The Alphabet Challenge: “B” Story No. 2 of 3 — “Baptism”

This is the second round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these second-round submissions, it’s the letter “B”.

Readers have a month to vote for their favorite story in each round and points will be assigned to each writer.

For each letter, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.

Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “B”.

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Copyright 2020 – Perry Broxson

(2,600 words – approx. reading time: about 10 minutes based on 265 WPM)

A clean-cut young man sat on an unpadded oak bench. He placed a book between his knees to keep them from knocking together. His mouth was dry, his eyes wet. As he swallowed remnants of spit, his Adam’s apple rose and fell under his starched white collar. He was taller than he’d been the last time he was in this church, some two year’s prior. He was also leaner, and his loose suit testified to that fact. His forearms and ankles jutted out of the sleeves, but his body swam within the slack yards of cheap, itchy fabric.

He looked around the familiar building, the familiar folks, the familiar iconography. This house – God’s house – had been his sanctuary, the cocoon of his youth. And now, two years on, it seemed hostile. More than that, it seemed counterfeit – like a quickly cobbled Off-Broadway stage. He dismissed his muddled mind to jetlag. He could not, however, explain away the terror that welled within him.

“Elder Young,” the Bishop called from the pulpit. “We are so proud, so pleased, to have you back from your mission to Peru. You have answered God’s call. You have fulfilled the commandments of the Doctrine and Charter. You have faithfully spread the gospel of our Heavenly Father, as interpreted by the Prophet, Joseph Smith. And now, if you would be so kind, please come forward and regale the ward with stories and your successes and failures, your triumphs and tragedies, your blessings and hardships.”

Elder Jacob Young willed himself to move – to rise from his pew, navigate past knees and clapping hands, walk down the aisle, and step up to the pulpit. Bishop Quinn, the ranking lay-priest, met him with open arms. As they hugged, Bishop Quinn whispered: “Let’s not mention Elder McCandless, shall we?”

Elder Young broke the embrace. He looked at the Bishop querulously, contemptibly.

Bishop Quinn smiled, showing his porcelain veneers. He was a dentist in real life. Had, indeed, been the Young’s family dentist for two decades. Despite being stupendously wealthy, the Church of the Latter Day Saints did not pay priests.

Elder Jacob Young nodded as Quinn took a seat, abdicating the pulpit. The young man opened his bible, the Book of Mormon, and retrieved his notes. He spread the pages onto the lectern, tipped the microphone upward, then cleared his throat. He looked left, then right – as he was taught to do. He smiled, as he was taught to. The crowd of some two hundred people, smiled back. Had they all gotten porcelain veneers in his two-year absence, he wondered. He’d never noticed those bright beaming teeth before.

He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. For several seconds, he was certain that he’d had a stroke. Suddenly, he was relieved . . . relieved that his brain was hemorrhaging and that he would not have to continue with his speech.

“Hola,” he finally croaked.

“Hola,” the crowd responded, laughing at the Spanish greeting.

The laughter loosened him. “I promise, the rest of my speech is in English.”

More laughter burbled from the people with the blanched teeth. This time, it was shorter, sharper. It seemed to suggest that he should skip the jokes and hurry the fuck up; there was lunch in the oven and a Jazz game to watch.

“Two years,” Elder Jacob Young said, then checked his notes. “Two beautiful, crazy years in Peru, in the city of Iquitos. It’s truly paradise. The majestic Andes to the west. Great basin planes to the east. Lush jungles to the north. Iquitos is a jewel, hidden amongst natural wonders. It’s ancient, dating back some 5000 years. It was built on the Amazon River . . . and when I say on, I mean, there are actually floating shanty towns. It’s indescribable.”

He caught himself. His brain hiccupped. A voice within his head said: How can it be indescribable if you just described it? 

Elder Young gulped from the water glass Bishop Quinn had left. The voice. The one in his head. It was Elder McCandless . . . Alex.

“As you know,” he continued, “we embarked on our mission with great zeal, anticipating the many souls that we would win for Heavenly Father. The Iquitos people had never heard the teachings of the Latter Day Testament. It was not only our duty, it was our pleasure, to share the Book of Mormon with them.”

The voice in his head brayed with laughter. Dude, you are such a bullshitter.

Elder Young reached for the water glass. His shaking hand misjudged and the glass tipped over, spilling water onto the lectern, onto his notes. “Shit,” he said into the microphone.

There was an audible, unified gasp from the congregation. Bishop Quinn stood, as if to rescue propriety, and then sat back down.

“Sorry,” Elder Young said, mopping the water with his ruined pages. “Guess I should have said mierda instead.” Silence bristled like an itch. He looked to the pew where his family sat. Their white teeth were sealed behind tense lips.

“Listen,” Elder Young said, breaking through a miasma of disappointment. “I’m just not that guy anymore. That guy that sat over there 18 years.” He pointed at the bench where his parents, four sisters, and five brothers sat. “I’m not that clueless kid that blindly obeys, that believes ridiculous stories. I lost my faith the first year I was in Iquitos. I’ve been researching Mormonism.” He held up his bible. “There’s a lot of holes in this book.”

Bishop Elder did get up this time. “The jetlag,” he said into the microphone. “I bet the poor lad hasn’t slept in days. I once forgot Sister Quinn’s name after a transpacific flight. Time zones play devil with” –

“Don’t,” Elder Young shouted. “Don’t you dare apologize for me.”

Bishop Quinn’s bright smile dimmed and his vapid eyes darkened. “Elder Young,” he said sternly, “you’ve been through some things . . . some trauma. Come with me and we’ll retire to the vestibule where we can pray.”

The Bishop put his hands on the boy’s shoulders and squeezed. He then attempted to steer him away from the podium, down the steps. But the boy was surprisingly strong and easily shrugged off the dentist’s soft hands.

“Don’t touch me, Oliver,” Elder Young growled.

“That’s Bishop Quinn, Elder Young. You’ll show respect in Heavenly Father’s house.”

Elder Young ignored the order. Absently, he retrieved his notes from the mess on the lectern. He mumbled to himself. “Elders and Bishops and Melchizadekian Priests. Might as well call ourselves Batman or Grand Poo-Pa or Chancellor Shit-Nickels. It’s all made up. Make-believe. So fucking silly.”

Bishop Oliver Quinn, DDS, grabbed the young Elder Jacob Young, great-great grandson of Brigham Young, by his suit lapels and attempted to physically remove him from the sanctum. It did not go well for the Bishop. Jacob bent the man’s thumb back until a tendon ruptured and the digit flopped.

Strangely, the act of violence calmed Jacob. No longer shaking, he re-adjusted the mic and began to speak. “Oliver asked me to skip over a very important part of my mission. Our mission. He asked that I not mention Elder McCandless. My dear friend, Alex.

“Why?” Jacob looked down at the Bishop, who was on his knees, sobbing, holding his bad hand with his good. “You’d have to ask him . . . once he stops crying. I’m guessing it’s because of the Baptism. What? You guys haven’t heard about the Baptism. Nobody wrote it up and stuck it in the Deseret News Journal? Didn’t even make the church bulletin . . . oh my heck!”

“Jacob,” Elder Young’s father shouted from the pew. “That’s quite enough.”

“Enough?” Jacob said. “Enough what? Enough fake bullshit? If so, I agree. You send your sons off to a mosquito-infested slum in the middle of the Amazon jungle and pretend that it pleases some invisible sky wizard. Enough is right, Daddy. Now sit the fuck down until I finish my speech.”

Several men, including Jacob’s father, rose from their benches and hurriedly approached the pulpit.

Jacob calmly reached under his oversized jacket and pulled a gun from his waistband.

“Slow your roll, boys, or Bishop Big-Teeth gets it in the head.” Jacob pointed the gun at perfect, pink part in the dentist’s white hair. The men froze and the women whimpered and the children squirmed.

“As I was saying,” Jacob picked up. “Alex McCandless is not here to speak to you today, because Alex McCandless is dead. Surprised? Official Church records state something a little different? Like, maybe, he quit the mission. Ran off with a local and flew to Argentina. Where he lives in sin with his lover. Is that what you told the ward, Bishop?”

Jacob bounced the barrel off the Bishop’s skull. “Did you?”

“Ye-ye-yes,” the Bishop wept.

Jacob lifted the Book of Mormon in one hand and the gun with the other – a parody of ecstatic worship. “Praise Heavenly Father, the truth! Finally, and for the first time ever, the truth has been spoken in this church. Hallelujah!”

In seconds, Jacob’s mood flashed from jubilant to joyless. He laid the gun on the lectern with a thud. “Alex believed it . . . all of it. Jesus and his brother Satan, fighting in outer space. Angels. Men on the moon. Magic underwear. Pearl of Great Price. All of it.

“Are you ready for some more truth? During our entire two years abroad, we didn’t get a single convert. They laughed at us. These uneducated natives laughed and called us loco. But Alex never gave up. He got dressed every morning, strapped on his backpack, and circled the city on his bike.

“That’s not true. Sorry, my brain’s spazzing. The part about getting no converts . . . untrue. There was the one. Of course there was. Carlos. He was Alex’s lover. Don’t look so shocked, Brother and Sister McCandless! You knew Alex was gay. Everybody knew it. You just smiled your best smiles and pretended not to.

“Back to the Baptism. Carlos insisted on it. He loved Alex so much that he pretended to believe the bullshit. Alex was conflicted. The Iquitos people already have a religion – it’s beautiful. They gather around fires and drink ayahuasca and talk to their dead ancestors. But he traded it . . . Carlos . . . for the love of Elder Alex McCandless.

“So Alex did it. At dawn, on the last day of our two-year mission, he took Carlos by the hand and they walked to the river. I was there as a witness. I felt like an intruder. The scene was so sad, so intimate. The plan was for Alex and I to leave Iquitos that afternoon, catch a plane in Brazil, and fly home. Here. To good ol’ Provost, Utah. The whitest city on the planet.”

Jacob paused and stroked the worn leather cover of his bible – a book bearing an inscription from Brigham Young. “You’d have all been so proud of Alex. So proud. I can see it now.” He panned his hand, as if painting the scene. “Dawn breaking, sun light cresting over the snow-peaked mountains, brackish water sparkling, fish jumping, birds singing, Alex and Carlos dressed in pure white gowns . . . oh, it was” –

Bishop Quinn lunged for the gun. Jacob was too quick. He snatched it and smashed the dentist in the face with the butt, shattering his porcelain veneers.

“Not cool,” Jacob said, wiping blood from the grip. “I’m almost finished.” He paused, collecting his thoughts. “They waded into the river while I stood on the bank. I gave them space – this was really more emotional than spiritual. It was between the two of them . . . not even God was invited.

“They held each other for many minutes. They whispered in Spanish, most of which I couldn’t hear. However, I did hear Alex tell Carlos that he didn’t have to do this. But Carlos insisted. He seemed to think that somehow, someway, this would allow them to be re-united . . . if not on earth, then in heaven.

“That’s when I saw the water break. A whirl, then a ripple, then a wake. If I’d said something – shouted – maybe they’d be alive now. But it was early and my brain was glitchy and I just stood there.

“It was a caiman. A black caiman – had to be 13 feet long. It took Carlos. He was the smallest. The caiman clamped onto his leg, rolled, then drug him into the deeper, darker waters. It happened so fast. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing . . . and then there was nothing to see. Carlos was gone. The break in the water was sealed. It was like everything had happened, and then nothing had happened.

“I looked at Alex. He was as stunned as I was. He was in a loop – staring at his empty wet hands, then down river where the caiman and Carlos submerged. ‘Alex,’ I shouted. ‘What just happened?’

“That’s when he snapped out of it. He looked at me. I mean really looked . . . as if he saw my soul. His lips were trembling and tears were streaming and then, suddenly, his face changed. It hardened, and became . . . I don’t know . . . resolved, I guess you’d say. And that’s when I knew it.

“’No,’ I told him. ‘Don’t do it. Please, Alex. For the love of God, don’t do it!’”

“But he did. Of course he did. He was Alex Fucking McCandless; he could do no other. He dove and swam to save his friend, his lover. When he reached the deepness, where a slick of blood had begun to bloom, he looked back at me one last time. He smiled. Not that stupid Mormon smile . . . the fake, porcelain veneer smile. His smile was genuine and it conveyed the total content of his heart.”

Jacob ran out of words. Awkwardness reclaimed him. He wriggled within the itchy suit, conscious that every eye criticized him, and that every tongue would talk of his breakdown. He reached for the gun and accidentally struck the microphone. Feedback from the speakers squealed, causing all to clamp their hands over their ears.

“Sorry,” Jacob said. He then picked up the gun. He turned it, tilted it, checked the chamber, and looked inside the barrel.

“One bullet,” he said. “What can a crazy kid do with just one bullet?”

His mother called out: “Jacob.” Then her words dissolved into sobs.

Jacob set the gun back down on the lectern next to his bible. An idea struck him, and he smiled. His face relaxed and became youthful, playful. He spun the gun and watched it rotate. “Wheeee,” he said.

When it finally stopped spinning, the barrel was pointing at him. He laughed and lifted the weapon. He released the safety and slipped his finger into the trigger ring.

The crowd cried, prayed, moaned, screamed, and beseeched. His mother fainted. His father and brothers sprinted toward him.

A gunshot rang out. The microphone magnified it. A pall of oily blue smoke enveloped the podium, cloaking the scene. Confusion ruled, chaos reigned.

Childish laughter emerged from the smoke. “I’m okay,” Jacob said, coughing and giggling. He stepped out of the gun-powdered cloud and off the elevated stage. He held of the Book of Mormon over his head and gleefully poked his finger through the bullet hole he’d made.

“Told ya,” he cackled. “Told ya it had holes.”

The End

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