“In this house, we will worship The Lord,” says the stone plaque attached to the Jones’ front door. It’s merely one of the many tokens of piety spread throughout the house. “Life is God’s novel, let him write it,” says a marble slab. “Pray for anything, and if you have faith you will receive it,” says another.
“Everything is possible with God.”
After his third dropout, Mr. and Mrs. Jones stopped funding Mark’s education. They told him it was his turn to flip the bill — especially since their youngest, Luke, was about to graduate in a quarter of the time. Now Mark lives at his parent’s house and sleeps past noon. He doesn’t have a job, he doesn’t have any skills, but he has faith: someday, something will happen.
When Luke graduates with his liberal arts degree, he sends out hundreds of job applications to anywhere he can think of: marketing firms, B2B analysis agencies, production companies. Starbucks. Wendy’s. His old high school. But no one’s hiring. “We don’t have the capacity to bring on new partners,” they say. “The current economic climate just isn’t there.” So he stomps his feet, yells at the clouds, and eventually moves back home.
The debates are endless. Liberalism against conservatism. Baby boomers against millennials. Secularism against religion. “Well, actually,” everyone says. Argument ammunition is gathered at record speed. Each avenue of corruption, greed, and hypocrisy is fully investigated. No rebuttal stone is left unturned.
Desperate for breath, Mr. and Mrs. Jones schedule a second honeymoon, this time to Hawaii. Never mind that his anger problems and her indecision have been driving them apart for years — they’re gonna make it work. They promise.
Mark and Luke drop them off at the airport terminal, look each other in the face, and smile.
The first all-nighter passes organically. Cheap friends bring bubbling beverages and arrive lockstep. Bottles and bodies clink together, spliffs are puffed, and then the sun says surprise. They rub their eyes and their stomachs growl — time to raid the pantry. The dirty dishes are dumped into the sink and forgotten. Car engines are revved, burnouts are spun. The guests leave in a dust cloud while the brothers collect broken glass with black trash bags.
The buzz of electrified screens fills the house. Hours bleed by on laptop LCDs, 60” 4K televisions, smartphone sapphire glass. The hallways swim awash in waves of radiation as the grunts and commentary of sport clash mid-air with gunshots and trash talk. A wifi signal hangs about like an omnipresent ghost and whispers into their ears. There is more to see, it says. You’ve only scratched the surface.
Luke orders a large meat lover’s and makes sure to tip the driver a bit extra. It wasn’t long ago he rode with a delivery hat on his own roof and formed personal stereotypes about who tipped and who didn’t, about how that spoke to who they were and perhaps even who their people were, like conformists and rebels playing a game of chicken, their actions and reactions volleying into a calculable meta. Who will bow first? Who will strike gold? Luke is okay with this game, and he has been since Mr. Wong tipped him two hundred dollars on a small cheese.
Mark zips out for energy drinks. The gas station clerk says “Hey Mark” as he walks through the door and picks up a basket. Straight to the cold section. He pops open the door and, with a sweeping motion, knocks the cans into the basket by row until he needs both hands to carry it to the register.
“Again?” says the clerk.
Mark pulls out his wallet.
Stocked and ready, they swallow slices and visions both, a feeling of power growing in them with each passing bite. Each piece digested marks a check on an impossibly long clipboard. Each album, each film, each game poses a quest to complete, an experience to undergo, a vital piece of humanity digitized and compressed to fit any desire and medium. Is it possible to experience it all? How long would that take? They were surely trying to find out.
The glare of burning electrons used to hurt their eyes. That was before they got tinted glasses specially designed for screen use, courtesy of Skylake Industries. Mr. Jones bought a four-pack and scored a pair for the whole gang. This was, of course, only after the proper dosage of pop-doctors, daytime television, and digest magazines engorged by Mrs. Jones. Everyone was talking about them, they had to be good.
It’s not long before both of the brothers’ shirts are doused in caffeine. Turns out your hands get jittery after the fifth drink, but the real stuff doesn’t happen until the tenth. They don’t know what happens after 15 — that was Mark’s last tapout point, a decision only reached when bile dissolved part of his molar on the third retch. The crown was covered by insurance, so it wasn’t a big deal.
Crushed cans litter the floor. Gaseous sugar rises into their throats and explodes out as monstrous belches — the only noises audible beyond the gurgling death rattles of warfare, the incessant cheer of commercials, and the plastic facade of product and personality blasted from the surround sound setup. Luke runs to the medicine cabinet for pepto.
“Grab the dramamine while you’re in there!” Mark says.
A glare alerts Mark of the sun’s arrival. He loses a game because of it and throws his controller at the wall. Dented. He’s had a bit of anger in him since Luke’s graduation, which he didn’t actually attend — he was busy playing catch and release with the local prom queens. The skirts and dirty used to quench his thirst, but it’s never enough anymore. He rolls his eyes when they mention dinner, he digs his digits into their lips and laps, and he snaps his fingers when it’s done. It’s not about excitement or the possibility of love. It’s about maintaining normalcy, achieving baseline, scratching an itch. It’s a rash that won’t go away.
While driving to get breakfast tacos, Luke swerves to avoid a goat and almost takes out a stop sign. When lights flash in his rear view, he pulls over.
The cop’s boots clomp to his door and his knuckles rap the window. He points down. Luke cracks it.
“License and registration,” he says.
Luke hands them over. “Sorry about that officer, I just didn’t want to hit that goat.”
“There wasn’t no goat,” he says with a nonchalance that hangs in the air between them like a pane of black glass.
Luke shakes his head. “I’m sorry, maybe it was a deer.”
“There wasn’t no deer.”
The cop walks back to his patrol car while Luke’s mind takes over. Every possible outcome of every possible variable expands to its furthest reach — a multidimensional equation that brings him great anxiety. Which of these futures will be my own? Which 5th dimensional version of me will I become? His mind becomes an echo chamber of a primal fear: ‘he is the devil,’ it says. Never mind that Luke hasn’t believed in that stuff since his first philosophy class. Evil is afoot. That much is certain.
When the cop returns, Luke’s burrowing into his seat. The cop knocks on the widow.
“Am I being detained?” Luke says through the glass.
“Roll your window down.”
Luke’s eyes shift back and forth from the cop to the gearbox.
“I said roll your window down.”
Luke inches his finger towards the button. He taps the switch, just barely, just enough to break the barrier between outer and inner.
“Am I being detained?”
“No, now lower.”
“Am I being detained?” He’s yelling by now.
“Now listen here son,” the cop says. He whets his lips. “I don’t know what little tip you found on the internet, but this is not how you conduct business with a policeman. Here are the rules of engagement: I dictate, you follow. Understand?” He spits on the tarmac. “So when I say ‘lower your window,’ you lower your window.”
Luke’s fingernails scratch down the back of his throat.
He presses the button. The window falls halfway and stops.
“All the way.”
And there, only for a moment, as the glass divider slides into its crevice, the cop’s head takes on a strange balloon-like quality, inflating, turning blue, becoming translucent like stretched rubber as though it might pop — and then it snaps back to its original form.
“I’m giving you a warning,” he says, handing back Luke’s license. “In the future, keep your eyes on the road. And learn some respect, for God sake. We’re the good guys.”
Adrenaline pumps through Luke as the patrol car makes a right turn and disappears.
He arrives home in gasps.
“I don’t smell tacos,” Mark says from a room away.
Immediately, Luke’s on the computer looking up known causes of hallucinations. He scavenges pages on delirium, narcolepsy, on schizophrenia. He visits message boards discussing dementia. He gorges himself on cancer. As each relatable symptom passes through his mind, Luke’s blood pressure spikes. ‘This is what is wrong with me,’ he thinks. ‘I have cancer.’ Soon he’s digging his own rabbit hole. ‘What causes cancer?’ he searches. ‘What is radiation?’ ‘What is energy?’
‘What is anything?’
He stumbles upon a webpage that glues him to the screen. “The Symptoms of Ascension,” it’s called. On it, there are phrases like “ascended masters” and “higher vibration.” It lists a series of symptoms for every possible disorder: dietary changes, flu fever, alterations in sleep patterns. It says there are two earths occupying the same physical space, but vibrating at different frequencies, and one of them is heaven. It says, to reach the ascended state, one must attune themselves to something called the “Christ-consciousness.” Verbatim, it says, “There is a lot going on inside of you. This process has already begun.”
Luke bites the bait. He navigates to a place that sells crystals and schedules a shipment of obsidian and moonstone. He inputs his full name into a numerology cipher and discovers the meaning of his existence through a series of arbitrary values. He does an online tarot reading. He takes a Facebook quiz.
Meanwhile, Mark can hardly keep his eyes open, but he doesn’t feel tired. Just the opposite, in fact. It’s as if he’s never slept before and might not ever need to. All that guarana and taurine flowing through his blood, he’s completely electric — just the way he likes it. His instincts feel razor-edge, his reaction timing immediate. There is no boundary between synapse and muscle — all of it flows seamlessly, effortlessly. No thought, only action. A true hair-trigger, a bonafide badass. His online friends think he’s the shit. None of them know he used to be addicted to adderall and now uses energy drinks to compensate. It’s subconscious. Not even Mark knows.
He pops another tab while Luke tries his very first yoga pose. It’s supposed to help him open his chakras, which is a word he only just learned. Halfway through the stretch, a thought enters into his mind. ‘What do you…’
“What do you want to eat?” Mark says.
Luke looks at his hands dumbfounded. “I don’t care,” he says. “Whatever you want.”
That night, both boys return to their rooms and shut off the lights, but neither get a wink of sleep. Luke’s assured he’s acquired telepathy and Mark’s mind won’t turn off. A warm sensation drips down their spines and their thoughts explode. Like uncut branches, the twills of each memory and concept intermingle, creating endless false connections. Symbols are conjured from nothing. Black space is given voice.
Mark rolls out of bed and checks the clock. 3:33 am. He drags himself to the kitchen for a drink and a quick snack. As he’s sipping, he sees a figure standing in the darkness of the dining room and spits water all over the floor. He flicks on the lights to see it’s Luke, his eyes closed and his body perfectly still.
Mark catches his breath. “Jesus, Luke,” he says. “What are you—”
“—doing down here?” Luke says, his eyes still shut. “I could ask the same of you. I am here because I am needed here. Why is anyone at a place and time?”
“You can rewire your brain with thought alone. Did you know that? Did you know that concentrated thought can alter the physical shape of your brain?”
“N…no, I didn’t.” Mark takes a step back.
“Where do you think thoughts come from? Are you thinking, or are you just listening? Are the words and ideas flowing into you from some alien position, or are you the generator?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“The very nature of consciousness. Are we pilot or passenger? Actor or observer? Listen: this moment will pass like any other, but you must remember,” Luke says. “Beneath the conditioning and beneath the biology, there is nothing separating us. We are both the same. Reincarnation got it wrong — we do not pass into our next lives, for we are already living them. Everyone you see, everyone in history and everyone in the future is merely a copy of you, of me, of everyone else. There is but one consciousness, and we are all subscribed.”
Mark turns around. “I’m going back to bed,” he says.
“Open your mind and you will hear it too,” Luke says. “Our seats in heaven await.”
The silence of presleep only amplifies Mark’s dissection of his brother — his mental froth, his metaphoric spat, his absurd notions. They scream spiritual foul-play. A mental pentagram of tongue trickery must have passed over Luke, must have corrupted him into a shell for hellhounds. The type of foe who would pretend to be a friend, the type of beast who would pretend to be a man, the type of devil who would pretend to be a god. But then he drifts off.
He wakes to a blanket of calm. Sunlight peeks through his blackout shades and the birds chirp and chirp. The thoughts and feelings of the previous night dissolve. The world seems again in its right place. Out loud, he says, “It’s gonna be okay.”
He finds Luke in the backyard sitting on a plastic lawn chair completely naked. Beside him is a shoebox so full of trinkets it cannot close. Opposite that, his clothes lay in a heap.
Without turning to face his brother, Luke speaks.
“Luke, are you — do you need help?” Mark crosses to his brother, positioning himself to block sight of his hairy member.
Mark humors him and takes a seat in the adjacent lawn chair.
“This ritual, it came to me. I know it is not from my own mind. It was sent and received. A message,” Luke says. “Instructions packaged within a beam of pure love. It is part of my graduation — of our evolution. Don’t you get it? Are we on the same page here?”
“I’m going to try and be as clear as I can, Luke,” Mark says. “I have no idea what you are talking about, and I think there’s something wrong with you.”
“The beast approaches — can you feel it? Do you feel the weight of your transgressions? It can smell them. It hungers for your sin. We must cleanse ourselves. Join me.”
“I’m not getting naked.”
“Here, hold this,” Luke says, lifting his shoebox for Mark to grab. “The signs have been in front of me all my life, but I never had my eyes open. It’s true. ‘Everything is possible with God.’”
“Why am I holding this?”
“That box contains remnants of my past, of my wrongs and pleasures. To become born again, I must disinherit my previous destiny. There must be a sacrifice.”
“A sacrifice? Luke?”
“Rituals work like language. They’re symbols, representations, merely arrows that point to a mental construction. The important work is being done internally — on the mind, in the soul.”
“You need help.”
“Close your eyes and we can be done.”
Mark looks at him. “You promise?” he says.
Mark bites his lip and closes his eyes.
Luke says, “You’re going to feel this.”
The wind shifts. A bird caws from afar. Pressure forms, collapses. Luke takes a breath.
Lightning streaks through Mark from the bottom of his toes to the top of his hair. The infernal bolt ignites every pain and pleasure sensor his body contains — the sensation akin to fire and ice and pussy and candy — and then it’s gone.
Mark drops the box. It clatters to the ground and out roll the contents: glass pipes, a pack of cigarettes, some condoms. Mark stands up and kicks it, sending it sailing over the fence.
“What did you do?” Mark says.
“I’ve committed my cleansing. Now I can protect you,” Luke says.
He gets up and walks back into the house.
Mark hurls the chairs into the yard.
The day passes awkwardly. Luke continues to forgo clothing and sits cross-legged on the floor counting his breaths. Mark does all he can to remove his mind from its probing — favorite movies, nostalgic video games, even childhood lullabies — but it’s no use. He can’t stop imagining what has occurred to him. He runs the memory again and again in his mind, fawning over it like jewelry, looking for any crack or glimmer — anything to provide a sliver of meaning. He steals a glance at his naked brother. Then he goes into his parent’s room and closes the door. In the closet, below the ring box and behind the bible, he finds it: dad’s .44 magnum, fully loaded.
Meanwhile, a mental torsion of logic and reason flumes inside Luke’s mind. It billows higher and higher, forming a mushroom cloud of contradiction. All of it is everything. The dots all connect. Left, right, down, up — all of it encoded, arbitrary. In existence because why not. And yet, some spirit corporeal to life itself hangs about, instructing him, guiding his steps. He feels it in the marrow of his bone. Beyond comprehension or measure, beyond inquiry or explanation, it is a feeling of such knowledge he is assured nothing he had known or felt in his entire life was of substance because if it had been it would have felt like this.
It speaks to him, and he obeys.
“It is coming,” it says. “You must prepare.”
He stands from his lotus pose and heads into the kitchen. There, he assembles his ingredients: a bowl of water, a clove of garlic, some basil and some salt. He sprinkles the herbs and spices into the water and pulls a recitation from the air, making the whole thing a ceremony. The water changes color. Is it belief? Is it alchemy? He takes the bowl to the porch and places it on the welcome mat. Then he goes back into the kitchen, retrieves a knife, and returns to the front door.
Only a small puncture is needed to produce the necessary fluids. He makes the incision in the middle of his palm and squeezes his wrist, forcing more blood to the surface. Using the bloody hand, he draws a circle with an X in its center on the front door. As he guides his hand, the red slides down the wood, creating an eerie melting effect. At last, he stands back from the mark and appreciates his handiwork.
A passing neighbor stops mid-step to stare at the bloody door. “What are you doin’ over there?” he says.
“Halting demons,” Luke says back.
The neighbor raises his eyebrows and blinks a few times. “Well, good luck!” he says. “Tell your mom I said hi!” Then he continues his walk.
As night approaches, a sheet of stoicism covers the brothers. They stay silent about the events of the day and avoid eye contact as they pass each other. With neither of them willing to break the barrier of silence, their thoughts become cancerous in their distorted minds, swelling and inflating, replicating ad infinitum. Their doubts snowball to assumptions, to decisions, and then ultimatums. Possibilities shapeshift into absolutes. The impossible is rendered real.
An empty moon swings above the house and hangs there, casting a shadow all over the town. Night critters chitter and howl at its dark, the predators happy to have a shade with which to conduct their invisible violence. The forest soon flows with death.
Caretakers at the local retirement home notice a relative slump among the night crowd. Even the generally obnoxious Gerry quiets down and takes his pills all by himself. Shannon, the head nurse, can’t tell if it’s fatigue or fear putting them to bed. She can’t put it into words, but she feels something in the corridors, some ghastly reminder — a physical cloud of penance drifts through the facilities. Soon, she can hear weeping from behind closed doors.
Captain Lee isn’t used to this kind of quiet. Usually the inmates clatter and rumble until the sun breaks — but tonight’s stone still. He takes his flashlight and hits the bricks, shining the beam into each cell. What he sees chills his spine. They stare back wide-eyed and whimper silently in the dark, their faces grave tokens of guilt and shame. No one utters a syllable.
Luke stands at the threshold of the front door and peers out into the night. He watches the wind burrow through the trees, pushing them back and forth, spinning them in arcane patterns.
“The time is close,” the voice says.
He nods his head and looks at the stars, wondering what in his little life qualified him to do God’s work. To be involved in the plan, to have hand in the—
There, just beyond the driveway, a shadow floats off the ground, and he knows. Instinctual.
He braces himself in the open doorway, clenching each hand on the interior frame, and begins chanting in tongues. Wicked, backwards mush — knots of language birthed from bile and catapulted without cognition.
Behind him, Mark wipes his forehead and adjusts his grip on the gun.
“Luke,” he says. “Luke, I need you to hear me.”
Luke continues with fervor.
“I know you’re not you anymore. Something’s in you — something’s making you do this.”
Luke’s chanting rises in volume.
“And… and I can’t watch this anymore.”
“I can’t let this thing consume you.”
Luke screams his nonsense into the night.
Luke’s eyes open and he sees it. The shade. Grass blades bend and wilt as it moves over them. It slides up the walkway and through the front arch, over the water bowl and nearly makes contact with Luke when—
Mark says, “I’m sorry,” and pulls the trigger.
The shell ignites and spirals the bullet through the chamber. It floats out of the barrel and swims effortlessly through the living room. Its rotation is orchestral, surgical, perfect. Like a world-class ballerina, it dances through its routine unwavering, unthinking. Not a drop of energy is wasted.
Moments before impact, the shade disappears into Luke like dust into a vacuum. All the shade carried, the hurt and the hate, seeps up his nostrils, into his ears and mouth. His eyes turn black.
Then the vibrating bullet slides through Luke’s skin and muscle, glances his spinal column and ricochets into his chest cavity, flipping over itself like a poorly-thrown football. It slams into a rib and fragments, exploding into dozens of tiny, sharp pieces that rip and shred his lungs, his stomach, his intestines. A hole the size of a baseball appears on his midsection.
Luke gasps and chokes on his own blood, the resulting noise a slurping gurgle. He falls to his knees, his hands still on the door frame, and is able to mutter a single line before his sight goes black.
“It is done,” he says.
* * *
Morning comes on a breeze. The sun shines and the living dance their morning rituals. Birds sing, cows moo. Men in suits shave their faces and start their cars. Coffee aroma wafts around the street corners. Children line up for the school bus. There’s a certain pep in the air. Everyone seems just a bit happier than usual.
Was it real? Was anything?
Soon Mr. and Mrs. Jones arrive home. They see the bloody door and rush inside. Mrs. Jones is the first to start crying. Her baby. Mr. Jones can barely hold his hands steady enough to phone the police. When they ask him what the emergency is, he only mumbles.
The investigation doesn’t take long. Fingerprints on a registered firearm point to a single suspect, but Mark explains himself in court. He says Luke was possessed, turned evil, and so the God-fearing judge grants him a weak sentence — five years.
At the funeral, the local grizzled and done-with-it pastor gives the eulogy.
“We never asked for this,” he says. “No one came down from on high and invited us to the table. We were brought into this world without our will and most of us will leave the same way. And while we’re here, there is pain, there is hurt. There is death. Loss and chaos own this world. Why did He make it a place of pain? Why does He mute his voice so only the sick can hear it? These are questions never to be answered. And yet, we worship Him. We lavish praise upon Him endlessly. We flog the skin off our backs to show our gratitude. Our minds and hearts warp to conform to His ideals — and we thank him. We thank him forever. Thank you, Lord. Thank you. Amen.”