This is the 21st round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link 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 this round, it’s the letter “U“.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
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The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
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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 third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “U” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — (added after voting closes)
(4,284 words – approx. reading time: about 16 minutes based on 265 WPM)
His name was Rupert Lazarus Breckenridge. He changed it the second time around . . . in his second life. But that’s irrelevant to this tale.
Rupert had a reputation as a drunkard, a blaggard, and an intemperate scoundrel. He’d killed good men for bad reasons. He’d beaten whores for his own shortcomings. He’d burned churches and robbed widows and raped livestock. Rupert was an ornery, uncouth cuss, hell-bent on havoc, hate, and chaos. He was a misanthrope and miscreant, a product of inbreds and imbeciles, mountain folk with no money and no morals. There was not a moment in a minute that he did not curse his sorry lot and the sadistic God that remanded him to poverty, infamy, and ill repute.
“That man,” God said to Satan, pointing his splendid finger. “See him down there? The foul miscreant.”
“That’s Rupert,” Satan replied. “He’s one wicked son of a bitch. I’ve got a special place prepared for him.”
God stroked his white beard and pondered. “Remember that bet we made a few thousand years ago?”
Satan smiled. “How could I forget? Job the Pious. You won that one. Despite my best efforts, Job would not curse your name.”
God shared the smile. “What if . . . what if we do it again? What if we change it up this time? What if I bless this miscreant with untold abundance?”
“To what end?”
“I bet,” God summarized, “that I can get Rupert – this wretched reprobate – to praise me.”
Satan laughed. “Rupert is an affirmed anti-theist. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in you; he actively hates you. He mocks you, reviles you, curses you with every breath.”
God, undaunted, extended his hand. Satan grasped it. Before they shook, God said: “Same stakes as last time?”
“Same stakes,” Satan agreed. The two shook hands and the deal was done.
Rupert fetched his shovel from the ramshackle shed. The morning was warming as the rind of the summer sun snuck over the earth’s arc, searing the Tennessee sands of Foggy Bottom Farm. Rupert had a well to dig. The old one had dried up – not unlike his dreams of thriving crops and a happy family. The thought of this grueling task caused him to shake his fist at fates and masters.
His wife – a third cousin from Lynchburg named Kate – had left him the previous week. She’d taken the few dollars he hadn’t drunk up or gambled away. The note she wrote read: “If you find me, one of us will die.”
Rupert spat on the dirt, then on his hands. He gripped the haft of the shovel and began digging. It was his fault, he knew. Kate would’ve put up with the drinking and whoring and occasional beating. She was a sturdy girl, spawn of his own stock. It was his rage against God that she could not countenance. Each evening, she read the bible by candlelight. Each evening, he mocked her, ridiculed her faith, and scorned her infantile devotion.
It was just him now. He and his donkey and his yieldless fields; he and his dilapidated farmhouse; he and his festering resentment for his own brutish existence.
The crescent blade of the shovel struck a stone and the handle snapped. Splinters from the breach pierced his palms. Rupert cried at the sky, spewing a venomous litany of curses at the God his estranged wife worshiped.
With bloody, damaged hands, he reached into the shallow hole and grasped the offending stone. He made to hurl it at the sun and its Creator. He paused. The stone – the size of a Granny Smith apple – was not merely a stone. With sweat and blood, he rubbed it, buffing away the mud and dust.
Rupert studied it, turning it, burnishing it, and then biting it. His hateful brain refused to register the opulence of its elemental composition. He tried to say the word gold, but it came out gall.
His donkey, Tess, whinnied.
“I think,” Rupert said to Tess, “that I’ve found something. I think I found a lump of gold, Tess.”
Rupert chewed on the ductile nugget, imprinting it with his molars. He spat and said, “Girl, I think this could change my life.”
Standing in the sun, hands bloody, body shaking, Rupert wept.
“Praise God,” the donkey said.
Startled, Rupert wiped his grimy eyes, searching for the source of the voice. A thief, he thought, a highwayman with larcenous intent.
“Praise Jehovah,” Tess said, snorting the exclamation.
“Water,” Rupert said, diagnosing his delusion. “Heatstroke. Better get inside, out of the sun. My luck, I’ll die with this unredeemed rock in my cold hand.”
“There’s water in my trough,” Tess said. “Splash your face. Wash your hands. Clean up that nugget . . . that precious gift from God above.”
Rupert staggered to the trough and did as commanded. “It’s real,” Rupert said, beholding the umber stone. “But you aren’t real,” he said to Tess. “Donkeys don’t talk.”
“With God, all things are possible,” Tess sermonized. “Perhaps you should have studied the Good Book with Cousin Kate. Then you’d recall the story of Balaam’s loquacious steed.”
Rupert dunked his whole head into the trough, hoping to bathe the crazy from his brain. “Can you still talk?” he asked, shaking his wet head.
“By the grace of God,” Tess answered. “Which begs the question, Rupert. When are you going to praise the Almighty for the treasure He bestowed?”
Already on his knees, Rupert considered the suggestion. “I’m almost persuaded,” he said, weighing the heft in his hand. “If I was to go over there and dig some more . . . and find two, no, five more nuggets like this one here . . . well, Tess, it’d take a team of talking donkeys to stop me from praising my Maker.”
The donkey ruminated while shooing flies with its tail. “You are a wicked son of a bitch,” Tess said. The donkey shat and stamped the ground. “If five is required, five shall it be.”
Rupert sprinted to the ditch. With greedy fingers, he scratched the hardpan loam, clawing like a badger. Within seconds, he was rewarded. One, two, three, four, and five nuggets, each as big as apples. Trembling with joy, Rupert showed the donkey the bounty. “Look,” he cried. “I’m rich, Tess. I’ve got all I’ve ever wanted. I can buy this town, buy these people, buy Kate, buy happiness. Tess, I can buy happiness!”
Tess showed her teeth and brayed, “Praise be to God, Father of Fortune!”
Rupert cackled as the words rose in his throat. “Praise,” he gargled. “Praise be to G-G-God!”
“Father of Fortune,” Tess prompted.
“Father of Fortune,” Rupert repeated.
“Again,” Tess demanded, beating out a rhythm with her hoof.
His face lifted to Heaven, Rupert wailed full-throated: “Praise be to God, Father of Fortune. Praise be to God, Father of Fortune. Praise be to God, Father of Fortune.”
As the man acclaimed his Maker, the donkey whinnied, adding equine melody to the paeans of praise.
The first thing Rupert did was to hire a Pinkerton Detective to find his wife, Cousin Kate. “Give her this message,” Rupert told the mustachioed man. In his unlearned scrawl, the note read: “God has foregivvin me. Kan you?”
“No,” was the emphatic answer Kate spat at the Pinkerton man, upon being found in a brothel in Nashville.
After suffering curses, the Pinkerton man pleaded to make his case. His hand on her bible, he revealed the magnitude of Rupert’s serendipity. “I’ve seen the gold,” he swore. “Six nuggets as big as my fist.”
Kate looked around at her squalid room. “I suppose I could give Rupert another chance,” Kate demurred. “After all, he is kin.”
Once reunited with Rupert, Kate oversaw the building of their new house. It was a vast mansion, inspired by Jefferson’s Monticello. The year being 1859, Rupert bought teams of African slaves to work the fields. For reasons he could not fully articulate, he could not sell the old place, Foggy Bottom Farm. There were days when he needed a touchstone – a yardstick by which he could measure his success. Foggy Bottom represented the nadir of his despair. In contrast, his magnificent mansion on the hilltop exemplified the summit of his triumph.
The couple quickly became Tennessee royalty. Their socialite status, however, did little to mollify their bumptious relationship. Rupert laid with slave girls, fathering broods of bastards. Kate immersed herself into the church, funding and growing ministries that agreed with her draconian dogma. She hired charismatic men to preach her creeds, seeding the Tennessee hills and valleys with chapels and churches and houses of worship. In retaliation for Rupert’s whore-mongering, she slept with the virile young pastors. Sometimes under Rupert’s roof. Sometimes in Rupert’s bed.
Over the years, Rupert and Kate grew to loathe one another. During one heated pique, Kate paid a pastor to slash Rupert’s throat. When the man climbed the trellis to Rupert’s bedroom in the dark of night, Rupert met him at the window casement with a Comanche tomahawk. The pastor fell to his death, his skull cleaved, his tongue gabbling Jehovah’s name. That very night, Rupert ordered the kitchen staff to draw and dress the meat of the man. “Run chunks of it through the grinder,” he demanded. “I want it to look like breakfast sausage. Miss Kate loves breakfast sausage.”
Over the decades, Rupert used his wealth and power to gain more wealth and power. He paid Generals to massacre Mexicans, paid Mexicans to slaughter Indians, paid Indians to butcher white settlers. He invested heavily in weaponry: muskets, breech loaders, sabers, bayonets, cannons, landmines, grenades, ships, and submarines.
He fomented and funded the Civil War, reaping dividends from the Union and Confederate war chests. He was quoted as saying: “I make my green from the Grey and Blue.”
Following that, he dedicated himself to the extermination of the Red Scourge – the Native American Indians. Rupert refused to share the Western Territories with savages. He invoked God’s name to rally the Whites. Manifest Destiny, he cried. God commands us to take the New Jerusalem from the Sodomites and Philistines!
He sought and bought sponsors in the highest seats of U.S. government, to include Governors and Senators and Presidents. He purchased newspapers and promoted pogroms and genocides – demanding the utter annihilation of the soulless savages. He garnered government contracts and laid train tracks, connecting the remote West to its avarice masters east of the Mississippi River. At the turn of the century, he ushered in the Industrial Age. In so doing, he exploited labor, felled forests, plundered minerals, polluted rivers, spoiled the air and poisoned the soil.
He monopolized corporate America, creating a colossal cartel – a global company he named Babylon. It rose to prominence during the Great War in 1914. Funded by Babylon, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Arch Duke Ferdinand, an act that ignited the first global war. Rupert once boasted that he was second only to God in the death and misery he’d inflicted upon humanity.
On the very day that Rupert turned 100, the stock market crashed. Never one to trust other companies, Rupert had invested everything in his own business . . . in Babylon. Overnight, the stock price plunged. Overnight, Rupert became a pauper. Overnight, his toadies turned on him, his investors assailed him, and his colleagues cursed him. In turn, he cursed the God that had blessed him with incalculable wealth and a century of life.
On Black Tuesday, Rupert leapt from the 66th floor of the Babylon Building in New York City. In the 4 seconds of descent, he regretted the gold he found in the ground on Foggy Bottom Farm, his sorry lot in Tennessee. He regretted losing Kate to a greater lover, to God himself. He regretted the day he praised God, the Father of Fortune. Yes, he thought, in freefall, that is what I regret the most. The day I praised . . .
His body struck 52nd street. It struck with the force of a mortar shell, cratering the cement sidewalk.
That’s it, he thought. I’m dead. I’ve done the world a fucking favor and slayed The Beast, the dragon announced in the John’s Book of Revelation. The Whoremonger of Babylon is dead.
Except, he wasn’t. Rupert climbed out of the crater, astonished by his lack of damage. New Yorkers strode frantically past him, distracted, harried by their own angsts of the Crash.
“I’m alive,” he said to no one. “It can’t be.”
A rat scurried up from the sewer drain. “It’s a miracle,” the rat squeaked.
Rupert recalled the last time a dumb beast had spoken to him. It was the donkey, Tess, on Foggy Bottom Farm. “Why?” he asked the rat. “Why would God waste a miracle on me?”
“You are a man after God’s own heart,” the rat said, then scampered back into the sewer.
Rupert recalled the long-ago day he’d praised God. “The farm,” Rupert said, brushing concrete crumbs from his black suit. “I’ve got to get back to Foggy Bottom.”
Hale, even at one-hundred, Rupert stabbed the soil with a shovel. It was the very spot where he intended to dig a well 75 years prior. He blamed the six gold nuggets for thwarting his work. Additionally, he blamed the praise of a deity that still, like a fishbone, stuck in his throat.
He dug in the sun. He dug until the day waned and the moon was fully hung. When his hands were blistered and the ditch finished, he lay in the grave and waited. Soon, a whirlwind arose. Miraculously, it gathered the discarded dirt and decanted it upon him, filling the hole, sealing the grave. Under the blanket of earth, Rupert slept. When he awakened, he was in Heaven.
“I’m naked,” he cried, covering his groin.
Cousin Kate, achingly youthful and beautiful, took his hands. She was also naked. As were the throngs of Saints she introduced him to.
Abashed, he pulled Kate aside after mingling with Steven the Martyr and Joan of Arc. “Why am I here?” he asked. “Something’s gone wrong. You know me, Kate. I’m no Saint.”
She led him to a mirrored pond, where he viewed his new form. He was 25 again, his body idyllic, chiseled and lean.
“You are in Heaven because God has willed it, Rupert,” she said.
“Willed it,” he mused. “What about my will? Do I have freewill in Heaven?”
She laughed and kissed his blasphemous mouth. “Of course you have freewill, Rupert, but it’s not free.”
A dozen trumpets sounded and the Saints ceased their revels. “What’s that sound?” Rupert asked.
Magically, two golden chalices appeared in Kate’s hands. “Here,” she said, “take this. Do as I do. It’s time.”
“Time for what?” Rupert asked.
The sky answered. The blues yielded to blacks and reds, roiling like oil and blood. Thunderclaps shook the pillars and quaked the foundations. All of the Saints, from David to Daniel, from Mary to Esther, looked up. The heavens of Heaven broke open, and the red rains came. Each Saint lifted their chalice and collected the liquid gifts. When brimming, they drank from their chalices and screamed paeans to the One that poured it upon them.
“It’s blood,” Rupert said, disgusted.
“Sangre de Cristo! Drink it,” Kate said.
“Drink it,” she insisted. “It’s the Two-Minute Praise. Drink, or you’ll anger Him.”
“I don’t care,” Rupert said. “I’m already dead. What can He do to me?”
Kate looked at him with pleading eyes. “It doesn’t work that way, Rupert. He doesn’t harm you. He harms the ones you” –
Before his eyes, Kate wasted away. Her breasts shriveled and her hair blanched. Her eyes melted and her teeth shattered. Wrinkles, like razor slashes, cross-hatched her desiccated skin. ‘Love’ was her final word.
“Stop,” Rupert shouted at her, then at the turbulent sky. “I’ll drink it. See!” He tipped the cup and drunk deeply. When he looked down, Cousin Kate, the Angel of Foggy Bottom, Tennessee, was but dust.
Such was Rupert’s first seven minutes in Heaven. He soon learned to play nicely, to follow the rules . . . yet his rebellious heart could not submit.
Not so strangely, it was Satan that befriended Rupert Lazarus Breckenridge. They met in The Pools. It was customary to bathe after the daily Two-Minute Praise. Soaked in Christ’s blood, the Saints marched, one by one, to The Pools and frolicked, bathing and baptizing one another.
“What are you doing here?” Rupert asked the ebony man.
Satan raised his eyebrow. “Same could be asked of you, Rupert.”
“I know I’m no Saint,” Rupert stated, “but you . . . aren’t you God’s arch-enemy?”
Satan massaged his massive genitals. “You really should have done some bible study with Kate. My name, Satan, simply means Adversary. God needed a foil. A boogieman to frighten. A strawman to knock down.” (He whispered behind his hand) “God listens . . . He watches . . . if you really want to talk, meet me at the Black Mansion.”
That evening, Rupert entered Satan’s Heavenly home. Unlike the white mansions that studded the verdant greens, his was black.
“Little different,” Satan said, escorting Rupert through the Great Dark Halls. “Black, black, and more black. God knows I hate black . . . so, black it is. Another reason not to bet with God.”
“Bet?” Rupert said. “You bet with an omniscient God?”
Satan laughed. “God dimmed his powers a long time ago – right after He created mankind. Found that it was more entertaining to watch their sagas when he didn’t know the outcome.”
“So,” Rupert asked nervously, “can He see us now? Listen to us?”
Satan ran his fingers through his horsehair mane. “He can, yes. But as I said, He purposely dimmed his powers: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. You’re safe here. It’s a safe space. I won a bet that Genghis Khan would reach the ten-million murder mark. I beat that by two million.”
“And what did you win?”
Satan spun and showcased the ebony rooms. “Blindspot . . . a place safe from scrutiny and surveillance. I won privacy.”
Rupert summarized: “You’re saying that God can’t” –
“No,” Satan insisted. “I never said ‘can’t.’ However, God did agree to the terms of the bet, and His word is pretty solid.”
Rupert dropped to the floor and wrapped himself in black silk carpet. He then rolled onto his back and screamed at the vaulted ceiling. “I hate you! You killed my Kate. Killed her twice. Shame be upon God, Father of Misfortune. Shame be upon God, Father of Misfortune!”
Satan cried diamonds, laughing at his friend. “Do you feel better now?”
Rupert rolled on the onyx floor, heaving from the catharsis. When curiosity overcame fatigue, he asked: “What did you bet, Satan. On me . . . what did God win?”
Satan poured Chianti into their blood chalices. He guzzled the Tuscan wine and refilled his cup. “Not something I’m proud of,” he said to Rupert.
“I need to know,” Rupert demanded, standing. “This whole thing stinks to high-heaven. I hated God because of my daddy. When he’d beat us boys and rape our sisters, I’d pray – pray without ceasing – that he’d stop. He didn’t stop. Not till mama shot him and then herself.”
“I’m aware,” Satan nodded, his tail twitching nervously.
“Nobody hated God like I did,” Rupert said. “I hated him more than life itself. But He blessed me. I had more wealth than kingdoms, more power than kings. I abused it. Betrayed my fellow man. I enslaved them, slaughtered them . . . cheated and bleeded them. If God loves mankind, why would He bless me – the world’s worst persecutor of mankind?”
“You know the answer,” Satan said, unable to look Rupert in his eyes.
“The bet,” Rupert said.
“The bet,” Satan agreed.
“Please tell me,” Rupert pleaded, “what exactly was the bet for? What did God win from you?”
“The same thing we bet on Job the Pious,” Satan said.
Satan drank more wine and said, “A foot rub. If you must know; it was a sensuous foot rub.”
Rupert screamed and scraped his fingernails across his chest, rending his flesh. Instantly, he healed, yet the echoes of his pain remained.
Satan paced slowly around his palace, then paused. “I’m sorry. Here, take this,” he told Rupert, handing him the blood chalice.
“No,” Rupert said, batting the cup. “I’ll never praise that monster again. I’ll burn first.”
“Take it,” Satan insisted. “Use it. Go down those obsidian stairs, into the anteroom. Under the rug, there is a hatch. Lift it. Enter. Close the hatch.”
“Heaven has a basement?” Rupert asked.
“A space,” Satan said. “It’s sacred. It’s the Omphalos Room. It connects to . . . to everything – every when, every where.”
“I don’t understand,” Rupert said.
Satan pushed the chalice into his hands. “You will.”
Rupert left his only friend and descended the steps. He removed the rug, lifted the hatch, entered, and closed the hatch. There, he saw a sight he thought he’d never behold. He saw dirt. Satan was right. He knew what to do. With his blood chalice, he began to dig.
In the ten-thousandth year of his subterranean task, Rupert surfaced. He’d dreamed of this day, despite having never slept. Clumps of fallow earth fell on his head, into his eyes. He coughed clods and spat mud. He wiped grime from his eyes and surveyed the aboveground world. Shards of sunlight blinded him. Blearily, he saw a shape: brown, blurry, and four-legged.
With his battered chalice, he finished his ten-millennium odyssey, digging himself free.
“You made it,” the shape said. “Wasn’t sure you would.”
Elbows out, Rupert pushed himself up and out and through, as if from the womb.
“Who are you?” he croaked, gagging back worms and dirt.
After a musical whinny, the donkey said: “Who else?”
“Tess,” Rupert said, shielding his eyes.
“The one and only talking donkey,” Tess said.
“Unless,” Rupert sputtered, “unless you count Balaam’s donkey.” He laughed at his callback and the donkey joined him.
Rupert sat and gathered himself, cherishing the warmth and sunlight. “Home. Foggy Bottom Farm,” he said.
“Where it all started,” Tess concurred.
He looked down at the troubled soil. “My grave,” he jested. “This was supposed to be my final resting place.”
Tess switched flies with her tail. “Dare I mention,” she said, “it’s also where you found the gold.”
“The gold,” Rupert repeated, tasting unspeakable minerals.
“It’s in my saddlebag, Rupert,” Tess said. “All six nuggets. Big as apples. Want to see them?”
Rupert stood on wobbly legs and approached the beast. He opened the bag and his face gleamed in the sheen of the stones. Drool drizzled from his muddy mouth.
“Pretty, ain’t they?” Tess said.
Rupert nodded, mesmerized by the metal reflections.
“You’ll do it all different this time,” Tess said. “You’re wiser. You’ll do great things for humanity – atone for the sins you committed the first time around.”
The donkey snorted. “Of course. You can do as you please. You have freewill.”
A figure appeared on the front porch, having exited the ramshackle cabin. Rupert wiped his eyes and wiped them again.
“Supper’s ready,” the figure called out, her voice angelic.
“A long time ago, somebody told me,” Rupert recalled, “that we do have freewill, but it ain’t free.”
Tess shat and stamped. “The world will forgive you, Rupert. Take the gold. Feed the poor. Build libraries, museums, hospitals. Help Kate build churches. Who knows, maybe even God will forgive you leaving Him.”
“You don’t get it,” Rupert said. “I don’t want God’s forgiveness.”
The woman on the porch clanged a metal spoon inside a metal triangle. “Come and get it, Rupert. Light-bread biscuits, buttered corn, and boiled squab.”
Rupert smiled. “It’s her. It’s my Kate.”
Tess showed her black, diseased gums. “She’ll leave you, Rupert. Remember, she only returned for the gold.”
“Because I was a horrible husband,” Rupert replied. “The things I did were unforgivable.”
“You haven’t changed,” Tess said. “I can smell it on you. Your heart is infected with hate – hate for Almighty God, the Father of Fortune.”
Rupert replied, “Here’s hoping my love for Kate is greater than my hate for God.” He then picked up the splintered half of the shovel handle. He raised it and said, “I want you to leave, Tess. I want you to take that filthy Judas lucre to the edge of the earth; and when you get there, jump. If I see you on Foggy Bottom Farm again, I’ll shoot you and eat you. Now scat!”
“You’ll regret this,” Tess said, her brown eyes blackening.
“Gettin’ cold,” Kate sang from the rickety steps.
“Scram!” Rupert shouted, brandishing the rod at the animal.
The spooked donkey kicked and missed. “You’ll never forgive yourself, Rupert.”
“You’re right. I’m unforgivable. I can never forgive myself,” Rupert sneered. “But it’s not my forgiveness that matters. It’s hers I’m after.” Rupert pointed the rod at the lady in the stained apron.
The donkey brayed and sweated beads of blood. “Enjoy your short sojourn on earth, Rupert. Trust me, it won’t be a hundred years this time!”
“Yaw, yaw!” Rupert shouted, waving the rod, threatening to strike.
The donkey trotted stubbornly across the hardpan expanse of Foggy Bottom Farm. Upon its back was a saddlebag. Inside the pockets were six gold stones; enough wealth, some say, to buy happiness.
As Rupert washed himself in the donkey’s water trough, he called back to his wife and cousin: “I’m comin’, Kate!” For reasons known only to him, Rupert said it a second time. “I’m comin’, Kate. Comin’ again.”
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If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
Unmaking a Monster <<Link
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