, he wouldn’t know how he felt about her company because she had chased the dwarves away on sight ever since the night that Marvin and Alvin had barfed up three packs of hot dogs and a couple of six packs of green beer in her roses.
The best way to take care of all the unwelcome creatures and objects from the void was to foist them off on someone else. If the various creatures and objects that fell from the void couldn’t be chased off, and they usually couldn’t, they had to be tricked into leaving or left at a neighboring house. And the closest, in fact the only permanent neighbor that he knew about was the girl. So she was usually the recipient of any of the annoying creatures that couldn’t otherwise be disappeared.
Colvin looked at the others. He looked at the hole in the ceiling. He sighed. He remembered when they had tried to convince their mother to let them keep that cute pink penguin with suspenders that had fallen from the void. It turned out he was a professional yodeler. That and the fact that the little guy had filled her toilet with ice had made her pretty adamant about getting rid of the travelers as soon as possible. This was one of the few houses near the void that seemed to have some sort of permanence. Houses disappeared with alarming frequency. Sometimes they simply disappeared; sometimes they grew legs and walked off. Once a seriously depressed house had blown itself up and the whole group of traveling clowns who had been making it their home went up in an awe-inspiring shower of brightly colored confetti. It had actually been quite a lovely sight in a way but it was pretty sad finding clown noses and clown hats and little squirting flowers all over the place for weeks. The dwarves’ house and the girl’s cottage. And he wouldn’t be moving in with the girl any time soon.
He was pretty sure that he would bear the brunt of the clean-up and repair, simply because the black haired brothers had proved over and over that they were too stupid and incompetent to do anything besides play poker and drink beer and fight. (They were pretty terrible at poker but pretty good at drinking beer and fighting.) The stupid thin man could only cause more damage for him to patch up if he were allowed to stay. Besides that witch in the cottage deserved him if anyone did.
"Come on," he said "Get off the bed you big idiot. Let's go." He sighed.
The Thin Hungry Man wobbled happily to his feet and looked at Colvin with a smile. Then for some reason he held out his hand.
Marvin and the other five dwarves snickered.
Colvin brushed the hand away and said, "Just follow me you big oaf."
The Thin Hungry Man smiled happily and followed him out of the cottage. He felt magnificently happy, and though he was too polite to ask, he felt certain he would eat soon. There had to be food in a world this exciting. There was no other reason for him to have come here. It must be destiny. He would eat. His stomach rumbled awesomely and he felt hungrier than he had ever felt before. He took this as a good sign. The only reason for his increased hunger had to be that food would come soon.
The Thin Hungry Man followed Colvin out of the little thatched cottage and looked around him in amazement. The yard behind the dwarves' cottage was a brilliant green color. It was the most vividly green grass the Thin Hungry Man had ever seen. As he looked closer he realized that there were small patches of earth which weren't covered by grass. These small patches were the same color green. It was as if someone had taken spray paint in the same color as the grass and tried to hide the places where the grass wasn't growing (which was, in fact, the case.) This struck even the Thin Hungry Man as slightly odd. After all if there was one thing he knew, it was what grass and dirt should look like. At the end of the small patch of grass Colvin and the Thin Hungry Man turned left and walked behind the house and through a garden blooming in a mass of colors. The flowers were every shade from neon colors of lime and lemon to iridescent whites and pinks that seemed to generate a small amount of light. There was one vivid scarlet flower, somewhat like a rose in character that stood almost 25 feet high. The dwarf seemed not to notice, but the Thin Hungry Man was amazed and delighted. As they walked along, the Thin Hungry Man looked back at the house. In front of it was a very small patch of grass and flowers that ended at the void. Objects came zooming out of the void every few minutes and landed on the lawn. He saw Marvin come running out into the lawn to pick up a cardboard carton full of brown bottles.
"Beer!" yelled Marvin in the distance and soon the tiny yard was a mass of little fighting dwarves.
"Won't be any for me when I get home, of course," said Colvin, without looking at the Thin Hungry Man. "Not that you'd care." Not that Colvin was too worried about that. He would walk home the long way by the void, probably find at least a six pack of his own and it with that chimpanzee who had recently converted to some form of neo paganism, just to put off going home and patching the roof.
The Thin Hungry Man smiled politely.
“They're going to find some way to blame the hole in the roof and everything on me, of course," offered the dwarf. He sighed, "Not that you'd care." Colvin wasn’t actually worried about that either. Blanche would never believe that it was his fault, although it would cause tension when she started yelling at Marvin and the others.
The Thin Hungry Man smiled. It was so good to have a conversation. He looked down at his small companion. The dwarf had taken his cap off in the heat. His red hair shone brilliantly in the sun. A sudden whim overtook the Thin Hungry Man and he patted Colvin's shimmering red hair. Colvin caught his hand and bit him. It hurt.
They walked along a dirt road now which took them farther from the void. Soon they walked through a patch of turnips the size of small trucks, and it hid the void from their sight. The Thin Hungry Man looked interestedly at the blood that was dripping from his finger. He tasted a little bit and then made patterns with it on his arm.
Before ten minutes had passed they entered a grove of trees in an improbable shade of lavender. The dwarf began to look nervously around him and wring his hands. This was what he was worried about. He had managed to get rid of two reindeer, a psychotic rabbit and a large talking chair by locking them in the walled garden behind the girl’s cottage but everything depended on stealth. It was tricky and she didn’t like dwarves. Probably because she also didn’t like psychotic rabbits and talking chairs and two somewhat depressive reindeer with a pathological need to belch boiling green steam. He was certain there would be new locks to pick. He had to think....He had tricked the reindeer into jumping over the fence. He looked at the thin hungry man. He wondered if he could simply launch him over the fence with a little boost.
They came out of the grove of lavender trees, and there was the girl's cottage, shimmering in its whiteness. He hesitated momentarily. He looked back at the odd, annoying, bloodstained man behind him and realized that this was going to be difficult. He thought he heard the slam of the back door. He stopped, trying to decide what to do. The Thin Hungry Man wandered past him and tripped over a sign that said in bold letters DWARVES! KEEP OUT!, and in smaller letters under it You Little Idiots. The Thin Hungry Man then landed in a flowerbed so deep and thick that he disappeared momentarily. Colvin was just about to bolt when he suddenly felt a hand on the back of his neck.
"How many times have I told you little idiot dwarves to STAY OFF THE LAWN!" the girl screamed in his ear.
The lectures were usually long, drawn-out affairs, conducted with the girl's fingernails in the back of his neck, most of the time after large flower-pots had been dropped on his head, but this time, thankfully the lecture was cut short, by the sudden appearance of the Thin Hungry Man, bounding out the flower bed, with his brown wavy hair full of petals and a joyous expression on his skeletal face.
“Hi!" he said.
The iron fingernails relaxed just a bit as the girl mentally prepared herself for the green steam, or the yodeling, or the existential insurance policy sales pitch and Colvin felt his opportunity.
"He fell through the roof. He said you were his cousin. Bye!" Colvin was off like a shot.
By Julie Carpenter
Link to Chapter 1
The Thin Hungry Man felt himself in midair, and then he felt nothing. The nature of nothing being what it is, the Thin Hungry Man had no concept of how long he was in it, or exactly what was happening to him while he was - nothing happened, one may assume.
When he began again to know what was going on, he seemed to be on the very border of nothing still. His surroundings were almost black and he seemed to be still in midair. He could not see anything solid in any direction around him, and he seemed to be spinning a bit so that he had very little sense of direction. As he continued through the darkness, his eyes began to adjust themselves. He began to notice that other objects were traveling with him, some moving faster, some slower, but all in the same direction, the one he considered to be forward as best he could tell, as if they had all been flung out from a massive but innocuous explosion. After a bit longer, he began to notice what some of those shapes were but without real understanding because his experience was so limited. As such, he had no idea of the immense oddity of the company of creatures and objects that surrounded him. There was a lion in purple trousers talking loudly into a toy phone; there were sweaty dogs in business suits trying to do physics, even though one of them kept violently insisting that it was beyond their grasp because they were insurance salesmen; there was a small man who kept putting his toe in his ear because it was trying to tell him something but didn't seem to be talking loudly enough. He also saw many peculiar inanimate objects floating by. There were picture frames, spoons, old bits of cabbage and candy bar wrappers drifting along discussing the various fortunes they expected to make at their destinations, while some very ugly green living room furniture seemed to be at war over whether existentialism was still a valid point of view. It was all quite different from the forest where he had spent his life previously.
He so thoroughly enjoyed the newness of his experiences that he almost forgot that he was hungry. Once again, he had no idea of time. He occasionally slept and woke again, still spinning in midair.
At last one day or one hour, soon after he had awoken from a strange spinning nap, he noticed something in front of him that he hadn't seen before. There appeared to be a great dark something in front of him, so dark that it made the darkness behind him look gray. The dark something stretched out before him so that when he looked in its direction he couldn't see anything else. It was rather frightening because it gave him a sense of his own speed, and he seemed to be moving faster than he had previously noticed. He got the impression that soon he would meet the great dark object without slowing down at all. It was not a comforting thought by any means. He waggled his arms a bit because some small instinct within him seemed to be making a last ditch effort to save his hungry body and complete the quest for food. Unfortunately, this did not seem to work and he thought all in all it would be better to stop and meet his fate with some dignity, but his arms were determined to make the odd feeble waggling attempts regardless of what his mind tried to tell them. So he let them waggle and closed his eyes and resigned himself, much as he had when he had thrown himself into the void. He opened his eyes only once and that was to see the object coming at him with such sickening speed that he promised himself he would never open his eyes again in what he believed would be his very short life span.
He managed to keep this promise for some time. It was because of this that he did not realize that what was happening to him a few moments later. The Thin Hungry Man was falling through a roof. Fortunately it was a poorly thatched roof, and a rotting one at that. Whumpf! He hit the thatch. He fell through in a shower of straw and landed on a bed. He wasn’t dead at all. He sensed this with some relief and felt hungry again.
He opened his eyes, despite his previous promise to himself not to, and looked around. He immediately noticed a great deal of noise, more noise than he had ever heard before, in fact. There were creatures running round the bed in circles, at great velocity, shrieking and shouting. The creatures happened to be dwarves, the kind you see in stories with red caps and shiny boots and beards, singing happy songs on their way to the mines and convincing innocent young girls to keep house for them for free. These particular dwarves had put their caps neatly on pegs as soon as they returned from whatever work they had done, and now they happened to be throwing things at each other. This was all so interesting to the Thin Hungry Man that he failed completely for one second to remember how hungry he was. He also completely failed to notice the dangers involved in the dwarves' game and was quite unready for the blunt thunk of a thick, brown beer bottle bouncing off his head. He passed out.
When he came to again, it was entirely of his body's own volition because the dwarves seemed to have taken no notice of him. The fight seemed only more violent and chaotic than before; and The Thin Hungry Man noticed the violent and chaotic way his head seemed to be chastising him for making the trip. Nevertheless, he was a little more prepared this time. Having learned his lesson about being hit on the head with large heavy objects, he managed to duck a ceramic beer mug and an old piece of cabbage, which he sincerely hoped was not that same piece of cabbage that he had seen so happy and hopeful in the void.
As a matter of fact, even though his head pounded and ached, the fight excited him more than frightened him. One small bump with a beer bottle was little enough to worry about when you've spent your whole life being hungry. So instead of fear, he felt himself experiencing elation at being among other people.
He could not understand all that was being said and done; he assumed that things were as they should be. The dwarves might be simply interacting in ways that were, for all he knew, quite normal. So he sat on the bed ducking the flying mess the best he could and laughing and yelling, and really rather enjoying himself after his long life alone.
After a great while the fight seemed to slow a bit. The fact that it had lasted as long as it had was pretty remarkable. Most of the dwarves were not at all young and all were a little fat. The swearing had become apathetic and silly and most of the throws were completely off target. One of the dwarves tripped and slid under the table, which seemed to content him because he immediately fell asleep and began snoring loudly. Another sat down on the floor and satisfied himself with half-heartedly tripping the others as they ran past him. At long last the fight was over, and each of the dwarves stopped to catch his breath. It was then, for the first time, one of them noticed the Thin Hungry Man.
It was the Red-Haired Dwarf, who had sat in the middle of the circle tripping the other dwarves. He looked at the bed as if he were seeing a ghost. His Eyes boggled out and his face turned red.
"Hey!," he screamed. "Hey you! What are you doing on that bed? That isn't your bed, you know! Hey! LOOK! You stupid lumps, there's someone on our bed." The other dwarves had not noticed the Thin Hungry Man until this point.
All the little eyes in the room turned toward the Thin Hungry Man. He was smiling from ear to ear. He had never in his life been so happy. They saw him. He was not alone.
He hardly knew what to say. Their eyes pierced him with hostility. The dwarves glared their best glares. There were some muttered whispers among them as they pulled at their black beards, except for the dwarf who had noticed the Thin Hungry Man. His beard was red.
The Thin Hungry Man cleared his throat. His voice, now that he finally had the opportunity to use it, was choked with the happiness he felt. His eyes stung with joyous tears.
"Hey, you stupid lumps," he screamed elatedly. "This is a good bed. A very good bed!"
He hoped he had properly conveyed his excitement at meeting them.
By Julie Carpenter
Maybe it had started with the mice, he thought. Maybe the exodus of mice was the first sign that there was something amiss in the church basement. The choir room had been plagued by mice for as long as Father Dingle had been there. Alan, the choir director, had been on about adequate storage for the music since he’d been there. Just last Christmas, Alan had gone on the warpath after finding a mouse nest made with scraps of the Hallelujah Chorus, a situation he found neither economically nor spiritually tolerable. But in the early autumn, just a few months ago, the church mice had begun moving out of the basement in droves. Father Dingle had arrived at church one morning to find several families of mice scurrying up the basement stairs and down the hall towards the front doors. More mice appeared each morning, waiting at the doors to dash out as soon as they were opened.
One morning he’d found a mouse quivering on the window sill in his office. It was so paralyzed with fear that he’d been forced to ease it out the window and into the scraggly rosebush outside his office with the end of a pencil. He could not bring himself to otherwise dispose of the poor shivering animal.
The mass evacuation of mice had conducted itself quietly up to a point. He was incuriously grateful that the mice were leaving. He’d chalked up the exodus of mice to a minor miracle and mentioned his gratitude in his evening prayers. But then there was that Sunday morning when pandemonium broke out in the choir loft during the opening hymn…
A bewildered and trembling mouse had apparently crawled into Edna Harrison Brook’s purse to escape the basement. Finding itself in strange new terrain, it ran up Edna’s arm when she reached into her purse for a Kleenex, leaving her in a state of near shock. Then it ran across the pew, behind the sopranos, shot up Mary Jo Baker’s choir robe and right up her neck and head where it perched trembling on her chignon, provoking not a few high pitched squeals from the soprano section. First Tenor Harlan Smith’s instincts took over and he swatted it out of Mary Jo’s hair. It flew up in a beautiful, acrobatic arc and soared high over the pulpit. It landed on the organ keys and the organist, Myrtle Anderson, a victim of both the mouse and the cleaning lady’s zealous over polishing of the organ bench, slid right off, landing on her posterior with a thump and a rather unfortunate and somewhat vulgar exclamation that echoed and bounced against the old church rafters. One could hardly blame her, but of course, some people had.
Father Dingle had retrieved a bottle of flavored brandy when he returned to his study after the incident. He contemplated the conversation he would need to have with old Mrs. Flowers, the cleaning lady, his trip to visit Myrtle, who had probably broken her tailbone, and he supposed he needed to go and pay a visit to Edna who’d nearly passed out after the incident. He shuddered as he remembered the sopranos gathering round to flail at her with church bulletins while one of the altos went for a wet paper towel. By the time he’d thought the whole thing through, Father Dingle found himself holding an empty bottle.
That wasn’t the last time Father Dingle sat in his chair drinking brandy and contemplating odd events. After the mice had left, two packages of Sunday school material had disappeared from the church steps. The postman stoically declared he had delivered them himself and left them right under the archway at 10:15 just like always; and Margie, the church secretary, had just as stoically declared that she had gone out at 10:20 to find absolutely nothing there. The Reverend Dingle found himself in the middle of the mess with phone calls to the Post Office and the publishing company. Father Dingle hated to be in the middle of a mess. Then the altar linens had disappeared and been the cause of an hours long search only to be found sitting nicely folded on a church pew, fouled with the print of a small hand that looked as though it had been dipped in ash. This had nearly caused a fistfight among the ladies of the altar guild. Oh dear! That had required some sorting. It made Father Dingle’s head hurt just thinking about it. And the copy machine had broken down in a spectacular manner. Margie had stepped out to the restroom while the bulletins were printing and returned to find the printer choking on a paper jam. Before the incident was over the office was filled with the smell of burning wires and the church was in need of a new printer.
Finally, one chilly Sunday morning, as the parishioners had filed past the somber marble angel guarding the tomb of the Reverend Barnabus Fletcher Cook, the first pastor of Whistlestop, they’d noticed that it was sporting devil horns, a pair of Ray Bans, and a Hitler mustache, all of which had apparently been super glued on. The constable had been called and all of the youth questioned, to their immense and haughty indignation, and to the dismay of Father Dingle who couldn’t imagine any of their teenagers at the center of such nonsense. All of these things were awful, but they were just precursors to the real show.
Father Dingle was now contemplating the most recent passage in this sordid history from the comfort of his old leather armchair. He had put on his old soft flannel pajamas, his robe and slippers. His cat, Cedric, was on his lap, slowly softening Father Dingle’s belly with his claws. Father Dingle absently rubbed Cedric’s ears. He needed the pretense of routine. He did not have a book in his hand because he couldn’t take this simulation of normalcy quite that far. Not tonight. Because tonight, Father Dingle was afraid. He’d been more than equal to ignoring the unease that had possessed him over the previous months. He was a master of ignoring disquiet and apprehension. This was different. Fear had settled on him like a heavy blanket, pushing against his chest, forcing him to choke down his blackberry brandy through his constricted throat. He felt smothered and had to remind himself to push his breath in and out. He had tried praying to the God he’d known before today, but found that his agitated brain had long since quit supporting his tongue. And now that he knew what he knew? It was all he could do to swallow the alcohol.
He tried, he really tried, to nudge his thoughts away from the events of the day. But his brain assaulted him again; it needed one more run at the problem. A door had been opened to something incomprehensible and his brain wanted desperately to turn that something over, to inspect it, to pull it apart and put it back together. Then, his brain assured him, it would close that door and tiptoe quietly away and curl up in the fetal position, somewhere safe.
Another sip of brandy and his brain swung back onto the circular track of the day’s events. The morning hadn’t got off to a great start. He’d come in a little late – truth be told with a brandy headache. Fine. He had to admit that. But he’d been sober, if a little worse for the wear that morning. He would swear that on a stack of Bibles. No. When he had arrived, he was fully in command of his faculties.
He’d gone round to the side door, not sneaking really, but he had to admit that he had hoped no one would note the time. And then Margie rounded the corner, nearly knocking him to the ground. Her red hair was falling around her face. Her usually pallid complexion was red and splotchy.
She was gasping out, “You’re not going to believe it. You’re not going to believe what they did!”
Father Dingle was taken aback. “Who? Did what now?”
“I don’t know! No one knows!” Margie burst into tears.
She led him into the church and took him to the nursery door.
In thick green paint, a huge and crudely drawn sea serpent, fangs dripping spots of blood red paint, mouth open, was hovering over the lighthearted mural of Noah’s ark, massive mouth ready to snap off Noah’s head. The serpent coiled around the ark, dwarfing it. Perhaps this was mere vandalism. He’d seen vandalism before, though. Normally, it was merely anger and angst bubbling to the surface of the teenage brain, a vessel too weak to contain it. This wasn’t like that. The art was primitive but it had a raw power. The serpent’s eye was on Noah but it seemed to include Father Dingle in its malevolent, twinkling gaze as well.
Margie left him staring keenly at the sea serpent while she went to call the constable. He was so absorbed that when Alan Cunningham came up behind him and touched his arm he almost went right through the ceiling.
“Why would you sneak up on a man like that, Alan?” he yelped.
Alan tugged on his arm and darted away, “The basement! Come quick!”
When he rounded the corner behind Alan, wisps of sinuous green smoke were easing themselves up the basement staircase and round the rails like serpents. They seemed to be emanating from the choir room.
“We’ve got to save the Christmas music!” Alan was gone…leaping down the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“Alan! Stop!” Father Dingle cried after him in vain. That’s when the fear had first hit him in the chest.
Father Dingle’s fear had wrapped around itself like a snake eating its own tail. He was afraid of what he would find in the basement. He was also afraid of the disgrace of neglecting pastoral duty. The thought of the young and lovely Margie seeing him run like a frightened mouse from the basement flitted across his brain and propelled him through the terror to the bottom of the stairs. Then he realized that Alan had already made the turn into the choir room.
Father Dingle paused, his feet felt like lead. There was something emanating from the choir room, invisible but more unyielding than smoke, a something that pushed him away like an invisible hand. He somehow made the turn into the choir room.
“Alan! Forget the music!” he called.
But Alan had already forgotten the music. He was standing mesmerized in the center of the room, looking towards the open supply closet. A steady stream of green mud with blood red streaks was bubbling up from its floor, as though from a witch’s cauldron, and creeping out onto the floor. Father Dingle’s first thought had been that there had been some sort of geothermal event. Was the church crumbling into the earth’s core?
His second thought was that he had inadvertently purchased the LSD variety of frozen waffles because as he lurched forward to rescue Alan, he too became mesmerized. Out of the bubbling cauldron of red and green mud, improbably large bubbles were forming. As they floated past, they caught on various objects and burst, releasing swirls of green smoke that fell to the floor and slithered away and up the stairs. But that wasn’t the thing that had kept Father Dingle’s feet planted. It was the enormous green globule that was currently forming on the lip of the now simmering supply closet. Unlike the more translucent smoke-filled bubbles, this globe was thick and gelatinous. It was oily and oozing.
Father Dingle meant to move forward, to grab Alan’s shoulder and run, but before he could make contact, the dreadful egg swelled up and popped!
It shot out tracers of slime like a goopy green firework. Some of it splashed up and landed on the men. As he wiped specks of slime from his face, Father Dingle saw it. A foot-long, green creature, with wings – some awful, miniature admixture of human and reptile, the word imp came to mind – had been hatched out of the egg. Its wings were bat-like and streaked with crimson red. It stood blinking at edge of the closet, shivering and spitting, flinging slime around the room. It shook its wings to dry them and then let out a piercing shriek and flew up and around the choir room, skimming neatly over their heads.
“Alan!” yelled Father Dingle, “We have to get out of here!”
Alan was looking blankly at Father Dingle. A splatter of green fell from his hair. Father Dingle had no choice. He slapped Alan. Hard.
“Hey! Ow!” Alan snapped out of his stupor, eyes wide.
“Let’s go!” Father Dingle yelled.
Alan’s eyes slid back towards the music cabinet for one last glance, like Lot’s wife at Sodom.
“Bugger the Christmas music Alan! Let’s go!” Father Dingle bellowed. The two men ran for the door, sliding on green slime and choking on the snake-like wraiths of smoke that squirmed around them. As Father Dingle turned back to close and lock the door to the choir room, all that he could think to do under the circumstances, he noticed three new green eggs swelling from the bottom of the supply closet.
He hadn’t handled things well from that point on. He had to admit it. None of them had. But who could be prepared for known reality to go careening out of orbit? It ought to have felt like a bad dream. But it didn’t. The whole thing had a three-dimensional sharpness and clarity. Even now with his pajamas on, sipping brandy with Cedric on his lap. He’d been hoping that remembering it here, in relative safety would take some of the edge off. He wanted to be able to believe that it wasn’t real. That he’d been wrong. But that wasn’t possible. Not yet. He took a few more sips of brandy.
The three of them should have immediately left the grounds, reported it he supposed. Would anyone have believed them? And pray tell…to whom does one report imps? Or demons, as he now suspected. He suspected, upon reflection, that a portal to Hell had somehow been opened in the church basement. How and by whom were questions beyond his ken.
But they hadn’t run for help. For a few moments the three of them had stood outside the windows of the basement choir room looking in, trying to wrap their minds around the bizarre scene. The crimson and green mud had lapped out and reached the first set of choir risers, by now seven of the little green creatures were zipping around the room, screeching like pterodactyls. They were eating everything they could find. One of them was tearing through a choir robe and swallowing the shreds. One was crunching through the leather and paper of a music folder. One was gnawing through one of the legs of the practice piano. One had found the box of Christmas music. It had eaten almost all the cardboard and had frantically started shoveling down the cantatas, chewing them with obvious fervor. After a few seconds, it belched a shower of confetti and started again.
Father Dingle watched as one of the creatures tried to swallow what appeared to be the G3 hand bell, a larger lower octave bell. Two of the imp’s companions were working on the higher octaves with more success. The creature appeared to be trying to unhinge its jaw in an attempt to swallow the enormous bell. One of the other imps noticed its distress and shot out a bony hand. It pulled its companion’s jaw down and with a clang the entire hand bell disappeared.
“There goes the G3,” Alan said miserably. He was also the director of the hand bell choir.
Yes in retrospect, Father Dingle had to admit that standing around the window watching all Hell break loose in the church basement might not have been the best response to the situation.
The demons had been in a perfect frenzy of eating. They were shrieking and splashing in the red and green mud, fighting over the gray sweater that Edna Brooks always left draped over her chair, until one of them snatched it up and vacuumed it into his wide mouth, starting with one of the sleeves. The piano was listing badly to one side and the piano bench had been reduced to mostly splinters. The cubby where the folders were kept had been reduced to half its size. They’d all gasped when one of the monsters began chewing through a metal music stand. Alan’s score had been on it. He gave a little cry of anguish as it too became confetti.
What to do? What to do? The refrain had been running through Father Dingle’s brain the whole time. What to do? But there was no frame of reference. He didn’t even know what had happened, much less how to stop it. He could only look on in horror. Surely a priest should be able to do something about the situation but Father Dingle didn’t know what. He had never been a brave man and no heroic actions came to mind. In fact, no actions of any kind came to mind. He hadn’t even thought to run. He’d been cowardly and stupid.
One of the imps had looked up, straight at the window. It caught Father Dingle’s eye with its own. It was a malevolent and twinkling eye, just like the eye of the sea serpent on the walls of the nursery upstairs. With a shriek it flung itself at the window. Glass splintered. Father Dingle had just enough time to throw himself on Margie and push her to the ground before the creature burst through the window and went rocketing past them. Alan flung himself to the ground as well. They heard a chattering, shouting noise above their heads and more glass splintering and then all of the imps were free of the church, some flying to the trees and some hopping and clambering among the gravestones, flicking out their tongues and spitting. Father Dingle noticed for the first time how dark the sky had become, ragged and black through the trees. A few drops of rain pelted down and the creatures shrieked, whether with excitement or displeasure Father Dingle could not tell. They gathered in the large twisted maple in the center of the graveyard, a shrieking knot of bat wings.
Father Dingle lifted his head and once again caught the eye of one of the creatures. It gibbered and pointed at him, then put its hands on its hips squealing and bouncing. It flung down a shower of acorns and spewed out a small fountain of green spit. He looked down again, and then carefully looked up out of the corner of his eye. His submissive posture seemed to mollify it. The rain began to come down more seriously. But Father Dingle found that if he moved more than an inch or two, one or more of the little demons turned a baleful eye in his direction and began spitting and throwing things.
“Keep still!” he hissed to Margie and Alan.
His bald head was getting wet and it occurred to him that his glasses would soon be almost useless in the rain. He had no idea how they would escape, but moving now was out of the question. Perhaps they could wait the creatures out.
“We have to get out of here!” Alan hissed back. “I can’t stay here any longer. We have to get out of here!”
Alan’s voice was trembling. Father Dingle glanced at him through the mud, over the top of his foggy glasses. Alan was pale and wide eyed. He was going to crack.
“Hush!” Margie whispered back, urgently. “Be still like Father Dingle says.”
“We can’t just stay here forever. We can’t!” Alan whispered, his voice crackling and warbling. Suddenly he shrieked, “Somebody has to do something.”
Then out of the corner of his eye, Father Dingle saw Alan raise himself up to his knees. He was shaking his fist. He picked up a rock.
“No! Alan!” Father Dingle hissed.
Margie reached over to tug at his pant leg, “Alan! Stop!”
But Alan’s fear had made him very, very angry. “Get out of here you little monsters!” he called out. “Go back to Hell!”
Alan threw the rock. It hit the smallest imp squarely in the back of the head. The imp slowly turned and eyed Alan. Alan remained on his knees, locked in a stare down with the creature in the pouring rain. The other imps stopped their noise and they all turned to look at the three humans lying on the quickly dampening earth.
In a trembling voice, Alan yelled, “I said go back to Hell!”
Father Dingle couldn’t endorse such behavior, but he had to admire it.
The imp who’d been hit hunched forward on a gnarled tree branch, looking intensely at Alan. It turned its head to one side, like a dog who’s trying to make out whether you have a treat in mind or a trip to the vet, and it made a chuckling noise. The other imps chuckled with it. For a few seconds they chuckled and clucked like overwrought hens. Then with a shake of its head the small imp flew down and landed in front of Alan, who was still on his knees. Alan gazed down at it. From his vantage point, Father Dingle thought Alan looked like teacher getting down on his knees to talk to a small and ugly child. The imp turned its head this way and that, clearly thinking. Then it reached out its bony fingers, stroking Alan’s chin and his neck, all the while peering into his eyes. It clicked its tongue, still wagging its oversized head from side to side, considering. Finally it rubbed the back of its head where Alan had pelted it with a rock.
Suddenly, it leapt on Alan’s neck, biting hard and deep. One bite. It lingered at Alan’s neck for a few seconds, tracing the bite mark almost tenderly with its bony claw like fingernail, then flew back to its companions.
Alan remained on his knees for a few seconds, like a tree after the felling cut. Father Dingle could see the bite mark on Alan’s neck from where he cowered on the ground. It was a perfect circle of teeth marks…for an instant. Then the blood began to ooze from the wound, marring its circular perfection, welling up into large beads then dripping down Alan’s neck in a stream of crimson. Alan toppled, stiff as a log and then he was still. The whole swarm of imps had gathered and flown off like a dark cloud up through the trees and into the tattered sky.
Father Dingle took a few more sips of brandy. He swirled the liquid in his glass and shrugged. He downed it. More images swam up from the brown liquid. Alan lying pale and motionless, barely breathing. The weight of Alan’s head in his hand as he tried to keep it up and out of the mud and water. His hand covered in Alan’s blood. Father Dingle came back to the present, rubbing his hand compulsively against his belly as if to remove the stain. Cedric, displeased at the disturbance, bit his hand, released a pinpoint of Father Dingle’s own blood and then licked it off.
Father Dingle closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on the scratchy tongue of the cat, but he was back in the graveyard; there was Margie’s retreating back as she ran through the tombstones, fiery red hair against the slender blue coat to meet the constable and the ambulance and direct them to Alan. She disappeared into the fog of his rain smeared glasses.
Father Dingle had not moved. He had remained kneeling on the ground holding Alan, mud oozing through his pant leg and creeping into his shoes. He did not know whether he held a man or a corpse. He felt that he could not breathe, but his body remained alive. Then realized he was breathing not air but fear. Fear filled his lungs. Fear coursed through his veins. It filled his belly. It slid downwards and his intestines cramped with it. Every crevice of his body and soul, every crack, every wrinkle, every cavity was full of fear.
The fear that the demons had unleashed was a magnet for every other fear he had ever felt, and Father Dingle had always been afraid. This new fear devoured his fear of the dark and expanded. It devoured his fear that he would lose his job. It sucked up his fear of confrontation. His fear of hunger. His fear of sex. His fear of loneliness and his fear of intimacy.
Now enormous, the Fear loomed over him. And he recognized it. This was the god he had attempted to pacify all his life. His religion was not an invitation to the sacred and mysterious. His religion was an attempt to keep those things at bay. Hell had broken through his illusions with a battering ram…and a message. All his rituals and liturgies, all his attempts to be good had been pointless, because Hell found a way in anyway. He’d been right to be afraid. The universe was and always had been oblivious to his magician’s chants and hymns.
This knowledge broke him. For a time, he could no longer summon the existential vigor to trouble himself. His strength ebbed and he relaxed himself into the mind of Fear. His soul, drowned in terror, was numb. Submission to Fear had released him from its feeling. His god had at last given him the religious ecstasy he had so long been denied.
Constable Henry had dropped Father Dingle at home and here he was now…in his pajama pants drinking brandy. He’d locked the doors and windows and closed all the drapes. It wasn’t until then that the numbness released him and his sense of self-preservation and with it his terror, returned. No one had believed them, of course. Alan had been removed to the hospital, still unresponsive. The search was on for the assailants who had attacked them. Probably with a smoke bomb said the Fire Chief and the Constable, searching for a reasonable explanation for the damage and injury. But now Father Dingle knew. The universe did not have to wait to sneak in through an unlocked window. It did not have a rule book. The universe could simply unleash Hell.
Still, he tried. He tried to think of some reason this had happened. He pondered how. He pondered why. He pondered who. Most of all he pondered whether he was somehow to blame. It was his church after all. Allowing a door to Hell to be opened in its basement had to fall under his responsibility. His brain had circled the track until it was exhausted. Now it was inching back toward its default position. He could make no sense of the thing. Odds were he wasn’t suddenly going to become a brave or useful man. He found it hard to repent of his fears when it seemed that all along fear had been the most appropriate response to a universe that was at its mercy.
After all, what could be done? He had no magic tricks or seminary tidbits to close the portal to Hell. Perhaps it had closed itself. Perhaps it hadn’t. No one had believed his story, except Margie, and what exactly could a roundish, balding, middle aged pastor and twenty-something part time church secretary do to fight the powers of Hell? Not one thing he could think of. Not one thing.
In spite of all his efforts, in spite of all his religious supplications to the infinite to leave him alone, the mysterious universe had broken through. It wasn’t a good thing – as he had suspected all along. What could he do? He was at the mercy of powers beyond his control. He suddenly relaxed back into the infinite Fear. There was nothing he could do. He would simply go back to hoping that the universal mystery would leave him alone. What were the odds of such a thing happening again? He would hope the imps had flown into the mountains (or even another village, as long as it wasn’t his own). Hope that somehow Alan would be okay in the morning. Hope that the church could be put to rights again and that no more portals to Hell would open in the church basement. It was a poor tired hope. But it was all he had.
He was exhausted. The brandy was finally doing its work. He stood up. He would get Cedric his tuna, he would go to bed and lock his door and pull up the blankets and he would sleep as long as ever he could. Yes indeed. Certainly he had a good excuse for calling in sick for a few days. The universe could sort its own damned self out. Father Dingle was done trying to manipulate it. He would hide from it the best he could.
He started to walk to the kitchen when the phone rang. It jangled his nerves. It rang again. That was twice. Another loud, jarring brrrrrrng. Two more rings and it would stop. Whoever it was would think he was in bed. Every nerve in his body quivered. The phone itself might have been a small bat winged demon it unnerved him so. It battered his fragile new wall of exhaustion and serene despair.
The final ring shook him into action beyond his control. His hand shot out, quivering and he heard himself answer the phone.
“Hello?” he trembled into the phone.
“Father Dingle! It’s Margie,” the phone said to him. He removed the phone from his ear and looked at it with distaste.
“Father Dingle, are you there?” she was speaking loudly and he could still hear her.
He put the phone back to his ear.
“Yes,” he said uncertainly.
“What are we going to do? Samantha, my roommate saw one! On her way home, she saw it in the park! They’ll have to believe us now Father! We have to…” Margie’s voice snapped off as Father Dingle clicked the phone gently back into place.
“Come, Cedric,” he said, his voice quivering. He almost fell over the cat, which was rubbing its face on his leg in anxious anticipation of tuna. But he forced his trembling feet to shuffle toward the kitchen, “It’s time for tuna. And then off to bed. If there’s one thing I’ve learned today Cedric, it’s that the only proper response to this universe is fear. And if we swallow enough fear and brandy, we won’t feel a thing.”