A Cold Open Stories Original
Written by Ebony N. Gary
Reading Time: 9 minutes
My granny says only grifters and idiots get religion. I learned which one of those my momma was when my stepdad Russel came along. I think probably the saddest part of growing up is realising you’re smarter than your parents. When that realisation comes, it should be when you’re old and your life’s set. When you’re tucking your parent away into a retirement home. One of those nice ‘convalescent’ communities where the workers aren’t assholes and the resident’s biggest worry is a venereal disease from all the arthritic unprotected sex everyone is having. It shouldn’t be when you’re fourteen and you need them to protect you from a rapist.
I could see what momma saw in him right away. Russel was finer than a frog hair split four ways. He had a way of looking at you when he talked that made you feel like you were the only thing that mattered in the whole world. That kind of scrutiny is intoxicating, and it’s toxic. A woman can lose herself in a man’s attention like a ship in a storm and Russel Toverton was the Bermuda Triangle. She’d met him at the diner where she was waitressing. She said he just walked in one Sunday afternoon, supposedly after church, and ordered two stacks of pancakes and a tuna fish salad sandwich. How she ever fell for a man who ate pancakes and tuna fish salad in the same meal, I never understood.
It took six weeks for Russel to change my momma from a vapid, day-time television-watching, out-of-work waitress, to a vapid, day-time television-watching, preacher’s wife. Preacher’s wife came with a better wardrobe. Momma was happy to sit in the front pew and look the part of a dutiful wife. I swear, we never even owned a bible before Russel. Momma never saw past that tall, dark, and handsome exterior to the skeleton beneath. Three weeks after the wedding, he started coming into my room at night.
My Granny loved her daughter, but she didn’t easily suffer fools. She took one look at me the night I showed up on her doorstep and said, ‘if brains were dynamite, Laura Jean couldn’t blow her damn nose’. To her credit, she didn’t tell me I was wrong for hating Momma.
More to her credit, she let me move into her house. She cradled my face in her rough hands and stared at me with shining, rheumy eyes and said, ‘Theodora Jane, hate can be a powerful thing: powerful-good if it pushes you towards something, and powerful-bad if you let it drag you down.’ When I told her I didn’t know how to feel anything about them other than hate, she smiled and said, ‘That man’s ‘New ‘Church of the blood’ ain’t nothing but the devil, but you go to hell on your own terms, Theo, not on theirs.’ She would half-joke that she missed the good old days when all you had to worry about in churches was pedophiles.
She seemed just as surprised by Momma’s letter as I was. I made it halfway through her bulimic cursive before I threw it in the trash. From my basement apartment, over the thump of my heartbeat and the flaming forge of anger that was building to a migraine, I heard the phone ring . Granny answered, her cigarette rasp filtering down through the duct work.
‘Laura Jean, what did you expect her to do?’ She huffed as I held my breath. ‘You think that little girl cares about your church?’ I could just hear Mamma through the phone’s speaker of Granny’s old cradle-style phone.
‘I need my baby.’
‘You probably should’ve thought about that before you let that man into your house. If he even is a man anymore.’
‘Russel isn’t… well he isn’t the same anymore, and I need Theda. I can’t become who I’m meant to be if I don’t tell her the truth, tell her how sorry I am.’ She had a high-pitched little girl’s voice which women hated and coveted, and men couldn’t get enough of it.
‘But you won’t leave The Church?’
‘The Church has done so much for me, Mom. It’s made me a better woman, and it’s going to make me an even better one, but not if I can’t make amends with Theda.’
‘I won’t fault a whole organisation for one or two idiots… and doing right by your daughter is the most Christian thing you’ve done since you got mixed up with these people. Now, don’t be expecting a miracle, I’ll see what I can do, Laura Jean, it’s more than you deserve.’
I kept to myself, wondering whether it would be good cop or bad cop when Granny finally mustered up the stomach for the conversation she wanted to have with me. For the first time since I’d known her, she took the easy way out. She crept downstairs and slid the letter onto my desk. She paused in her laborious ascent, ‘She’s my daughter and she’s still your momma.’I hadn’t been expecting the guilt cop.
I read the damn letter. Nothing replaces your mother. She called me Thedabear in the letter, her pet name for me. That moniker was like a short, sharp blade of ice to my heart. It settled in deep between my ribs, piercing my heart, and killed me a little more with every breath. I wanted the years of hate and anguish, of burning resentment to melt it, but they were outclassed by the icy pang of sorrow and loss. I knew then that I would go to her, that I would help her. She said the New Church wasn’t at all what she thought it would be. She needed my help to escape Russel, his church, and whatever she’d been subjected to since I left.
Five hours on a plane is a long time to think about the first thing you’re going to say to your mother after seven years. Momma sent a driver to pick me up at the airport, in a limo, so I had some extra time to think on the drive. Apparently, Russel had moved momma out of our tiny split-level in the sticks into a mansion in the suburbs. The driver was silent the entire way, slowing to a crawl to carefully navigate the protestors gathered outside the community’s walls. Freyerly Gate wasn’t just any suburbs, it was a fully enclosed community, exclusively for elite members of the New Church. It was self-sufficient and self-contained with schools, grocery stores, dry cleaners, there was even an ornate opera house standing watch at the end of Main Street. My driver grunted in annoyance when a woman threw herself onto the hood of the limousine. Her sign was scrawled in lurid scarlet sharpie. It read:
THERE IS NONE UPRIGHT AMONG THEM!
THEY ALL LIE IN WAIT FOR BLOOD!
Never had I ever been so happy for tinted windows. People were pushing themselves up against the limo’s windows, banging their signs against it. Obviously, there were a lot of signs about blood. There were almost as many signs in support of the New Church as there were against it. I saw several ‘DRINK MY BLOOD’ signs hefted by scantily-clad gore fans. There were several signs reading ‘THEY ARE WORTHY’, quoting Revelations 16:6, the verse from which the New Church of the Blood of Prophets took its name. The church went public four years ago, declaring themselves a new religion and petitioning for tax exempt status. Russel Toverton was an early convert, a champion of the New Blood, as people called them. Announcing that a group of people who needed to drink human blood to sustain themselves, were starting a new religion, obviously triggered an intense response.
It only got worse when they started converting people. ‘Becoming’ it was called, and like all cults, they kept the root of their rituals a mystery. Nobody knew what happened to those that became, only that they were happy and lived productive lives. Granny tutted that the world was coming to end while watching the evening news. When the New Church achieved tax exempted religious status in the US, she just rolled her eyes. ‘grifters and idiots,’ she’d said. The first time we saw Russel Toverton on the TV, shaking hands with the Mayor at the founding of the Freyerly Gate community, she’d kissed her teeth so loudly I thought she’d lose her dentures. ‘The lights must be off in hell ‘cause all the demons are here,’ she’d observed. His snake oil personality was apparently exactly what the New Blood was looking for and he rocketed toward success.
The house wasn’t just any mansion either. None of that all-the-windows-are-different-shapes McMansion business for Russel Toverton. He’d purchased a two-hundred-year-old Richardsonian Romanesque style house that overlooked the bay. Its stone walls exuded maturity. It was—quite literally—a castle. There was a minaret spiking skyward from the rear of the house. The main body was easily a city block long and the expansive front porch was covered by an arched stone overhang such that the marble steps disappeared into a maw of darkness. Granny should have asked for a bigger allowance. I climbed out of the car, duffel bag in hand. Wordlessly, my driver and the limo disappeared around a bend in the driveway.
I turned in my place, and took in the perfectly manicured lawns and the salt air drifting in from the bay. An obscene number of rose bushes nestled against the house, each flower fat and carmine, their razor-sharp thorns made me uncomfortable, and the breeze jostled them so that they scratched against the stonework like so many fingernails.
Momma appeared at the top of the steps, teetering in the space between the sunlight and the dark porch. I never heard the door open, she was just suddenly there, an apparition from my sad childhood. The twisting knife of anguish I had been trying to breathe around since I’d read the letter melted right then. I dropped my duffel and ran up the stairs. The spectre that was my mother wrapped me up in her bony arms. She was so thin, gaunt even, and not in the fashionable way.
‘I’m so sorry, Thedabear.’ She blinked rapidly, and sniffled, but her eyes were dry. She never let anyone see her crying.
‘Where is he?’ I asked quickly, pushing the words together. If I didn’t get them out now I never would. I was determined to be over Russel Toverton and everything he had done to me. I had grown up.
‘You’re so grown up, baby.’ It was like she was reading my mind. ‘Come inside.’ I followed her into the foyer. Her foyer was bigger than my apartment in Granny’s basement. It might have been bigger than Granny’s apartment. A staircase that belonged in an old Hollywood film spilled down onto the checkered tile floor and I had to resist the urge to run up it and look down from the balcony that encircled the entryway. ‘Close your mouth or you’ll catch flies. That’s what granny would say.’
‘She would.’ I laughed. Just like that, she was my mother.
‘Russel is traveling for work.’
‘You mean the New Church?’
‘Yes, he’s away for the week. I thought it would be nice to spend a night in the same house, as mother and daughter.
‘Like old times?’
‘He’ll come after you, you know that don’t you?’
‘I do, but I can cross that bridge when I get to it, just like old times.’
She led me upstairs to a guest bedroom that would give the Ritz-Carlton a run for its money. It was furnished beautifully, and the modern amenities inside were a stark contrast to the ancient battle façade presented outside the house. Stepping out of the glass enclosed shower onto the perfectly heated floor cemented my thoughts on money and happiness. Heated bathroom tiles are happiness, and money can buy a lot of those. Momma was waiting for me when I stepped into the bedroom. She carried the kind of bags under her eyes I saw in the mirror every day, the ones that spoke of weariness and indescribable need. She needed me as much as I needed her, only she had finally broken and asked me to come. I climbed under the down blankets and nestled into the mountains of pillows. She sat Indian style on my bedspread the way she’d always done when I was little, before Russel, and watched me drink the hot chocolate she’d made for me. Six marshmallows, not five and not seven, she still remembered that.
I was exhausted. Physically, and emotionally. Between the memories of my childhood trauma, the need for a mother I had been buried for years, and the long flight, my eyelids were heavy before I could even see the bottom of the cup. Thank god for exhaustion. I sat the cup on the nightstand and Momma slid out of my room quietly. From the doorway, she watched me for a minute, greedily, as if she couldn’t get enough of looking at me. Her wanting eyes were the last thing I remembered in the dark.
Few things are as unsettling as bolting awake in an unfamiliar place. Blackout curtains are marvels of modern science. True darkness filled the room, and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I rolled out of the bed, dragging my jet-lagged self in the direction I thought the windows were. Finding them, I tugged the heavy drapes aside and a trapezoid of moonlight speared across the hardwood, lighting the room. Momma had left a crack in the door, the way she always did.
‘She’s my daughter.’ Her voice was low and whispered, but it carried in the empty house.
‘The life of the flesh is in the blood!’ I knew that voice immediately. Hushed, and heard from rooms away, it set my blood to ice. Russel Toverton was here. His voice had woken me. I crept closer to the door and listened.
‘I know. I just didn’t expect it to be this hard.’
‘She’s standing in your way. She’s standing in the way of your ascension.’
‘The church has given you everything. It asks for little in return.’
‘Then give the blood tithe.’
‘Does it have to be this way?’ her voice trembled.
‘You know it does. The children are prophets. Take up the knife, Laura Jean.’ I heard the snick of metal against granite. My fear rooted me to the floor.
‘I can do this.’
‘You need to do this; this is your becoming.’
‘For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and thou hast given them the blood to drink-’
I heard Momma complete the verse. Gone was the squeaky schoolgirl; steel had crept into her voice, into her soul, aging her. ‘For they are worthy.’
About the Author
E. Nicole Gary received her PhD in microbiology and immunology from Drexel university college of medicine and studies vaccine design and immune responses. When she isn’t writing scientific manuscripts, she’s reading, watching, and writing sci-fi and horror. She loves wine, crochet, chaos, and laboratory mice.