Fugue State

5,400 Words

“Shit,” Charlotte Berry whispered as the fog of sleep began to clear. She heard Arthur fumbling in the bathroom cabinet and saw his reflection in the mirror, salt-and-pepper hair and a small bald spot as he hunched over, a medicine bottle close to his face. She wanted to pretend he only needed reading glasses. But it was far worse than that.

“Ace …” he said, sounding out the label, “Tam … Men …”

Acetaminophen! She wanted to scream the word at him.

Arthur often woke with a headache after a couple of glasses of Chardonnay, and Tylenol was his go-to remedy. She’d saved a few dollars by buying a generic brand with a green label, and now he was struggling. They had never had children, but he seemed like her five-year-old niece now, needing special handling at every turn. Charlotte’s stomach clenched. Usually, she could at least get past breakfast, sometimes even dinner, before it was so obvious that he was all wrong. He wasn’t the man she’d married didn’t cover half of it.

“That’s the Tylenol, hon,” she called to him. He only grunted. The faucet squeaked, followed by a rush of water as he cupped his hand to drink.

He came out and only glanced at her, no longer embarrassed like he’d been in the beginning. “A lot of letters for aspirin,” he said, chuckling as he left the room to go downstairs. “Lot of letters.”

No shame. No bother. Not even fifty years old, her former mentor at the Trib, and he was forgetting how to read—forgetting more than that. Charlotte felt heavy and sore, a clear sign she had slept poorly. Did she sleep at all anymore, or did she just lie like a slab beside him each night, wondering who he was becoming?

Charlotte rolled out of bed, did ninety seconds of stretching and yawning, then wandered into the bathroom, looking at herself in the mirror as she splashed water in her face. She still looked enough like actress Gabrielle Union to earn double-takes in a dim room, but she didn’t like the fatigue sagging her eyes. Ice cubes and cucumbers hadn’t helped.

When she finally made it into the kitchen, Arthur was already seated at the table. For a moment, her mood lightened: the Atlanta Star newspaper, once their shared work home, was open on the table before him.

“Trying the crossword puzzle today?” She tried to sound perky, but he frowned at her. He knew her routine: forcing him to face it at least once a day. Trying to make him rethink his refusal to see a doctor or seek treatment. When she’d met him, he could finish the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in the time it took her to figure out five or six words at best. Playing Scrabble against him had been mostly an exercise in humiliation. She wanted him to care about words again, but his eyes were dull and unbothered.

“Then … what are you doing?” She struggled, once again, to keep from screaming.

“Reading the funnies,” Arthur said. “B.C. That Johnny Hart cracks me up.”

She felt her stomach tighten. “Cavemen riding dinosaurs. Fun.”

Her smile went no further than her lips. She knew the strip, and Arthur was the one who’d told her he would never give it another glance after he learned the cartoonist was a Young Earther. Now he liked it again. And he was reading the comics where he used to read the political pages. Hell, he used to write them. She wondered what the Jesuit brothers who had once sharpened his intellect would think about this new development.

Arthur chuckled and laughed at the childish line drawings, and she wished their problems were confined to the bedroom or the breakfast table. She couldn’t break the silence with the radio broadcast or morning news. The last time she’d turned on the news, it had triggered an explosion. He’d screamed with so much rage that spittle had flown from his mouth: WHY DON’T YOU LISTEN?

But she didn’t. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t. When he first took the job from the Reverend, she’d thought he was just playing along with the Reverend’s crazy ideas for a paycheck, but it was more than that. Just as Arthur had been forced to “retire” from his job as the paper’s senior political writer, Charlotte felt pushed toward retirement too: how could she keep writing her relationships column for the paper if her husband had become a literal stranger? She’d written all about it—the column was right in front of him—but he hadn’t even noticed. Of course.

“I miss you,” she whispered.

He had the same smile, at least. He winked at her, crinkling the skin at the corners of his right eye. “I’m here, kiddo.”

* * *

Charlotte cried on the way to the office, but she dried her eyes before she parked and left the lot. The tension in her stomach and chest began to ease as she walked through the newspaper office’s glass double doors. Work felt more like home these days.

The first eyes she looked for were Miller’s, the news editor. He was a big, red-faced man with thinning silver hair, and had been at the paper since the ‘70s, even before Arthur.

“A little personal yesterday, wasn’t it?” Miller asked. Her column was in his hands.

“Not so good at hiding things, am I?”

She hadn’t written all of what she was feeling—she didn’t dare—but she’d focused her column on couples who were beginning to feel hopeless. Most of her columns had a helpful conclusion with a list of counseling resources, but she’d ended yesterday’s column by writing: Learning how to fight for your relationship is as important as knowing when it’s time to let go. So odd to give her co-workers and readers insights her husband did not share.

“Arthur wasn’t mad?”

Charlotte sighed. “He doesn’t read my column anymore. Doesn’t read much of anything anymore. Except …”

“The Bible?”

Miller knew. She’d been confiding in him since Arthur first began blowing his stories at work, and Miller had helped him secure a solid severance package. In truth, Miller knew more than he should. More than Arthur would like, certainly. Or would Arthur even care?

“As a good Baptist girl, I almost feel guilty for being bothered by his new love affair with the Bible. I don’t even think he’s reading it; he’s just staring at the drawings. This Reverend Pike he’s fallen in with—I can’t understand it. Arthur was … is a high-level political advisor. He knows better, dammit. I thought he’d laugh Pike off once he met him.”

The Reverend’s quotes had first begun appearing in social media, and his posts were deranged. Not just fire and brimstone, but blood and burning, supposedly as metaphors. Not to mention the crazy stories about group faith healings. Please. When Arthur said he’d agreed to work with Pike as an advisor, Charlotte had been shocked. Arthur had assured her the partnership was his notion of change-from-within, that it was better to have a seat at the table, but now Arthur had swallowed the meal.

“You met the good Rev?” Miller asked her.

“No. I almost want to, just to try to see … why.”

Miller considered, closing her column’s newspaper page. “I heard a quote once from one of Hitler’s generals. Something about how when he read Der Fȕhrer’s writing it was raving lunacy. But when the little house-painter said the same shit in person, somehow you believed him. Maybe it’s like that?”

“It has to be.”

“Then maybe you don’t want to meet him.”

* * *

Charlotte took an early lunch, her mind split between the daily violence in the news and whether she should twist another event from her personal life to fit her column. But what? The logical progression from her last column was Five Signs Your Relationship Is Over, but she was afraid to see it in print. As long as her fears remained inchoate, she didn’t have to deal with them. To avoid chat with co-workers, she slipped into Art’s Delicatessen down the street: “Every sandwich a work of ART.” She was nibbling on a pickle from her usual barbecued beef sandwich when the man sat down.

The big stranger was pale and freckled, with a balding spot atop his long, pale brown hair. He was so large that she glanced to see if the manager or girl at the register had noticed him sit with her. He had small, bright, watery eyes. She halfway expected him to pull out a gun like the guy who shot Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. Incidents like it seemed to happen every day.

“Are you Charlotte Berry? Charlotte’s Web?” He sounded hushed, urgent.

She was relieved he wasn’t a random loon, but she let out an involuntary sigh. Damn. Another fan. She had taken her photo off the column for just that reason. “Sorry, I’m eating.”

He went on as if she hadn’t spoken, as if she were a hologram. “I read you. Your column. I need to speak to you.”

She exaggerated her politeness with a smile in case he was armed. “I’m sorry. I really don’t …”

He bore in. “I’m Paulie,” he said as if that was supposed to mean something to her, like your long-lost cousin, remember? “Paulie Chore. Like the actor.” A ghastly smile fluttered and died on his lips. “You did a column about political differences tearing marriages apart. And … I know a couple of things. You don’t like Reverend Pike. And your husband does.”

She stared, chewing slowly, wondering if she should be a lot afraid of this man instead of just a little. She didn’t answer him, waiting for the rest.

He leaned over to whisper, a spray of hot breath. “There’s something bad coming. I don’t know what it is. My mother raised me in his church, so I was part of Pike’s inner circle before he got … before he became what he is.” He looked nervously to either side. “He has power. I’ve seen it.”

Under the table, she reached into her purse for her reporter’s notebook. A pen was always stored in the wire spiral. She wrote Power. That much was true, even if he meant it in the loony way. Could he be a defector?

“What kind of power?” she asked, testing his knowledge of Pike’s history.

“He didn’t always have it. Then something happened. Remember the accident?”

Sure, she did. A year before, Pike’s wife had died in a car wreck he had barely survived. By the time the paramedics hauled the Reverend out of the river, his heart had stopped for almost seven minutes, doctors said. Even after they started it up, he was in a coma for another three months, constantly prayed over by a circle of his followers. After he woke up, the rumors had started, tales of healings and precognition, finally leading to a much-mocked presidential aspiration.

“What about it?” Charlotte said.

“He changed. Not the same. Not the same as anyone.” Paulie shook his head again, with an odd looseness, as if it weren’t screwed tightly to his neck. “Listen to me. He’s going to use it tonight—use it create his national presence. And then it will be too late.”

Even if he was a defector, he wasn’t a reliable source for an investigation. Her quiet lunch was spoiled. Bring on the entertainment. “All righty, Paulie Chore like the actor. I’m listening. What exactly is going to happen?”

His watery eyes narrowed. “I don’t know. I’m not in the inner circle—not anymore. But I’ve been trying to talk to reporters, television people … no one will talk to me. They’re watching me.”

Charlotte had worked the news desk before she started her column, and she’d never had any luck with sources who said they were being watched. Usually, they only needed new meds.

“They?”

“They know I’m talking. And scared.”

“Then why are you talking to me?”

A smile, both troubled and shy. “I thought … you’re a lonely-hearts columnist, not political or editorial. I thought maybe they wouldn’t be watching.” Lonely hearts? She hadn’t heard that phrase in a long time. But it fit, all right. She’d had a more engaging conversation with this stranger than she’d had with Arthur in weeks. Maybe longer.

“And who are ‘they?’”

He lowered his voice. “The Golden Ones. You’ll see them. They wear gold braids on their uniforms at the events. They are the enforcers.” He looked around, nervous. He might have looked like an actor except for the sudden sweat on his forehead.

“What?” she said.

His nerve broke. “I have to go,” he said, and then, as if she’d begged him not to: “I have to go!” He handed her a cardboard rectangle. Black, with gold lettering and trim.

“What is this?”

“It’s a ticket.” He leaned across the table, and suddenly was holding her wrists. His grip was strong. “You have to see. You have to stop them. They feed on emotion. It’s like a virus—a disease. You have to believe me.”

She was about to yell for the manager when he let her go and jumped from his seat to dart out of the front door. She watched him leave, noticing how her wrists flared from his tight grip. Her heart sped up. She’d basically just been assaulted—in public.

She stared after him as he retreated across the street, watching his hair blow in the breeze. She started writing a description: Six-foot-two or three. Two-hundred thirty pounds—

She heard a SCREECH of tires outside and lifted her eyes in time to see two cars collide, crunching metal. But Paulie was between the cars—the same hair blowing wildly. He’d been pinned! She thought it was an accident until the driver of the dark-colored car, a woman with red hair, backed up so quickly that a motorcyclist had to dodge her … and then hit Paulie Chore again.

She heard the crunch of bone from across the street, like breadsticks muffled in wet cotton.

“Stop that car!” someone yelled just as the car lurched away.

A hit-and-run!

Charlotte fumbled for her phone, heart pounding. It was worse than a hit-and-run: her source had just told her he was in danger, and someone had …

Charlotte dared a glance back out through the window, raising herself slightly in the booth. Paulie Chore had crumpled to the asphalt in an unnatural splayed position, a mess of twisted arms and legs. He looked very dead. Her source might have just been murdered before her eyes.

Charlotte threw her money on the table and ran outside while she dialed. She saw several other people on their phones too, but she dutifully listed the cross streets to the operator. “The name of the victim …?” the detached voice said.

“Chore, C-H-O-R-E—just hurry and send someone,” she said and hung up.

The lunchtime crowd had circled around Paulie, so she excused her way in to be sure she hadn’t only imagined his condition from a distance. Up close, he looked even worse, his misshapen head streaked in blood. But his eyes were blinking.

“Paulie!” she said. The sad-eyed crowd parted for her as if she were a friend. Paulie’s lips fluttered. He was trying to talk to her. “I’m here,” she said, mostly to comfort him. “It’s okay.”

It wasn’t okay. Paulie would never be okay again. She leaned closer to him, regretting her dismissive thoughts and words in the diner. He had deserved more from her. But she didn’t speak because he was trying too hard to make himself heard. She leaned close enough to smell his blood.

“Go. Tonight,” he managed to say. “Something … terrible …”

And then he never said another word. Charlotte didn’t have to check for a pulse to know that he was dead. She stood on the street until the ambulance came.

The paramedics spent ten minutes trying to resuscitate him, and then simply shoveled what was left of him off the ground and carried him away. Police wooden horses blocked off the bloody crosswalk. Reporters scribbled and photographers took pictures. She had retreated from the scene before the police arrived, disappeared around the corner and watched from a distance. Wasn’t sure why: perhaps because she’d been a news reporter once, and reporters don’t like being part of the story.

She knew she should find her Trib co-worker and share her notes—Miller probably had sent one of the new kids on the story—but documenting what had happened to Paulie would not change it. Would not fulfill his final wish, or maybe, just maybe, confer meaning to his death.

Instead, she looked at the ticket he had given her. And realized that she had to go.

* * *

Charlotte struggled through dinner with Arthur, neither of them speaking except to make polite requests for this platter or that condiment. She usually liked her lamb medium rare, but the blood-streaked meat made her remember Paulie’s injuries. A dozen times, she wanted to ask: Have you ever heard of a guy named Paulie Chore? But Arthur was not her friend in this investigation. Arthur was Reverend Pike’s man to the bone. She would have to go by herself. She offered Arthur a peck on the lips and asked when he’d come home.

“I’ll be late,” was all he said.

As soon as she saw his car pulling out of the driveway, Charlotte called Uber.

The Atlanta Stadium was only about fifteen minutes away from their house in the city of Smyrna just outside of Atlanta, a giant obelisk wedged into a suburban mall and business district that already had been clogged with traffic for years. That night, headlights were a sea of glowing white as motorists vied for the parking entrances. Getting a ride home was sure to be a nightmare. As she climbed out of the car and joined the streams heading inside, she marveled that tens of thousands of people were here to see the Reverend instead of the Braves.

Charlotte adjusted her dark glasses and scarf over her hair, what Arthur used to call “traveling Incognegro,” back when he enjoyed wordplay. She kept her head dipped low as she handed her ticket to a security man wearing a gold braided epaulet, almost expecting him to demand to know where she’d gotten it. Instead, he directed her to the nearest tunnel entrance, and she emerged inside a swarm of humanity.

Charlotte was a football fan, so she wasn’t new to the energy that swallowed her as the stadium crowd spread before her at her mid-level entrance: it was almost a palpable hum, pure energy sweeping them all beneath its spell. Usually, she could also smell the beer helping to fuel it, but not tonight. She didn’t see a single beer vendor, but the crowd’s excitement level was so furious that it could be the last quarter of a tied game. No, it was more than that: It felt like Michael and Prince were about to do their first joint concert from the afterlife.

“Can you believe we’re here?” a woman in a nurse’s frock said, clasping Charlotte’s shoulders so tightly that she jumped. The woman’s eyes were fevered. Charlotte remembered Paulie’s hands clamping her wrists and felt sick to her stomach.

“Nope,” Charlotte said. “I can’t believe it, all right.”

“My boss said I couldn’t take off early, but …” the woman shrugged. “I just walked out and left. Left the med cups sitting on the trays. And here I am!” She giggled like a teenager.

“That’s …” Since the only word in Charlotte’s head was frightening, she didn’t finish aloud. Charlotte fought her usual instinct to pull out her reporter’s notebook. She didn’t want to bring attention to herself. She wasn’t here on a story … was she? She wanted to see, that was all.

An opening speaker walked to the stage at the center of the stadium, her face larger than life on the Jumbotrons—Reverend Lacey from Nowhere, Kansas, standing right under the first “T” in the REVEREND PIKE’S TRUTH TOUR banner fluttering behind her. The crowd cheered in such a frenzy that Charlotte found herself clapping too, hoping for a taste of their excitement.

IT’S GREAT TO FINALLY SEE THE TRUTH!” she bellowed in a voice that hardly needed a microphone. The cheering and applause seemed thick enough to walk on.

The three opening speakers were from different parts of the country, but their message was the same, almost word for word, as if they’d only made minor edits on the same script: Bless Reverend Pike. Bless the Truth. A pox on unbelievers. Blah blah blah. Charlotte stifled a yawn.

Then the Reverend took the stage. Charlotte felt him coming before she saw him because the enthusiasm in the crowd gave way to pure hysterics: strangers holding each other for balance as they brayed their delight into the skies. The arena had an aroma, as if the sweat from so many people had made a stew, and she was boiling in it.

He was smaller than she expected, oddly like a white version of the black country preachers of her grandmother’s day. Pike was round, soft and goggle-eyed. He raised his arms like a conductor preparing to conduct a symphony, and the crowd abruptly went silent except for a few muffled coughs. Charlotte had never seen anyone control a crowd with such ease. Arms still raised, he strutted the stage like a peacock. Was it a trick of the lighting, or did he have a golden aura?

“My children …” he began, almost a whisper. “My children. Welcome to the Truth. Welcome to the Way and the Light. Leave everything else behind you. Behind. You. Everything else is dust. Everything else is noise. All else is a trap to keep you from the Truth.”

He lowered his arms, and the crowd erupted in cheers again.

Shhhhhh, Charlotte found herself thinking. Let the man talk. One part of her knew she might have chuckled at his display only a moment before, but now she felt oddly … protective? If the crowd had come to hear the man, couldn’t they be quiet? Even as she wondered at her own reaction, she craved peace. She wanted to hear his voice again: part grandfather, part teacher, part lover, part … what?

Then the Event began. That was what they called it in the coming days on the news.

“Look out!” someone yelled from near the stage, barely caught on the microphone.

A woman with bright red hair—hadn’t she just seen her driving the car earlier today?—charged the stage with a glittering, almost theatrically broad knife, a glittering triangle of steel raised high. “Nazi bastard!” the woman yelled. The gold-braided attendants near the Reverend seemed frozen, giving her a path to him, and she slashed fiercely.

Charlotte gasped as if the blade had cut her too. “Stop her!” she screamed. From the stones in her chest, she could be watching a loved one being attacked. “Stop!”

As the crowd shrieked with Charlotte, security woke from its slumber and tried to grab her. The woman dashed and darted away, screaming, and no one seemed able to put hands on her. She climbed the rafters as if to reach the Jumbotron, but she slipped on the metal and fell, tangling her neck in a rope from the REVEREND PIKE’S TRUTH TOUR banner. Twined in ropes she fell, brought up short as the rope snapped tight.

She swung to and fro, twitching, toes only a yard from the ground. The crowd closest to the stage surged up toward her. In an instant, Charlotte thought they meant to try to rescue her. (“Why?” an angry voice in her head said.) But then they pulled and clawed and gashed, and tore, and Charlotte couldn’t look away. The crowd of dozens scrubbed their faces with both hands, painting themselves with her blood.

Charlotte finally tore her gaze away … to The Reverend. He was hunched over while attendants dabbed at his face with a cloth. But he was still on his feet. Thank goodness—he was all right. Thank goodness.

The Reverend surveyed the frenzy around the fallen woman and reached for his microphone. Calmly, oh so calmly, he spoke: “Children. My children, please. Return to your seats.”

As if snapped from a trance, the blood-washers backed away. Some were doubled over in tears, led away from the dangling red-smeared ruin by others who were stronger.

Charlotte felt herself swoon, her mind racing with questions about what to do. The world, in that instant, felt hopeless. Evil—evil was everywhere.

Pike seemed to speak directly to her: “We have seen Satan try to slay your servant, but he did not succeed! He will not succeed.”

No!” the crowd screamed.

“We have seen the power of the Dark One. He has ensnared our country!”

Yes!” This time, was that her own voice Charlotte had heard raised with the crowd?

“He controls Washington!”

Yes!

“He has corrupted our children and brought the wrath of heaven down upon our once godly nation, but we will wrench it from his taloned hands! If every one of you will remember what you have seen today. Remember her sacrifice. Turn to your neighbor. Those of you who can … share the blood …”

The rows near Charlotte, once emptied, had filled again as the mourners returned to their seats. The metallic scent, the blood scent, reminded her of … something. Something terrible. But when the woman in the nurse’s uniform turned to her and wiped her warm, bloody hands on Charlotte’s cheeks, Charlotte held on to those blessed hands and wept.

“Share the blood!” The Reverend called again from the stage.

“Share the blood …” the crowd chanted, syncopating with clapping as sharp as marching soldiers’ feet. “Share the blood!”

When the nurse let her go, Charlotte touched her cheek with her index finger. Saw the bright red stain. Raised it to her nostril to smell it. The night seemed to sway, then dance. Her thoughts were mired in a waking dream.

“Look at the cameras, children,” The Reverend said, pointing toward the banks of video cameras from the national news vans. “Tomorrow this will be shown all over the country. All over the world. And the world will know our truth. This is our moment. Take it!”

They cheered and swayed and held each other.

When the bloody nurse wrapped her in an embrace, Charlotte realized she was clinging in return, like a drowning sailor to a life raft.

* * *

Charlotte didn’t remember calling for a car to get home, but somehow, she ended up walking back through her own front door, hands trembling, tears streaking her cheeks.

Arthur wasn’t home yet. She needed time away from him first. Time to write.

She’d been wasting her time writing about relationships. Relationships! She needed to write about The Reverend instead. She should have been writing about The Reverend all along. She needed to share with the world what she had seen.

Miller. She needed to write a story for Miller

She wiped her hands clean on her clothes and started typing on her laptop.

Tonight, in a display of pure …

What, exactly? What was the word? She stared at the words on her screen, her eyes focusing on each one until they devolved to individual letters held no purpose, no meaning. The word display, especially, troubled her: D-I-S-P-L-A-Y. It was useless. A display was something for show. A display was a kind of lie.

Charlotte erased the word but couldn’t think of another. Couldn’t think of how to begin.

She was tired, that was all. Just tired. She had touched two strangers’ blood today.

Charlotte lost track of how long she stayed in the shower, too-hot water rushing her as she tried to clear her head. Share the blood. The Reverend’s edict rang in her mind. She rubbed her face with water, imagining the way The Reverend’s followers had bathed in the blood of his sacrifice.

When she came out of the bathroom in her towel, Arthur was waiting. He stood in the doorway in her path, his face drawn, eyes wide.

“Have you seen the news?” Arthur said.

She melted with shame inside for her lies. She wanted to tell him she had been there. She wanted nothing but Truth in her life. “Is The Reverend all right?” she said.

“All right?” Arthur said, incredulous, and then his face swelled with joy. “All right? He was the best ever. Death came for him and he did not move. He held up his own blood to the people. He showed he was brave the way only the Lord is brave. He did so good. So good.”

So WELL, Charlotte thought dimly, and then the thought was gone.

Arthur raved at her for at least fifteen minutes without a pause, the way he often did when he talked about Reverend Pike. But this time, instead of saying she’d heard enough or suggesting they go to bed, she sat and listened in her towel without getting dressed. She had witnessed it herself, but she reveled in Arthur’s excitement.

At last—they had something to talk about.

When Arthur finally went to sleep, Charlotte went back to her laptop. She could not rest until she had written what might be her most important story. It might be anyone’s most important story, the most important since … since …

Charlotte had fought writer’s block in the past, but that night she had to fight for every word as if she were in the haze of an opium den. She knew something was wrong—very wrong—but if she could just get the story finished …

Her hands on the keyboard moved as if they were animating themselves.

This is about relationships. About a man and woman, yes, but about so much more. Good to evil. Present to future. Damnation to salvation. Truth to lies.

She passed out.

* * *

She woke up to the sound of the kitchen television set playing the news. Arthur had also turned on the radio, so the newscasters’ voices dueled.

“—a horrifying display …”

“—a savage attack …”

“—no place in American politics …”

Charlotte had a raging headache. Where had she left the Tylenol? Her headache only calmed when the newscasters stopped talking and they played excerpts from The Reverend’s speech. When she could see him and hear his voice: “We have seen Satan try to slay your servant, but he did not succeed!”

The newscasters said The Reverend had received millions of dollars in donations that morning alone. The newscasters said the woman who attacked The Reverend was a former follower, a woman named Judy Scarlotta who was dying from cancer. Why hadn’t she gone to The Reverend for healing instead of trying to hurt him?

The event described on the news, one of horror, was nothing like she remembered. Hadn’t anyone seen the hugging and swaying and joy?

Charlotte brought her laptop to the kitchen table to read the story she’d written the night before with fresh eyes before she would send it to Miller.

She saw: Good to evil. Present to future. Damnation to salvation. Truth to lies.

But when she blinked, the words blurred, and she fixated on one: S-A-L-V-A-T-I-O-N.

Her heart thudded. “Arthur … hon … what’s this word?”

Arthur glanced over where she was pointing. He stared blankly at the word and shrugged. “Why do you use so many letters, anyway?”

She shook her head, confused. She didn’t know why. Couldn’t remember why.

Arthur pointed to another of the words. “Here,” he said. “This one.”

She sounded it out: T-R-U-T-H. Truth. She knew that one!

“That’s the one,” Arthur said. “That’s the only one that matters.”

He was so right, and she’d been so wrong. She had wasted so many months when he tried to tell her, but she had been too blind. Had too much pride. Pride, the Good Book said, goeth before a fall.

Tears dampened Charlotte’s face where she had washed away the blood.

“Let’s write your article together,” Arthur said. “Only the best words.”

Charlotte nodded. As they wrote about The Reverend and his truth—and called out the lies on the news—their fingers played together. And roamed each other’s skin. When he touched her, she felt her skin sing the way it used to.

They made love on the kitchen floor, and it was the greatest pleasure of her life.

“God wants us to be joyful,” Arthur said.

And together, they rejoiced.

Steven Barnes is the author of over thirty novels, has been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, and Cable Ace awards. The winner of the NAACP Image Award, he wrote the Emmy-winning “A Stitch In Time” episode of The Outer Limits, and the New York Times bestseller “The Cestus Deception.” He lives in Southern California with his wife, British Fantasy Award winning author Tananarive Due.
 
Tananarive Due (tah-nah-nah-REEVE doo) is an award-winning author who teaches Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA. She is an executive producer on Shudder’s groundbreaking documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. A leading voice in black speculative fiction for more than 20 years, Due has won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image Award, and a British Fantasy Award, and her writing has been included in best-of-the-year anthologies. Her books include Ghost Summer: Stories, My Soul to Keep, and The Good House. She and her late mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, co-authored Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. She is married to author Steven Barnes, with whom she collaborates on screenplays. They live with their son, Jason, and two cats.
 

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