Desmond Wren pulled up to his grandfather’s house, a little more hesitant than usual. He parked behind his uncle Tommy’s red pick-up and shut off the engine. Looking up he immediately regretted his choice of parking spots, but considering the long, circular driveway was already full, he had no other choice. That forced him to look at the display of bumper stickers Tommy collected, knit across the back of the truck like a patchwork quilt. “Don’t Tread on Me,” “Southern Pride” (including the Stars and Bars), “If this flag offends you, then you can leave,” were a few of the many, alongside with at least four advocating for the re-election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
Desmond grimaced and looked over at the passenger seat. His date, Kristina Dalton—Kristina of the flawless auburn hair, searching green eyes, Kristina, the subject of his most passionate dreams for more than five years—shook her head as she looked at the menagerie of ultra-conservative political statements. Desmond could tell she was having second thoughts. Even he was having second thoughts. But he felt they would have to meet eventually. Thanksgiving was as good a time as any.
“Yeah, Uncle Tommy…well…” Desmond tried to explain, but found himself unable to make any sense. At least he couldn’t make the kind of sense that would make Kristina feel any better.
“No, you warned me,” she said. “Can’t help your family, can you?”
She smiled at him and Desmond wondered again how he had gotten so lucky. Sometimes it seemed too good to be true. As far as he could tell the girl was near perfect. She was beautiful, smart, progressive, full of fight and spirit. The two of them were almost a perfect match. The only possible bone of contention between them was Kristina’s nearly militant atheism.
Not that Desmond was a religious nut at all. He just believed…well, he couldn’t really tell what he believed. Being raised in a conservative Christian household he had been brought up in the church, and in the creeds, and in the certainty that God existed. And while he didn’t share the same zeal as the rest of his family, he certainly couldn’t bring himself to think that God didn’t exist at all. Didn’t seem right to him. Of course there was a God. The universe didn’t make sense without him.
While Desmond would have been happier sharing this belief with Kristina, he certainly wasn’t going to let that get in the way of their relationship. She knew he believed. He knew she didn’t. The only big difference is that while Desmond wasn’t going to push his beliefs on her, she never let an opportunity pass to try to convince him that the universe was devoid of any higher power.
“Listen, Tommy talks big and brash,” Desmond explained. “But if you can ignore him he’ll quiet down and start in on Clemson football soon enough. The only person he loves more than Donald Trump is Dabo Sweeney.”
“Sounds like a charmer,” Kristina said, stepping out of the car.
They walked up the drive together. Both of them felt nervous for their own reasons. Kristina worried about being in a delicate social situation with people so unlike her. Desmond worried that his family would scare her away for good.
“Actually, your Uncle William was the one I was worried about,” she confessed.
“Uncle Will?” Desmond asked. “Why Uncle Will?”
“He’s William Wren,” she reminded him. “After what happened to him I…I just felt he would be the most likely to challenge me.”
“No, you got it all wrong,” Desmond assured her. “You got nothing to worry about from Uncle Will. In fact, ya’ll will get along better than anyone.”
“Really?” Kristina asked, not really believing him. “I would have thought after what he went through, he would probably hate somebody like me.”
“Actually, Uncle Will has kind of gone the opposite direction.” Desmond told her. “He’s become quite a sceptic. Doesn’t even go to church anymore. Doesn’t preach. None of that. In fact, you and he will probably agree on quite a lot.”
Kristina nodded, knowing she should be comforted by that assurance. Still, something frightened her about meeting William Wren. It wasn’t just that he was a bit of a celebrity, with all the news about him since the incident. It was something else. There was an expectation she couldn’t shake, like he would tear her world down and leave her lost if she wasn’t careful with him. Whatever it was, it scared her.
As they approached the front door Desmond looked over to make sure Kristina hadn’t yet changed her mind. After an assuring nod from her, they plunged into Thanksgiving at the Wren household.
For the most part, it wasn’t as bad as Kristina had imagined. Most of the family was warm and inviting. They didn’t pry too much into her life, but showed her the delicate respect that used to be the hallmark of southern hospitality.
For a little while, she did have to deal with the insufferable Uncle Tommy. When he found out she was a social worker, it was all the encouragement he needed.
“You better be ready, young lady,” he warned her. “Pretty soon you’re gonna have to be the one to go out on these criminal calls. Since they stole the election you never know what Cortez and them other ladies are going to do. They gonna get rid of police. Send social workers instead. How you feel about that? Got a crazed gunman shootin people up at the park and they want you to go handle that. How’s that strike you?”
Kristina smiled and nodded and let Tommy rant. A few times she had to bite her tongue so hard she was afraid she was going to draw blood. But she had more affection for Desmond than he gave her credit for, and she was as worried about losing him as he was about losing her.
“Don’t matter anyway,” Tommy finally said, losing steam. “Cause the Tigers gonna win the National Championship again this year. And if it weren’t for the Chinese Virus then Lawrence woulda had the Heisman too. Ah well, don’t matter. Give the Lamecocks something to brag about still. As if anyone still gives a rip about George Rogers anymore. You know he was a coke head.”
It all could have been tolerable had there at least been some drinks served. But true to their Southern Baptist upbringing, there was not a whiff of alcohol to be had at the Wren household. Only sweet tea was offered, although coffee was promised with pecan pie later in the evening.
William Wren didn’t make an appearance until dinner was served. The family gathered in the dining room, kids at the card tables set up in the den. They took their seats at the long table, all filled up except the chair across from Kristina. Just before the blessing a middle aged man limped into the seat.
Kristina recognized William Wren immediately. His hair had more grey than she remembered from the news. It was longer too, and mostly unkempt. He had grown a beard out since the days when twenty-four hour news had splashed his image on the television almost nonstop. There was a haggard look to his face and he frequently grimaced with pain.
It was almost in fascination that Kristina watched him lean on his cane as he approached his place at the table. He gritted his teeth and tried to slide a stiff leg underneath before he eased himself down. She could see a sheen of sweat glisten across his forehead with the effort.
More surprisingly, he held a highball glass in one hand that had brown liquid inside. Kristina could smell bourbon waft across the table. He turned up the glass, emptying the contents, then reached in his coat for a flask for a refill.
“Will, what are you doing?” one of the numerous chubby aunts clucked at him. “You know we don’t take liquor to Thanksgiving.”
“Looks like I do,” he sneered back.
The chubby aunt shook her head in disapproval. “Are you going to say the blessing, Will?” she asked.
Will looked up at her with what Kristina took to be naked malice. “Why would I do that?” he asked.
“Because, Will,” she said. “You have so much to be thankful for.”
Will laughed and downed his glass again. As he refilled it, he continued to chuckle to himself.
“What do I have to be thankful for?” he asked.
Someone at the table begged them not to get into it again. But the chubby aunt either didn’t hear or didn’t care.
“Will, I can’t believe you’re saying this,” she said in exasperation. “Of all people to forget their blessings you should be the last.”
“What’s that supposed to mean, Alice?” Will asked. “How exactly have I been blessed?”
“Why you’re alive, Will,” the aunt reminded him. “And you, after what you’ve been through should know what a blessing that is.”
Will struggled to his feet. Reaching into his jacket he pulled out a pack of cigarettes and shook one out.
“You’re smoking too?” the aunt asked.
“Yes, Alice,” Will said. “I’m drinking and I’m smoking and I’m not gonna say the blessing. You know why, Alice? Because I’m not thankful. I’m not thankful at all. I may be alive but it’s not a blessing. It’s a curse. You may not know that, but it is. If God really wants to bless me he would kill me now.”
With that he fumbled with his cane and made his way from the dining room table. An awkward silence fell over the table as they watched the retreating figure. The aunt beside Kristina leaned over to apologize to her.
“I don’t understand what’s happened to him,” she said. “It’s like the devil has got him beat. That’s what I think. You know, he used to be a preacher. One of the best you ever heard. He would bring people to tears. Every Sunday there was a line at the altar, people crowded down to be saved. Oh, you never seen such a sight. You wouldn’t think it to see him now, all wrapped up in smoking and drinking. I swear the devil must have got him. You heard what happened, right? Well, of course you have, everybody heard what happened to William Wren. We all thought that the Lord had saved William, plucked him right from the shadow of death. But I wonder, I really do, if the devil hadn’t really got the best of him that day.”
From that moment, Kristina went from being frightened, to being fascinated with William Wren. She couldn’t wait for dinner to be over, to find some excuse to wander outside and find William and maybe get another peak of what lay beneath.
After the long meal, followed by a long desert, followed by an even longer reminiscence of family stories and the good ole’ days, Kristina finally found her chance. She told Desmond she needed fresh air and went out back. William was reclined on a patio chair, pulling absently on a cigarette and swirling the ice around in his glass.
Something about his celebrity made him more fascinating. The fact that she knew his story, knew how he had gotten his limp and his chronic pain, but had no idea how it had worn on his soul, made the reclining, world-weary figure, something difficult to resist. That he was religious, or had been religious, made the draw more irresistible. How did something like that change a person’s faith? Obviously, for William, it may have destroyed it.
William looked up as Kristina approached. He showed only mild interest in her approach, and even a touch of annoyance.
“Sorry if I offended you back there,” he said. “But that’s all the apology you’re getting from me.”
“No, that’s not it at all,” Kristina said. “I just needed some fresh air.”
William laughed. “Yeah, the hypocrisy gets a little stuffy sometimes. Did you know Alice likes to make her breakfast out of donuts and mimosas?”
“Sorry again,” he apologized. “I mean no disrespect. I just… I can’t stand the hypocrisy sometimes.”
“Don’t worry,” Kristina told him. “I’m actually an atheist. So…”
“I gotcha,” William answered. “Good for you on taking that step. I envy people like that.”
“People like what?” Kristina asked. He sounded sincere in his congratulations, but she couldn’t tell why.
“You know, people who can take that step, and just decide not to believe,” he said. The glass came up to his mouth again and he drank deeply, followed by a pull from the cigarette.
“Anybody can do it,” she told him. “It’s really just about giving up all preconceptions, your biases, and facing reality.”
William surprised her by laughing. He pointed to her with his drink and took another sip. All the while shaking his head.
“Look, I admire you for not believing and everything,” William said. “Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that you’re an atheist. But don’t try to tell me it’s about facing reality. I think we both know that’s a load of shit. There’s nothing real at all about being an atheist.”
Kristina paused, unsure of herself. The last thing she expected from such an obvious sceptic was that kind of criticism towards unbelief.
“Surely you can see that’s not true,” Kristina said. “You of all people…” She stopped herself when she realized what she was doing.
“Sounded like Aunt Alice there for a minute,” William pointed out.
Kristina knew he was right. The conversation wasn’t going at all how she expected it too. She had no choice but to retreat into an apologetic silence.
“You know what the worst part is about what happened to me?” William spoke up. “Any idea what it is?”
Kristina shook her head, not trusting herself to answer.
“The worst part isn’t the fact that I’m half crippled, or that I live in constant pain, or that I have nightmares. No, the worst part is that after what I went through, everybody assumes it brought me around to their way of thinking. I’m serious, everyone thinks that. The religious people think it made me more religious. The sceptics assume it made me lose my faith. The liberals think it made me liberal. The conservatives think it made me conservative. That’s the worst part, really. It sounds dumb, trivial even, but it’s true. It’s kind of patronizing if you think about it. Like it had to take a near death experience for me to realize what everyone else knew already.”
Kristina wanted to say something, wanted to ask questions. Something held her back, as if she knew this was just the beginning of something that needed to be said.
“You heard what happened to me, right?” he asked. Kristina nodded.
“I guess everybody has heard.” he said. “I guess that means you know who Jerrol Law is.”
Kristina nodded again. She held her breath, anticipating what was about to unfold.
“I knew Jerrol Law’s wife,” William continued. “She was a member of my congregation. Sweet woman, real dedicated to her faith. But Jerrol, he had some odd ideas, the apocalyptic kind. You know, couldn’t wait for the end of the world kind of man. He used to beat her real bad, said that this was her purification. It took about two months to convince her she had to leave him. He damn near killed her before she woke up to the reality of it.
“We set her up with a safe house, a place for battered women. Jerrol must have come to see me every day for a month, demanding to know where his wife was, threatening me with all kinds of curses, telling me I was marked with the sign of the beast, crazy shit like that. I should have seen it coming, really.
“When he walked into the church, right there in the middle of service I didn’t even see the gun. Kind of hard not to, one of those big, damn assault rifles. But all I could see were his eyes. And I knew right then what he was there for.”
William looked down at his cigarette. It had burned down to the filter without him realizing it. He flicked it away and lit another. His drink was only halfway gone but he didn’t pay it any attention at all.
“He came for me first,” William continued. He pointed out places on his body. “Three shots, all hit me. One shattered my leg. Another one tore out a kidney. Last one just passed through my shoulder. I didn’t even feel it at that point, twirling around like the Holy Ghost had gotten a hold of me and spun real hard. That was my part in the whole thing. That was it. The rest of the time I laid back, feeling blood trickle out of me, waiting to die. I could hear what was going on—the screams, people crying out, the sound of chaos. Then, there was another sound, something I had never heard before.”
He paused, blowing out smoke before he continued. “There was a song, but it wasn’t a song. I can’t really say what it was, but it was more like music than anything else. You know, we say that angels sing, but they don’t really sing. We call it singing, and heavenly music and stuff like that because that’s the closest word we have to describe it. But it’s not really music. It’s so much more than music. It’s more than singing. It’s something that human words and human expressions and human minds will never be able to understand. That’s what I heard.
“And there were words to the music, but I couldn’t make them out. I knew they were singing something, but for some reason I couldn’t say what. The words were happy, beyond happy, and so were the words.
“As those gunshots were firing off in the church, and I lay there, bleeding out, that’s what I heard. I heard a rejoicing that no human ear on earth has ever heard before. I heard angels, girl, do you believe that? I heard angels rejoicing over souls that had remained faithful unto death. I heard the gates of heaven open up. And that’s a sound greater than any music we can make. The sound of the gun and the screams all got drowned out by that sound. Fifty-six of them, one after another. Until Law took his own life. And you know what’s funny? That didn’t make any sound at all. That was just dead.
“But I lay there, hearing the souls of fifty-six members of my church, floating into paradise, and I waited. I waited for my music. The pain all went away and all I could hear was that music and I waited to float out of this body and get to that place where they make such heavenly sounds.
“But the music never came for me. I just got tired and sleep came over me. And just before I lost consciousness, I heard a voice. Nothing profound, nothing great. Told me I had a message left to deliver. That was it. ‘You got a message left to deliver’ was all it said. Next thing I knew I woke up in the hospital, my face on every news network in the world. William Wren, the preacher who survived the Covenant Baptist Massacre. It was a miracle.”
William drained the glass and refilled it from his flask. He offered some to Kristina but she turned him down.
“I wouldn’t call it a miracle,” William said. “That voice said I had a message left to deliver. But here’s the misery of it all—I got nothing left to preach. Nothing. No message, no witness, no stirring of the Spirit in me. Zip. I tried to preach again at first, convinced that I was called to witness to what I experienced. But I had no words left in me. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. The well was dry. That place where I had always reached into to preach was suddenly empty. I had no message left.
“So here I am, left behind, stuck in this broken body, and I got no message to deliver. I should have died that day. I’m the one he came after. Can you understand that? It was my fault he was there, and yet I’m still alive. If I could just not believe anymore, that’d be great. That’s why I envy you. You have the comfort of not believing. But you didn’t hear that music. You didn’t experience what I heard that day. And call it a hallucination if you want, but darling, I no longer have the luxury of unbelief. I have heard the voice of God, and there is no more room for doubt.
“All I can be is pissed off. I got left behind, but I heard God in all that. I can’t doubt, but I can be pissed. I am just a messenger without a message. Being pissed off, that’s all I got left.”
The fear Kristina felt at the beginning of the night came back to her in full force. Without a word she got up, leaving William alone with his inconsolable grief. She found Desmond and demanded he take her home. Looking at the pale fear in her eyes, he feared the worst, and they left without a word.
Through the whole drive, none of them said a word to each other. Inside, Kristina’s world tumbled like it had all been placed in a snow globe and shaken by an unmerciful hand. Sounds began to creep into her mind, almost audible—the sound of a music that she had long forgotten. She shut her eyes and gripped the handle of the door, trying to shut out that impossible noise. She even found herself praying, desperate prayers to the spirits of her denial, and asked fervently for their help. But even these spirits couldn’t hear, drowned out by the dim and distant echoes of an otherworldly sound.
Outside, on the patio of the Wren household, William took a drag from a cigarette and felt something pop inside. That familiar sensation of losing blood came over him, and he remembered laying on the floor beside the pulpit. The sounds rose again, this time coming for him, those sounds that we can only classify as music. At first he was worried, that the music would be angry because of his own anger, that he had failed in his bitterness. But he was surprised at first, and then he understood when he heard approval in the music. For the first time he could finally make out those words.
“Well done, good and faithful servant.”