Chapter Twenty-Four


Two nights after Charlie left, I stared at my romance novels. Their innocent white spines reading with suggestive titles and all hiding lies within. I stomped over the wall under the window. I raised a hand to swipe every paperback off the shelf. Then I thought of the mess and what cleaning them up (or taking them out in the back to bury them as my grandparents would have done; they were funny that way about books) and I spared them. Instead, I threw the bedspread and blanket off the bed onto the floor the night before and left them there. Then I could sleep.

Wednesday I had no such luck.

A hot, humid and melted Popsicle sticky, mid-July Wednesday. Everyone else seemed to be quite happy that week. The heat took the solvent and the indigent and the union supplied four new diggers and mowers. Darren was down to one underage girl and summer school had but a week to go before it, too, caught a break.

I was not happy. The three days Charlie worked passed, then three more, and it was Wednesday again. Charlie did not arrive to make breakfast. He did not call. I ate burned toasted cheese sandwiches and cleaned out refrigerator of suppurating vegetables and sour milk.

I felt drained all day and went to bed after downing some sale-priced flavored yogurt. Reading brought me no relief. Recompense for Heartbreak was no steamy sex story by current standards, but its pages made my hands sweat. And the whiny heroine made me want to slap her and tell her to get a life. Despite copious amounts of fabric softener in the wash, my bed sheets scratched my sweating arms and legs like sandpaper. I thought someone had traded my pillow for a stone. My stomach growled and I had the strange notion that I had not treated myself to dinner out in…well, in months. The last time was definitely B.C.: Before Charlie.

I dressed, feeling even my softest shirt scrape and the jeans slide heavy on my legs. The cuckoo clock twittered a quarter past eight when I walked out the front door of my home.

Perhaps the heat kept every living soul on Mansfield Road quiet that night. There was a steady hum of air conditioning units, window and HVAC, up and down the street. Windows and doors were closed. No one was shouting loud enough to be heard. For the moment, I supposed. Nothing could be guaranteed anymore.

I turned right and headed towards Genesee. The Ace Hardware store had closed up early, too. “A/C broken; closed until we get parts” read the sign. The sun gave one last blast of reddish orange over the shopping center down Genesee. Someone, presumably a man in sweat-stained orange tee shirt and jeans, opened the door to the foam green painted bar across Genesee to a chorus of “Shut the damned door!” He staggered north. I hope he would not find his car, but a friend with cab fare.

The mediocre restaurant looked dark, closed up. There was a white placard in the window reading in red letters: “Coming soon!” But no more information as to what exactly was coming soon. Another turnover, presumably. You couldn’t open a newspaper or postal advertising pack without some place declaring itself under new name or new management and offering all new dishes. And perhaps reasonable prices. So I hoped that the mediocre restaurant had seen the error of its dishonest ways and planned to improve its food and décor, as so many restaurants did in order to stay relevant.

Then again, someone could be planning to pull the whole building down for a parking lot.

The Presbyterian’s church sat in darkness. No lights on in the parking lot, not light at all from the sanctuary. Not even the strains of a choir practice or organist rehearsal tonight. I supposed the heat precluded anything. It’s hard to give thanks for an early taste of Hell.

Ignoring my rumbling innards, I walked up the driveway.

A strip of parched lawn I had not noticed on my last incursion onto church property separated the Presbyterian from Faithful Servants property. The only pole light hung, as I supposed some would think, like God’s light over the Faithful Servants and their vehicles. I stayed in the shadows of the dark church while the Servants piled out of their church after Wednesday services.

Inside the Faithful Servants’ red church a rainbow of lights shone out of every open window and both doors. People with weary smiles issued from the doors in a sanctified rush to get to their cars parked out behind the church. I heard car air conditioning fans kick on before engines turned over. Then the parade of cars leaving by the narrow driveway began. Six cars remained. Not a hybrid or electric among them, but I supposed half of them could be called fuel efficient.

Grandpa Dov used to speculate that older people preferred the cars, “the tanks,” that they knew as children. “Most of us figure we’ve spent all these years cleaning up after you young people, it’s our turn again to make the messes and let you clean up for a change.” I could not see the sense in that, and said so. He had raised me with the notion that people had children and grandchildren to carry on their names, legacies and so on. Why destroy what you planned to leave as an inheritance?

My grandfather nodded and admitted I had a point. “But,” he said, “too many times, when you get old, it’s too hard. There are too many problems. And you don’t want to bother anymore. That’s when people start dying. When they don’t want to bother anymore.”

A gust of cold wind blew across both parking lots, bringing with it the smell of fresh blood and drug store perfume. I drew back hard against the back of the Presbyterian’s church as Ambr’ and her undead groupies walked through the parking lot towards the back of Faithful Servants. A yellowish-white light shone up the cement stairs and a bluish-white head popped out of the door. Beth.

“Welcome! Welcome! Ambr’, you absolute darling! You brought your friends, just like you said you would!”

“Were you all able to get the materials?” Ambr’ asked.

Beth paused. “Yes, but some of our older ladies are not sure they can lift that rebar.”

Nikki Vine piped up. “Tell them to get stronger.”

Ambr’ glared at her. “I’m sure we can figure out something, Beth. Shall we go in?”

No, I was not planning to go along. For one thing, in jeans and a jacket I would have been slightly conspicuous among all those pastel dresses and light pantsuits. For another, Ambr’ would know me and she might figure that we were nowhere near CPF property and Derek’s domain, so why not rid herself of a meddlesome enemy? That was a scene the church ladies did not need to see. Looking back now with the ever-accurate hindsight, I suppose I could have taken one for the women’s equity team, but the idea never sat well, as blood sacrifices usually don’t with my People after the Diaspora. Besides, I was on reconnaissance, not a suicide mission. I had to look, listen, and, God willing, learn.

The small windows to the basement were wide open, praying as it were for a breeze to mitigate the heat. Grass crunched under me as I settled near one of the windows that I hoped kept me out of Ambr’s line of sight. I expected the perfumes and talcum powders and hairspray smells of the ladies would keep the vampires’ noses busy enough not to sniff me out as a spy. However, it limited my own line of sight to the center of the room, the far wall, and, if I lay on my side, the short wall with the door to the outside stairs.

The wall in question held the requisite empty wooden cross with a “sash” of palm branch an arm’s length of buckling wood paneling from the door leading upstairs, followed by a bulletin board with a rainbow of copier paper and photographs of new “additions” to the church community. Tapestries made of light blue felt with orange and yellow felt quotes from Psalms 150 and something from an Epistle of Paul hung on more paneling next to the outside door. The linoleum looked well-worn and streaked here and there from perhaps these same chairs being repositioned for other meetings or perhaps Sunday School classes. On this last point, I can only speculate. I was not then and am not now in the habit of going into church basements like a tourist in a museum.

Beth handed Ambr’ a small stack of papers and Ambr’ waved everyone to the circle of metal folding chairs not quite centered in the room. That took some doing. Three of the ladies had walkers or canes. Six of the younger ladies fussed over these three to get them into chairs and comfortable. The seven young vampires whispered to each other and giggled a little.

Ambr’s cleared her throat; an interesting thought, if you consider it was blood she had to clear rather than snot. “Let us pray,” she intoned. Heads and hair hung down. A few pairs of hands rose up over heads, palms turned upward. “Heavenly Father,” Ambr’ intoned, “we just pray that You will be with us tonight and just bless our efforts to bring all mankind into accordance with Your will. Just shower us with your blessings and just grant us Your Wisdom and courage to do what we must do. Not our will, but Yours. In His Name.”

A chorus of “Amen.”

To your question: can a vampire pray? Obviously they can. Ambr’ did not drop dead in the middle of the Faithful Servants’ basement. It’s not that they can’t say the words. Words are easy. It’s the intention you have to watch out for. God has His intentions. You can read about them in the Scriptures of your choice. Vampires have their intentions, too, and, unlike God, the living have to keep an extra close watch, since, with vampires, the intentions often lead to fangs and death of one sort or another.

Second question: can vampires speak Jesus’ name? I can’t be sure. I’ve never heard it spoken in prayer, but, after meeting Ian McNulty, I have heard it used as an expletive. I doubt Ian is representative of vampires, but I do think it goes back to the idea of intention. As do most things in this world, good and bad. Fair and foul. Living, dead and undead.

An appreciative murmur followed the prayer, followed by some more appreciation of that one’s new hair style or the other’s outfit. Ambr’ clapped her hands to end it.

“I’d like to share something with you all before we return to our plans for our action.”

Naomi held up a trembling hand. “I thought the action was only in case – “

“We still have to plan it!” Ambr’ snapped, then smiled. “It’s a wicked, sinful world, Naomi. People are not apt to listen until they are forced.” She moved around the circle, handing each lady and vampire a piece of paper. Some of her undead cohort rolled their eyes like students facing a pop quiz, but she glared them back into full attention.

“I know we all have our Scripture verses for our signs.” Murmur, murmur. “We all know Scripture is all we ever need to fight for our cause.”

A few muted “Amens”.

“The words of Our Lord are sweeter than honey and more precious than gold.”

A few cries of “The Psalms!” were followed by a short argument over which one.

“Ladies!” Ambr’ found her bullhorn again to start her speech again. “Nevertheless, we live in a secular world. For now. This document I have shared with you was written when I, that is, when my grandmother was a young girl and her mother fought those sinful, unnatural suffragettes. It describes perfectly what we hold to be true and what we are fighting for.”

I had to Google what I recalled of the piece of, well, writing that she read next. It turned out to be a position statement from 1911 for the Democratic Caucus, written by one J.B. Sanford – and I truly hope he had something else to recommend him in his Heaven. You can read it for yourself, but it amounted to a misogynistic argument that I’ve read and heard countless times in my lifetime. The “logic” boils down to a woman’s place being in the home, married with children and perpetuating the male-dominated society that has passed down to us from Bible times. The virtuous woman has no other option than domesticity and child-bearing. Giving her vote would disrupt all of her womanly attributes by plunging her into the cesspool of politics. That is men’s arena.

I will leave the commentary on that last notion to you and your imagination.

Men run the country in order protect the women, Sanford states. Man is man and woman and woman. Here Ambr’ began to interpret. “That is the God’s way in action. Mr. Sanford knew then as we know now that allowing women to have a higher education, the right to vote and especially equal pay for a job a man should be doing, is an offense against God.”

Fine, I inferred the last bit, but you get the point. All knuckle-dragging the mind back to the sin of Eve and the layers upon layers of punitive restrictions that fell upon women as a result. The ancients had Pandora. The Bible world has Eve. And now we have Ambr’ Cadwallader. God save us all from women who think. And so on and so forth, amen. Pass the incense and hallow the stench.

I felt sick. I sat back to inhale some air against the nausea while Ambr’ continued on her theme for another few minutes.

Ambr’ finished her reading to nods and “Praise God” and a few other less spiritual comments from Nikki. “So, you see, we have history behind us as well as Scripture before us. Let us go forward, sisters, and arm ourselves for our cause!”

Thin plywood appeared from a corner of the room near my window. I fell back. Hammers came out of purses as did some kind of fasteners, white and red paint and thick artists’ brushes.

“I can’t get on the floor to paint this!” one of the walker women wailed.

“I’ll hold it for you, Roseanne!”

“Careful! You’ll get paint everywhere and the Building Committee doesn’t need to know what we’re doing!”

“Why not?” Nikki objected.

“They’re men, child. They don’t understand a thing.”

And yet they’re the ones you want to have running your lives, I mused. Logic and sense had fled that basement on a whiff of paint and old-lady smells.

But Ambr’ had given me one bit of new information: three weeks. Her next move with church ladies and signs would come in three weeks. I dragged myself off the ground. I would have run home, but the heat kept me to a trot.

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