From the author: Some people might be offended by this story's language, to say nothing of its religious concepts. This story was published in Realms of Fantasy, edited by Shawna McCarthy, in 2010. An earlier version was published in New Writings in the Fantastic, ed. John Grant.
A Close Personal Relationship
by Tom Marcinko
Five years into Junior’s Surprise Visit, Ted got a call in his cubicle at the Department of Traditional Family Values. It was Clare of Assisi, patron saint of television since her appointment to that post by Pope Pius XII in 1958.
Ted recognized Saint Clare’s phone icon immediately, but who wouldn’t? Her late-night talk show had been a hit on all 10,057 American channels since Junior’s return to Earth. Ted felt his teeth grind, but he turned it into a smile. He couldn’t stand her show -- it was so loud and happy -- but of course he had to watch it. Everybody did.
Saint Clare beamed a beatific smile. “Ted Stevski?”
“Yes?” Ted’s mouth dried up.
“Good news! Your Interview is this afternoon!”
Something inside Ted turned to ice. His tongue felt like a dirty gym sock. It stuck to the roof of his mouth.
“Three o’clock!” said Saint Clare. “Your place!” She leaned closer to the screen. “This is your lucky day!”
I’m finished, he thought. It’s all over for me.
“Why—why thanks!” he said.
“Think nothing of it!” Saint Clare replied. “Good luck!” She logged off.
Ted’s heart triphammered as he called up his appointment calendar and canceled everything. Next he went to e-mail Kevin, his boss, to let him know he was leaving the office early.
But Kevin must have known: Call me. K., read the e-mail waiting in Ted’s box.
He rang up Kevin, whose bright-eyed, smiling face sported a new beard, in imitation of Junior. He’d had his Interview last month; since then, he talked of little else.
“Looks like it’s time to meet the Big Man,” Kevin said. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks.” It didn’t surprise Ted that Kevin knew. All post-Interviewees seemed to be of one mind.
“Nervous? Hey, I can understand that. But you’ve got nothing to worry about. My Interview went great. I came out a new man.”
It seemed to Ted that Kevin hadn’t changed much. But then, Kevin had always believed. He’d joined the Department in the beginning, ten years ago, back before Junior’s return. It seemed like a long time ago.
“Relax,” Kevin said, “You’ve been a model employee.”
Yes, thought Ted. Model employee. Great.
Ted’s oilburner was parked at the far end of the Bureau’s lot. He covered his mouth with his breathing mask and began the long walk. No point in environmental regulation these days. Junior actually ordered them repealed; He considered them a Personal affront to His dictum about using up the world.
Ted still remembered the broadcast. My Father gave you this planet to use up; you’re saving it as if there actually were a tomorrow. Your lack of faith wounds Me. See? And He’d held up his bleeding stigmata for a global audience of billions.
You couldn’t help but believe.
Ted would be be found out. Everybody was, sooner or later. Sure, Kevin had been a believer from day one. But not everybody. Tyrone in Accounting had been a rabid atheist. Tina in Word Processing had thought Junior was a space alien in disguise. After their Interviews, they’d come out perfect believers.
Ted didn’t want that to happen to him. Why, he could not say. Surely it would be a more comfortable world, if he fit in a little better?
He wondered what happened to Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Ted was the kind of guy who worried about such things.
As he revved his federally mandated 32-cylinder engine, the radio automatically exploded to life with a Department-sponsored broadcast. You could turn it down but not off. He punched in his destination and as the car roared onto the freeway one of the Department Spokesmen lectured the audience about the folly of pre-Junior societal behavior. As if anybody alive now dared to advocate gun control, or birth control, or equal rights for gays-lesbians-bisexuals-transgendered people, or teaching evolution.
He took a Halcion Lite from the glove compartment, choked it down without water, leaned back in the driver’s seat, and closed his eyes. Sooner or later everybody had an Interview with Junior. Everybody.
This wasn’t the Second Coming Ted had expected.
As a child Ted tried hard to be devout. He loved Junior with all his heart, and considered Him a close personal friend. He prayed to Him whenever he was in trouble, when his mother lay dying, when his father kept hitting the bottle. Ted didn’t always get what he asked for, but always figured there must be a reason.
Ted remembered the day his faith began to desert him. It was twenty years before Junior’s Surprise Visit, when the people in gray came to take away his copy of The World We Live In, by the Editors of Life Magazine.
He was in fifth grade, devouring the book before classes began, lingering over a panoramic fold-out page showing the Age of Dinosaurs. The men and women in gray casually strolled into the room and had a brief whispered discussion with the teacher. Ted didn’t notice till the whispering grew loud. The people in gray showed papers and badges. Miss Clement bit her lip and nodded grimly. Ted froze as her footsteps clacked towards him in a classroom now otherwise silent.
“Ted,” she said, leaning over him, speaking quietly but urgently. “That book is overdue from the library.”
“But I just checked it out yesterday,” Ted said.
She leaned closer. “Ted. I’m going to have to take the book now. You can check it out again later.”
Ted looked up at the men and women in gray. They nodded and smiled at him. Their smiles were very, very sweet.
Later Ted tried to find the book again, but it had vanished from the school library, and the town library, too. In its place were books about Noah’s Ark, and Jonah and the Whale, and the Tower of Babel. The pictures were nice. But it wasn’t the same.
He just didn’t get it. There were a billion copies of the Bible in print, and very few copies left of The World We Live In. Where was the threat?
He read blurry xeroxes of forbidden texts. He collected pages on dinosaurs, on astronomy, on evolution. Sometimes he hid them under the bed, and read them with a flashlight, blankets pulled over his head. Ted concluded that if Junior ever really did return to earth, He would have nothing to do with the people who acted in His name.
Now Ted wondered if there were any nice people in Hell.
The dashboard clock read 2:54 when Ted’s sixdoor pulled into his driveway.
Junior was sitting in Ted’s favorite chair. He wore an expensive three-piece blue pinstripe suit. His ash-blond hair was combed back, parted, and tied in a pony tail. His beard was neatly trimmed. He had put on a few pounds since his return to Earth. He wore several rings on each hand, including a pinkie ring on his right.
Ted wondered how He’d gotten past the house’s security system.
“A miracle,” Junior replied to Ted’s unvoiced thought. Junior shrugged and looked at His fingernails. “What else? Sit down.”
Ted sat. Now that they were face-to-face, he felt strangely at ease. He’d spent the last five years hiding what he really thought. Punishment was close at hand.
Junior said, “I’m not here to punish you.”
“I sure don’t expect You to give me a reward,” Ted said. He was getting tired of hiding his thoughts. What difference did it make now?
Junior leaned forward. His ice-blue eyes burned like distant stars.
“You don’t like Me, Ted. Do you?”
Ted reached for his collar and loosened the tie. He was not sure what he’d expected. But this was not it.
“I’m not sure I know what You mean,” Ted replied.
Junior sighed and stood up. He put his hands in his back pockets and began to pace the room.
“I mean, it’s not a question of belief,” He said. “I’ve brought peace and prosperity to the world. This is an age of miracles. You can’t help but believe I exist. That choice, I’ve taken away from you. But you don’t believe in me. Do you?”
He stopped and looked Ted straight in the eye.
Ted said: “I don’t suppose it would do any good to say—”
Junior whirled around. “—that you’ve ‘been good’? Yes, you’ve kept all the outward signs of belief. But the time has come for you to give Us more than just your obedience.”
Ted swallowed. “Isn’t obedience what You want?”
Junior smiled, stuck His hands in His back pockets, looked at the ceiling, and rocked on His heels. “Well, outward signs of obedience are fine, Ted. Especially for Catholics. But we’re not Catholics, are we? I’m certainly not.”
Ted wiped his palms on the upholstery. “Then what is it You want?”
“Oh, I dunno, Ted. You tell Me. Like, oh, take a look at this!”
He pointed to a picture on Ted’s wall. Ted had burned it for his own protection, five years ago, but now it was back, something he’d kept above his desk when he taught Intelligent Design 101, and slipped bright kids blurry photocopies about Darwin without written permission slips from their parents.
The picture was a framed print of the famous sixteenth-century woodcut. It showed a scholarly type poking his head through the dome of the heavens, staring in wonder at the gears and wheels of the greater cosmos beyond.
“This,” Junior said, “fucking offends Me, if you want the truth.”
“Well, I don’t see why; it’s only a picture ... ”
“ ‘It moves, anyway,’ eh, Ted?”
“What do You mean?”
“That Catholic thing again. The Church pardoned Galileo. Does that mean I have to? That guy, he fucking offended Me too.”
What did He want? And how had that burned print been returned to his wall?
“I told you, a miracle. Get used to them. Now, the point is—well, let Me put it this way. I expect certain things to be taken on faith. Out of sheer adoration of Me. If I say believe, I mean believe. If I say two and two are five, believe that. You got it?”
“Certainly,” Junior replied in a mocking falsetto. He pointed to a poster on the wall. “And what is that supposed to mean?”
It was another item Ted had lost a long time ago. It showed the evolution of life, from a single cell, to simple organisms, through dinosaurs, smaller mammals, through the apes and hominids and finally to the modern human being.
“You loved the dinosaurs more than Me,” He said. “You always did.”
Yes, Ted thought. But I needed to, don’t you see?
If Junior heard that thought, He did not acknowledge it.
He reached into his pocket, removed something small, and tossed it.
Ted caught a small toy model of a triceratops. He turned it over and over in his fingers.
It was made of blue plastic. The horns bent when he fingered them.
“This really bothers You?” Ted asked, looking up.
“Not the thing itself,” said Junior. “What it stands for.”
Junior sighed. He flopped onto the couch, stretched out, and let his foot dangle over the back. “Let Me tell you a little story. Once upon a time there was a Son, and He had a very demanding Father. His Father asked Him to do a certain Thing, and the Son did so, even though He didn’t particularly want to; even though, to tell the truth, the Son found this Task quite painful. But the Son was under the impression that after He did this Deed, people would straighten up and fly right.”
Junior made a spitting noise. “Talk about your original dysfunctional family ... yeah, after the Big Sleep I sat at the right hand of My Father. Not a word from Him about all I did for Him; not so much as a fucking Thanks, Son, well done. I sat there at His right hand and basked in His radiance. Which is like watching paint dry, if you ask Me. I mean, that’s all it is with Him: Me, Me, Me. The Great I Am. ... Not that I really got along any better with my Mother. I always talked back. I couldn’t help it. Everything she said seemed so inane. I think I was angry at her for being such a doormat.
“So next time, I decided to do it differently. I came back once before, in the fifteenth century. You thought that story was just fiction, only something that crazy Russian novelist dreamed up?
“Yeah, I came back for a little visit. I did a few miracles. Raised a girl from the dead. The Grand Inquisitor—old cardinal, ninety years at least—told the crowd to grab Me. They were so used to following his orders that they locked Me up! And he told Me I had no right to add to what I’d already said!
“I wasn’t going to go through that again. No more run-ins with the law. No more conflict with the established order.
“Playing along with the Establishment is the one thing I’ve never tried. ‘Render unto Caesar.’ To hell with that. Render unto Me for once. How’s that sound? So I made compromises. I watched their influence grow and I said to myself, Why not? My return has to benefit somebody. Why not them?
“At first I didn’t feel quite right about it. I was still following those old codependent patterns. I felt guilty. I felt I should be giving, giving, giving.
“It turned out to be easy. It turned out to be fun. When I think of all that sacrifice, all that blood ... Well, this time, we’re going to do it My way. I’ve bled. Now it’s your turn.”
Ted, confused, gestured helplessly with the triceratops.
“Get that thing out of My sight!” Junior said.
Ted put it in his pocket.
Junior shook his head. “Not good enough. Look.”
Ted found himself in his bedroom in the house he grew up in. Laid out before him was all the paraphernalia of his childhood, before the people in gray came after it. Models of dinosaurs, and books about them too. A map of the solar system, a chart about the evolution of the stars. A three-inch reflecting telescope, a toy gyroscope, and the Visible Man, all courtesy of the Edmund Scientific Company.
Ted’s heart filled with awe. By bringing him here, Junior was showing Ted how much He understood him.
Junior looked at it all and frowned, and shook His head, and gave the thumbs down.
“It’s got to go.”
Ted picked up an Estes model of the Saturn V rocket. “All this threatens You somehow?” He shook the rocket.
Junior shook His head. “It doesn’t threaten me. It offends Me. It threatens you, though. Everything in this room tells me you lack faith. Some people can take or leave a universe that’s billions of years old; some are fine thinking that Allah or Buddha or Vishnu are just different names for the same guy; a few believed zilch, but here I am and they’re all like Oh, my mistake. I don’t mind them so much. Whatever floats their boats. But you ... well, during this Visit I’m demanding a sacrifice from everybody. Some people are giving up sex; some people are giving up money; some people are giving up power; some are just changing their minds. Kevin and Tyrone and Tina in Word Processing all gave up something. I’m Interviewing hundreds of other people right now, simultaneously. That’s the sort of thing you can do when you’re Me. And all those people? They’re all making the sacrifice, because you see, Ted, thou shalt have no other gods before me.
“Some people, Ted, are giving up a worldview. And whatever sense of wonder goes with it.”
Next stop—miracle—was the late Cretaceous era.
A dragonfly the size of a housecat buzzed Ted’s ear. Lizards glided through the air on leather wings. A tyrannosaurus feasted on pink meat. An apatosaur buoyed in a swampy lake.
The scene wasn’t even accurate, Ted realized. It was the prehistoric bestiary of his childhood, long ago supplanted by theories of quick-moving, warm-blooded lizards. But it was enough to make him stare in wonder.
He had spent hours contemplating the dinosaurs: reading about them, drawing them, imagining them mindlessly whiling away their hundred-million-year afternoon. It was where Ted went, in his mind, when Dad stumbled home and passed out on the couch, when the news about Mom got worse and worse.
Here everything seemed friendly and clear, and when the nuns and priests tried to talk him out of this world of wonders, and replace it with Eden, Ted always wanted to say, Don’t you get it? This was a world without sin and evil. This was Eden, or something better than Eden.
Junior was right. Ted loved the dinosaurs, more than he loved Him. Far more.
Ted loosened his tie. He was already soaked with sweat. His feet sank inches into the swamp. Water filled his shoes.
Junior, of course, looked air-conditioning cool. He knew how to deal with a body of water. He stood right on top of it. He tapped an impatient foot.
Junior clapped him on the back. “Well, Ted, kiss it all goodbye.”
“You’re going to destroy it?” Ted’s gesture took in the entire modern universe.
“No,” He said. “You are.”
The hell I will, Ted thought. You sleazy, pompous, infantile excuse for a god ...
“Now, is that any way to talk to Me, Ted? Me? Isn’t it about time that you accepted Me as your Personal Savior, that we had a Close Personal Relationship?”
“You do this to everybody?” Ted asked. “Everybody with a mind of his own?”
“Pretty much,” Junior admitted. “Watch.”
White flecks filled the sky to drift towards the ground. At first Ted thought it was snow. But as he held out his hand to catch a flake, he felt an ectoplasmic nothingness fall onto his outstretched palm.
He looked closer. It was a kind of snow, but it was more like video snow. It was blankness, negation.
The flakes were getting bigger. The world-tapestry before him was filled with holes.
Ted looked closer. Junior formed something in his hand. It was a round, white object, a snowball packed from the falling nothingness. He leaned back for a long throw and lobbed it hard, straight at the t. rex. The ball splattered and exploded against the creature’s head, to cover it up like invisible paint. The white nothingness dripped down and blanketed the great gray bulk. Soon the creature was gone.
Junior made an even bigger snowball of the stuff. He shoved it into Ted’s hands. “Toss. I said toss. I can make you do it. Look.”
And without will, Ted lobbed the white ball at a docile stegosaurus that munched fronds. The white stuff covered the creature. The stegosaurus vanished.
Ted felt like he’d killed a favorite pet—not one that needed to be mercifully killed, but one that was perfectly healthy.
“I can make you do it,” Junior said again. “Or you can do it as yourself. Your call.”
“Why are You giving me a choice?” Ted asked. “Why not just make me do Your will and be done with it?”
Junior leaned forward. “Because I care, Ted. I care deeply. I want you to love Me of your own free will. Like Father, like Son. It’s the way We’ve always run our business. So choose.”
Yes, Ted thought. Better to do it himself. Better to do the deed to a loved one, than to have somebody else do it for you.
At least he would remember.
Ted lobbed one at a triceratops. And a tyrannosaur. He caught a pterodactyl in mid-flight. He pummeled an ankylosaur. He kept throwing.
By the end of the day his arm was sore. Exhaustion muffled his grief.
The universe he’d lived in and loved as a child was gone. In its place was a thing without form, and void.
Junior took him back to his apartment, to regale Ted with anecdotes about how He used to remind Joseph that he wasn’t His real father. “His face would get all red, especially around the ears,” said Junior. “That’s what I remember. The ears got red as a beet, red as blood.”
Ted smiled. “That’s a great story, Junior.”
“Oh, I’ve got plenty more.” He slapped Ted on the back. “We’re going to be great friends. I can tell.”
“I’m sure too, Junior,” Ted said through a tight, bright smile. “I don’t know what took me so long.”
“It doesn’t matter, Ted. What matters is that now we have a Close Personal Relationship. Oh, look who’s here,” He said as he escorted Ted into the kitchen. “All your friends.”
Kevin was there, and Charlie from Accounting, and Tina from Word Processing. So was Saint Clare. “Surprise!” They’d draped a banner across his living room: Congratulations On Your Interview. Junior popped open a bottle of fizzy water and took a swig.
“Water!” He cried in mock surprise. “Well, I’ll fix that!”
Laughter all around.
Ted just smiled. He noticed a few people he knew but had never met: Jerry Seinfeld, Cat Stevens, Mahatma Gandhi, and Uma Thurmann were blending in with the guests. That answered Ted’s question about what happened to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.
Junior caught Ted’s eye. “Not so glum, kid,” said Junior, throwing his arm around Ted. “Everything’s going to be great from now on. I’ll never leave you now. We’ll talk later.”
By the time the party broke up, Ted found another framed print on his wall. He had not noticed it before. It was done in a sixteenth-century style. It showed the dome of heaven. A man sat beneath it and contemplated the splendor of the skies beneath the dome, beyond which was blank nothingness. The man seemed happy in his little universe.
Ted began to wonder if he shouldn’t try to follow this example.
He never managed to do it. Junior never took him back to the prehistoric garden, either.
And like everybody else, Ted lived forever.
Copyright 2007, 2010 by Tom Marcinko
This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.
An ardent missionary beams to another galaxy. A bounty hunter pursues a replicant from out of history. Aliens invade a globally depressed Earth with a curiously addictive consumer products. Plus the Second Coming, with a special guest appearance by the Patron Saint of Television. Welcome to seven adventures in space, time, and from under the floorboards.
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