In a near future world, a new religion centers around a magical book. Maria Collins is the aging daughter of Goss Collins, head of the Verbista religion. In one final attempt at making a difference, she wants to destroy the book which she sees as a curse on humanity.
Chapter 1: Dad's Dear Church
Maria Collins used to be so childish, such a baby. Oh yeah, she was going to change the world, take down the man, destroy the machine, let freedom bells ring and then tra-la-la happily ever… never. Such kiddie fantasies. Juvenile righteousness… Right. Juvenile stupidity is more like it. She kicks off her worn-out blanket, sits up and adjusts the straps on the leg, and ties up her boots as tight as she can. The sun is already stressing her out from behind the eastern canyon. She doesn’t care about the dirt stuck to the side of her face, but her old body complains. Her old tired body, the leg stump has been acting out again, her leg-leg knee is swollen. Doctors had said she would eventually lose her other leg, but knock on her cyborg leg, she hasn’t. Still, her body is telling her things she, hell no, doesn’t want to hear. She’d kick its ass if it wasn’t her own. But who’s she tricking, the message is loud and clear, the power won and she’s fresh out of fight. If only this endless line would move.
Maria struggles to her feet with a groan and straps on her backpack, that and her boots, only two things of value she owns. She spits. The human mass is starting to stir, behind her and in front of her, zombified. Poor bastards, folding blankets, stuffing them into bags. Some fancy-pants tool is rolling up a sleeping bag. To hell with him. Another jerk-wad is peeing right where he’s standing, splattering people around him, and no one moves an inch. Like the old face-offs at Pekin Pen, move an inch and you’re a pussy. The smell of shit and piss and sweat all around chokes out whatever oxygen is left in the canyon hole. A hundred thousand cigarettes lighting up at once don’t begin to cover-up the stench. Can’t find an apple to save your starving life, but tobaccacine? Oh sure, everyone has their little plastic bag. Maria pulls out a paper and some flakes from her belt pouch and rolls herself one.
“Yo, Babyface,” she says to the woman in front of her. “You got one more match for an old lady?”
The woman lights her own cig and passes the lit match to Maria.
“One more matches for you, Wrinkles,” she says in her thick accent. “I have more, do not worry. You need to… bly lewendig… Stay in life? Good? Today, I think we make it inside. Do not croaking right at gate.”
“If I did croak, Babyface, don’t let your boy there have his way with my body. I see how he’s been checking me out,” she laughs. She can still laugh.
The woman squints her eyes and looks Maria up and down.
“No, no, I don’t think he checks you for that reason. But still no croak please. I don’t want to have to choose to be losing place in line. Good?
“Don’t worry, homegirl, I got more lives left than you got kinks in your hair. Did I tell you about the time we were trapped in...”
“Yes yes you tell many stories,” interrupts the woman. “And I believe all of them. Very good stories for passing time. But now I have to go do urine and talk to husband. We prepare for entrance and moment with book.” And she turns around to talk to the man in line with her.
“Cool cool, Babyface.” Maria watches her talk to the man in front of her and walk away towards some dry bushes everyone’s peeing on. Damn, there used to be a time when a sweet African tush like that would’ve raised her blood pressure, for real. Now she’s set for a coronary. Maria spits.
She takes a drag from her cig, and looks to the back. The people behind her snake out into the distance. The whole thing is a giant spiral of human rows funneling people towards the center. She can’t see where she started, but she can, finally, see the temple, like some giant pimple, pus white and blood red, bursting out from the brown earth smack in the center of the zombie wasteland. If Fritz could see her now she’d yell at Maria: “That’s what you want to do when you’re old? Stand in line to see a book?” Nah, Fritz was always chill. In all the time they spent together, she never once gave her any flack. Actually, if Fritz was here, she’d be legit pumped about this weirdo crowd. She’d be talking to every freak in line. Maria, herself, is making the best of it putting up her tough funny girl front all the while wishing she was invisible. Especially in this crowd. Where did all the chill homegirls, the rad rockers, the dope revolutionaries, where’d they all go? Damn. It’s like they all turned into some horror movie hype-hypnotized zombie crew waiting in line to drink from the book like it’s some Guyana punch or something. She feels like the last person on earth still keeping it real. And it’s so trying, and she’s so tired of it. All the running, the hiding, the escaping and running, then escaping some more. Even with two good legs would be exhausting. Like Fritz used to joke, if you go far enough, you’ll be on your way back home. But damn if Maria has gone as far as she can go, tried all the fixes she could, fix herself, fix her friends, fix the world, and still no home in sight, just brokenness all around. And a book. And Marlon, her so-called last remaining parental affiliation, up in the damn tower… But fuck Marlon. She spits. Why is he still around? Why not Fritz or her mama? And why does she even sound like she gives a damn? Maybe the cursed Querida book will erase her mind for real, or at least chill her out for a millisecond. Seems to work for every other freak in the stupid line.
Babyface brings Maria one of the water jugs that are being passed back from the front of the line.
“Here, Wrinkles, you look like you are needing water,” she says.
“Thanks, Babyface.” Maria takes a swig of warm gritty water and passes it back to some guy in rags who bows low and says something in what sounds like maybe Chinese. An acrid breeze hits her in the face. A pungent reminder that the world is a toilet.
“How do you all stay so damn fresh all the time?” Maria asks.
“Because we are getting words from Book,” she says. “The Book giving person the words for person only. It is the Book writes only to person and make person in… hemel. Heaven. Good?”
“No, no good,” says Maria. “I have no idea what you just said.”
“The Book it soul to life of word spirits…”
“Nevermind,” Maria interrupts. “Guess I’ll see it soon enough.”
And then bye-bye baby.
She takes a visual measure of the distance to the temple. If the line moves as it did yesterday, she should be inside within the next few hours, but it is getting hotter.
As the heat rises with the sun, Maria’s vision blurs from exhaustion. She’s sweating more than she should and her good knee has a tremor. She can handle it. The line will be moving soon.
She closes her eyes for a second and pictures Fritz, her glow-in-the-dark skin, her white long hair, her slender fingers. Fine fingers. Over forty years ago and she can still feel them on her skin. She can still smell her, like strawberries in spring. Those were the good times. The only good times. The days at the Pad. Their attic room #4 of the Pad, the ceiling so low above them they can finger paint right on it while lying on their little mattress, the paint dripping down on them.
“Crom prepared the brew and the time for tea is upon us!” Crom calls from downstairs in his weird third person ritual tone.
Maria doesn’t want to leave their room, for real yo. It’s so chill up here, just her and Fritz. But Fritz kisses her lips, then expertly slides down to the exit hole in the floor, and leaps down from attic room #4 down the wooden rungs on the wall. Maria waits. Maybe she won’t go down. But she does. She sits up, hits her head on the ceiling again, then clambers down the rungs and into the couch room.
Crom is sitting his skinny ass on one of the couches. He’s pulled out a folding card table and tea set out of nowhere. He’s always finding random stuff like that. And now it’s tea-time down at the Pad, yo. Each cup sits at one end of the table, on its own saucer with its tiny golden spoon, steam rising to the ceiling. Hot tea. In the summer. In Texas. Genius Crom, fuckin-a genius dude.
“Crom says everyone gather ‘round for the tea,” says Crom.
“Present!” says Fritz raising her hand with her contagious enthusiasm. Gotta love that about her, that girl’s correct. She stands opposite Crom at the table both physically and spirit-like, legit opposites, Fritz all yes-yes-alright-let’s-do-this and Crom all no-no-all-wrong-let’s-tear this-down.
Maria stands between them on the third side of the table. The shorty young punk rocker between the two older long-hair hippies.
Everything is a ritual with Crom. Straight up. Always some crazy steps to follow. Maria digs his far-out loco shit, but sometimes she just wants to stay in bed with Fritz and watch her finger paint on the ceiling, and finger paint on her body, meow. Just the thought gets her a little wet. Fritz must sense it cause she reaches out and holds her hand. And that moment right there, so fly, so right, not the hand-holding, not that, but Fritz just knowing to reach out at that exact moment, more than ESP: Maria doesn’t know she wants Fritz to reach out, and Fritz doesn’t know she’s going to reach out, and then she does and their hands touch, and in silence, without even a look, they both realize they wanted that touch. That’s the jam right there.
That one touch and Maria is ready to drink tea, play Queers of England, plan the royal wedding, or whatever else Fritz wants to do.
“Steve, Crom can’t start the tea without you,” says Crom to Steve three couches over on the red vinyl couch, his favorite. Steve’s playing with his beatnik goatee and reading the book. Again. Fuckin-a.
Crom is worried.
“Crom solves historical paradoxes,” says Crom.
“Querida is a freakin’ cooool book,” says Fritz, “but there is something strange about it.”
“Strange or not, homeboy is lost in it,” says Maria. “For real. Deep into it.”
“Crom warned him,” says Crom, “and now Crom must act.”
“Steve’s a big boy,” says Fritz, “let him be. Also, this is his Pad we’re all crashing at. Don’t forget, oh Crom of Croms.”
Maria and Fritz laugh. Crom doesn’t notice when they make fun of him. So much material there and dude is smart but damn, he’s in his own orbit.
“Steve!” Crom calls to Steve again.
Steve has his index finger up in the wait a second sign.
Fritz squeezes Maria’s hand and looks at her. It’s hypnotic. Her eyes are paradise and Maria looks into them and it’s like a secret door opens, a secret passage just for Maria to walk in and they’re in some fly-white sandy beach, just the two of them and no one else, chilling, and they’re eating mangos and they’re naked and sweaty and relaxed, and all they can feel is their bodies tingling in the breeze, under the warm sun.
“Steve!” This time, Crom dude really puts the emphasis on the ST.
“Effluvious, esophagus!” Steve snaps to reality and comes over still holding the book. He says shit like that now, for real. He’s always been a motormouth, but yo, he’s taken it up a notch since he started on the book.
The four of them stand around the table like some Richie Rich family waiting for the Crom-dad to say grace before they can dig into the meal.
“Crom speaks: Listen people,” says Crom.
Maria squeezes Fritz’s hand and snickers.
“Fritz and Maria harvested and catalogued the precious golden caps,” Crom continues, “and Crom prepared it with the best method learned from the Oregonian old growth. Together, we drink this tea, in unison. Meaning at the same time. Everybody follow?”
They all nod. Maria wishes someone would fart, that would be killer right now.
“And we will be as one. So everybody, grab your little cup – Ain’t those nice? Some nice old lady up on Noria Street gave ‘em to Crom – and stir it up a bit with the tiny golden spoon like you were born with it. Cause tonight we are going to be the golden children who will see the true light of the world.”
Maria can’t take it anymore. “Dude, this is funny and all, but let’s drink the damn tea.”
Fritz laughs and does that centering thing where she lifts her hands over her head and then lowers them tracing the contours of her body.
“Let us let it cool down some, but not too much,” says Crom. “We want it just hot enough to feel it. A little fire in our bellies, right?”
Steve is distracted, glancing at the book in his hand. Maria is annoyed, ‘cause seriously, she’d still rather be up chilling with Fritz in attic room #4. Maybe a little later.
“Ok, and now on three, together.”
“One, two…” and they slam the thick slimy hot tea, ugh, more like an oyster or phlegm, in one gulp, hot, burning hot actually, but mad props, no one flinches.
And in what seems like seconds later, they’re all out on the Pad’s rickety porch trippin’ the light fantastic on the 207. Summer afternoon on the 207, their hood in the middle of San Anton. Busy time of day. Kids riding souped-up bikes, men working on cars, ladies with shopping carts full of laundry or food, people sitting out on their porches up and down Torreon Street, everyone enjoying the late afternoon cool down as the long Texas day turns to eve.
Fritz is blowing bubbles from a pink plastic bottle.
Crom is sitting crossed legged on the edge of the porch.
Steve is reading the book. For real. He won’t stop.
“Steve, friend,” says Crom, “we’re going to have to break you from the book.”
“Right in the middle of a major city,” says Maria, “best place to hide from the man.”
“In plain sight,” says Fritz and blows bubbles over their heads.
The street lights come on.
“Wrinkles,” Babyface taps on her shoulder and Maria snaps her eyes open. “You are going to losing your spot if you not moving.”
The canyon heat is oppressive. Fire, fire, the world is on fire. Maria still wants to scream it, but she’s learned: no amount of screaming will do. Millions of warnings and people ignore them until their actual skin is on fire. And even then, this crowd would rather burn in place than lose their spot in line to see the Book. She tries to spit, but her mouth is bone dry. She opens her backpack and half shoves her head in: under her blanket is a dried chunk of bread, a bag of peanuts, the emergency matches, and, aha, the plastic flask. With her head still in the pack, she squeezes a mouthful of grain vodka from flask to mouth. If anyone finds out she’s got alcohol in there, they’ll gang steal it from her. The shot goes straight to her belly. Boom. She feels it run through her limbs, even her phantom leg feels energized. She looks around and breathes in deep. Chill. She can do this. One last gesture.
Three hours later, and three more swigs, there’s just enough left. She’s a bit shaky, but she’s almost at the temple gates. The centrifugal soul of the Dear Church of the True Word: with offices in all forty-four nations, thirty-five territorial corporations, and five regions, but only one place to worship: The Center at Golden Canyon. The ads show some idyllic images of the temple and the tower at sunset, all golden sparkle majestic. Then you arrive and realize it’s just a dead earth landfill crawling with infinite lines of last-gasp humans streaming into it from all corners. Maria spits. There’s the story of the one lady that came from the Philippines on her knees the whole time. On her bleeding knees on a boat across the Pacific, on her bleeding knees on a train from the Western United States, on her bleeding knees down the canyon, bleeding knees this whole interminable line, just for one look at the book. Her story is legend, everybody in line knows it, The Lady of the Bleeding Knees they call her. She took one look at the book, after all that, stood up, and died, right there in the temple. The legend goes that they took her body and fed it to the book. To the cursed book, as in eaten by the book. The same book Maria couldn’t care less about all those years ago. Absurd doesn’t begin to describe it. And if you ask them how, everyone has a theory: turned to dust and put between the pages, liquefied and IV dripped into the spine of the book, or the more straightforward: left body in front of book at night while temple is closed (that’s why they close it at night, don’t you know? the book’s gotta eat). Apparently if they feed your body to the book, you live forever in words or some ridiculousness like that. Then for every story about book feeding, there are a dozen about what happens when you look at the book, non-stop orgasms, visions, hallucinations, bowel explosions, the one dude who straight-up ascended to the heavens (no explanation how he got through the temple ceiling). But Maria didn’t meet any of those people on line, just a bunch of people like Babyface who have gone through the line more times than they can count and next time is going to be the one, because the previous ones they weren’t ready to really see the book. Querida, the little blue book that Steve lost his mind over all those years back at the Pad. And they thought it had been the drugs. How did they never figure out what the book could do? Were they really that dumb?
She now wishes she had read the whole thing. Marlon built the voracious Wordist temple on its constantly changing content, built the massive Collins Universal empire on its spine, and with its income, built that bloated CU tower that rises above the canyon walls like a massive penis. Marlon is probably sitting up there, right now, in his office looking down at the masses, jerking off to how much younger he is today than yesterday while people below die in this infinite overheated wait. A rumor has been going ‘round that the first half of the tower is filled with the bones of people sacrificed to the book. Some people say it with glee, for real, like, oh if only they’d pick me. Maria has heard many stories while waiting in line. She spits and shoves her head in her backpack for one last squeeze.
If only Fritz was with her. Fritz gave her so much confidence. With her, Maria could face any world Fritz cared to take her to. Fritz was her sun, her moon, her sky. She would gladly stand in line forever just for one more night of leaning her head on Fritz’ shoulder, under the stars, in the silence, ‘cause Fritz was the most beautiful silence.
Maria’s at the gate now. Big red letters over the entry archway, “Lord, your Word is my word. Querida, 57:12.” Maria only read a few pages, but she knows that’s not in the book. It wasn’t a religious book, lord this, lord that. What a scam. A couple of Viractios, or whatever they’re called, flank the entrance. Maria knows they’re harmless, just watching people, probably recording them too. She’s not worried, her hair is long and keeps her face covered. And seriously, those Viractios look emaciated, seven feet tall and probably under a hundred pounds. They look the furthest from dangerous. Though, for all she knows they got some crazy-ass death weapon she’s never even heard of under their brown robes. She keeps her head down, and all her senses at attention. She can feel every hair in her body.
People enter the temple two at a time. The Viractio on the right towers over her barely five-foot frame. He smells like a baby, powdery. Maria keeps eyes down and opens her backpack. The dude barely looks in at all, then stretches a bony hand from under his sleeve and points at her face. Look up, he signals with his finger. It’s been like thirty years since there’s been any record or photograph of her. Her hair is now long and gray, her face is tired with life. Still, the eyes are there, the retinas, and the scar on her chin is on her prison record. She slowly lifts up her head. Like some bizarre alien, dude breathes out on her face and it’s minty fresh, pleasant compared to the air around her. He takes a cold finger and moves her hair away from her face. She tenses up. The freak looks at her. She looks in his eyes and sees nothing but sadness. Or is it calm? It’s like he’s not even there, just the memory of a human. She’s dazed by his absence, and realizes the dude is an empty shell, like a machine. It’s the same sad look Steve had at the very end. Maria is sad. Sad for Steve, for the Viractio dude, for all the people in line, for the sad sad world. Maria is even sad for her terrible father, and finally deep down she realizes she is sad for herself and for Fritz. She never even said goodbye to her.
The Viractio snaps his fingers in front of Maria’s face and signals her to move ahead. Every one of his movements is ice slow. Maria closes her pack and steps into the temple. She wishes Fritz was there to tell her if this was a culmination or a last gasp. Or just a waste of time, as Maria suspects.
The temple is massive inside; it doesn’t look nearly this big from the outside. But it’s nothing like the churches she remembers Mama taking her to: no pews, no aisles, no saints, no crosses, no candles. Instead, just one massive circular wall covered with words, floor to ceiling words in every language, and dude, ceilings are insanely tall. Like fifty feet at least, and every inch a word. No sentences or nothing, just single words, different sizes and colors and fonts. Some words several feet large, like revive, right there in three feet tall blue letters. Others are so small, lipstick? barely readable. Does that say casa? Maria is not sure if it’s an optical illusion or just her exhaustion, hunger and the liquor, but the words are undulating, vibrating, she can barely read them, they seem to squiggle like colorful worms crawling on the walls. She has a strange feeling, like she’s dizzy. But no, she’s not going to faint; it’s more like everything has slowed down. Maybe just being inside. It is much cooler inside the temple. Feels nice. Actually, she can’t remember last time she felt this good. No pain. Calm. Damn, she feels great! Peaceful. Relax.
There must be a thousand people inside the temple, zigzagging through a labyrinthine rope path that eventually makes it to the center where she can see a big covered booth, white with red letters written along the top: Dear Words. The Book. The Book is in there. Under a simple glass case, opened to a page that the visitor gets to read for a few moments. The Book will show them the words that they want or need to read. Everyone has stood in line for days to experience those few moments. A light changes from red to green to let the next person in. A few seconds in there and they exit out the other side. Maria feels like she’s floating with anticipation. The seduction of one instant, face to face with Words, with a capital W, face to face with a truth just for her, face to face with some sort of god that will speak just to her. What will it say? Fritz had tried to get Maria to read the book all those years back: “I knooow you don’t like books, darling, but this one, it’s like it’s written just for you,” she had coaxed with her sing-songy voice. And Maria tried, but she couldn’t get past the first few pages. Booooring. Dumb. Just more words. And now, here she is one more loser who’s waited in line for just a few seconds with it. And yet she’s surprisingly pumped.
She feels like she’s gliding through the space, like she has two good legs still, riding a wave of well-being towards the Book. She’s both moving and not moving. Feels strange, but what the hell, she never feels like this anymore. They must be pumping something trippy into the air. Enjoy it Maria.
Several figures in blue robes with silver embroidering are spread around the temple. Must be the famous High Verbatims of the church, except they seem friendly, helpful, big smiles, not as she had imagined them.
Something is happening in the booth. Two Verbatims go in and drag a man out. The man is flailing his arms and saying something, maybe in Portuguese. Either freaking out or having some sort of seizure. The crowd parts around them, but only for an instant. Before she can figure out what’s happening, the Verbatims and the man sink below the onlooker’s heads and the crowd again fills the gap, like they were never there.
The event only takes a few seconds, but it snaps Maria from her feel-good reverie. She digs her hand into her bag and finds the matches and the bottle of alcohol, and yes, it’s still there, the little plastic hammer. In just moments she’ll shatter that glass, squeeze the alcohol over the book, light it on fire and end this stupid fantasy. Easy plan. She still can’t believe it will be this easy. Maybe then, people can go back to focusing on the real problems of the world, like the decimated environment, the poverty, damn Collins Universal. But first the book.
Outside the booth, there are signs: Do not touch the case; Do not linger past your allotted time, Feel the Words. The red light turns green. She enters the booth, the inside walls of the booth are decorated to give the illusion that she’s on top of clouds under a bright blue sky. She’s hit by a cool coconut scented breeze from some side vents, she pulls out the hammer, the alcohol bottle and the matches and there’s the book under the glass on a stand, except…
It’s not the book! It’s some digital display, some sort of screen in the shape of an open book. Bright letters show some pablum affirmation: blah blah blah “the island of happiness awaits” blah blah. She’s stunned. What can she do? Lighting this on fire is useless! She spits on the display. Then the display changes and says, “Your time is up, please exit the booth.” What can she do? Fuck fuck fuck. She spits again. Maria is so pissed. She smashes the glass anyway, then rushes out of the booth and screams at the top of her lungs, “This is a fake book! It’s not even a book! Goss Collins is a villainous motherf…”
Two Verbatims are immediately on her and the world seems to stop, like a photograph, a thousand people frozen in place, all eyes on her, unblinking, not really seeing her, the air is no longer fresh and clean, but the putrid air from outside, cloudy and gray, and the temple walls do not have words on them, just grime and mold, broken plaster and brick. One Verbatim grabs her by the arm, another by the other arm, their robes are filthy rags that don’t fully cover their boney bodies… and then the world starts again and she’s putting up a fight. She is pissed, and fighting is her preferred medium, since the days in Comfort, Texas, since the days in San Antonio, since the days in Pekin Pen. Even through all those lonely lost years keeping her head down, toeing the line, working any job she could find, she always felt just one good fight away from feeling all right. She gets in a good kick with her fake leg and gets her arm lose, punches the other, a third Verbatim joins the fight and tries to grab her legs, she hopes the strap attachment holds. She scratches at a face, looking for the eyes. They are stronger than they seem, and she’s weaker than she’s ever been. Then one of them puts a chokehold on her from behind, really tight, she can’t breathe, might pass out. She apologizes to herself for being so damn weak. She tries one last time to get lose, but she’s fading. Fine. Uncle. With a last effort she screams and it all goes black.