Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Written down at last! THE STORY OF THE BLACK COFFIN

This is my most famous story.  I've been telling it for over thirty years now orally, and a generation of my students have heard it, remembered it, and even tried, on occasion to inflict it on others.  I've never written it down before, but I thought that, since I told it to all my history classes today (Halloween is the ONE day of the year that I don't even try to teach any new content), I might try to write it down at last this evening.  So read on . . . if you DARE . . . .

                                                 THE STORY OF THE BLACK COFFIN

     There are two things you should know before I begin.  One is that every word of this story is absolutely, 100% TRUE.  I promise.
     The other is that this story is a little bit creepy.  You might be a bit scared.  You might even be terrified.  But listen to the end, and you will be all right.  Maybe.

     Our story begins in the year 1930 - eighty-seven years ago, at the height of the Great Depression. A third of the country was out of work, and people were walking the streets, desperately looking for jobs, looking for handouts, looking for food, searching for hope. It was a dark time for America. The story begins in Chicago, the famous windy city on the shores of the lake, on a cold, rainy, and bleak autumn day.

                                                      PART I - THE INHERITANCE

     There were four brothers who shared a dingy, walk-up tenement on the city's south side.  They were all single - one divorced, and three who had not yet wed.  All four were out of work, and they were three months behind on their rent.  The landlord had served notice: If they did not make a payment by Friday, they would be evicted.  So on this grim Wednesday all four set out, pounding the pavement in search of opportunity - or maybe a generous stranger, or even just a bite of food. When they met back at their flat at the end of the day, all they had between them were two pieces of dry, week-old bread, and a few slices of bologna that didn't look too bad after you scraped the mold off of them.  No job offers, no money of any sort.  They had about twenty cents between the three of them. They took the food they had scrounged and made a single sandwich, then cut it into quarters.  That fourth of a sandwich was the most any of them had eaten all day - but as they dug into the meager meal, the doorbell rang.

     The youngest brother hopped up and answered the door, and to his astonishment, he saw a Western Union telegram man standing there - not an everyday occurrence in that seedy part of town.  Telegrams were a means of communication reserved for the wealthy, not the inhabitants of Chicago's slums.  Imagine their astonishment, then, when the messenger told the four that he was delivering a legal document that would require all four of them to sign!  They quickly scribbled their names on the receipt, then the oldest brother tore open the envelope and began to read out loud.  As the message unfolded, puzzlement gave way to disbelief, and then to shouts of rejoicing!

     It seemed that their long-dead father had an older brother he had never told them about.  This brother had gone north during the Great Klondike Gold Rush in 1901 and made a fortune.  Coming back to New York before World War One, he'd invested all his money in the arms industry, and tripled it.  Then in the 1920's he plowed it all into the stock market and tripled it again!  He had cashed out before the Great Crash, and placed it all in a nice, safe Swiss bank account earning compound interest.  The long and short of it was that they were now the joint heirs to a fortune of about $200 million!

     The brothers were screaming, crying, and hugging each other, unable to believe this sudden turn of events.  Finally the eldest called them back to attention.
     "There's more," he said.  "It says here that 'There are several unusual stipulations in the will which all four of you must agree to in order to claim your inheritance..  Please come by my offices tomorrow at ten in the morning to discuss the will and your Uncle's  bequest.  Signed, Simon Buckner Driscoll, attorney at law."

     So the very next morning, the four brothers dressed in the very best clothes they had - old and threadbare thought they were - and used their last nickels to catch a trolley ride to an exclusive neighborhood on the North side.  There they found the attorney's office, housed in a huge, ornate brownstone mansion with deep pile carpets and furniture that cost more than they had earned in the last decade.  Driscoll's secretary told them to go in, and they found the attorney waiting - tall, silver-haired, with a monocle and a walrus moustache, smelling faintly of expensive Cuban cigars.

     He explained a bit more about the mysterious uncle they had never heard of.  The man had lived for the last fifteen years as a hermit in a huge mansion he had built on top of one of the Appalachian peaks in eastern Kentucky.  He had his groceries delivered weekly, and managed his financial empire via phone calls and telegrams to his various accountants and brokers.  The delivery boy had noticed, about a year before, that the old man had not picked up his previous delivery.  He thought the old fellow might simply have gone out of town, but the next week there were two unclaimed boxes of groceries sitting outside the gate, so the lad had called the local sheriff.    They had cut the lock on the gate and made their way up to the enormous manor house.  Inside the door they had found the millionaire's body.  I use the term 'body' loosely. The old man owned between thirty and forty cats; the animals had been very hungry for not being fed and had turned on their master's remains.  Little more than a skeleton was left.  Upon confirming his identity through dental records and jewelry, the attorneys had been called in.  They had spent the better part of a year trying to find the old man's nearest relatives, and now, finally, the will could be executed.

     "Here are the conditions," said Mr.Driscoll.  "First, no one but you four may ever enter the old man's dwelling as long as you remain alive and in good health.  Secondly, you may never sell or transfer the property until all four of you are deceased.  Third, no one - not even you four - may live in the house.  Finally, all four of  you must meet up every four years, on the anniversary of your Uncle's death, and clean the house all day long.  You must work the entire day and evening, until at least 9 PM,  and be out of the house before dawn the next day.  That's it.  Do you accept?"
     They conferred briefly, but really, there was no doubt about the answer.  The eldest brother posed the one question they were all wondering:
     "What day did he die?" he asked.
     Driscoll paused.  "Well, the closest the coroner could say was late October.  Why don't we say Halloween, so the date will be easy to remember?"
    "Fair enough," the brothers agreed, and all of them signed the codicil to the will and claimed their inheritance.

     Fifty million dollars is a lot of money today, and it was about twelve times more in 1930.  The country was desperately poor, and everything and everyone was for sale - so the brothers bought what they wanted.  Everything they wanted.  Fast cars, faster women, fine whiskey, big houses, trophy wives - you name it, they had it.  Life went well, and it also went fast.  They blinked, and four years had passed.

                                                        PART II - THE MANSION

     So the four met up at a small Kentucky town, the closest settlement to the remote mountain where their uncle's estate was.  There was a fine little greasy spoon diner there, so they treated themselves to a hearty breakfast, and then went around the corner to a hardware store and bought all the cleaning supplies they could think of.  After that, they followed the oldest brother, who had directions to the mansion from the attorney's office.
     Fifteen miles up a winding blacktop road, then a gravel road turned off to the left.  It snaked its way back and forth up the side of a tree-clad slope, until finally the timber ended and they saw a massive, ten foot stone wall with a massive arch spanning a wrought iron gate that was chained and padlocked shut.  The oldest brother got the key ring the lawyer had given him and unlocked the padlock, pulling the chain free and slowly swinging the gates open.
     The driveway was paved, although the concrete had cracked in places.  It led them up a grassy slope to a huge circle drive with a weedy, overgrown fountain in the middle of it.  Beyond the driveway stood the mansion.
      There really was no other word for it, all four of them thought as they got out of their cars.  Over a hundred yards from end to end, three stories high, with a tall, clock-tower looking appendage jutting up from one end. The eldest brother unlocked the front door, and they entered, not knowing what to expect.
     What they found was a god-awful mess. Stacks of newspapers, magazines, and books all over the floors, mummified cat carcasses in odd corners, desiccated cat turds everywhere.  Some of the windows had been broken out by storms, and there were drifts of leaves in the odd corners.
      The first priority was to clear the front rooms, where it appeared the old man had spent most of his time.  The brothers searched behind the house and found the gardener's shed, with a couple of old wheelbarrows that were still serviceable, and they began hauling trash out of the house and piling it up in the front yard.  It was a cool, drizzly day, so they stacked up the junk in a huge pile and lit it up, enjoying the warmth and smell of the flames as they disposed of the stacks of trash and paper.
     Then they decided to count the rooms in the house and see what shape they were in.  They started on one end and opened each room.  Some were perfectly sealed time capsules, beds still made, furniture still in place despite a thick coat of dust.  Others were bare and unfurnished, and a few were completely trashed.  Ninety-two rooms they counted, by the time they made their way to the staircase  that led up to the top of the tower on the far end.  They made the four rounds of the staircase and found themselves in a small vestibule at the top, facing a locked door.  The oldest brother tried every key on the ring, but none fit.  They pushed, prodded, hammered, and pried on the door, to no avail.  Finally they gave up and returned to their task.
      By the end of the day, the four brothers had cleared a majority of the junk and done some sweeping and mopping.  There was much to go, but they had fulfilled their obligation and were dead tired.  So they went into the kitchen and dug into the supplies they had brought, making some hearty sandwiches and pouring some drinks.  They sat down in the small dining room right off the kitchen and soon the eldest produced from his pocket a deck of cards.  They started a high stakes poker game and played with great merriment, eating and drinking and enjoying each other's company.
    Then the youngest brother stood and spoke.
     "I just hate that we have set foot in every room but one," he said.  "I want to go try the door in the tower one more time.  I have a funny feeling that it might open for me."
     "Well, I think you're a fool," his closest sibling teased him.  "But you go try, and we'll make some more sandwiches."
     So he headed down the long corridor to the tower staircase, and his brothers made a fresh round of sandwiches and drinks.  When they returned from the kitchen, he wasn't back yet.
     "You don't think he really got that door to open?" one asked.
     "One way to find out," the eldest said.  "Let's see."

       There was no sign of their brother in the tower - the door at the top of the stairs was locked tight as ever.  Nor did they see him in any of the rooms they checked on their way back to the dining room.  They looked in the front drive and his car was still there.  His jacket still hung on the coat peg in the front hall.  They finished their meal and then conferred.
     "I figure he took one nip too many from his flask and is sleeping it off somewhere," the eldest said.  "Or he may have gone for a stroll.  It's late - I say we let him lock up!  I gave all of you a set of keys.  I am heading home."
     So the three piled into their cars, and drove down to the gate.  The eldest brother shut the gate and wrapped the chain around it, but did not lock it.  Then they went their separate ways and returned home.  Four years passed by.  They never saw their brother again.
     Four years later they met up once more at the small town and ate breakfast, then picked up their cleaning supplies.  All of them commented on their brother's absence, and as they compared notes, they realized not one of the had hear from him since that day four years before.  They broke up in silence and drove up the gravel road to the gate.  It was still shut and chained, but not locked.  When they opened the gates and drove on up, they saw their brother's car still parked in the drive.  The front windshield had been knocked out by a hailstorm, and there was a nest of raccoons in the back seat, but no sign of their missing sibling.  When they opened the front door, his coat was still hanging there on the peg. 
     In alarm, they fanned out and searched every room of the house, figuring to find his body, at least.  But there was no trace of him.  They climbed the stairs and found the tower room still locked up tight.  After a couple of hours they gave up and began cleaning the place.  There was still some trash to haul out and burn, and many windows that needed boarding up.  They worked hard all day long, not talking much, wondering what had happened to their youngest sibling.
     Around ten o'clock that evening, the three men sat down and conferred at the old dining table.  The eldest brother saw his deck of cards still sitting there from four years before, and he picked it up and began to shuffle mindlessly.
     "Gin rummy?" asked the youngest, so he began to deal out the cards.  They were a few hands into the game when the little brother stood.
    "I know where he is!" he suddenly exclaimed.
    "Where who is?" the middle one asked.
    "Our brother, you moron!  He's in the tower room!  And I think if I go up there right now, I can get the door to open!" he said with excitement.
    "NO way!" the eldest snapped.  "There is something about that room that gives me the creeps!"
    "Look," said the youngest.  "You two can come with me to the foot of the stairs.  I'll run up and try the door one more time.  If it doesn't open, I'll come right back down.  If it does, then I will call you.  Please, I beg you, let me try this!"
    So the two followed him to the bottom of the stairs, and listened to his soft footfalls as he climbed up the four stories.  It was dead calm out, the silence in the old mansion was oppressive.  But it was that silence that enabled them to hear what happened next.  The footfalls stopped, and they heard, faintly but distinctly, the sound of rusty hinges slowly turning.
     Silence reigned.  Then BOOM! there came the sound of a slamming door, followed by a long, drawn-out scream that faded to silence.  The two sprang up the stairs as fast as they could, but the door was locked and their brother was gone.  They hammered and pounded and cursed to no avail.  Finally, the older brother heaved a sigh and spoke.
     "I am going to the police," he said.
     "NO!!!" exclaimed his younger sibling.  "You can't, I won't let you!!"
     "Why on earth not?" his brother asked.
     "If they set foot in here, it invalidates the will,' said the brother urgently.  "We lose it all - we have to give all the money back!"
     "Is that all you care about?" snapped the eldest.
     "It doesn't matter to you!"  his kid brother retorted. "You've invested yours, you have more money now than you did when we inherited.  I've blown through three quarters of mine.  If I have to give the rest back, I'll be back on the street.  I can't do that!  I can't go back to how we used to live!"
     They quarreled for almost an hour, but the younger brother would not budge, and finally they parted in anger and bitterness. Four long years passed.  They never saw either brother again.
     By the time the two remaining siblings met four years later, the bitterness of their parting was largely forgotten.  They embraced and were reconciled, and drove up to the mansion together.  They spent the whole day cleaning and repairing windows, mopping, dusting, and sweeping.  Finally, after eleven o'clock that evening, they sank exhausted into the chairs at the dining table.
     "No sign of them anywhere," the eldest said, shuffling the old card deck.
     "Like they never existed.  What do you think happened?"
     "Who knows?  I think there may be a curse on this place."
     "Let's play cards," the younger said, and his brother began dealing out a hand of "Go Fish."
     But suddenly, after fifteen minutes or so, the younger brother stood, his face gone slack.
"Did you hear that?" he asked.
     "Hear what?" the eldest responded.
     "They're calling me!" his kid brother said.  "They are in the tower room, and they're calling me.  They say the will open the door if I come up right now!"
    "Don't do it!" said the eldest.  "It's a trick that's claimed two of us already.  Don't fall for it!"
    But his sibling was already standing, turning, walking down the long corridor.  The older brother grabbed, pulled, pleaded, and begged, but his brother was a bigger man, and simply shrugged him aside no matter what he did.  Finally they came to the stairs and the younger brother began to climb.  On the final round of steps, the oldest brother grabbed him and slapped him hard.
     "This is IT!" he snapped. "I'm not taking one more step with you!  This thing claimed our two brothers and I won't let it have me too!  I beg you - turn around!!"
     "But they're calling," the younger brother whispered in a ghastly voice, and stepped around him, ascending the final flight of stairs. 
     Cowering in the darkness, the oldest brother waited, knowing what he would hear and dreading it.  Sure enough, in the darkness, magnified by the silence of the old house, the ancient hinges turned once more -  CCCCRRRRREEEEEEEEEAAAAAAKKKKKKK!  There was silence for a second, followed by the booming sound of a massive wooden door slamming shut.  A long scream trailed off into the night.
     The brother charged up the stairs, fears forgotten, throwing himself against the door again and again.  Then he realized what he needed to do, and ran downstairs, grabbing his keys and jacket, peeling out of the driveway and down the mountain road to the small town.  He stopped at the first pay phone he saw, dropped in a dime, and called the police.
     When the officer picked up on the other end, he told him the whole story - the will, the inheritance, the creepy old mansion, and the disappearances, culminating with what had happened that night.  When he finally paused, there was silence on the other end for a long time - followed by a long burst of hearty laughter!
     "I have to admit, sir, that's the best Halloween story I've heard in a long time," the cop said.  "But do you know what night it is? Don't you think I have better things to do than listen your nonsense?  Call back when you are sober!"  The phone clicked into silence.
     The last brother slowly hung up the phone and returned to his car.  Four years passed.  He never saw his brothers again.
     The last brother slowly drove his car up the drive.  Three abandoned vehicles sat there, slowly rusting away.  Three coats hung on the pegs in the hallway, moth-eaten, dusty, and covered in cobwebs.  Mechanically, he worked through the endless series of rooms, sweeping, dusting, mopping, and doing minor repairs.  Afternoon faded to evening and to darkness, but finally he quit working around midnight.  He slumped into the chair at the old dining table, tears gleaming on his cheeks as he thought of his lost brothers.  He picked up the dusty old deck of cards and began to deal out a hand of solitaire.
    All at once the cards fell from his nerveless fingers.  He turned and began walking slowly, deliberately down the long corridor to the staircase.  Inside his head, his conscious voice was screaming "Stop, you fool, stop!  Turn around! Get out of this accursed place!"  But his body ignored his mind's thoughts, and continued towards the staircase, like a man in a nightmare who sees the edge of the cliff looming ahead but cannot wake long enough to stop himself from going  over the precipice.  Soon he was at the top of the stairs, and staring at the massive, thick oaken door that had defied every attempt to open it for the last sixteen years.  And as he stared, the door slowly swung open, revealing a blackness darker than the darkest midnight.  He stepped forward, and as he did, suddenly his control of his limbs returned.  For a split second, perhaps, he might have managed to run away - but the door was open, and he wanted to KNOW, finally, what was hidden in this accursed room.  He stepped inside, but the blackness was so thick that he could not see a thing.  He was reaching into his coat pocket for his lighter when suddenly it happened!
   A cold gust of wind struck him in the back and he staggered forward, wheeling his arms around for balance.  Even as he heard the boom of the door slamming shut behind him, he toppled forward and found himself falling into nothingness.  He fell and fell for what seemed like an eternity, then hit bottom with a crunch and a thud and passed out.
     When he came to, he realized he had landed on a pile of broken plaster - just soft and rotten enough to give way and break his fall without breaking him.  He sat up with a groan, and as he did, one of his hands went over the edge of - a ledge?  a step?  He could not see in the darkness, but he reached down as far as he could and felt nothing.  So he grabbed a piece of loose rubble with his other hand and tossed it over the side.  Then he listened
and he listened
and he listened
but he never heard it hit bottom.
He crawfished back from the precipice, feeling behind him with his hands until he discovered a solid stone wall he could put his back against.  Then he finally remembered his lighter and reached into his pocket for it. He flicked the flame to life and slowly stood to see where he had landed. 
     The ledge was perhaps forty feet wide, but it was not natural.  It had a floor of carefully cut and trimmed marble tiles, with broken off columns every ten feet or so, resting on ornate pedestals.  There were piles of wood and plaster and stone rubble scattered all over the floor.  Behind him, a vertical stone wall stretched up and out of sight, and on either side it curved forward to meet the edge of the chasm.  There were no doorways, passages, or visible openings in the rock face except for a few cracks far too small for him to fit through.  Then he lifted his light up high to see if there was anything on the other side of the void - and there was!
    Directly across from his ledge was another, of the same sort - a marble floor, broken columns, with a stone wall behind it.  But there was one key difference: in that wall was a doorway, standing open.  He could barely make out a flight of steps beyond it, leading upward.  It was as if a once-beautiful underground ballroom had once stood there, until its center section was sucked down into the bottomless pit! The other ledge was only thirty feet or so away - but how could he get across?
    To conserve his lighter, he took a long board and wrapped his jacket around it, then set it alight and jammed the makeshift torch into one of the cracks in the wall to give him some light.  He began pacing up and down the ledge, kicking rocks and boards out of his way, fuming and figuring, trying to discover a way to escape. 
    Suddenly he kicked something soft and yielding, and looked down to see a coil of rope at his feet!  He picked it up and measured it out an arm's length at a time.  It was over fifty feet long, and appeared to be well-oiled and supple, with no dry rot that he could tell. He tied one end around a broken marble column on his ledge, and tugged on the rope as hard as he could to see if it would hold him.  It showed no sign of breaking.  Remembering his days as a rodeo cowboy back in the twenties, he formed the other end into a lariat and began twirling it over his head.  Aiming at the stub of a marble column on the far ledge, he let fly and missed.  He reeled the rope back in, adjusted the lariat, and tried again.  He hit the column but didn't encircle it, but on his third try he dropped the loop gently over the marble.  Once more he pulled and tugged on the rope to make sure it was going to hold him.  Then he looped the slack around his column a couple of times, until he had a reasonable facsimile of a tightrope stretching from one ledge to the other.
    He sat and smoked a cigarette to calm his nerves, then he gripped the rope tightly with both hands, glad that he had been a small, skinny man his whole life.  He slid his buttocks off the ledge and started across, hand over hand, foot by agonizing foot.  By the time he had gone five feet, his body was bathed in sweat.  By the time he had covered ten feet, the sweat was pouring down his face and into his eyes, blinding him.  His palms were slick with it, but he gripped the rope all that much tighter, until there were ten feet left to go . . . five feet . . . four feet . . . three feet.
   He was almost all the way across when he saw by the light of his distant torch that the broken marble edge was steadily fraying the rope on the far side.  Even as he stretched out his hand to grasp the far ledge, the rope parted with an audible POP!
    He grabbed frantically with his one hand, getting a grip on the edge, then threw the other over, getting both hands onto the solid stone. Then, with one mighty surge of adrenalin-fueled strength, he heaved himself up and over, scuttling away from the sheer drop, putting his back against the wall and taking in great, whooping breaths as the ache in his shoulders slowly faded.  After a long while, the sweat began to dry, and he smoked another cigarette to calm his jangled nerves.  Then he slowly stood and started up the stairs.
       It was a spiral staircase, and the older brother counted fifteen rounds as he slowly made his way upward.  Finally, after the fifteenth circuit, he came to a landing, paved with marble flagstones like those far below.  There was a single doorway, and beyond it - more stairs.  A straight staircase, not too long, less than a hundred steps.  At the top, a doorway was framed in brilliant light - SUNLIGHT!  He could see the reflected rays on the ceiling just inside the door!
    Despite his fatigue, he took the steps two at a time - at least at first!  Then, more slowly, believing his long nightmare was at an end, he made his way to the top and stepped through the door.  To his shock, he immediately realized where he was.  It was the old family crypt on the hillside, which he had glimpsed from a distance every time he had driven up to the mansion.  It was a grim stone structure, with coffin slots covered over with blank plates along one wall. Across the chamber was an iron grillwork gate, standing open.  Beyond it, a beautiful autumn sun shone down on the multicolored trees in the distance, and the dying grass in the foreground.  He was perhaps a dozen paces from freedom.  But . . .
     There it sat, between him and the door - a big, black COFFIN, squat and ugly, impervious to the cheerful light that fell on it.  He caught his breath for a moment - after all, it was a tomb, right?  What better place for a coffin?  Then, he stepped forward to walk around it and get the heck out of this nightmare he had wandered into when he accepted his uncle's bequest all those years before.
     With a low, grating sound, the coffin began to slide across the floor towards him. He stopped.  It scooted towards him some more.
     He stepped back.  The coffin moved forward.
     He stepped back again - and the coffin came forward again.
     He stepped back again - not looking where he was going - and his back foot went off the top step, and before he could catch himself he was falling down the stairs!
    He caught himself about halfway down, bruised and battered, one tooth knocked out, but without serious damage.  He slowly climbed back up the stairs until he was just a few steps below the top - and then he sat and thought, long and hard.  What to do?
    He smoked his last cigarette, and then decided.  He was quick for a man in his forties, and had played football in high school.  It was time to blitz, juke, and roll!  He dropped into a three point stance, breathing deeply, gathering his strength, ignoring his aches and bruises.  Then he dashed up the steps as fast as he could, charged towards the ugly black corpse-box, and juked hard right.  As he prepared to spin around the coffin and break for the door, it pivoted on one end, like the flipper in a pinball machine, and smashed into him HARD, throwing him against the back wall of the chamber.  As he scrambled desperately to his feet, the coffin heaved itself up on one end and practically flew across the chamber at him, crushing him against the back wall of the crypt!
    The pressure on his chest was intense - he could not even inhale.  He knew he was about to black out . . . and then, in the last flickering vestiges of consciousness, he got a brilliant idea!  He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a box of Luden's Cough Drops - because Luden's always stops
THE COFFIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(please don't hurt me!)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017


  I had planned to write another short story for this month (and may do it yet) but I simply haven't been able to sit and focus long enough to do it.  Thanks to the nearly 400 people who read THE FLOWER, though!  That's a great response to a single work of short fiction.
   As I was pondering what to write this week, I got a response to a FB post I made from an acquaintance of mine.  My original post was actually just a musing thought on what makes a "great" day great, but for some reason my friend posted back a rambling comment on "this is why he didn't buy into religion" that concluded with:  "Why do I have to believe in a make-believe person to be accepted?  Why?  People don't have to convince each other that the sun is real, they can see it, plain and simple."

   I thought about that comment all day, and when I got home this afternoon I posted a series of replies to his question, all with the view of explaining why I believe, as I do, that God is real and that Christianity is the only valid path to reach him.  It wound up being a long response, and honestly, I wanted it to be seen by more than the handful of people who would scroll through all the replies on a FB post that was already several days old. So, I am copying, pasting, and editing a bit, and placing it here for all of you to see and read.  I want you, too, to understand WHY I BELIEVE.

  I was not offended at all by what you posted, Brandon, and I can understand when people get frustrated with religion. Of course, most of the time, when Americans say "religion" they mean "church". The problem with churches is that they are made up of people, and people, even the best of us, can be jerks on a bad day - and some people seem to have LOTS of bad days!  But that doesn't stop many folks from thinking church ought to be a perfect assemblage of lovable individuals doing good constantly and never offending or giving offense, and that's just not reasonable. No group of humans could meet the expectations some people have about church.   Churches are not display cases for saints, they are hospitals for recovering sinners.

   Now as far as GOD, the object of religious faith, goes -
Well, look at our world, this remarkable planet we live on. Look at our solar system. Look at our galaxy and the universe that spawned it. There is a precision to it all, a structured, ord
ered plan that simply cannot be a product of chaos. Study things like the "Golden Ratio," or the Fibonacci Sequences, or the fine-tuning of earth for life, or the incredible complexity of the cellular flagellum that one-celled organisms use to propel themselves, and the incredible amount of information encoded in a single strand of human DNA. Individually, perhaps ONE of these anomalies could be coincidental - but when you pile them one on top of another and realize how necessary they all are for the very existence of life - well, they SCREAM that design and purpose were involved. The very nature of creation DEMANDS a creator.

  So if we presume a creator, then we have to presume that He is a being of remarkable intelligence, surpassing the limits of human intellect even as our perception of ourselves and our world surpasses the self-awareness of say, a caterpillar or a slug. And yet, before I disparage humanity too much, look at us compared to every other life form on earth. WE alone write. We alone question. We alone are sentient, self-aware, creating beings capable of complex thought and abstract ideas. The gift of consciousness is unique to humanity. Why would an intelligent creator design an intelligent being unless, at some point, He intended to communicate with us?

  So then, we look at all of human history for signs of divine communication. There are five major religions all around the world - Christianity in all its various stripes, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. There are others, but these are the main contenders. Which one of these gives the most evidence of being objectively true?

  Islam stands or falls on the word of one man, Muhammad, who claims that God spoke to him, telling him that he, Muhammad, was the last and greatest of all prophets. What did Allah then tell Muhammad to do? To make war on his enemies, convert them by force, to mutilate their dead bodies if they refused to acknowledge him as prophet. Allah also told Muhammad that it was acceptable for a man to marry four wives at a time - but then, since Muhammad was the Prophet, the rules didn't apply to him. HE could have fourteen wives, one of them only eleven years old at the time she married Muhammad. Was any prophet ever more patently self-serving? The Quran contains some beautiful verses and a strong moral code, but the God it reveals is a vicious creature who allows his prophet to do terrible things, including murder, in the name of his faith, and encourages the followers of Islam to a never-ending jihad against the infidels (that includes people of all other faiths, or no faith at all). Such a god is not worthy of worship.

Hinduism and Buddhism are strongly derivative of each other, Hinduism being the elder of the two and the childhood faith of Gautama, who became "the Buddha." Both of them propose that we have infinite lifetimes to ascend the Karmic wheel, no matter how much we sin, we always get second chances in the next life, being born and reborn and reincarnated again and again, until eventually, the highest thing we can aspire to is to become nothing - cosmic bits of the universe without individual awareness or existence. As for historic evidence, Hinduism is not linked to any real historical events or founders; it is an ancient mythology with no history to back up any of its claims. The evidence does indicate that Buddha, at least, was a real historic individual who lived around 600 BC, but the earliest account of his life was written some 300 years after his death, so there is simply no way to verify any details about him - there are no contemporary sources.

   Judaism is strongly linked to some real history - although evidence for the Exodus is somewhat sketchy, new details are constantly emerging and events from the time period after that are confirmed more and more by archeology every year. There are some rough passages in the Old Testament, no doubt - the conquest of Canaan was brutal, and some aspects of the Mosaic Code ring harsh to the modern ear.  However, the wars of Israel were temporary in nature, however brutal they may have been in the short term, and the promise was that the Messiah, when he came, would bring a new Covenant that corrected the shortcomings of the old one. 

   So that brings us to Christianity. The existence of Jesus of Nazareth is a historical fact, verified by multiple sources of His life inside and outside the New Testament. Three of the four Gospels were written within 20-40 years of the life of Jesus, while the eyewitnesses of His life were very much still alive. Every single book of the New Testament was finished by 100 AD - the last few by John, one of Jesus' disciples whom later sources say lived to be over a hundred years of age. The ethical teachings of Jesus have withstood the test of time, the books of the New Testament have been passed down with remarkable textual accuracy, and most of all, Christianity is rooted in an EVENT - the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead in 33 AD. Without the Resurrection, Christianity is a delusion at best and a horrible fraud at worst. With the Resurrection, it is the best and most plausible account of God and His dealings with man. And despite the best efforts of critics to deny, debunk, and disprove it for two thousand years, the physical Resurrection of Jesus remains the best and most likely explanation for the origins of the Christian faith. As a historian, I think the Gospels pass every reasonable test of historical accuracy and I believe them to be the true and accurate record of the life of Christ, as well as His death, burial, AND Resurrection. And THAT is why I am a Christian.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

THE FLOWER - A Brand New Horror Story for Halloween 2017!

   What can I say?  It's been over a month since my last entry, and honestly, that last post was more a whiny screed about why I don't have time to write instead of a real piece of writing.  I could apologize some more, or I could offer you some entertaining content to apologize for my long absence.  So here you go, my first short story in several months, a creepy little tale of botanical horror, just in time for Halloween . . .

                              THE FLOWER

                                           A Short Story


                                           Lewis Smith


          Mark Swinton was a slender lad, some twelve years old, suffering through the spring of his sixth-grade year at the John B. Hood Middle School in Blanchard Springs, Texas.  Other states and bigger towns might have renamed the school, since it honored a decorated veteran of the Confederate States Army, but Blanchard Springs was a mostly white, mostly Republican town in a backwater district of East Texas, and change came slowly.  Life there was slow-paced for the most part; the biggest excitement of the year came in the fall when the high school football team battled rival Carthage for a shot at the district title.

          Not that Mark cared for sports; he was scrawny, bespectacled, and still spoke in the high, piping tones of an elementary student.  He favored books over athletics and video games over hunting and fishing.  His classmates teased him endlessly, and for the last two years he had been forced to endure the humiliation of being thought of as gay by most of his peers.  In a different state, in a bigger town, he might have pretended it was true, since gay was the new cool – at least according to his online friends from trendy towns like Cincinnati and Boston – but homosexuality was still a huge badge of shame in rural Texas, and the taunts came thick and fast, especially in the locker room, a place he avoided at all costs except during the forty-five minutes of mandatory torture known as Physical Education.

          The heck of it was, Mark liked girls, liked them a lot!  Unfortunately, while most of the girls he knew were quite kind to him and even stood up for him when the jocks began slinging slurs his way, he dwelled so deep in the “friendzone” of the female population of Hood Middle School he doubted he would ever escape.  Other guys his age had enjoyed their first kiss in fourth grade or earlier, and some of them had already made the legendary trip to “second base” (a few said they had been further, but frankly Mark thought they were liars).  Mark was still pining for his first kiss, and he knew who he wanted to administer it:  Laura Henderson.

          Laura was Mark’s “study buddy” in Mrs. Reasoner’s upper track English class, and his next-door neighbor.  They had been friends since first grade, but in the last year Mark had seen his tomboy playmate from elementary school blossom into an adolescent beauty that took his breath away.  Her long red hair shone like burnished copper in the sun, and her smile was blinding.  Mark tried to maintain the same easy ways with her that had made them such good friends as kids, but the fact is he was smitten and smitten deeply.  Laura had no idea that Mark was romantically interested in her; she chattered happily to him about the boys she liked and who she thought would ask her to the Spring Fling dance, never noticing the hurt in his eyes.

          Mark had already made up his mind that he would ask her himself, he was just waiting for the perfect opportunity.  As the bell rang for the end of the day, he thought that maybe that moment had come.  They were working on a report together for English over Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” and would be going to her house after school to do some research on mongooses, and then maybe play some Fallout 4 together.  Surely, somewhere over the next two hours, he could work up the courage to ask her to the dance!

          A shoulder slammed into his chest, knocking him into his locker and sending his books flying.

          “Watch where you’re going, Squinton!” said Bobby Busby, one of Mark’s chief tormentors, using his favorite nickname for his favorite victim.

          “You know what they say makes little boys go blind!” echoed Jimmy Hanson, Mark’s sidekick. The two of them brayed in donkey-like laughter and sauntered down the hall, looking for a new target.

          Mark imagined what it would be like to vaporize both of them with a plasma rifle as he gathered his books up and closed his locker.

          “I wish those guys would find someone else to pick on,” said Laura, stooping to help him.  “I hope you hit a growth spurt and are a foot taller than them by the time you’re a sophomore!”

          “Fat chance,” Mark said.  His Dad was slightly built, and of below average height.  “I’d be better off wishing I could become a werewolf or a mutant and eat them alive.”

          “They’d probably taste nasty,” she said as they headed towards the door.

          The pair left the school and walked towards home in a companionable silence.  From time to time, Mark cast a shy glance at this girl he desired above all things, but no matter how many times he screamed Ask her, you moron! inside his head, he could not get the words out.  Frustrated with himself, he glanced over at the overgrown abandoned lot they were passing.  A forbidding three story house had stood there until their first-grade year, when it had been consumed in a spectacular fire that claimed the life of its only occupant, a retired scientist.  There were all sorts of stories about what this mysterious man had really done for a living, and speculation on how the fire got started, but no one knew much for sure – only that Dr. Craig had been a botanist by training, and had worked for NASA.

          Mark was replaying one of the more lurid theories about the fire in his head when a splash of bizarre color caught his eye, standing out in stark contrast to the greens and browns of the weeds that covered most of the lot.  He stopped and stared for a moment, and then stepped off the sidewalk.

          “Where are you going, silly?” Laura asked him.  “That place is haunted!”

          “I’ll be right back,” Mark said, and began carefully walking through the weeds towards the blooming plant.

          The stalk was a very dark green, like the shadows in the deepest corners of some forgotten forest, and the leaves were shaped like nothing Mark had ever seen – almost like snowflakes in their delicate complexity.  But the flower!

          The single blossom was nearly a foot across, displaying a sunburst of colors so bizarre and different that Mark could not even come up with names for them.  What did you call a bright, glowing mix of purple and green, or red and brightest blue?  Even those words and combinations did not do the bloom justice – it was purely and simply the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

          That was when the idea struck him: he would give this flower to Laura, the greatest beauty he could find for the greatest beauty that he knew, and as she looked at its radiant petals, he would ask her to the dance.  His face lit up with a smile as he imagined her reaction.

          The stalk was cold to the touch, but pulsating with life.  Mark plucked the flower with the greatest of ease; it let go of its stem at the gentlest of tugs, not losing a single petal.  Cradling it in both hands, he turned and walked across the lot, holding it out before him.

          “This is for you,” he said, “because you are the prettiest girl I have ever known.”

          She took it from him, awestruck, and sniffed deeply of its fragrance. Her eyes softened as she looked at him, and Mark knew to the depths of his soul that she finally – finally! – saw the love he had carried for her for so long, saw it and returned it.

          “Laura, would you go to the Spring Fling dance with me?” he asked.

          Her smile melted his heart.

          “I thought you would never ask!” she exclaimed, and carefully setting the flower down, she took his face in her hands and leaned forward, her lips reaching for his.

          But none of that ever happened.

          Instead, the moment Mark touched the stalk of the plant, the flower emitted a wispy stream of vapor that curled up to his nostrils before he could even begin to try and pluck the bloom.  The powerful pheromone hit his cerebral cortex and broadcast images into his brain, images of the things he most wanted to happen.  He stood there frozen as the story played out in his mind.

          Laura was curious as to why Mark had taken off across the lot where the mad scientist’s house once stood, and had started after him almost right away.  She saw him walk up to the brightly colored flower and place his hand on it, and when the strange mist sprayed in his face, she paused to see how he would react.  A beatific smile came across his face, and he looked happier than she had ever seen him.  She started to speak, but decided to hold her silence, letting him enjoy whatever it was that filled him with such radiant bliss.

          That was when the flower sprayed a second time.  This time the mist was black, and there was much more of it.  It wove around Mark’s body, then closed in on him and vanished, seemingly sinking into his pores.  His smile wavered for just a moment, and a look of alarm came into his eyes. But before he could open his mouth to speak, a horrible transformation took place,

          Before her eyes, Mark began to dissipate, his body breaking down to a cloud of mist, or dust, individual particles swirling around, still maintaining the shape of a young boy, but losing all solidity and mass.  Then, as she stared in shock, the flower opened, opened up impossibly wide, exposing row after row of tiny, needle like teeth lining a trumpet-shaped proboscis.  With a hideous sucking sound, the cloud of particles that had been Mark were drawn into that brilliantly colored maw.

          Laura screamed and ran, blind with terror, seeking only to put as much distance between her and that unearthly blossom of death.  She never saw the minivan that struck her, sending her flying forward, then rolling over the small of her back and crushing her spine.  She never felt her head hit the pavement, fracturing her skull in three places.  In time, she would recover some cognitive function.  Although her memories of that terrible moment never went away, she could not communicate them to anyone – her speech center was too badly damaged.  She did scream “The Flower!!  The Flower!” for years afterward when she was afraid or upset, but she could not explain what the phrase meant, and the gentle nurses who tended the ruined husk of a once-beautiful girl simply made sure that new bouquets were never delivered to her room or placed where she could see them.

          Search parties looked frantically for Mark for several days, and in a more resigned fashion for weeks thereafter, but not trace of him was ever found.  Only his mother came close to unraveling the mystery; the day after Laura’s terrible accident, she came to the scene and wandered into the vacant lot.  She saw the unusual plant and its single colorful blossom.  Although the flower was already wilting, she could see it had been a remarkably beautiful specimen when in full bloom.  Despite being an experience gardener, she did not recognize the plant at all.  She leaned closer, her grief and sorrow forgotten for a moment in simple curiosity.  That was when the bloom shot out a cloud of black vapor.

          The mist smelled foul, like blood and rot and sewage, but that was not what made her stagger back in terror.  For as the black cloud swirled about in the air above the dying bloom, for just a second it took on the contours of a human face – her son’s face, twisted in anguish and fear.  Then a gentle breeze dispersed the pollen – surely that is what it was, she told herself! – and the terrifying image was gone, if it had ever been there to begin with.  Over time, she convinced herself that she had hallucinated the whole thing.  But for the rest of her life, that swirling, gritty image of her son’s face haunted her nightmares, even after her conscious mind forgot it.

          A week after Mark disappeared, the vacant lot was bulldozed to make room for a new coffee shop.  The flower never bloomed again.