's 2016 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Elliott Avery (email)

I don't remember much before he was in my life, the man who made it impossible to hide from the truth, the man who will always be a part of me. The man they called Joshua Smyrnan.

Joshua Smyrnan was my stepfather, and though the legality or his marriage to my mother was questionable at best, he was the only father I ever knew. My mom didn't like it when I asked questions about my real father. I don't know if it was more because Joshua might hear and get... upset or that it hurt to remember. She did tell me a few things at various points. That he'd been a soldier and died in the line of duty somehow, not long after I was born. That she'd had problems getting his pension or whatever from the military, even getting them to tell her exactly how he died. Maybe that's part of the reason she was so willing to leave the normal world behind.

I gather my mother wasn't very religious before my father died. Maybe she got into it looking to fill the void he left in her life. It all started with a small bible study group that was being held at the university she used to attend. My mother never mentioned what she'd been studying before she dropped out due to getting pregnant. She said it didn't matter anymore.

She ran into an old classmate at the group. A woman named Mary. It was her who introduced my mother to Joshua Smyrnan.

Mary and my mother became good friends and spent a lot of time together. I think my very earliest memories are not of my mother, but of staying at my aunt's house while she and Mary were out together, playing fetch with Percival, my aunt's high strung little Yorkie. I later learned he was eventually eaten by a coyote while my aunt walked him on a nature trail. The world is a cruel place. But by then I was already well acquainted with that fact.

At some point Mary had started to become dissatisfied with her regular church and the campus bible group. She said the church had gotten lax. That it was nothing but a glorified social club. Somewhere along the line she found other people who agreed with her. And then she brought my mother along.

I was about three years old when my mother first brought me to a grimy storefront that had been rented out by a group calling itself the "Church of God's Incorruptible Truth". I found the name a bit confusing at first, as inside and out the place was like no church I'd ever seen or heard of. There were none of the typical architectural flourishes one typically thinks of when picturing a church building. No bell tower, no high, vaulted ceilings or stained glass windows. Just a simple wooden pulpit at one end of the plain, white stucco room and two dozen or so mismatched chairs lined up in rows in front. The man behind the pulpit, however, was far from plain or simple.

Joshua Smyrnan was a tall, gaunt man with hollow eyes and unkempt hair. His stern, angular face looked as if it had been carved out of wood. He looked like something out of pre-renaissance Christian art. Something from before the church, grown decadent and worldly, embraced pagan, Romanesque art that celebrated life and the human form. He preached that we live in a fallen world, full of death and decay. That only pleasing God and preparing for our place in eternity was worth anything. You'd truly believe it to look at that cold, undead face.

Every Sunday for several months we would come to that place, to listen to that man preach. There was something haunting about his sermons. Far from the typical overwrought fire and brimstone preaching you might expect from a more "conservative" ministry, Smyrnan spoke with an almost clinical detachment. Like everything he was saying about God, about how He damns or saves who He will, the joy He takes in the suffering of the wicked and prideful, was completely self-evident, as much a fact of science as gravity. This wasn't the deranged frothing of a psychopath grasping for justifications of his own pathologies in scripture, this was somebody who truly believed.

Though I was just a child, I was already starting to form my own ideas about truth, about religion, about the nature of the world. Usually when people talked about God or angels or anything like that, I had the sense that it was, if not make-believe, then at least not "real" in the same way I was real, that anything I could see or touch was real. But sitting in that uncomfortable plastic chair, holding my mother's hand as she sat enraptured by that skinny, dead-eyed creature behind the pulpit, I heard him speak the Word with no trace of doubt or irony in a way no other adult ever had. I felt the eyes of God on me. I was scared and Smyrnan's message was that I had every reason to be.

Even when the sermons were over, I could feel God staring at me. I lived every second of my life trying to behave in such a way as not to incur His wrath. Terrified that even then I would not be saved, that I wouldn't be one of the elect, for long is the way and narrow is the gate that leads to eternal life, and few shall pass through it.

Joshua knew his congregation struggled with the temptations of this world, that we all feared making God angry. So he came up with a plan to make our lives easier to live righteously. If we pooled all our money, he would buy several acres of land far out in the countryside where the flock could live out lives of contemplation and praise to The Lord. It seemed like the most logical thing to do.

I was sad to leave the sinful modern world behind, especially the friends I'd made in kindergarten. Kimmy, who loved collecting bugs; Darren, always carrying that fat stuffed toy seal pup around; Omar, who wanted to be a singer when he grew up. But at the same time I was ashamed of my sadness. I knew leaving was the right thing to do. I knew it was what God wanted.

We finally arrived at the compound in a van, after many hours traveling winding mountain roads, with several other members of the congregation. My mother used to own a car, but sold it along with most of our other possessions to donate to the cause. It was a beautiful place. Green fields for miles around, surrounded by mountains and forests on all sides. It had once been a plantation, over a century ago, with a grand old southern mansion at the centre, a few guest houses and a large blockhouse that had once been a slave quarters. It was a simple life there. Most of the grownups worked in the fields while us kids, when not being taught how to read and such by Mrs. Jones, a member who was a former teacher, did tasks which benefited from our small hands, like hand-loading cartridges.

The men were always carrying guns. They would hunt deer and wild birds for our meat, but they were also fully prepared to defend our land from those who didn't share our beliefs.

It wasn't long after we arrived that Smyrnan took an interest in my mother. She was still quite young and conventionally attractive in those days. He noticed her one day as he supervised her and the other workers in the fields and just had to have her, I suppose. She was so honoured, of course, that this glorious prophet would deign to love her. It wasn't long before they were married, in a ceremony officiated by Nathaniel Jeffries, Smyrnan's second in command of sorts.

Instead of living in the blockhouse with the other regular members, my mother and I moved in to the grand, old columned plantation house at the centre of the compound with Smyrnan, his other two wives, and their many children. I thought it was a bit strange at first, as nobody on the outside I'd ever heard of had more than one spouse, but I was happy enough with my new brothers and sisters. We got along well and often played together when we weren't busy with school or chores. Unfortunately, I couldn't say I was as happy with my new father.

Though I tried my best to live a godly life, it seemed I could never go more than a few days without slipping up and committing some transgression Smyrnan thought was worthy of harsh discipline. Perhaps I didn't finish my chores fast enough, or spilled some food at dinner, or laughed at something inappropriate, or, or, or...

The canings left me crying and bloody, but the most upsetting part of all was the man's demeanour as he assaulted me.

"This is what has to happen." He would say. "You must be broken of your pride through suffering. Only then can you truly be able to serve The Lord." He said it with the cold, factual detachment of his sermons, like he didn't even see me as family, just another of the tasks that comprised his priestly duties. When I cried to my mother, she just told me it was for my own good and that I needed to learn. But what did I need to learn? I feared God. I wanted to please Him. Why couldn't I?

As time went on I got frustrated. I started to resent my stepbrothers and sisters. Smyrnan hit them occasionally when they did something particularly rebellious but never as often as he did me. Perhaps it was because I wasn't his biological child.

I read something in one of the books Mrs. Jones kept in the schoolroom once. It was a book about animals and it said that when a male ape takes a mate he will often kill any children she might have from previous mates. Though the Bible said humans were created by God, I was aware of the idea that some outsiders believed we were instead somehow descended from apes. In that moment things started to make sense for me. Joshua Smyrnan was nothing but an overgrown monkey, dressing up his animal brutality in fancy words about God.

I drew a picture of him once, as a long-faced snow monkey in a preacher's clothes. I showed it to my stepsister Rebecca, who was the closest in age to me, and she laughed. Then one of our older brothers, Jacob caught us and told Smyrnan. He caned both of us severely, but I was the only one who got thrown in the cellar.

I was down there for a week. There was a bathroom with a sink to drink from, but nobody brought me any food. I screamed and cried and banged on the door until my hands bled but nobody came. I started to think maybe I would die down there, that I would finally receive God's judgement. To my surprise I realized I was alright with that. Whatever God or the devil had in store for me in the next world couldn't be any worse than living with Joshua Smyrnan. I don't know if I was more relieved or disappointed when they finally let me out. Smyrnan said little, simply dumped a pile of brass shells and powder in my lap and told me to catch up on the work I'd missed. My mother didn't say anything. By this time she was already pregnant with her first child by Smyrnan and I think she had come to regard me as simply part of her past.

So that was how my life was for the next several years. Being ignored by my mother in favour of my growing collection of half-siblings or brutalized by my stepfather for any transgression he could invent. I almost got used to it. But not long after I turned 12, it somehow got even worse.

I woke up one morning feeling sicker than I ever had. I was having terrible pains and my sheets were stained with blood. I ran to my mother, crying, afraid I was going to die. I didn't expect her to care but it was the only thing I could do, running on pure, terrified instinct.

My mother was more sympathetic than I expected. She held me until I calmed down and gently explained that I wasn't in any danger, that it was just part of becoming a woman.

She was right about the second part.

When Smyrnan learned I had started my period he said it was time to marry me off. I was a woman now and had to start contributing to the flock by bringing new life into it and doing my womanly duties as wife and mother. I was overwhelmed. I didn't feel ready at all, but I knew better than to tell him that. He said women must submit to men as men submit to God. All else is vanity.

And so, within the month I was engaged to Matthew Brewer. Unlike me, my mother and the majority of the congregation, Matthew had not been with us from the beginning. A handful of people had come to the compound from outside over the years. Smyrnan occasionally sent Nathaniel and other trusted members out to do street evangelism or speak at other churches sympathetic to his theology. And then there was the online ministry, which Smyrnan operated singlehandedly. Though he never talked much about his past, I later learned he had worked with computers in some capacity before finding his true calling.

Most of the new members didn't last more than a week or two. They found the work, or the preaching, too harsh. Matthew was one of the ones who stayed. He'd been with us over a year when I was promised to him and had ingratiated his way into Smyrnan's inner circle. I was a reward for his loyal service, though given my stepfather's low opinion of me, I suspected Smyrnan of paying him a backhanded compliment.

Matthew was a full twenty years older than me. He had a pale, square face that always seemed to be sneering and close cropped, dirty blonde hair. He was short for a grown man, but powerfully built, with broad shoulders and big, strong hands that could have crushed my skull like a robin's egg. Being in his presence was enough to make me uneasy.

Smyrnan officiated our "wedding" himself. I wore a simple white dress, Matthew wore a dress uniform, which I found out later he'd bought at a military surplus store. My mother looked almost as nervous as I was the whole time but said nothing.

I went to live with Matthew in one of the small guest houses. I'd never been inside before. I wanted to look around but Matthew wanted to go straight to the bedroom. I told him I wasn't ready yet. He told me it didn't matter what I thought I was ready for or not.

I don't need to tell you what happened next. Either you already know what it was like or you're lucky enough not to. And if you do want to know more, how the fuck could you possibly deserve to?

I never thought I could hate or fear another man more than Joshua Smyrnan before I met Matthew. But with Smyrnan, at least his cold, calculating style of brutality had a sort of logic to it. I usually knew when I had done something he would punish me for. I could brace myself for the beatings and the isolation. With Matthew it was different. He would lash out for no reason I could divine. His moods changed like the wind. He would beat me to take out his frustrations, force himself on me to slake his lusts. The rest of the time he radiated a cruel tension, like a coiled viper ready to strike. Being in the same room with him was like being locked in a cage with a growling wild animal. And yet, in the year or so that followed I eventually became numb to even that.

I found the best thing to do was to empty myself, to not think of anything, ever. Do my wifely duties. Work in the machine shop. Sit with my husband through my stepfather's sermons and communion. Suffer from his cruelty at night. Never think of what it all meant. Never think whether God wanted it, because the answer would be too painful either way.

I thought that was just how life would always be. I was resigned to it. Perhaps Smyrnan had been right. I had been broken of my pride and vanity and was fit to live as a righteous woman of God.

But then I missed my period.

I didn't say anything to Matthew, to my mother, to anybody. What I did was thought. I couldn't keep myself empty anymore because I was no longer empty. I thought and thought about what was growing inside of me. What kind of person it would grow up to be. I thought of my step siblings and half siblings' daughters yet to be born and how it might treat them.

And I walked away. And I kept walking.

I hitchhiked my way to the big city when I got too tired to walk. When I got to civilization I managed to get in contact with my aunt. She burst into tears seeing me after nearly ten years. Apparently she'd tried to contact me and my mother several times but had been told my mother wanted nothing more to do with her or the outside world. When I told her why I left she was very understanding. She asked if I'd like to see about an abortion and I answered yes so quickly it surprised even me.

As I walked to the clinic I thought to myself, "This is it. I'm not one of them anymore. God will not forgive me." And I didn't care. I was able to think to myself again that maybe Smyrnan was wrong. Maybe there was no God, or God was nothing like Smyrnan thought. Maybe it was just an excuse to be cruel.

But in the back of my mind, as I caught a glimpse of the surgical tools, I wondered if maybe I was the one making excuses.

After it was all over, I just wanted to forget what had happened but my aunt convinced me to try to contact the police. Matthew and Smyrnan had to be brought to justice, she said. Unfortunately, things were not that simple. Smyrnan's church had sympathizers in the county sheriff's department. His message of harsh, divine retribution appealed strongly to the kind of person who volunteers to become a lawman. The investigation stalled out.

Then one day Matthew came to see me. I didn't see him, only heard his voice. My aunt told me to go to my room and hide when she saw him outside.

The sound of him shouting downstairs made me fall to the floor gasping for air and clutching my stomach as everything he ever did to me came flooding back. I was so sure he would take me away. It would all start again. But then I heard a crash and something I'd never heard before. Matthew was the one screaming in pain. I found myself able to catch my breath and did something I hadn't done since I could remember. I smiled. The shouting soon stopped and in a few minutes my aunt came up and took me in her arms. Told me he was gone and everything would be alright.

Apparently Matthew had put his fist through the front window in a fit of rage. He cut it up badly and had to be dragged away by another man from the church he had come with. My aunt took a photo of the hole and called the police again to report the vandalism. She took swabs of Matthew's blood herself and put them in a zipper bag in the freezer so there'd be no covering up that he'd been there.

The next day we got a package from Smyrnan containing divorce papers and a letter saying that if I signed them without any fuss and dropped all charges we would never hear from Matthew or any of them again. I signed them without hesitation. My aunt said I was being a fool, that the marriage wasn't even legal. I said I just wanted it to be over.

Joshua Smyrnan was no longer in my life, nor was my husband. I was free. Or so I thought.

I tried to go to school and lead a normal life but the memories of what I had gone through haunted me. I tried going to therapy. The way the doctor looked and sounded when he asked me to talk about what Matthew had done to me, I could see he was the same kind of creature as my former husband, if a slightly less overtly violent breed. I didn't have much to do with doctors after that.

I tried to lose myself in whatever I could. Drink, drugs, men, women. As much as I'd hated having them in my life, I wished Smyrnan and Matthew could see me now: drenched in sin and them powerless to exercise their cruel, perverse discipline. Nobody could hurt me anymore, nobody except myself.

It hurt my aunt to see what a mess I was making of my life. Eventually it was too much for her. She told me she was sorry but she didn't have the energy to take care of me anymore. If I didn't get myself clean I would have to find someplace else to live. So I left.

The next few years passed by like distant city lights through the window of a speeding car. I was lost in the rush of one hit or another punctuated with only brief, uncomfortable rest stops of lucidity. I was 19 when it finally all caught up with me, all of it, in the worst possible way.

I was at a party, smoking away the profits from some work I'd been doing for a local smash and grab ring (my time working on guns for the church had at least left me with some marketable skills), when the front door came crashing down and the house was swarming with an entirely different sort of armed sociopaths.

By then I'd been rousted by cops before in a dozen different cities, but this time was different. These were no small time local P.D. This time it was the Feds. Apparently the owner of the house was connected to some big fish the Bureau had been after for ages. Most of the guests were let go after a day or so in the holding tank but when the G-men pulled up my files they found something that interested them greatly.

Joshua Smyrnan (or as they told me his birth name was, Jerome P. Kaplan) and his followers were under federal investigation for a raft of sex crimes and weapons charges. The FBI had wanted to put him away for years but had been having trouble gathering evidence, both because of the isolationist nature of the cult and the uncooperative behavior of the local police. When they learned I was his stepdaughter they saw an opportunity to remedy this situation.

The Bureau had previously tried infiltrating agents into the compound disguised as new converts, but the plan had been less than successful. Apparently one of their agent's conversions turned out to be genuine and he ratted out his accomplices to Smyrnan, who promptly had them thrown out. The church had put a freeze on recruiting new members after that, forcing the investigation to take a different tack. If they couldn't send strangers to spy on the church, what about somebody they already knew?

They wanted me to return to the fold to act as an informant. If I did not, I was told I would face the maximum sentence for the drugs they had caught me with. I told them I couldn't do it. That I was one of the victims of the crimes they were investigating the church for. I couldn't face them again. That they were the reason I'd been doing the drugs in the first place. The hard-faced agent in front of me simply repeated the deal again and again, like a robot.

Go back to the compound or go to prison. I had only these two choices.

In the end, I chose the second option. I'd done a few separate months-long stretches in the county jail adding up to about two years by that point. I thought "How much worse could it be?"

Turns out it was a lot.

I have no evidence, of course, but I'm positive that the Feds had been paying off the guards and possibly the prison gangs to harass me. The harder I tried to keep my head down, the harder they'd smack me upside it. I wasn't surprised in the least when I woke up one day in the infirmary, for the third time in six months inside, with a ring of hairline fractures around the crown of my skull and a large shiv wound just below my ribcage, to see one of those inhuman things standing over me in its clean, dark suit.

"Alright..." I said with bitter resignation. "Let's get this over with."

"You've made the right choice." It said flatly.

They kept me in the prison hospital until my wounds healed to their satisfaction then bundled me off to my old home town. Nothing looked familiar after all those years. Everything was either boarded up or demolished to make way for colossal, phallic condo developments. Nothing that reminded me of the parts of my childhood that didn't make me sick remained.

If I'd been the kind of person who believed in omens, I would probably have taken that for a bad one.

Outfitted with listening devices disguised as earrings, I was dropped off at a local flophouse and given a list of several places that members of the church were known to frequent when in town. On the second day I found Jacob, my stepbrother, at a run-down gun shop on the seedy side of town.

He was shocked to see me after all those years. I made up a story about how I was there to buy a gun because I was thinking of shooting myself. I told him I'd made a huge mistake leaving the church. That life on the outside was so meaningless and I deeply regretted throwing away my only chance to have a truly fulfilling life pleasing God. I asked him if he thought there was any chance our father would take me back. Jacob said it might be possible and offered to take me back with him to see Smyrnan.

On the ride to the compound, Jacob talked proudly about how the church had been expanding. Though they no longer brought new members to the compound after the incident with the FBI, several formerly "mainstream" ministries had become affiliated with them and they were even sending missionaries to Africa, South America and a few Middle Eastern countries. Nathaniel Jeffries had relocated permanently to Ghana to coordinate the church's activities in the region and apparently had the ear of a few up and coming political figures there and in neighboring countries. Jacob never said anything about my mother or any of our siblings and I didn't much feel like asking.

As we pulled up to the main gate, I saw two haggard-looking middle-aged women who might have been my mother and her friend Mary working in the fields. They saw me looking at them and simply shook their heads.

I struggled against the urge to run or to shrink into myself when Jacob brought me before Joshua Smyrnan. He looked exactly the same as when I'd last seen him. That ageless, stone face hadn't changed a bit. His cruelty hadn't, either. The first thing he said was an instruction to Jacob to hold me down. Jacob looked confused for a moment but quickly complied. Smyrnan ripped the bugged earrings from me. I screamed as they tore bloody gashes down my earlobes. Jacob was then told to force my hands onto the table, palms up, as Smyrnan left the room for a moment. I cried and begged my stepbrother to let me go. He said he couldn't. Smyrnan's word was God's word. He was the prophet.

When Joshua Smyrnan returned he was carrying a ball peen hammer and a roll of duct tape. He taped my fingers down so I couldn't close my fists then placed an earring in each palm. Then, Joshua Smyrnan coldly and methodically smashed both earrings and several bones in my hands to pieces.

As I screamed and cursed at him, Smyrnan nonchalantly sifted through the shattered pieces of the earrings in my bloodied hands. He nodded slightly when he saw the tiny shards of electronic components. He said he knew something like this was bound to happen. That it was only a matter of time. Soon the heathens would descend upon them.

Smyrnan told Jacob to throw me in the cellar again then join him as he raised the alarm. The broken bones in my hands shifted around painfully as I was pulled away and dragged to the cellar door. I begged Jacob not to do this, that I couldn't handle it again. His mood changed this time. Rather than his usual dog-like, loyal earnestness, he was enraged. He spat angrily that I should be grateful, that I'd be safer down there than anybody else in the compound. As he pushed me down the cellar stairs, he said that if it were up to him, he would have just killed me.

As I collapsed in pain at the bottom of the stairs, I tried to hold back the memories of everything that had happened to me in this awful place. I felt like I was lost in space without oxygen. There were no drugs or drinks or anything for miles that I could turn to as I usually did when things became too overwhelming. In the end, I turned to focusing on the pain in my hands, even aggravating the wounds. The sharp, grinding sensations, the rush of adrenaline and endorphins, were enough to take me away for a while, but it soon wore thin.

I don't know how long I was down there before the sound of distant gunfire began to filter down to the cellar. It had to have been less than a day, though. The troops were already getting into position when the bugs were destroyed. I couldn't help but laugh bitterly at the realization. They hadn't wanted more information. They'd already decided what they were going to do. All they needed was an excuse.

I crawled to the bathroom and crouched down in the tub as the repetitive dakka-dakka-dakka of automatic gunfire and the occasional thump of an exploding under-barrel grenade slowly moved closer. A particularly loud blast shook the manor house and bits of plaster tumbled from the ceiling like snow. A few moments later I heard the cellar door open and quickly slam shut. I tried to hide myself, to not even breathe as staggering, uneven footsteps echoed down the stairs.

Joshua Smyrnan stumbled into the bathroom, clutching a bloody wound in the left side of his chest. He didn't seem to notice me as he pulled open the medicine cabinet and began rifling through it, making little sound as he pulled off his red-stained shirt and splashed himself with disinfectant, then downed a handful of aspirin while covering the hole with surgical tape. He then opened the cupboard under the sink and began removing the cleaning products and other items. When the cupboard was bare he pulled away a false bottom, revealing a ladder leading down a dark, narrow hole. As he began to descend the stairs he turned his head back toward the bathtub.

"Get out of there and follow me." He addressed me, curtly.

"Why should I?" I managed to growl through a haze of rage and fear and disgust.

"Because those thugs don't care what happens to a random junkie whore." Smyrnan said, calmly. "They have no intention of letting you survive this, informant or not. I, on the other hand, want very much for you to survive."

I would have argued, but a particularly large explosion going off nearby made my decision for me. I climbed down the ladder after Smyrnan as fast as my painful, crippled hands would let me. Slowly the light from the cellar bathroom above shrank as we descended the ladder. We soon came to rest in a cramped limestone tunnel, dimly lit by scattered patches of phosphorescent lichen and supported by buttresses of ancient, blackened wood. Smyrnan instructed me to step away from the ladder as he produced what appeared to be a garage door opener covered in duct tape and haphazard-looking pieces of additional wire and other metal parts from his pants pocket. He pushed the button and another explosion sounded above, followed by debris raining down the hole until it was completely blocked off. "That should slow them down." He said as he tossed the homemade detonator aside.

"This tunnel was built before the Civil War." Smyrnan said, catching me looking around in wonder. "The son of the man who built the plantation converted to Quakerism while studying out of state. Once he inherited the place, he built this tunnel to quietly move the family's former slaves to a stop on the underground railway where they could be transported up north in secret."

Smyrnan turned and looked me straight in the eye. "That's why I chose this place. It's a symbol, a symbol of freedom. I was trying to free you from sin and to make you strong enough to use that freedom properly. All those people out there, you're disposable to them, nothing but a means to their cruel ends. I'm the one who was trying, all those years, to prepare you for something greater. No matter how many times you fell, how many mistakes you made, I never gave up on you. But instead you chose to go back to being a slave to perversion, to cavort with drug addicts and coprophiles. You chose to live in a world ruled by people who believe they're no more than animals and see no reason not to act like them..."

There was only so much of his droning voice I could take. In a fit of anger, I shoved him as hard as I could. His bullet-riddled body was in no state to resist. I kicked him until my legs gave out, in the head, between his skeletal legs. I stomped on his chest and stomach until the blood started to bubble up from between his lips. I screamed at him that nothing he ever did made me feel free. How was beating me, locking me in a cellar or giving me as a plaything to a depraved rapist supposed to make anyone free?

"He's dead, you know..." Smyrnan coughed as I fell to my knees, exhausted. Even after what I'd done to him, his bloodied face remained infuriatingly expressionless. "... Your husband."

"He's not my husband." I protested. "He never was."

"Still so rebellious..." Smyrnan sputtered through the blood and broken teeth filling his mouth. "I thought he could do more for you, despite his limitations. His problem was he had none of God's perfection in him, save what he could bring out in others."

Smyrnan coughed again, harder this time, spitting up blood that stung my eyes and left an unpleasant metallic taste in my mouth. "But it's still not too late for you. You're going to have a great opportunity, an opportunity to bring more people closer to God than I ever could. You'll be the one to show them the truth."

"What truth?" I growled, contemptuously.

"Tell people what you saw here." He said as his skin grew paler and his blood spread across the stone and clay of the cavern floor. "I leave the task to you. For me..." Smyrnan's voice began to grow weaker as what little light was in his hollow eyes faded into nothingness.

"... It is finished."

And so, Joshua Smyrnan, the only father I'd ever known, died. Even as much as I hated him, even though I more or less caused his death, I still made a perfunctory attempt to shake him awake, all to no avail. Eventually, my broken hands stained with his blood, I tossed his emaciated corpse aside and made for the other end of the tunnel. What I found at the end would have made me scream, if I'd had the energy left.

It was a dead end. The mouth of the cavern was blocked by a wall of huge, heavy boulders. Perhaps there had been a rockslide, or another explosion from the fighting reaching wherever the tunnel came out. Whatever it was, I was trapped. I steeled myself for a moment and began trying to push at the rocks, but they held fast. I pounded against them with my fists, barged into them with my shoulders, kicked at them with my boots until I collapsed, my whole body aching.

It wasn't until I felt up to moving again that I realized through all the pain and exhaustion that the strangest thing was what I wasn't feeling. My hands no longer hurt like they did before.

I looked them over again and again, clenching and unclenching my fists. Apart from the dried blood caked on them and the slight stinging from beating them futilely against the rocks, they were perfectly fine. I wondered to myself what it meant, if they'd really been broken at all or I'd just imagined it, but I quickly put it out of my mind to focus on finding a way out.

The other end of the tunnel, which Smyrnan had blown up behind us, was no easier to dig through than the rocks had been. I realized my only hope was for the FBI or somebody else to find the mouth of the collapsed tunnel and dig into it from outside. Waiting was all I could do.

The hours turned into days as I paced in the darkness, enduring the bitter taste of the lichens to stay alive, with no sound to accompany me but the wind whistling through a tiny opening between the boulders. I tried yelling through it until my throat felt like it would bleed, but still nobody came. After a while, I noticed another strange absence. There was no smell but the damp earth. Something was very wrong. I was intimately familiar with what a dead man was supposed to smell like.

Not long after I moved out of my aunt's house I started living with a boy I'd met in school. We were both "weird" kids, "bad" kids, the kind who hung out behind the gym smoking dope at lunchtime and listening to devil music. His parents had died in a car accident when he was very young and officially he was staying with his uncle, who was kind of a burnout himself and spent most of the year traveling around the state playing drums in an AC/DC cover band. Naturally his place became party central for all us weird kids. We got to like each other and eventually I just got into bed with him to sleep off a drunken bender and never left.

Things were great for a while until he got into heroin, or to be precise, until he got off of heroin in the most permanent of ways.

Seeing him lying on the bed in the middle of that repulsive brown stain, eyes clouded, vomit covering his boyish, peach fuzzed face, hurt me so badly that all I could do was rock back and forth in a corner, crying for hours. That turned out to be a mistake. Eventually the smell got to be so bad I couldn't stay by his side any longer, no matter how much I wanted to.

I'll never forget that smell as long as I live. But what's even more disturbing is its absence long after it should have appeared. Not least because of what it signifies.

I looked back over Smyrnan's corpse. Apart from the pallor and the gaping hole in his chest he seemed perfectly unharmed. The bruises I'd inflicted on him had disappeared overnight. There was no urine or feces anywhere to be seen.

It is said that the bodies of saints and others favored by God will not decay. They look as firm and healthy as they were in life, days, weeks, even years after death. Incorruptible, they're called.

This was what he meant. I was supposed to show the world his incorruptible body. Show everybody that this sick, twisted man, this abuser, was right. That we are watched over and judged by a God who condones and even encourages torture and rape.

I felt sick. I felt small and scared, just like I felt the first time I heard Smyrnan preaching in that cheap storefront church. I felt hopeless. What's the difference between heaven and hell when heaven is an eternity in the presence of the architect of all your misery?

Smyrnan had preached that we had to trust in God. That He has a plan for all of us, that we can become closest to Him when we suffer the greatest despair. I was almost ready to submit. The will to fight nearly left me. But then I heard a distant sound, some great mechanical rumbling. They were finally coming to dig me out.

I thought of how others would react if they saw what I saw. I thought about the despair other girls like me would feel and about the glee that people like Smyrnan and like Matthew would experience knowing God was on their side. And I knew that whatever happened to me, I didn't want any of them to have that.

Fuck eternity and fuck God. If this life is the only chance we get to live feeling free, free from the presence and the judgment of such a monstrous being, even if that freedom is an illusion, we should treasure every second of it. Even if I could never know that freedom again, I would make sure others would still enjoy it. I would never let anybody else see Smyrnan's body.

And so, before the machines began to break through the rocks, I set about my greatest act of rebellion: my last communion.

"This is my body which is given for you..."