It’s been three weeks since the debate at Radio City Music Hall.
And tonight, Benjamin Dunwoodie hugs a beach pail with his thighs and dry heaves into it. Only a thimbleful of bile plops out into the bucket. There isn’t much left in him; he hasn’t been the same since Tanzania.
“I am certain you understand our… disappointment.”
In the darkness of this — well, there’s no way around it, he thinks: dungeon — several shadows bob and sway in a formal row. His hearing is stunted now, since losing an ear to a sharpened rock and a zealous Gideon Dodd supporter in the brush of the Serengeti. But he hears the weak, breathless, echoing voice, and he hears the only other sound in this musty concrete tomb: a steady drip of water.
The central figure of this elevated tribunal leans in, and the light strikes his bumpy wide nose, his mottled chin and wrinkled lips. Ancient hands, draped in white up to the knuckles, fingers lousy with jewelry, appear in the swinging oil lamp’s roving glow.
“We assumed you’d converted the Hadzabe and discredited Gideon Dodd,” the Pope says in an Italian accent so thick, he might just be speaking Italian. “Now here you are, broken and eighteen pounds lighter, and the American preacher has all but won this election. The complete devastation of our way of life is nearly complete.”
“I told you he would kerfumpf this up,” says the thinnest silhouette, in its tall pointed hat. “What is he, twelve? Little meishkite’s barely out of diapers! And it might do him good to slide his hairless tushie into a pair, by the looks of it.”
“Rabbi Fauntleroy,” says the Pope, “I believe I said I would do the talking?”
The Rabbi’s hands go up in mock surrender. “Oh, sure,” he says. “I’ll just keep my big yap shut. What do I know?”
“God told me this would happen,” says the biggest, widest, slumped mountain of a shadow. “Knew it all along.”
The silhouetted shape of a bird on this one’s shoulder flaps its wings and bobs its head in agreement.
“Even Boogie here knew it, didn’t’cha, Boogie-Boy?”
“Mr. President,” His Holiness groans. “If you please.”
“Oop! My apologies, sir. You know I just get excited.”
Bennie spits into the bucket. His stomach gurgles, the sound bouncing off the underground acoustics. “Dot by fauld,” he says. His nose has sprung a maroon leak. “Boisoned. Giraffe beat. Boisoned. I thig it was that Bal guy—”
“Quiet!” The Pope stands, with effort. Shaking and stooped, he bends over the table and now the young Jehovah’s Witness can see him in all his sagging glory. Every bit of him is frail and strained, save the eyes. The eyes are on fire. “We didn’t bring you here to explain yourself. We brought you here to send a message.”
Now Bennie senses movement behind him. Someone has approached in total silence. If not for the hot breath on his neck he wouldn’t know. Not until the huge, clammy hands close around his throat — which they do now.
In the corner of his eye, a glimmer: a golden cross, pinned to an expensive suit.
“Waid!” He wheezes. The grip on his larynx is tightening. “I cad helb! I god do doe hib, spent tibe with hib! I doe his weakdesses. His vices. The reporter—”
“We know about the reporter,” hisses the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. “What you are offering is worthless to us.”
“Dode gill be.” Bennie’s cheeks are wet with tears. His mouth is stained in blood.
“Kill you?” The Pope sits, exhausted. “No, no, you silly boy.”
“Kill him! That’s rich,” Fauntleroy says, and laughs.
“Now Praise the Lord, boy,” says His Holiness. “For you are healed.”
The hands loosen, slide cold and eerie from his clavicle, and Bennie Dunwoodie’s stomach is soothed. In an instant, he is free of the cramps and stinging gut-rot plaguing him for weeks.
“Now, you can get to work,” says the Pope. “We can all get to work.”
“Worg!” squawks the budgie.
“My man will outfit you with a nice tuxedo,” says the Pontiff, “and brief you on our plans for Tuesday evening.”
“Wad’s habbenig Duesday?” Bennie wipes his tender nose, wincing, with the back of a trembling hand.
“What’s happenin’ Tuesday!” The Mormon President claps his hands. “Boy, you Jay-Dubya’s really are dopey, huh?”
“Oh, shut up, will you?” the Rabbi says.
“Both of you!” says the Pope, pounding either fist on the table. “Tuesday night, my dear boy, is Election Night, of course.”
The puke pail falls from Bennie’s lap and rolls to a mossy corner of the basement.
“And the good reverend Gideon Dodd is coming here, to Vatican City, as our honored guest on his big night.
“Now, won’t that be fun?”
I. Let No One Separate
“Wait, where the heck you going?”
Six months before Gideon Dodd wrote his best-seller God Don’t Care, before he announced his campaign for the Holy Throne, before he began spending his days on a bus with a man called Kratz — he had his knee pressed into a suitcase while he zipped it shut.
Tamara was rolling up socks and shirts, a row of travel-size toiletries spread out on the bed in their modest country home.
And Raymond Wachstetter was seeing his best friend for the first time in almost a year, but old Gideon was fixing to leave.
“I told you,” said the preacher. “Paris.”
“But this Time reporter — Maria…”
Tamara’s shoulders hitched.
“…she wants to interview you. About this, uh, ‘amazing transition into bucolic life and running a small-town church. Giving up being the world’s most famous man of God for a quiet existence in middle America…’ These are their words, by the way.
“S’ah puff piece. But could help you get this book deal.” Ray wound his hand in his loud orange tie — something he always did when he got agitated.
“I don’t want a book deal,” Gideon said. He grunted, tugging on the zipper. “I’m all done with book deals.”
Ray tugged on the neon binding around his wrist until his fingers turned bright red. “Okay, boss. I wish you’d consider it, but I won’t twist your arm.” The agent prodded the springed doorstop with his toe, sending it into a wobbling frenzy. “Can I use your bathroom?”
“‘Course,” said Dodd. “Down the hall on your left.”
Grumbling, Ray shuffled out of the bedroom.
“He means well,” Tamara said. “I just don’t think he understands.”
“He will,” Gideon said, hoisting his other knee to shimmy his entire body weight on the suitcase, “when I rip up the publisher’s advance.”
“Be nice,” Tamara said. She came over, kissed him on the cheek, and gave the zipper the slightest tug to seal his luggage. “Remember that’s your buddy.”
“I know.” The preacher hopped off the case and rubbed the back of his neck. “Look,” he said, “I hope it’s okay that I… Well, that we’re not pullin’ in as much money.”
“It’s okay.” Tammy smiled.
“It’s just that I— Well, I’m wonderin’,” he said, “how you could afford to buy them plane tickets. Book that hotel. All of this.”
Her smile faltered. She put her arms around him, as if to dance. “I’m gonna tell you something,” she said. “And I hope to goodness you forgive me.” She kissed his mustache and looked into his eyes. “Gideon, I spent our savings.”
“That money, all that money, that’s blood money. From our old life. From the TV gig and the megachurch and those book deals you’re all done with. All that mess with the newspaper articles and Roger treating me the way he did…
“We left that awful place. Stopped talking to reporters. Forgave Roger and testified to get him outta prison. We’ve moved on, but that money was still sitting in our bank account. I wanted it gone.” The wedding band on her left hand caught the light and became a tiny halo on her finger. “Now it’s gone,” she said. “We finally get our honeymoon. And we can really start over.”
When the preacher said nothing, she bit her lip.
“Are you mad?” she said.
“Well, I gotta wonder why you wouldn’t just give that money to charity…”
She shook her head. “No good,” she said. “That money isn’t godly. We will give. We’ll make the world better, together. But not with that money. Understand?”
Gideon pulled her close. “Not really,” he said. “But you’re so good, I guess I don’t care.”
High-pitched, ecstatic laughter tinkled in through the open window. The couple looked out, watched their darling twins tuck and roll and cartwheel their way through the green, green yard.
“Hate leavin’ ‘em,” said Gideon. “I don’t like to be away from the kids. Don’t feel like me when they’re not around. Not like the real me, when they’re not here. Or you’re not here.”
Tamara let go of him and fell onto the bed. She slung a forearm over her eyes and went still.
“Tammy? What’s wrong?”
“I feel like I should be sorry,” she said.
“I took them out of your life for so long,” she said. “I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t cope. I feel terrible, but I don’t feel sorry. Does that make sense? Am I awful?”
“No.” He sat down, took her hand, pressed it to his heart. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. We’re starting over, remember?”
Eyes still covered, she nodded.
“Okay,” she said.
“We’re gonna have a great time,” he said and patted her hand. “Y’know it? Babe, we’re gonna paint the town red.”
And of course, she did.
II. I Was Sick, and You Visited Me
Please heal my daddy. Please help him wake up.
Please give him peace.
In a hospital bed somewhere, Gideon Dodd pretended to sleep. Foremost he heard the clinical, electric sounds of medical machinery, pumping life into him or measuring it. Nearly drowned out in all this racket were the whispers of his daughter, who — through the slits of his surreptitiously cracked eyelids — he saw kneeling and bent over the bed near his bare feet.
“Please make my daddy better. Please heal my daddy’s heart.
“Please make my daddy whole again.”
When he could suffer no more of this, he grunted and twitched his fingers in his finest impression of a man only just being stirred awake.
“Ellie?” he said. “Ellie, baby, that you?”
The girl shot up and clacked her flip-flops around the mattress to kiss him on the cheek and grab his face.
“Praise God!” she said. “Praise His name! You’re healed!”
Dodd winced, shifting half-upright with his back on the headboard. “Wouldn’t say ‘healed’ quite yet,” he said, biting his cheeks as his face flushed, his chest flaring with momentary, dull pain.
“We thought you died,” Ellie said. “At the debate. But I prayed and prayed for God to bring you back.” Her eyes seemed magnified at this close distance, sparkling with tears like a cartoon character. She seemed infinitely childish now. Like maybe she’d never grow up.
“You’re back,” she said. Splayed, tiny fingers hovered over Dodd’s mouth. “Oh, but Daddy. Your face.”
Making a peace sign, he prodded his chin with two fingers. The searing pain on his skin made the beeps on the machines speed up for a few seconds. Pulling his hand away, he saw white, glistening fluid on his fingertips.
“The doctors tried a balm, a salve, and something called an unguent,” Ellie said, “but Mr. Kratz says nothing’s gonna heal those boils. Not man-made medicine, anyway.” With the butt of her palm she wiped tears from her face. She got up and dragged a chair within an inch of her dad’s bed and hopped into it. “But don’t worry,” she said, “‘cuz I’m prayin’ for those to heal, too. God is good.”
“Ellie,” Dodd said, wiping his pointer and middle digit on the sheet, “how long have I been here?”
“A week,” she said. She folded her hands in her lap, swinging feet that didn’t quite touch the ground.
“A week.” With a bumpy thumb he spun the plastic bracelet on his wrist, reading his own name:
DODD, GIDEON NMI
That same thumb he used to poke his sternum, and finding the spot between his nipples empty, he felt a twinge of panic. Painfully he leaned forward, reached between his shoulders, and sighed in relief as he located Tamara’s tooth. By its string he flung it forward to dangle there.
“Are you going to start campaigning again, now that you’re awake?” Ellie’s anime doe eyes rippled at him like puddles.
He stared at bubbling flesh on his arms. Purple, red, blue, and yellow: His epidermis looked like a bag of Skittles.
“Daddy?” Ellie didn’t move. “I wish you’d stop. I wish you weren’t running against God, instead of walking with Him.”
“Okay, Ellie,” Dodd rubbed his eyes with a pair of knuckles. “You know what I wish? I wish you’d start talkin’ sense and tell me when it was, exactly, you decided God was real, after all your big talk. I wish you’d help me understand why you’re goin’ against your daddy and when it was you got born again.”
The girl’s giddily swinging legs stilled inches above the tile. With a straight face and a flat voice, she told him.
“In the alley behind the hotel in Tanzania.”
The pastor attempted to furrow his brow and found the flesh there to be tender. “In the alley behind the hotel in Tanzania what?”
“That’s where God spoke to me.”
The beeping sped up again. Dodd clamped his eyes shut and steadied himself by gripping the bed liner.
“God—” he swallowed “—spoke to you?”
Something wet on his lip: One of the boils had burst. “How?”
“I had to sleep outside,” Ellie said. “I didn’t have any water or anything. I thought Mr. Kratz was jokin’, that he’d let me in anytime. But he never did. I just sat out there, thirsty and scared and hot.” This story should have been traumatic to recount, by anyone’s estimation, but Dodd noted that she could very well have been recounting a fair to middling episode of a TV program.
“By morning, I thought I might die,” she continued in her detached way. “But then God appeared to me.” The slightest hint of a smile fluttered across her mouth. “He told me I was His child, and that He loved me. He said if I believed in Him my thirst would be quenched, and my hunger — um, sated? And I did believe, Daddy. It was so real! And there was this little dirt ditch, runnin’ right down the alley. And it filled up with water. Clean, tasty water. It just kept comin’ and comin’. And then came the fish.
“They were really yummy, even raw. Like sushi, Dad! Like—”
“What did He look like?”
Every beep and hiss in the room had increased to dangerous speeds, but he couldn’t lie back, couldn’t take a deep breath or count to ten. “Ellie, what did He look like?”
At last, the smile overtook Ellie; her teeth made a bold appearance, braces and all.
“That’s the best part, Daddy,” she said.
“He looked just like you.”
Ellie left shortly after that, giving her papa three hugs and a kiss. He was alone after that, for a time. He switched on the television and found nothing but bad news, so he turned it off and just lay there, listening to the steady bleeps that meant he was alive.
After a spell, he began to nod off; just as he was slipping away, a loud clang at the window stirred him. He pried open his eyes just in time to see the glass pane flip open from the outside, and a pair of legs wearing practical shoes swing over the sill. Feet first, Maria Stenson climbed inside Dodd’s medical suite with impressive agility. She made no sound when her soles hit the floor.
Maria brushed the hair out of her eyes and looked around the room, settling last upon the man himself. There was compassion in her eyes, yes, but also disgust and — something else. Tucked under her arm was a manila folder.
She put a finger to her lips and came toward him.
“I don’t have much time,” she said. “It’s a nuthouse down there; I’m but one of a hundred reporters waging war on security to get in. I think one of the guards saw me climb the fire escape.” Standing over him, she made to move to take his hand or hug him, nothing comforting. “So I’ll be quick.”
The folder plopped onto his chest. He coughed. “Maria,” he said.
“No.” She held up a hand. “Let me talk. I—” she swallowed “—Jesus, you look horrible. Um.” A steady hand hovered over her moving lips. “I don’t think you’ll be seeing me again. Fred, that’s my husband, Fred… Well, that little revelation at the debate, about you and me? Fred’s less than enthused.”
“Sure,” said Dodd, sliding a finger into the folder.
“I told him that was a long time ago,” she said, “and I guess he believes me, but you know, the late night shows and news networks are having a field day with it. It can’t be easy for him.”
“Right,” said Dodd.
“Another thing: I’m going to have to publish the article under a pen name. The conflict of interest is pretty damning at this point. And it won’t be in Time. Probably Huff-Po or some bullshit. But there it is.” Her shiny fingernail swirled in the direction of the papers stacked upon Dodd’s chest. “I doubt you’re online much, so I thought I’d bring you a paper copy.”
“Thank you,” said Dodd. He flipped open the cardstock and examined the first page.
THE GOD WE DESERVE IS JUST A MAN,
it said up top,
by Mary Jetson
“Jetson?” Dodd squinted.
“I hope you like it,” said Maria. “I hope you feel better.” An unsure hand reached out, found his ankle, and squeezed. “I hope you kick His glowing infinite ass.” She smiled. “Now, I’d better—”
The door creaked open. A pair of coffees entered, followed by Dodd’s brother-in-law, the former Congressman Bulkiss. His worn, pudgy face screwed up and struggled to properly display its shock and outrage.
“Hey-hey!” he shouted. “You can’t be in here!” Roger leaned out of the room. “Guard!” he said. “Hey, guard!”
“Roger.” Dodd rolled over tenderly. “Roger, it’s okay.”
“No,” Maria said. “No, I’ve got to get going.” She went back to the window, threw a leg over it. Looking back, she said, “Next time I see you things might be pretty different, huh? Well. Saying ‘good luck’ doesn’t feel like enough, but — good luck, Gideon.” A little pivot, and she was outside, fingers wrapped around the frame. “See you in my prayers.”
Two men in brown, guts flopping over their gun holsters, entered the room and drew a matching pair of black batons.
“That’s her.” Roger pointed between the guards with a coffee cup, out the window, at the top of Maria’s head, hair flapping in the outdoor wind, her polished nails clasped over the sill. The hospital security staff launched forward to the open pane, grumbling threats and self-importance.
“Don’t move!” one of them shouted.
Dodd fell forward onto his hand, trapping stale air in his lungs. “Hang on,” he said. “She’s okay. She’s a guest. She—”
The guard on the right snapped the pistol off the pouch that slapped against his thigh. He thrust it out into the breeze, down at the tendrils of black hair dancing atop the reporter’s head.
Dodd heard her shout, “Jesus!” and collapsed, wriggling, from the chest up off the foot of the bed.
“No!” he said.
He saw her fingertips vanish from view, heard a scream.
“No!” he shouted to the bleached floor. “Not her! Not her, too!”
With every bit of strength he had left, he grabbed at his breast and flung a head heavy as a sack of concrete up and onto one shoulder. Through black floaters he could see, just barely, the blue velour of Maria’s blouse, crumpled between the gun-toting guard’s fingers.
A hand the color of caramel flung up, slapped the guard smartly across the cheek, and slipped down and out of sight. A telltale clatter of sensible shoes against metal grating rang out, growing distant as the woman made her way down the fire escape.
“Idiots!” Dodd hugged himself, hissed through gritted teeth. “Nearly killed her… She’s a friend…!”
The two guards eyed one another, mouths slack.
“Sorry, Reverend,” one said. “Didn’t know she was with you.”
“Out of here,” said the preacher, panting. “You’re relieved of duty. Go.”
One of them nodded — with their matching goatees and triple chins, it didn’t matter which — and after grabbing one of Dodd’s juice cups, they left.
At the window, Roger clicked his tongue and slid the glass panel shut with a thunk, sneaking a cursory glance down the side of the building. He put one of the coffees on Dodd’s rolling food tray and sat in the bedside chair.
“Crazy broad,” he said. “Who was that?” He cocked his head toward the window.
“Reporter,” said Dodd.
“Oh, the one you, uh…” Roger slurped his Starbucks and wiggled his eyebrows. “Still hittin’ that, huh?”
“Did you want something, Roger?” Dodd popped the lid off his cup, watched the steam curl and rise and fade. The charcoal clouds invading his optics abated a little, but he found it difficult to clear them or catch his breath.
“No judgment. Hey. We all did crazy things,” said Roger. “Back then.”
“You did crazy things, Roger,” said Dodd. “I made a mistake, one time, and I’ve got to come to terms with it. How bad I treated Tamara.”
“Oh, hell, brother!” Bulkiss laughed, pushed up his glasses and threw an arm over the back of the chair. “You were a saint to my sis. It’s me who was a monster to her. Well— you remember.” He sighed and blew on his brew. “I’ve been thinkin’ a lot about those days,” he said. “Don’t suppose you can grant me forgiveness for my sins, just yet.”
“No,” said Dodd. “I can’t do that.” He sniffed the translucent brown stuff in his cup. “What is this?” he said.
“Oh.” Roger sipped again. He jabbed a pinky at the proffered drink. “Didn’t know if you took your coffee black or what, so I got you breakfast tea.”
“I hate tea.”
“Ah.” Roger slapped his forehead. “I remember now.”
“What did you want, Roger?”
“Can’t a guy come see how his brother-in-law’s doin’?” Unfocused, he swirled his coffee and splashed his white button-up. “I mean, ya’ nearly croaked on live TV. Got leprosy or somethin’. Sorry I can’t hug ya’.”
Dodd pushed Maria’s printout and its manila shell a few inches away with the bottom of his cup and left the tea there. “I’m doin’ fine,” he said. “Just need some rest,” he added without pretense.
“How’s my man Kratz treatin’ ya’?” Roger blew, swigged, went ahh.
Dodd’s mouth drifted to one side. “Well, now you bring him up,” he said, “I’ve gotta say I find him a bit… abrasive. And the kids…” He inhaled. “Hm.” Of their own volition, his eyes fell shut. “Where’d you find this guy, Rodge?”
The politician of yore chuckled. “Summoned him in a ring of salt, out in the woods,” he said.
Dodd opened one searching eye.
“What d’ya think, ya’ goof?” Bulkiss flashed his winning grin. “We were both regulars at one of the brothels. This was years ago, now. Y’know, before Weiner screwed everything up for the rest of us.”
“Please,” Dodd held up a hand. “Not now. I can’t just now.”
“I was gonna ask you if he’s on the up-and-up,” said Dodd. “Kratz.”
His brother-in-law’s pupils floated to the ceiling as he took another perfunctory gulp of caffeine.
Dodd said, “But I think you answered my question.”
Wiping his mouth with one wire-haired forearm, Bulkiss sunk further into his chair, settling in. “Well, you’re winnin’, aren’t you?”
“So he’s doin’ his job.” The man who might have become president, who now ran a Waffle House off the interstate instead, shrugged back. “All you can ask. I mean, my man can spin anything, Giddy. Anything. Even all these attacks and shootouts, these religious nutsos runnin’ riot — Kratz’ll have you smellin’ like a dozen roses however bad it gets. You’ll see.”
The preacher drew his sheets up to his nose. With a puff of hot air wetting his chin, he whispered toward his curled toes.
“What attacks?” he said.
Bulkiss told him.
James came to visit him next. When Dodd’s brother-by-marriage left, it wasn’t a full minute later that his son stepped inside, dragging his shoes on the hospital tile and humming softly, tunelessly.
At the sight of his flesh and blood the televangelist stretched, mouth drawn tight, forcibly pulling himself from the darker recesses of his own psyche.
“James,” Dodd said.
The boy took his sister’s empty seat, and when his father held out an open hand, he took it. “Dad,” he said again.
“I’m okay, son,” he said.
But James was fixated on the EKG readout, his irises following its steady peaks and valleys. There were purple rings under his sockets, and he’d grown more sallow and — Dodd squeezed the kid’s hand — he looked as though he’d lost weight. A lot of it.
“James, son, are you okay?”
The boy said nothing. If Dodd blew on him, he might crumple over.
“Mr. K-Kratz is outside,” said the boy. “Can I stay in here with you? Please?”
“Yeah.” Dodd tugged on his child’s hand. With this slightest force, James toppled over and sprawled across his father’s belly. The elder let out a hiss of pain but wrapped his arms around the child.
“What on Earth happened to you?” he said. “Did Kratz hurt you?”
He felt the boy’s every muscle tense up at the mention of his campaign manager’s name. Lifting the boy to lock gazes with him, Dodd said, “What did he say to you? When we were out there, and you kids were at the hotel. What did he say to you? Tell me, son. Because if he hurt you—”
“Please drop out of the race, Dad.” A contorted knot of cheeks and jaw rippled under the kid’s skin. “Please. I don’t wanna be the Son of God. I can’t do it.” He collapsed into the pastor’s chest and sobbed. “I can’t do it.”
Gideon Dodd held the boy, searching the depths of his heart and soul for something to say.
Nothing came up.
New company arrived, a half an hour later, in the form of Kratz and his dog. When they entered, Kratz first tapping on the door then opening it without invitation, James leapt to his feet. With a desperate look at his papa, the boy fidgeted and panted before leaving the room.
Kratz stopped laughing a few steps in. “Padre,” he said, looking over his shoulder to watch the boy go. The dog woofed after him.
“How’d you get that thing in here?” Dodd asked.
“No security,” Kratz said.
Dodd made a show of fluffing his pillow. “I was just going to sleep,” he said. “Do you mind leavin’?”
Man and hound alike came swooping to his bedside regardless of the request. In Kratz’s pinched fingertips hung the pungent, ornate African necklace. Dodd caught a whiff of it and turned away.
“You should really have this on,” said Kratz.
Dodd looked out the window. “Maybe you didn’t hear me,” he said. “I asked you nicely to leave.”
“All right.” Dodd could hear the organic jewelry clink against the surface of the nightstand, next to his reading glasses and water jug. “I just wanted to pass along the good news.”
The dog barked again.
“The incident at Radio City was seen around the world. Public sentiment for you has spiked way up. Resentment for the Almighty, also way up. You’re ahead in the polls. By a wide margin. There’s a hundred people out there who want to talk to you. Ply you with gifts, leave you floral arrangements, kiss your ass.”
With a little moan, Dodd wrapped his ears in the topmost pillow.
Muffled, he heard Kratz: “Well?”
The reverend, chin tripled as it pressed into his sternum, glowered up at the other man. He reached without looking to nab the television remote, switched on the set, and as he had known it would, a 24-hour news channel flashed onscreen. Images of rubble that had once been buildings and corpses that had once been people ran in cycles. Beneath, the words RELIGIOUS EXTREMIST ATTACKS ON THE RISE — CALLS FOR REV. GIDEON DODD TO STAND DOWN IN LIGHT OF TULSA TRAGEDY — HADZA TRIBE OF TANZANIA NEARING EXTINCTION…
When Dodd couldn’t look at the words anymore, he looked at Kratz instead, which he found to be just as difficult and disorienting.
“Yeah?” said his image consultant. “And?”
“That is happening,” Dodd pointed at the TV, “because of me.”
“No!” Kratz squatted, fingertips tickling the mattress. The hound licked its chops. “Dodd, is this what’s got your jockstrap in a knot? A few bombs go off and you get cold feet?”
“The whole point of this was to make the world a better place.” Dodd kicked off his blanket, paunch belly pronounced under a thin hospital gown. “But we’re tearing the it apart. You and I — me! Look at all the harm I’m doing.”
Caught between a grin and a grimace, Kratz leaned in, and Dodd saw every one of his yellowed teeth. “This isn’t you. It’s Him.”
The dog barked, snarled.
“If anything, you should be more determined to fight than ever!” Kratz grabbed Dodd’s wrist and jerked it in a mock boxer’s spar. “These are His people. Acting in His name. He blasts you with this — I’ll just say it — disgusting skin condition, gives you a damn heart attack, sets your daughter against you—”
“How do you know about that?”
“About what?” Kratz snapped backward, eyes wide and wandering.
“Who told you God spoke to Ellie?”
“Never mind that,” said Kratz. “The point is—”
“What did you tell James?”
The other man’s eyes sharpened: cold, severe pinholes. “I told you before—”
“And I’m telling you now,” Dodd pushed back on the headboard, flinging forward even as the electronic readout of his well-being approached haywire status. “Stay away from my kids.”
The dog took three fast, threatening bounds forward and had its paws pressed into the mattress before its master laid hands on the top of its head to still it. Foaming, growling, its eyes caught the artificial light and glowed yellow.
“Plaaatz,” said the man drawled, studying the preacher. Kratz stood, looming over the bed, and Dodd expected — with little alarm, really — that his public relations expert would now take a pillow, press it onto his face, and wait for the life to leave him.
Instead he reached into his windbreaker pants pocket and yanked out a new cellular phone.
“I brought you something,” he said. He thumbed the thing on, and its screen lit up. “During your recovery I think it’s best you keep your followers engaged. I signed you up for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.” Kratz poked and prodded at the device, tongue peeping. “Even posted your first tweet for you.” Blue light illuminated his bony face and cleft chin, exaggerating already deep shadows. “Ha! Here it is: ‘Almighty can’t handle constructive criticism. Faced with His inner ugliness, lashes out with plague of outer ugliness. Pathetic!’”
Dodd didn’t have the slightest clue why it was funny, but Kratz laughed until his face turned purple at his own apparent wit.
“I don’t want on that Twitter,” said Dodd.
“Well, you’re on it,” Kratz said. “Hashtag ‘too late.’”
Dodd crossed his arms and lay back like a body at the morgue.
“Get out,” he said.
Kratz huffed. “I asked you,” he said. “When all this started. You wanted my particular brand of expertise, and I asked you, point-blank, whether you could hack it. Whether you had the guts and the guile to see this through — if you wanted it, or if this was some whim that would lose steam at the finish line. And you said yes. Or did you forget Arby’s?”
Counting the ceiling tiles, Dodd sighed and said, “No, I haven’t forgotten Arby’s.”
“We shook on it,” Kratz said again. “We had a goddamn gentleman’s bargain. So here’s what I’m gonna do.” Hands flat, he wiped palms on his chest, leaving darkened damp marks on his jacket in the shape of Thanksgiving turkeys. “I’m gonna keep posting as you on social media. I’m gonna keep fielding questions from reporters. I’ll keep spending your fortune on campaign ads to run during shitty sitcoms.” A tooth-grinding squeal as his sneaker scuffed the linoleum.
“I hate to break it to you, Padre: I’m not going fucking anywhere until I make you God.”
For about ten seconds, neither man said a word. Then the one on his feet, in the red jogging getup, puttered his lips and tapped the tribal necklace on the nightstand, making it clatter and rattle like bones in an old talkie.
“Put that on,” he said.
A wet, lively tongue slopped over Dodd’s exposed foot.
And with that, the preacher was alone once more.
Last of all, Gideon Dodd, in hospital suite 316, was visited by his wife Tamara.
It should go without saying that the specifics of this reunion were private, emotionally resounding, and nothing more than a morphine-fueled dream.
III. On the Pinnacle of the Temple
The phone rang.
In Gideon Dodd’s temporary campaign headquarters, the nominee for God, widower, father, and best-selling author sat in the center of the unlit room under a cathedral-high, industrial ceiling. In this sprawling storage facility, the preacher would have been very difficult to spot indeed.
After his release from the hospital (and a quick stent installation), Dodd made arrangements, without a word to Kratz, to rent this space and move all the contents of both tour buses into it. This warehouse annex now contained desks and filing cabinets and the whole of Doddville.
And he’d gone back to work.
Not on the campaign.
He carved and sculpted, painted and whittled, scraped and sanded without rest for two weeks.
He took no visitors.
He barely took meals.
There he sat, dead center in the bustling burg of his own design, a Godzilla to its tiny wooden denizens and upright skyscrapers and houses and bodegas. In his manic frenzy he had made the small, quaint model town into a metropolis. It would never fit in his garage back home now, nor on the bus. To walk around the edges of the miniature city’s grid, from start to finish, would take the average healthy person a solid ten minutes.
Gideon Dodd was not healthy, so it took him twenty. It would take him ten just to exit the confines of Doddville and answer the ringing phone at the storage facility’s door. That was fine; he had no plans to answer it anyway.
With the thinnest-tipped brush he owned, he flicked in black a teeny-tiny hint of butt crack onto the backside of a plumber he’d just carved and named Mort. He chuckled at his immature joke.
Tamara would have thought it was funny.
Two fingers twiddled at the tooth hanging around his neck.
The phone finally ceased its ringing. Dodd let out a breath of relief at the newfound quiet.
That lasted about three seconds.
With a splintering crash, the side door to the facility burst and shredded off its hinges, clattering to the ground and decimating a suburb of Doddville.
The preacher leapt to his feet, swaying, his vision blurring with exertion and anger. “What in the blue blazes—?”
The massive, broad-chested shape of a man lumbered in, backlit and indefinable for six or so steps. Then the light hit Mal’s face, wide and worn as a catcher’s mitt.
“Gideon Dodd, you have been shirking your responsibilities.”
Curving round his waist came Kratz’s sprinting dog, once again hopping, weaving, and bounding through the narrow streets of Dodd’s model city, neither paw nor tail even brushing against a single street lamp or park bench. Hackles raised, the dog spread its legs and snarled at the preacher.
Kratz, it appeared, now stepped out of Mal — not out from behind him, but out of him. He was uncharacteristically dressed in a purple polo shirt, tucked into khakis a little short in the leg, exposing the ankles of some striped red-and-black socks.
“You haven’t answered my calls,” he said, swiping at his short sleeve with the edge of one hand. “In fact, I would say you’ve been downright ignoring me. Y’know, if you don’t mind me saying? That seems somewhat antithetical to your entire platform. Isn’t ignoring people the Other Guy’s area of expertise?”
A set of paws on each corner of a tiny dog park, the hound carried on its fang-baring sneer, the low rumble in its throat vibrating its nightcrawler lips.
Kratz did not call it off. Not this time.
“You knocked down my ice cream parlor,” Dodd said. “And the Piggly Wiggly.”
Kratz drew near, the hulking mass of Mal blotting the outdoor light behind him. Every step caused a clacking echo that repeated six times. “Hell with your toy town,” he said. To punctuate this, he stamped down on the Doddville sporting goods store, “Doddballs.”
“Hey!” Dodd took a step forward. The dog barked, freezing him.
“I don’t understand you, Dodd.” With a crunch, Kratz’s foot lifted, and leading with his shoulders, he approached down the aisle between major mini-boroughs.
“You’re on the cusp of cosmic history. With just a modicum of effort you can have — literally — anything you want.” His forearms bulged, the tendons twisting under pale flesh. Dodd had never seen Kratz’s arms from the wrist up. He was surprised at how muscular he was. Even more surprised at how chalky.
“You’ve got 5.3 billion followers on Twitter,” Kratz continued, walking and talking. “Sixty-eight billion retweets! That ain’t nothin’.” He tapped on a heel like Fred Astaire, continued his saunter. “The Almighty throws everything he’s got at us: Baptists, running around speaking your Internet history in tongues. Snake-handlers, setting asps loose at your supporters’ feet during rallies. Contemporary Christian recording artists writing songs called ‘Dat Dud Dodd’ and ‘Love is a Vote for God.’”
Now he had come as close as he could get, with the dog between him and the pastor, its stiff tail prodding Kratz’s chest.
The pair of them, man and hound, might have been joined at the hip — one being, with one mind. Their expressions were close enough.
“And no matter what that Schlub does.” Kratz stared into Dodd’s eyes, and the preacher felt it. “However low He sinks. Our numbers just go higher. Setzen!”
The dog squatted. Kratz walked around, the hound’s eyes transfixed in reverence on its master. The P.R. pro put an arm around Dodd’s shoulder, drew him close enough so they could feel the rise and fall of one another’s lungs: Kratz’s, slow and steady; Dodd’s jagged and troubled.
“I know you’re having second thoughts,” Kratz said. “I know you’ve fantasized about dropping out of the race. But here’s the thing, Padre.”
He glanced at Mal, way out in the Doddville boonies. Kratz grunted and put his lips on the reverend’s ear, whispering:
“You don’t get to call upon me, shake my hand, then just send me away.”
Ear damp with Kratz breath, Dodd inched back.
Kratz rose his voice back to its typical bombastic volume. “Where’s your necklace?” he said, flicking Tamara’s tooth. “Your little keepsake from the jungle lands? I told you to keep that on— ah, shit, Pappy, your boils!”
“What?” Dodd touched his face. “I thought they were healin’ pretty good.”
“Well, that’s just it!” Kratz smacked him between the shoulder blades; Dodd went whoof. The dog echoed his outburst. Kratz said, “People feel bad for a sonuvabitch lousy with pus-poppin’ goiters. There’s what they call a sympathy vote, dummy. Why’d you have to take off that necklet?”
“Wait,” Dodd said, fingers still feeling around at shrinking scabs and welts. “The necklace—”
“Was keeping the boils fit to burst?” Kratz cackled, balled up a fist, and knocked on Dodd’s forehead. “Well, yeah, you were wearing your own personal allergy profile around that beefy neck.”
Clutching at his own throat, air felt suddenly hard to come by. The reverend sputtered and fumbled the beginnings of several sentences. “You— You!” he said. “Did you give me these? Was this your idea?”
Kratz rolled his eyes, shook his head. “Are we really having this conversation?” he said.
Still wrapped in Kratz’s stringy embrace, Dodd shuffled, attempting to extricate himself, but found the man’s arm to be a Chinese finger trap of an extremity. The harder he wriggled, the tighter the grip around his midriff.
“You’re forgetting what’s at stake, Padre.” The feline purr of Kratz’s timbre puttered against the preacher’s side. “You say you want to make the world a better place, but I know you. I know what’s clanking around in that skull of yours.” His thin Medusa fingers fed through Dodd’s thick curls, brushing and massaging. “Mmm. Look at you. Have you been eating? Let’s get some waffles in you and have us a little talk about the future.”
Dodd squirmed. “I don’t need waffles,” he said. “I need— need some darn space, Mr. Kratz.”
“If you were God, you could snap your fingers and be in Belgium, stuffing that chatty mouth with the best waffles in the world.” With surprising force, his fingertips turned Dodd’s head to face him. The closeness was unbearable; Dodd breathed Kratz’s air, and vice versa, in a vile cycle.
“When you’re God,” Kratz said, “you won’t need a stupid tinker toy playset.” He nudged at a model synagogue with his Adidas. “You can build and sculpt and shape the planet, the solar system, the universe. And hell! The funnest part! You can tear it all down if you’re feelin’ froggy!”
“Go away,” said Dodd. “This ain’t funny anymore.”
“And, oh, my Hotty-Totty Doddy.” The campaign manager pushed his client’s head onto his shoulder, kissed his cheek. “Oh, my God-to-be. Do you know what else?” Flecks of spit landed in Dodd’s ear canal.
Kratz said, “You could have Tamara back.”
Something heavy plopped onto Dodd’s feet. He looked down, Kratz having released the pressure on his cranium. The dog was curled up at their heels.
Kratz’s grip slackened. Dodd took a step back, risking a pratfall with the canine lying on his loafers.
His wife’s tooth lay very still on its string, favoring the side of his chest where the heart beat and pumped, making him human, keeping him alive until it wouldn’t.
Gideon Dodd looked over his shoulder at Mal. The big man stood like a bouncer, akimbo and emotionless.
“Do not look at me,” he said.
So he looked at Kratz. The playful, charming smile had returned to his pointed chin.
Dodd began: “I—”
“You don’t need to say anything,” said the strategist. “But I do need you to pack a bag. Mal will fill you in on the details. I’ve got to pick you out something slimming for Tuesday.”
With a snap of the finger, he and the dog were gone, leaving Dodd in the heart of his city, casting a shadow down upon it ten times the size of its tallest building.
His political consultant raised an eyebrow, and Dodd felt smaller than Doddville High’s teacup piglet mascot.
“What is it, Gideon Dodd?” Mal’s eyes were bloodshot; their brilliant red drew every bit of focus.
“It is Election Night,” said Mal.
“Oh.” Dodd tapped his chin. “That came up fast.”
The preacher walked with intent to the portion of his model municipal that had been flattened with Mal’s dramatic entrance. Grunting, panting, he dragged the fallen door off of that corner of his masterpiece. He assessed the damage:
Not bad. Not unfixable.
“Besides English, what other languages do you speak?” Mal asked, nonplussed by Dodd’s sudden shift in interest. “Besides American, what other cultures do you identify with?”
“Hm?” Dodd wiped the sweat-dew from his nose. “Oh. Um. I celebrated Kwanzaa with Tammy’s parents once.”
“Come.” Mal curled an arm toward his core, and Dodd felt pulled in the direction of this intimidating man whom he now realized he didn’t know or understand at all. “We have much to prepare. We can discuss the primary forms of global government on the drive to the air hangar.” With Dodd at his side, he at last deigned to move his golem body, making for the doorless exit.
“And in the plane, we can review the major religions of the world. I have flash cards.”
“Plane?” Making a visor of his hand, Dodd stepped into daylight.
“We fly to Italy,” said Mal, one step ahead. “Vatican City. For Election Day, we will make our last major campaign appearance in the Holy City. There you will shake the hands of voters in line to cast their ballot.”
One of the dormant campaign buses was now parked outside the storage warehouse, running and spewing black clouds into the air. Mal led the way to its swanky confines.
“In a quite surprising display of cordiality, the Pope himself has invited you to celebrate your impending victory right in his own home. Is that not big of him?”
The vehicle’s pneumatic doors hissed open. After a furtive glance at Mal, Dodd swallowed some air and spoke.
“Yeah,” he said. “Mighty kind.
“Figure I’ll keep him around when I take office.”
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