I wrote this for an anthology my publishing partner wanted to do, Monsters & Mormons, a reclaiming of our questionable literary heritage as pulp fiction villains. Even though this story is very niche, I’ve decided not to link to any clarifying information. Y’all are smart. You’ll figure it out.
I HAVE never been able to hide my moods, so all the way to work tonight, I’m afraid Ezekiel will know that I know. He can read minds, after all. I’m still tired, still grieving, and it’s going to take a great deal of effort to keep him out of my mind, my mind on my work, and my work acceptable, if not stellar.
I get to the swamp and park where I usually do and hope Ezekiel doesn’t insist we go where we last hunted. I can’t bear to see the empty spot where my friend had stood tall and strong for two centuries.
Ezekiel killed her and now I don’t believe the demons ate her. I don’t believe that he’s here to figure out why the demons can kill living beings outright. He’s here on Lucifer’s whims.
But … how can that be? Wouldn’t the Parents know? And tell the general authorities? He could be acting—after all, he’d made his living working with a legend. It would explain the silence from on high, but I don’t understand what’s going on and my head is beginning to pound from the thinking about it. I’m dizzy, wanting only to go back to bed, even though I’ve slept the last twenty hours away. I press my gauntlet to my face to feel the chill of the artificially cooled titanium.
It’s hot and sticky in Louisiana in the summer time.
“So,” Ezekiel says from behind me, and I jump. I hadn’t heard his car pull up. “Time for that talk.”
I can’t look in his face, so I look at his throat, and then I can’t even do that, so I lean back against my car. He makes himself comfortable beside me.
“On paper, your numbers are average, that’s true. And no, your kill ratio isn’t great, either. You’re right about that. But … ” He pauses. Sighs. “I can’t believe no one’s told you this. When was the last time you checked in with Salt Lake?”
I shrug. “Two weeks ago they told me to send my dispersers and gauntlets back to recalibrate for the gunk. So I did.”
“Yeah, but when was the last time you had an evaluation?”
I think about that. Calculate. “I don’t know. Five years, maybe?”
“And you never questioned—Of course you didn’t.” He huffs, as if frustrated. “Deb, you—Every kill you make is like four for any other hunter in any other territory. You have sole stewardship of one of the most important regions in the world, and that’s for a reason.”
I remember what he said to Apollyon. “I don’t believe you.” I push myself away from the car, headed toward the swamp. “I want to split up tonight.” So he won’t have stupid me at his back.
I stop. His tone brooks no disobedience, and I’m stuck. I don’t question. I don’t murmur. I do my job.
It’s the only thing I can do when I have no guidance, the Parents are silent, I don’t know who to trust—most of all my commander—and all my friends are suspicious of him anyway.
Now I know why.
He reaches out to me and I flinch away from him. “Deb … ”
“Don’t touch me.”
“Stand. Still.” So I do and suffer his hand on my forehead. The muscle in his jaw works, as he slides his palm to my cheek. He’s angry with me. I suppose I would be, too, if I had charge of a stupid peon on the verge of insubordination.
The night proceeds like any other, but the animals are close to me and it irritates Ezekiel the closer they get.
“I’m not going to work like this, Sister Judge,” he grits out. “Get rid of them.”
I merely translate what he said and let them decide. They decide to ignore him. They don’t have to obey anyone but the Parents, thus, they are sticking with me by fiat.
Ezekiel’s gone to the dark side.
“Do you think,” I ask for no apparent reason, “that there’s more to the parable of the prodigal son than we talk about in Gospel Doctrine?”
He looks at me sharply. “What do you mean?”
“The guy runs away with his trust, right? And he goes and hangs out with all his party friends until his money runs out. He washes dishes under the table for a while and he’s eating out of a dumpster—Maybe he gets beat up or gets AIDS or whatever, and has nowhere to go, so he goes home just hoping for a job. He doesn’t even plan on telling the dad who he is, right?”
“But instead, the dad’s all, ‘My son! My son’s home!’ He was probably worried sick, probably figured he was dead or whatever. But the son’s really contrite, he knows he did wrong, and he’s ready to be a stand-up guy, especially with that reception. Dad gives him another trust in spite of the fact that he blew his first one—and the older brother stayed behind, the whole time, working at the family store and he doesn’t get anything extra.”
“Well, if you think about it, Lucifer’s kind of the ultimate prodigal son.”
Ezekiel gets tense. I can tell because his disperser starts to hum. I don’t care. Let him kill me; I’ll learn how to fry beignets and find a way to avoid motherhood. It’s not 1971 anymore and women—especially ones in the church—have options.
“He’s doing his job, because without him, we’d just be walking around not having to work at our mortality, not learning anything. Somebody had to be Satan for the plan to work, right?”
“Deb … ”
He hasn’t ordered me to stop talking. Yet. “So it’d be a little unfair to punish him for doing his job. So, okay, maybe he’s being hateful about it, but what if—Just, what if—he repents? We’ve done our probation and he gets pulled back into the fold for helping to make it happen. I mean, he’s fulfilled his measure of creation, right? Win-win.”
“You’re treading thin ice, Deb,” he mutters. “Don’t go getting any sympathy for the devil. That’s how people mess up.”
“Have you ever messed up?”
Baby ’gator nudges my calf and I look down—not that I can see him—but I see bubbles off to my right that shouldn’t be there. I point.
There is only one explanation I can think of for what I think appears before my eyes: I’ve become delusional.
I blink to try to get it to go away, flip up my night-vision goggles—but it’s still there.
A perfectly attired, impeccably clean incubus, even up to his chest in slime and oil, bows to Ezekiel. “General.”
Oh. My. Stars.
“Good evening, Sister Judge.”
I hate speaking with demons.
“Can you help her?” Ezekiel asks.
The physician of demons narrows his eyes at Ezekiel. “What’s she worth to you?” He cocks his head. “Your … soul?”
I start to back away. I can’t run through water, even if it were clear.
“Ah, yes. Apollyon already has that.”
Uphir laughs. “You are a consummate actor, General.”
“And that’s why I’m here. Get to work, Uphir.”
“Sister Judge!” calls Uphir. “I would like to examine you, if I may.”
My throat tightens up. “Not on your life.”
He chuckles. “I have no life. None to give, none to lose. I work for the hope of salvation.”
“That’s not possible,” I whisper over my shoulder.
“Oh, really? You’ve just given me reason to conclude you think it might be.”
I swallow. Hard. I almost choke on my own tongue.
He materializes in front of me, reaches out, and I gasp in pain when he passes his incorporeal hand through my body.
I pant for breath. I can barely stand and then I feel a log at my back, holding me up. I don’t know where it came from. It wasn’t there before.
Even in death, my friend comforts me.
Uphir’s hand sweeps through my head and pain of a type I have never known bursts through me. I hear a vague scream echoing through the swamp.
“It’s too advanced,” I hear, as if from far away. “And it’s contagious.”
My body jolts when the log moves.
“Yes, General. Contagious. And specific to her enhancements. I don’t know what they’ve done or how they’ve done it.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I will. As for this one … ” I am wracked with pain, but it seems important that I understand this conversation, so I try. “I cannot cure her, and this has to be stopped.”
I feel the swamp floor trembling and hear the cries of the birds, the roar of the bears. I don’t understand why they’re all kicking up such a ruckus, but the rumbling is comforting and my pain begins to subside.
“Why is this bayou about to explode?”
“Every animal in a one-hundred-mile radius can feel everything she’s feeling, as can the older trees. They’re sharing her pain, taking some of the burden from her. We know this. Why don’t you?”
Ezekiel snarls at him. “I hate this place.”
“Well, you would, you fastidious son of a bitch.”
“Talk to me again when you have to do your own laundry.”
I have to get out of here.
“Look at me, Deb,” says the General. He will brook no argument, but I will not obey. “Look at me!”
I look, through hazy vision, at the frontman for Lucifer, the mole, the spy.
How is it possible?
I look, and he is beautiful, his features shifting minutely, though enough for me to know that under his glamour, he is as beautiful as Apollyon and Uphir.
As beautiful as I am without my glamour.
“General!” Uphir snaps. “Stop it. You’re confusing her.”
“I want her to remember. I need her to remember.”
“She is delusional!” Uphir roars, his voice powerful and unearthly enough to make the swamp floor buckle. That I am, most certainly. It’s nice to be validated. “If we’re successful and she remembers, she will believe you to be a demon. Is that what you want?”
High General Ezekiel Alleyn, beautiful version, fades until the ugly one is firmly in place.
The physician is still speaking. “Do it now,” he says, “or you’ll never get her back.”
Why is Ezekiel’s disperser gaining light and power?
Why is he pointing it at me?
• • •
“WHY COULDN’T I get dressed in the temple?” I grumble at my mother while she fusses with my veil. “They have rooms there, you know.”
I try to brush her away from me, but I ache from my left shoulder down across my body to my right hip, and I wonder if I’m coming down with the flu.
On my wedding day, even.
“Whassa mattah, sha?”
“I think I slept wrong,” I say. There really is no other explanation.
She squeezes my cheek and gushes in about four different flavors of French, three of which belong to her alone and have caused me much embarrassment in my life. “You are the most beautiful girl any mother could ask for.”
Beauty: my sole virtue, which, loosely translated, means useless.
I sigh and refuse to look in a mirror. I know what I’ll see: a bride who has graced the cover of Brides—among other publications—more than a few times.
It’s a nice way for a useless nineteen-year-old to make a lot of money, and part of my payment for the December 2011 issue was the dress I modeled, which I requested because it’s totally appropriate for the temple.
Unfortunately, that also means it’s appropriate for a Christmas wedding, all heavy satin and lace, complete with mandarin collar and long sleeves with a couple of layers of sequins and beads.
“Come. Your father is waiting in the car.”
“Just a minute. I forgot my medicine.” My birth control pill. She thinks it’s some diet drug passed around the modeling world.
I’m about to leave the bathroom when I spy some ibuprofen. Good idea. Maybe four. I really hurt.
I meet up with her at the elevator in the most expensive hotel in Baton Rouge without a word. Today is my wedding day. Aren’t I supposed to be giddy?
I’m not even quite sure I’m happy.
Off the elevator.
Through the lobby.
To the front doors.
My sinuses protest the blast of steam that punches me in the face as soon as I step outside. I can barely breathe.
“The car and temple have air conditioning, sha,” she says dryly when I tug at my collar yet again. A bellhop opens the door of the limousine that will take us to the temple. “How lucky for us, n’est-ce pas?” Her delight cannot be contained, but then she is not wearing a gown constructed to accommodate a bride who intends to have her pictures taken in the snow.
My father takes my hands and pulls me into the limousine while my mother gathers the modest train and petticoats then pushes me into the car. She and I plop down onto the bench seat at the same time, and I reach up to turn the air conditioner vents on me.
Forty-five minutes have been allotted for us to get to the temple, checked in, and settled in a timely manner. I’m quite sure my makeup is melting and that the air conditioner could spit out zero-degree air and I’ll never be cool again. There is an annoying trickle of sweat going down my back.
Twenty minutes later, I find myself thrown face-first onto the floor of the limousine when it slams to a halt. The driver is cursing. My father helps me up. My mother is gasping her outrage. “Your makeup!” she wails. “It’s ruined!”
Of course it is. There’s my face print in the carpet, right there, in foundation, powder, concealer, eye shadow, and lipstick.
That’s funny, but it hurts to laugh.
“Deborah! Stop laughing. Now is not the time.”
“It’s my wedding day, Mère. Is there a better time to laugh?”
“We have nothing to repair it with,” she hisses.
I shrug. “Told you I wanted to dress at the temple. That was for a reason. Well, several. But noooo.” I’m quite certain they have soap and water in the temple, and I’ll simply wash it all off. There are worse things than getting married without makeup.
Like … the dead deer in the middle of the road and a steaming radiator, which has cut off my supply of cool air.
“My apologies, Mr. and Mrs. Judge,” the driver says apologetically as he opens the door on my father’s side. “This is an odd time of day for deer to be out, and I did not see it.” He pauses, looks me over dubiously, and says, “You will have to walk.”
“But it’s only another hundred yards to the driveway.”
In this dress.
I wonder if they’ll let me cool off in the baptismal font.
I turn and see my fiancé jogging toward me. “Drake! What are you doing? You’re supposed to be in there waiting for me.”
“I saw the accident,” he says smoothly, “and wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“Um … ” Goodness. I’m going to have sweat stains under my armpits. “How did you see it from the parking lot? There’s tons of trees blocking the view.” I pick up my skirt and petticoats and start walking, giving the steaming limousine, the driver, my parents, and the poor dead deer a wide berth. “Really, people. I need an ice bath.”
I approach Drake. I’m not superstitious, so I really don’t care if he sees me in my wedding dress before the ceremony. He looks at me with an expression I’ve never seen on his face and purrs, “Are you ready, my love?”
My love? His voice has dropped and it’s rich with suggestion I’ve only heard in the movies.
Suddenly, the prospect of the wedding night is looking a whole lot more enticing. Drake is possibly the most handsome man I’ve ever met, but he is entirely serious all the time. Even his kisses are serious. I might have said yes to his proposal more quickly had he spoken to me like that before today. “Are you feeling okay? Look at me. My makeup’s trashed and my hair’s probably a mess and my pits are soaked. Can’t you smell me?”
He never smirks. Drake doesn’t catch deadpan humor.
He also never looks at me with lust. Plenty of men look at me with lust, but not Drake. Drake does not lust.
“Aren’t you going to hold my hand?” I ask, exasperated at his very non-Drake-like behavior.
“No,” he says amiably as he begins to walk up the road, gesturing for me to walk with him. “You stink.”
I stare at him, walking a good two feet from me. A joke? An insult? Drake doesn’t do either. They are beneath him, and Drake is nothing if not dignified.
A cloud drifts overhead, but it doesn’t help anything. There is no breeze. There are no sounds of wildlife, engines, or people. I look over my shoulder. My parents are there arguing with the limousine driver, but I can’t hear them.
“Deb … ” he says in the new voice, the lazy, seductive one. It’s familiar, but not Drake-familiar.
“What have you done with my fiancé?” I tease, then blink at the vicious snarl I see for a split second.
My eyes are playing tricks on me.
It’s this heat, this dress.
Gracious, I must get to the temple. Only thirty more feet to the driveway.
I look ahead to see a young white-clad temple worker sprinting across the parking lot toward us.
Interesting. I thought all temple workers were old.
“Right on time,” Drake mutters angrily.
“Drake!” I am aghast. Drake might not have a sense of humor, but he doesn’t get angry, either. It’s not dignified.
“Deb!” pants the temple worker. He takes my wrist in an iron grip—
“I don’t think so!” Drake hisses, trying to grab me, his hand passing clean through my free wrist! tabarnouche, that hurts! and I scream, start to cry from the shock and the intensity of the pain.
The worker ignores my wails to drag me the remaining distance until I’m on temple grounds. He’s huffing and puffing, and I’m holding my wrist, sobbing at how badly it hurts. It must be broken.
“Let me see,” he says, and I offer my hand to him, still sobbing but keeping one eye on Drake. “Don’t worry about him,” says the worker absently as he surrounds my wrist and palm with both of his hands—They’re huge.
I’ve never seen bigger hands on a man, and so totally out of proportion with the rest of his body.
I look back at Drake, and as the pain subsides, I grow more and more captivated by his beauty. It’s almost surreal how beautiful he’s become, looking at me the way I have always thought Drake should look at me. I stand transfixed, and when he smiles at me …
The man who’s tending me snaps his fingers in my face. “Deb. Look at me.”
I don’t want to. Drake has become a work of art, and my captor is … ugly.
“Come to me, Deb,” Drake whispers, his voice dark and rich like chocolate.
“Look. At. Me.”
I am compelled to obey my captor, but it takes some effort to pry my attention away.
“I have a very important calling to extend to you, Sister Judge,” the temple worker says urgently, as my desire to look at my fiancé is strong.
“I don’t believe you,” I say, stung, focusing fully on the man who still holds me. “Unless you need me to stand here and look pretty.”
“That’s right, Deb,” calls Drake. “He’s playing you, using your dreams against you. Don’t fall for it.”
“Deb, listen to me. You are crucial to the work, the plan. You must come hear me out. Please.”
“Crucial,” scoffs my fiancé. “The only crucial thing here is getting married and fulfilling your purpose.”
I look at Drake then, confused. “My purpose?”
He waves that away. “Marriage. Motherhood. What else would it be?”
Motherhood. “Uh … Are you saying that after a year of swearing you don’t want children, that now you do?”
His mouth tightens. “Don’t be stupid,” he snaps. “Of course I do. You do too, deep down inside. Every good Mormon girl does.”
The temple worker draws me close and whispers in my ear. “You’ve never wanted children. You don’t like people. You like animals. They adore you. You name your plants. They grow for you, out of season, out of zone, no matter what. An orange tree would grow in the arctic for you simply out of love and respect.”
I look at him, into his unremarkable brown eyes. How does he know these things about me?
“You had a baby alligator when you were younger, but your mother made you take him to the zoo when he got too big, and you still miss him. You have a family of raccoons at your back door every two months. You’d just as soon feed them, but your mother makes you lead them away. They’ll follow you anywhere you go, no matter how much they don’t want to.”
“We have a special calling for you, Deb,” he says desperately. “One just for you, one only you can fulfill, one you’re perfectly suited for. We need you, Deb, and is it not for your beauty.”
“Deb,” whispers Drake and it’s like he’s right in my ear. “He will take you to a swamp and leave you there, alone, ugly, unwanted.”
He’s so beautiful, his voice so seductive …
What were we arguing about?
“I will never leave you alone, ugly, unwanted.”
“He’s lying,” my captor says.
“Look at him,” Drake sneers. “He’s nothing. Unemployed. Nobody that young works in the temple in the middle of a weekday unless they don’t have a job. Loser.”
Drake has never lied to me; in fact, he’s brutally honest because he has no social skills. I don’t know who to trust.
My head hurts. My body aches.
“Why do I have to go with either of you?” I ask after a long moment.
“It’s your destiny,” Drake says. “You don’t have a choice.”
But my captor releases me. “You always have a choice, Deb,” he says quietly. “I just … would like you to come hear what I have to say. If you don’t like what I have to say, I’ll understand. No hard feelings.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Drake hisses when I look at him. “You’re beautiful and I am a man of wealth and taste. I will give you anything and everything your heart desires, and you will never have to work or choose or suffer.”
He seems to have forgotten everything our relationship was based on, but the difference he offers sounds pretty good. He’s gorgeous and enthralling, and now I’m actually looking forward to my wedding night.
I feel like I’m spinning inside of a barrel ride, stuck to the wall, caught between centripetal force and gravity, the floor just dropped, and I’m slipping downward.
I glare at the temple worker. “Is he lying about you taking me to a swamp and leaving me there, ugly and alone?”
That’s … intriguing.
“You will be doing very important work—”
“In a swamp?”
“Where you will have sole stewardship.”
A wave of déjà vu crashes over me so hard I’m dizzy. I have never had sole stewardship of anything, including my bank account.
He opens his mouth to say more, then stops. He loses focus for a second. Then he’s back. “You are useful.”
“Useful!” Drake hoots. “What kind of a selling point is that?”
“You have ten minutes,” I say to the ugly man. “And you better make it good.”