Excerpt from True Religion
Around nine o’clock, the orange sky dissolved into a muddy sea of clouds, and night fell over the yard. Paper lanterns embossed with red, white, and blue flags flared to life on the patio. Guests circulated with lit candles, which they placed around the pool, the barbecue pit, and the dance area on the side of the house. Roger planted two Tiki torches at the back of the lawn, retreated inside, and reappeared carrying a box of fireworks. Through the darkness, two figures approached Seth and Martin at the top of the hill.
Clutching a glass in one hand, Christy said, “We looked all over for you.”
“How’s the work coming?” Beth asked.
“Not bad,” Martin replied.
“We should move down to the lawn,” Beth said. “You don’t want to miss the fireworks. Roger always puts on a good show.”
Martin stowed his script in his shoulder bag, and they clambered down the incline and stationed themselves in front of the torches, which gave off oily tongues of flame. Diana steadied the rocket launcher so Roger could pound it into the lawn with a wooden mallet. Wearing cut-off jeans and a white T-shirt knotted under her breasts, she appeared subdued—she’d switched on another personality. Roger mounted a candy-striped rocket into the launcher, and Diana retreated into the blackness that fell beyond the torchlight. When the torches sputtered flame in her direction, her closed eyes were cast heavenward, eyelids fluttering like moths.
“Friends, it’s time for the fireworks!” Roger announced.
A slow migration of people commenced from the house and front yard. Some guests picked up candles and used them to illuminate their way, like pilgrims heading to a shrine. When everyone assembled on the lawn, Roger said, “Beth and I would like to thank you for coming. This is the first time we’ve held the party in our new home. We hope you enjoyed the pool!”
The crowd whooped and whistled its approval.
“Without further ado,” Roger said, “let the fireworks begin!” He leaned over and lit the fuse on the candy-striped rocket, which lifted off with a whizzing sound and disappeared into the starless sky. Nothing happened, and a dissatisfied murmur passed through the crowd. The rocket suddenly burst into a galaxy of gold sparkles that expanded outward in several rings from its nucleus, and the startled guests dutifully applauded.
Roger positioned a rocket with “Red Devil” stenciled on its side into the launcher. He lit the fuse and the rocket took off, seconds later emitting a loud double-boom along with a hail of red sparks. As the fiery embers cascaded to earth, the backyard was bathed in an infrared glow. The guests cheered their approval. When the hooting died down, Roger said, “The Red Devil never fails to satisfy.”
“Just like you, Roger!” a woman’s voice cried out.
Martin nudged Seth and whispered, “You’ve got competition.”
Roger fired another missile, which burst into a halo of sapphires and diamonds. He launched two more rockets in quick succession, then said, “That about wraps up the main event. I’ve got one more rocket and some pinwheels you can nail to the trees at the top of the yard. As an accompaniment to the grand finale, Diana will hand out sparklers.”
Roger placed a red, white, and blue missile with “God Bless America” emblazoned across its nose into the launcher. Diana distributed sparklers and matches, and returned to his side. He told the crowd, “Light your sparklers and hold them overhead, like the Statue of Liberty.”
“That’s so goddamn hokey,” Richard yelled from across the yard.
“It’s only for effect,” Roger replied.
Diana slipped into a shut-eyed trance as Roger lit the fuse. The rocket rose into the air and, moments later, a deafening explosion filled everyone’s head with confusion. In the instant following the blast, a brilliant white light flashed across the sky, creating the impression of broad daylight. The effect lasted only seconds, but during the pulsing of the white light, time—and people’s hearts—stood still. A cold terror descended upon the crowd, as if they’d been transported to Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped.
The night sky flashed brighter than day once again. As Seth’s eyes adjusted to the light, an image appeared before him of a man angrily approaching him. He moved through the night with force and fury, ready to attack. As the man reached Seth, he stretched out an arm, as if to grab Seth by the collar and pull him to the ground. Seth’s heartbeat quickened, but there was no pain, and just as fast as the man appeared, he vanished. Seth blinked, assuming his eyes and the light were playing tricks on him, but a stench hovered in the air around him. He looked down at his feet, thinking he stepped in something, but his sandals were clean. When he remembered how much he’d had to drink, and how bright the explosion was, he banished the notion of spectral hallucinations from his thoughts.
Time started up again as the rocket burst overhead, sending out red, white, and blue sparks that shot towards the heavens before gracefully falling through the warm night air. The explosion brought the guests back to their senses, a reminder that this was a homemade fireworks display, not an atomic blast.
“Hey, Roger, how’d you do that?” a voice called out.
“Trade secret,” Roger replied. He glanced at Diana, who looked like she was shaking off sleep. She gave him a cursory smile as her face twitched.
Murmurs of “I wonder how he did that?” and “That scared the shit out of me” ran through the gathering. A line of guests bearing candles meandered towards the house, the party’s mellow spell broken by the fearful explosion. “See you later, Roger,” some said, while others found Beth in the darkness and hugged her good-bye. Cries of, “Meet us at the inn in half an hour,” indicated the party would continue into the night.
Seth said to Martin, “Let’s find Richard and go.”
“Before Big Boy really blows something up,” Martin replied.
“I’ll check the yard,” Seth said. “You look in the house. I’ll meet you inside in ten minutes.” He waited until Martin had gone before approaching Roger, who was handing out pinwheels and sparklers to the remaining guests.
“What on earth caused that explosion?” Seth asked.
“What do you think of spirit calling now?” Roger said.
“I don’t believe a spirit caused that blast.”
“Of course a spirit caused it. I could never buy fireworks that powerful. Diana asked the fire elemental that lives in the yard to add a charge to the rocket. As you saw, the explosion was supernatural.”
“That’s one explanation. Anyway, thanks for an eye-opening party.”
Roger extended his hand. Seth shook it, and Roger drew him close and tried to kiss him. Seth wrestled himself free. “See ya,” he said shakily, stumbling towards the house.
Seth found Martin in the white-tiled kitchen chugging a beer, avoiding a circle of partiers sharing a joint. They walked through the darkened dining room and entrance hall into the candlelit living room, which was populated by people standing in groups, drinks and cigarettes in hand. Two black-leather sofas were placed at diagonals in front of a stone hearth. Over the mantle, illuminated by votive candles, hung a painting of a sprite swathed in diaphanous drapery. Richard sat hunched over a bong on one of the sofas. He looked up at Seth in slow motion. “You’ve got to try this shit,” he croaked in a smoke-roughened voice. “It’ll blow your mind.”
“No thanks,” Seth said. “Are you about ready to go?”
A pained expression peeked through Richard’s beard. “I can’t believe you’re crapping out on me,” he said. He passed the bong to Martin, who rebuffed the offering. Turning to Seth, Richard cajoled, “Have a hit for the road then.”
“All right,” Seth said. “What harm can it do?”
Richard handed the bong to Seth and rasped, “Knock yourself out.”
Seth put his thumb over the carburetor hole, brought the bong to his lips, and sucked in the smoke, a mixture of high-grade marijuana and hashish. His lungs expanded, and he felt an instantaneous buzz as he exhaled. The perfect end to a surprising day, he thought, as his legs buckled. He handed the bong to Richard and collapsed onto the sofa.
“Are you okay?” Richard asked in a bleary voice.
Seth gave Richard a woozy look. He slumped against the back of the sofa and sank into the cushiony leather as both his stomach and his mind spun out of control. The room faded to black. When he came to seconds later, he said, “It’s time to go.” He stood up, only to fall back onto the sofa. He emitted a sickening gasp and spewed the contents of his stomach onto a coffee table littered with plastic cups, plates, crumpled napkins, and half-eaten hors d’oeuvres.
Beth, who was ushering guests out the front door, raced over. “Honey, what happened?”
“I’ll clean it up in a minute,” Seth said with a sickly grin.
“You’ll do no such thing. July Fourth isn’t complete until someone pukes. It’s like waiting for the Fat Lady to sing.” She ran to the kitchen and returned with a bucket and some rags. As she sopped the mess into the bucket, a stream of pale green liquid flew from Seth’s mouth, narrowly missing her. “That’s it, buster,” she said. “You’re obviously not capable of walking, and I won’t have you vomiting all over my car. You can sleep here on the futon.”
Seth was so nauseated he couldn’t object.
Beth retrieved a packet of incense from the mantelpiece, lit several sticks, and placed them in the potted plants around the room before taking the bucket into the kitchen.
“Do you mind if I leave?” Martin asked. “You’ll be fine here, right?”
“Go ahead,” Seth said sullenly.
“Meet me at Richard’s tomorrow and we’ll catch the noon bus back.”
“If I can walk.”
“Poor, poor boo,” Martin murmured. He and Richard said good-bye to Beth and left.
When the last of the guests departed, Beth said, “Let’s get your bed ready.” She unfolded a futon that was nestled in an alcove next to the hearth, and made it up with bedding from the hall closet. Roger walked through the living room and climbed the staircase to the second floor, avoiding eye contact with Seth. Beth fluffed the pillows and surveyed the wreckage of her party. “I can’t deal with this mess tonight,” she said. “I’ll clean it up in the morning. There’s a bathroom off the front hallway. I left the light on.”
“Thanks,” Seth said. “I’m sorry I ruined your table.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll feel better in the morning.” Beth walked to the sofa and gave Seth a sisterly kiss on the forehead. “Sleep well.”
As Beth mounted the stairs, Christy materialized from the darkened dining room. “Where is everybody?” she asked.
“Where have you been?” Beth said, leaning over the railing.
“Looking at the stars,” Christy replied. “They finally came out.”
“Party’s over for this year, hon. Good night.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Christy said. She regarded Seth slumped on the sofa and slurred, “Looks like you had one too many drinky-poos,” before hurrying out the door.
Seth rose unsteadily, crossed the room and, without undressing, collapsed onto the bed. He rested his head on the pillow, which gave off the stuffy smell of a cedar closet, and relaxed into the futon pad. He closed his eyes and fell into a black vortex that swallowed him whole.
Violent coughs woke Seth in the middle of the night. He opened his eyes, but couldn’t distinguish anything in the darkened room. A terrible hacking penetrated the gloom; Beth was making the choking sounds, as if her breathing had been cut short. She cried out, “Hester’s not here anymore!” followed by a silence so deadening it seemed that the pulse had gone out of the world.
An edgy awareness jolted Seth fully awake. His heart raced as something glided down the stairway from the second floor. He couldn’t see anything, but sensed an energy moving towards him. Then he smelled it. The acrid odor of burnt, dead leaves forced its way up his nostrils, singeing his mucous membranes and the back of his throat. The same smell he had detected earlier on the lawn. Tears sprang from his eyes, and he began to cough. The sulfurous scent was so sharp, so piercing, it seemed three-dimensional. It’s not of this world, he concluded before the burning stench expanded inside him, closing his windpipe. He thrashed about trying to catch his breath, and a heavy dampness that carried the smell of dank graveyard earth and rotting shrouds blanketed the room. The walking dead, he thought, as his heart beat faster.
The silent intruder drew nearer, its tingly electrical energy chilling Seth. The force field prickled his skin like a traveling patch of nettles. His body grew numb. He told himself, Empty your mind. Think of nothing that will identify you. But the thud of his heart pulsed wildly inside his chest, and his heartbeat could betray him. Lying paralyzed on the futon, there seemed to be no body of flesh and bone between his soul and the thing that was three feet away. I’m dead if it finds me.
The spirit force glided past him into the dining room. As the prickly energy dissipated, Seth lay motionless, terrified to move. Only when he relaxed his clenched muscles did he realize, The alcohol’s been shocked out of my system. I’m sober. I’m awake. I didn’t dream this. In a horrifying flash of intuition, he understood, That was a ghost. An old, powerful ghost. He sat upright. It was a man, the one I saw in the yard. And he was looking for something he couldn’t find. He wondered if Beth could hear his thoughts and would pad downstairs to minister to her guest. But no light flashed on upstairs. The stench is what made Beth choke. The spirit was upstairs with Beth, then down here with me. He became disoriented and left.
Every nerve in his body was alive, and he jumped at the unfamiliar house’s creaks and groans. With eyes now accustomed to the dark, he scanned the room for movement. Nothing stirred, and he understood that the ghost wouldn’t return. He stifled a hysterical laugh at the idea of going back to sleep.
An hour later, as the dawn cast a pale light through the sheer curtains that hung at the living room windows, his eyelids grew heavy, and he sank into the sweat-drenched mattress. He drifted into his second sleep with a queasy feeling in his stomach. His nausea came from the thought, The ghost was looking for me.
J.L. Weinberg was born and raised in San Francisco. He moved to New York City to become a film critic, but was sidetracked by stints as a model and actor. He returned to movie journalism, writing for New York, Premiere, The Village Voice, Interview, American Cinematographer, The Advocate, and The New York Native. True Religion is his first novel.
Copyright © 2015 by J.L. Weinberg. Reprinted by permission of author and publisher.
Authors J.L. Weinberg, David Swatling, Larry Benjamin, and Daniel W. Kelley will be reading their latest chilling horror and suspense fiction on Friday, October 30 at 7 p.m. at the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division in New York City.