My name? My name isn’t important. What’s important is the message of our Lord Jesus Christ, and how I came to accept him into my heart. Now wait a minute—I see that look in your eyes, and I want to make it clear right here and now just how important this is. After all, I was born a sinner, just like you. I was the product of an egg and one out of a thousand tiny little sperm. Or is it a million? Whatever. But just imagine that—if one of those other sperms had made it to that egg instead, we would not be here right now. Well, you would, but me? I wouldn’t. I mean, I might be me, sure, but would I be me? No, I don’t think so. But anyway, my father and mother fornicated one night or day and that little tiny sperm that was half of me swam and swam until it reached the egg that was the other half of me and, well, nine months later, thereabouts, I was brought kicking and screaming into the world, all naked and gooey. And my parents? You probably suspect they weren’t right to me, don’t you? Or maybe you think they were religious zealots. Well, you would be wrong on both counts. They were mighty fine to me and gave me everything and anything I ever needed or wanted—though I was never spoiled; I want to make that clear right here and now. But God? They weren’t believers. They respected the beliefs of others, but they didn’t have any particular feelings toward religion one way or another. They were, as you might say, agonistic. But that was okay. That was fine. At least I thought so at first, when I was younger. And my childhood, it was great. No—it was amazing. Like I said, I never went without. My parents cared for and loved me unconditionally. And I, them. In terms of religion, just because my parents didn’t believe in anything doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of what all was out there. I knew about God and Jesus and Buddha and Muhammad and John Smith and that science fiction guy. I must admit, I have always found the idea of religion so fascinating. Everybody believes in something, no matter how different. Most, though, aren’t even sure why they believe what it is they believe. They just do. Someone tells you the sun is made out of butterscotch pudding enough times, you start to accept it as fact. But anyway, to the main point, when I was seventeen I died. That’s right—I died. I was legally dead for nearly seven minutes. It was summer and I was at the lake with my girlfriend. The sky was bright. Everything smelled like wet sand. My girlfriend and I were out swimming when a canoe these kids were paddling came out of nowhere and knocked me right against the head. I lost consciousness there in the middle of the lake. My girlfriend tried pulling me out but she was too weak—I had become a dead weight. The lifeguards who had just been sunning themselves and checking out the girls in their bikinis rushed in and pulled me to shore. By then I had stopped breathing. My heart had stopped. They started CPR. Nearly seven minutes passed—minutes where everybody else stood watching in a circle, some even taking pictures—before my heart started pumping again and I coughed up the disgusting lake water. Everybody watching, my girlfriend included, took in a collective gasp. By then an ambulance had arrived. I was taken to the hospital as a precaution, made to stay overnight. My parents visited, tears in their eyes. They each held my hand and told me just how much they loved me. There was an article about me in the next morning’s paper. They called me The Miracle Kid. Later that day my girlfriend came over to the house. She asked me how I was feeling. I asked her if she believed in God. She said no. I told her that God loved her anyway. She gave this weird look and asked what was wrong with me. I said, I was there, right outside the gates of Heaven. I said, Jesus was standing on the other side. I said, He told me he loved me and wanted me to fight for him, to save as many souls as I could. I asked her, What about your soul? She said, What about it? I asked, Is it safe? She left soon after, telling me to get some rest. Two days passed before I heard from her again. She called, asking how I was feeling. The phone line buzzed quietly in between our words. I told her I wanted to see her. I told her I would pick her up. An hour later I arrived at her house. She was dressed up pretty, these tight jean shorts and pink T-shirt and white flip-flops. She kissed me and I tasted cherries from her lip gloss. I drove her to our spot up by the lookout, where we had both lost our virginity to one another. We parked and we kissed some, groping each other in the oncoming dark. Then I pulled away and asked her again about her soul. She got angry. She said, Why do you care so much about my soul? I said, Because I love you. I said, Because God and Jesus love you too and they don’t want your soul to go to hell. She said, Jesus Christ, and got out of the car. She stormed to the edge of the lookout, her arms crossed, her back to me. I watched her through the windshield. I loved her so much. I wanted her to understand. Then, staring at her, I understood. I got out of the car and walked up to her. I placed my hand on the small of her back and said, I love you. She said, Yeah? I said, Yeah, and pushed her. She screamed most of the way down. Then she stopped. I climbed down the ravine and found her by the base of a tree. She was still alive, though barely. Accept him, I said. She said nothing. Accept him, I repeated. A bubble of blood popped on her lips. For the sake of your soul, I said. She just stared back at me. I knew I had failed. For me it had been different. I had actually died. She, however, was dying, and once she died she would not be coming back. Her soul would be lost. I withdrew my phone and called 911. By the time the EMTs arrived, she was already dead. I cried. I couldn’t stop. A police officer drove me home. I had already given my statement, how we were standing at the edge and she slipped. The police were sympathetic with my story. After all, I was The Miracle Kid. I had been dead myself for nearly seven minutes. Now my girlfriend was gone and never coming back. I waited after the funeral to talk to my parents about their souls. I asked my mother first. She said, Oh, honey, but your father and I don’t believe in souls, so why should we worry about protecting ours? She smiled when she said this, but I could see the annoyance in her eyes. All my life I had known my parents to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs, but I realized then, perhaps much too late, that they weren’t tolerant at all. They found religions—all religions—to be a joke. A scam. A waste of time. I knew then I shouldn’t even bother trying to talk to my father. My parents may not have believed in the human soul, but I did. I knew the soul existed. After all, Jesus Christ had told me from where he stood on the other side of Heaven’s gates. But how was I going to make them believe? They claimed they were open-minded, but they really weren’t. I could try telling them the truth, just like I did with my girlfriend, and they might humor me at first, but nothing would change. If their souls were to be saved, I would need to take drastic measures. Even more drastic than I did with my girlfriend. Later that week my father went out for drinks with some men from his work, so it was just me and my mother alone at home. I went down to the basement and called up to her. Her footsteps clicked across the floor before she opened the door. She said, Yes? I said, Can you come down here please? When she came down the steps, I was waiting for her with the baseball bat. I swung and knocked her against the side of her head. She dropped to the floor, but was still conscious. I swung again, and again, and again. When she regained consciousness, I had her tied to a chair in the basement, her ankles to the chair legs, her wrists to the chair back. I used one of my father’s undershirts to tie around her mouth to keep her quiet. I leaned down in front of her and said, Mom, I know you don’t believe in souls, but you have one, and it’s very important to me that I save it for you. I didn’t bother telling her how when I died I had gone to the gates of Heaven and spoke to Jesus. I knew it would be a waste of time. I could see the doubt in her eyes, the fear. So I took the pair of pliers I found in the garage and tightened them around her pinkie finger. I said, Mom, I don’t want to do this, but your soul is in danger. I said, Will you accept Jesus Christ as your own personal lord and savoir? She just screamed into the undershirt, tried bucking in her chair. I said, So be it, and jerked the pliers up and down, up and down. When she had quieted, I asked her again if she would accept Jesus Christ as her lord and savoir, and again she just screamed, so I tightened the pliers around her other pinkie finger. My father came home at some point. I didn’t hear him. All I heard was my mother’s screams, which had begun to lose intensity. After I tore off a finger, I would loosen the undershirt and ask her if she would accept Jesus Christ as her lord and savior, and she would just babble and cry and then I would have to replace the undershirt and do it all over again. It was tiring work. My head had begun to pound. My ears had begun to ring. So I didn’t hear my father enter the house—his heavy shoes striding across the floor above my head—but my mother somehow did. When I loosened the undershirt again, she screamed his name. He came rushing downstairs, asking what was wrong. But he had been out to the bar, and had had too many drinks, so it was no surprise when he lost his balance and stumbled down the last couple steps. He fell headfirst, nearly breaking his neck. He still seemed able to move his body, though he was groaning. So I went and tied him up, too. I could go on and tell you all about that night, but it’s really not worth either of our time. My parents had been strong agnostics in life, just as they were toward their death. Oh sure, they claimed they wanted to accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, but I knew better than to believe them. There was no sincerity in either of their voices. Just fear. And pain. I was lucky the neighbors didn’t hear the screaming. The cops never came to the house. By the morning, I was practically covered in blood. But I knew that was okay. Throughout time, people had fought in the name of the Lord, and they had gotten very bloody indeed. I knew this was just the beginning. So I packed my things and took as much cash from the house as I could find and left town. I left the state. I changed my appearance. My hair color. Even my voice. Nobody from my past life would ever recognize me. I mean, you didn’t recognize me at first, did you? Not even on the off chance you had seen pictures of The Miracle Kid so many years ago. Since then I’ve been driving around the country, keeping my eye out. I’ve been looking for lost souls. People who aren’t right with the Lord. People who might think they’re good, and who might do good deeds, but whose souls are just as black as the day they were born. I’m here to fix that. I’m here to save you. Don’t you understand? Forget that knife and that scalpel and those pliers. Just look into my eyes. I’m here to save you. That’s all. No reason to be afraid. If anything, you should be rejoicing. Now, before we begin, let us pray.
Robert Swartwood's work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Daily Beast, ChiZine, Postscripts, Needle, among others. He is the author of several novels, including the thrillers The Serial Killer's Wife and Man of Wax. Visit him online at www.robertswartwood.com.
All the world's a stage and the people merely players, or, perhaps in this case, victims The Play by Benjamin Welton ...
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