Or Unexpected Side Effects of Religious Experience
By Kym Deyn
Greg believed in God the way most people believed in breathing.
He found that not everyone liked this about him. He was thin, starting to grey, and wore wire-framed glasses that aged him more than necessary. His wife had liked it. For a time. Now it was just him and the baby and God.
Then, God told him that he was dying. This was important, God said because dying opened out your options. It clarified things. Greg took the prescription the doctor had given him, nodded solemnly at his prognosis, and wheeled the baby’s stroller out of the hospital.
He looked at the baby, a tuft of blonde hair curling ’round her head. She wasn’t really a baby anymore; last month, she’d started to toddle around the house. She’d already ripped more tassels off of the tablecloth than he’d been able to sew back on.
God was right, Greg thought. Dying did clarify things. He folded the stroller up into the back of his car and gently strapped the baby (toddler, almost) in. He started to drive.
He met Sam after he’d been driving for most of the day. The sun dripped orange light over everything. Sam’s coat looked like a flicker of flame, lit up by the car’s headlamps as they stuck out a thumb and hitchhiked. They had the collar of their coat pulled up and their hat low on their head, like a detective in an old movie. He let them get in the car.
“Where to?” he asked.
“Wherever you’re going,” Sam said. Their voice was androgynous and made Greg pause. They were waiting for a response.
“I don’t know yet,” Greg said. “Only I think I’m supposed to bring people with me.”
“Sounds fine to me,” Sam said. “That your kid?”
He blinked at the question. “Yeah, she’s mine.”
“She got a name?”
“Lucy? Cute,” they said. Greg continued driving.
Eventually, Greg got too tired to drive, and the baby was restless, so they pulled into a motel. Sam winced as they got out of the car, sucking in the air through their teeth.
He picked Lucy up and balanced her on his hip. “You okay?”
Sam shook their head. “Not really.”
Greg got a chance to look at Sam now. They were a bit younger than him and altogether too present. Their eyes. Like something burning. “It’s serious, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yeah,” They replied, surprised. “How’d you guess?”
“I’m dying. Six months, maybe a year, if I’m lucky. God told me to get in the car, and I found you. There must be something in it, a method to His madness.”
Sam snorted. “Sorry to hear that. But there’s no such thing as God, Greg.”
He shook his head. “I think there’s others. And we’re all going to go together.”
Sam was looking at him like someone trying to make shapes out of clouds. “If you say so.”
They got a twin room. Sam drank cheap decaf coffee, sat on the floor, and stretched out their legs, reaching forward to touch their toes. They wore a shapeless skirt and striped socks. Every time the baby toddled towards them, they’d gently spin her around, and she’d giggle.
Greg sat in his undershirt (Sam said they didn’t mind) and tried to talk to God. It wasn’t going very well. He’d sit there and think, Oh God, oh King of Kings, oh Almighty, won’t you please tell me where I have to go tomorrow? Won’t you please tell me what I have to do next?
Then, while waiting for God’s response, he’d think about how the car probably needed looking at and how he didn’t know how far he needed to go and how he really ought to tell the baby’s mother, but then the baby would be taken from him, and Greg had never loved anything in this world as much as he’d loved the baby and by that point, his heart was beating too loudly to hear God over.
“Are those tattoos?” Sam asked, gesturing to Greg’s arms with their coffee cup.
On Greg’s arms were colourful markings, red and yellow, blue and green. “They’re feathers,” he said by way of explanation.
Sam made a noise of understanding. “What’s God saying?”
God, ever aware of the need for good timing, piped up.
“Go, and be healed,” Greg said, repeating him. His voice was flatter than God’s and less luminous.
“Lol,” said Sam, for the hell of it.
They met two Swedish tourists in the parking lot the next morning. They were humming “American Pie” and taking pictures of the motel sign. When they saw Sam and Greg with the baby, they dissolved into coos and giggles. Lucy moved her chubby hands towards one of the Swedish tourists, waving at them.
“Excuse me, ladies,” Greg said once they were finished fussing the baby. “Are you looking for God?”
The women looked to Greg and muttered between themselves. Sam frowned. “They won’t fit in the car.”
“Car?” One of them asked, peering at Sam. “Oooh, Car, ya?” They pointed to a shiny corvette over to the side. “No problem.”
Greg smiled. “See? No problem.”
When they stopped for lunch a few hours later, the corvette pulled into the same parking lot. The Swedish tourists continued to take photographs, their hair shining in the sunlight.
Inside the diner, Sam found a girl sitting in one of the booths. She had notebooks piled up on her table, next to a Bible and a milkshake. She watched Sam placidly as they approached. Greg hovered uncertainly beside them.
“Do you live ’round here?” Sam asked.
The girl shook her head. “Passing through.”
The girl shrugged, running a finger ’round the edge of her glass. “Depends. I’m looking for something.”
“Yeah?” Sam asked. She glanced between them, taking in Greg’s inside-out shirt, Sam’s detective hat, Lucy biting her bright plastic rattle.
“I collect religious experiences,” she said. “A preacher with healing hands in Philly, a boy who sees angels in Vermont. I once had a guy in Maryland who painted on his stigmata every morning and said he used to see Jesus at the Wawa. He liked soft pretzels.” From her bag, she picked out a foil packet of pills, popped two in her mouth, and took a gulp of her milkshake.
“Why?” Sam asked.
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(Story continued below)
She didn’t say anything but pulled a face that suggested she didn’t want to go into it. She was very small and bird-like, her curly hair pulled away from her face in twin puffs.
“Fine.” Sam’s eyes flicked briefly towards Greg. “He says he can talk to God.”
The girl considered Greg for a long moment, then smiled. “Ah,” she said. “Perfect.”
That was how they met Reba.
That night, Greg tried to talk to God again. The Swedish tourists talked amongst themselves, and Reba scribbled into her notebook. Sam flung Greg’s prescription at him.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Fuck doesn’t matter. Take your fucking pills.”
“Don’t swear in front of the baby.”
Sam stuck out their tongue, and Greg smiled despite himself. They seemed to get bored of this line of conversation and turned to Reba. “Why him, huh?”
Reba looked tired, and the writing in her notebook was shaky. “A lot of what I record is nonsense,” she said. “But sometimes you can just see God on someone, Sam. I don’t know why.”
“God,” they snorted. “God on Mr. Bad-Tattoos-Won’t-Take-His-Pills?”
“You came with me, didn’t you?” Greg asked.
“Nowhere else to be,” Sam said. “Do you know where we’re going yet?”
“Not yet,” Greg said.
Reba said goodnight. She was staying in the same room as the Swedish tourists.
Greg looked at Sam and wanted to sigh, but he didn’t as he felt that exasperation wasn’t useful right now. “I don’t know how to explain God to you, Sam,” he said.
Sam looked very tired in this light, all their burning dimmed. “Yeah, I figured.”
Greg thought about God and about the task he’d been sent on. “It’s all His Will. We’ll finish this journey; we’ll get well.”
Sam suddenly looked close to crying. “Sometimes I see things.”
“Sometimes, I just know things are going to happen. There’s no voice in my head; it’s just how things are. But it hurts now. I knew that I had to find you; I knew about Reba too. I think they might be the last things I’ll ever know for sure. I don’t know how—” They held their head in their hands. “—I don’t know how to die with any sense of grace. I think I’m going to go out like a light.”
Greg put the baby down in her travel cot and wrapped his arms around Sam while they cried.
They met Dillan when they pulled into a gas station, and he was on the cash register, letting the local kids walk out without paying for their gum. He had deep shadows under his eyes.
Fifteen minutes later, he was in the corvette with the Swedish tourists and Reba. In the car park, he’d looked at Greg like someone looks at a clear night sky. All the stars. He’d said, “Holy shit. I believe you. I really believe you.”
He didn’t even call to say that he’d quit. Just left his name badge and keys on the counter and walked straight out.
One night when they were sitting together outside in the warm air, Reba asked Greg to talk about God. He said there was the God of his childhood, the God his mother had instilled in him, the Gods of the churches who found him uncomfortable, and a voice that swung through his head like a green and glowing pendulum.
“No one,” Greg said, and he looked unusually sad as he spoke, “Tells you what to do after you’ve seen the burning bush. No one tells you how to keep going while the impossible is working through you. God does not make himself obvious but is visible in the ripples.”
The nights in motels were getting expensive, and none of them were well enough to sleep in the cars. He was getting worried about Lucy, too; the long drives were making her cranky and irritable. She wasn’t happy. Even Sam and the Swedish tourists were struggling to make her smile.
Dillan rounded on Reba one night while she was filling in her notebook. “Why bother?” he asked her. “Why should there be anything left of any of us?”
“Someone has to take notes,” she said. “Someone has to care.”
Sam told him to knock it off. Dillan looked pale and shaky.
“How much further is it?” he asked. Greg shook his head slowly, and Dillan deflated. “I don’t have any money or any insulin left. I want to do this, Greg, but how are any of us supposed to keep going?”
“I don’t know. I’m really sorry. I’m really sorry.” He worried he was failing them. Or maybe he was failing God, somehow. He looked over to Sam and thought of them curled up and crying. “I’m going to do my best by all of you. I promise.”
Eventually, it was decided that the Swedish tourists would pay for Dillan, and Sam would have to sneak into Greg’s room and sleep on the couch. “Take the bed,” Greg said.
Sam smiled, laid out on the sofa, hat placed over their eyes. “I’m good.”
“You’ll hurt in the morning.”
“Oh, and what’s new?”
Greg didn’t respond, and after a few moments of silence, Sam tossed their hat onto the bed.
“What?” Greg asked.
“I’ve been thinking about the Swedish tourists.”
Sam sat up. “When they talk amongst themselves, they’re not speaking Swedish.” They caught Greg’s puzzled expression and sighed. “No, seriously. A language… has a sound, right? It makes certain shapes, follows certain patterns. If you listen, it’s just… jibberish. They’re not speaking anything at all except for the stuff they say in English. I think… I don’t know. I think they’re aliens, maybe.”
Greg started to laugh. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I am. What’s—”
“Sam, you don’t even believe in God, but aliens? Are you kidding me? Holy shit.”
Sam smiled in spite of themselves. “Don’t swear in front of the baby.”
They agreed to switch places halfway through the night when Sam got up to pee, but by that point, Greg was too tired to move, so they laid in the same bed and dreamt.
They took turns with the driving through the long and increasingly uncomfortable days. Technically Greg could have asked Dillan or Reba or one of the Swedish tourists/potential aliens to do it, but they’d fallen into their own kind of rhythm.
They’d sit in the tinny rumble of the car’s engine and chat shit. Sam found out about Greg’s ex-wife (her name was Helen), Greg found out about Sam’s time at college (they’d majored in anthropology). Sam was good at distracting Lucy when she got bored.
God was coming through louder all the time. Sam had developed a tremble in their hands that everyone pretended wasn’t there.
The road was wooded on both sides, a streak of grey sky above their heads. It reminded Greg of the roads near where he’d grown up. Sam pulled over.
He frowned as they got out of the car and braced themselves on the hood. “Sam? What’s wrong? What are you doing?”
Sam shook their head. “I need the air, I can’t—I can’t concentrate on anything anymore. It’s not safe.”
“We’re so close, now. I’ll get one of the others to drive. Hell, I’ll drive.”
“I don’t want to do this.”
“Sam. Sam. I know you’re tired, but—”
“You’re full of shit. I’m too ill to be here. And what the hell am I doing anyway? Following some crazy guy with a baby and bad tattoos and—”
“They’re not tattoos.”
Sam looked at him and blinked. “What.”
“They’re feathers.” Greg looked around for other cars or people. Even the corvette was a way behind them. He took off his shirt. Running across his arms and down his back, patches of colour, greens and blues and reds. The patches had a feathery quality to them, as far as faded tattoos went, but that was all.
“What are you on about?”
“Put your hand on my back.” When they shot him a look, Greg insisted. “Please.”
Sam reached out and sunk their hand into the thick, downy feathers. They ran a hand down his back. Feathers. In any colour, you cared to name.
Greg turned to face them and realized they were burning again, like the moment he’d first seen them from the car window. “You’re impossible,” they said and kissed him.
He cupped their face. Their lips were very soft, and they were very nervous.
“Greg,” they said. “I spent so long trying to die when I knew. I knew, and I saw it coming, but now I don’t want it.” He held them, and they wrapped their arms around him.
“We’ll be okay,” Greg said, not sure if he really believed it.
Rather than talk about what they were going to do next, Greg suggested they find somewhere that sold coffee. The Swedish aliens pulled up in the Starbucks drive-thru maybe ten minutes later. Sam sat on the hood of Greg’s car with their coat collar pulled over their face and their striped socks on display. They had a decaf coffee in one hand and the baby on their lap.
“Mm,” Sam said. “I like this part of the country, at least. It’s near where I grew up.”
Greg turned to them. “Really?
“I grew up in Maine, didn’t I say? A podunk town called Cleanliness.”
“What? That’s where I grew up,” Greg said.
“What? How did we not know each other? You’re older than me, but, seriously?“
Greg wasn’t really listening, though, because running through him was a voice roughly the size of a forest. It was made of light, with an accent particular to heaven. He knew where they needed to go.
Even the town’s signage joked about being “Next to Godliness.” They’d just never expected it to be true. Greg’s old car idled next to the corvette as they all got out and tentatively looked around.
“Greg, Sam,” Reba said. “Dillian and I have something to tell you. Before we do this.”
Sam’s smile was like sparks coming off a fire, quick as a flash. “You guys grew up here?”
“And you’ve lived an impossible life?”
“The one thing I don’t understand,” Greg said, carrying Lucy in his arms. “Is the Swedish Aliens.”
The Swedish aliens looked between each other, and one of them spoke. They were blond and almost identical, with very white teeth. “Oh, no, no. Tour-ists. Tour-ists.”
Sam shrugged. “Method to His Madness? When was the last time anything in your life made a single lick of sense?”
No one could think of the last time anything made a lick of sense, so they went back to staring at the sign.
“Have you ever thought about flying?” Sam asked suddenly, breaking the silence that had settled.
“All the time, can’t do it, though,” Greg said. “No wings.”
“I bet you could if you tried.”
“I tried. I can’t.”
Sam smiled, the face of someone who couldn’t talk to God but sometimes had profound truths presented to them during moments they least expected. “Yeah,” they said. “You can. And the rest of us are going to walk into that town behind you and realize that we’re already miraculous.”
Kym Deyn is a poet, playwright and fortune teller. They have a Legitimate Snack forthcoming with Broken Sleep Books, as well as work in Carcanet’s Brotherton Poetry Prize Anthology. Otherwise, they have been widely published in a range of anthologies and journals. They are the winner of the 2020 Outspoken Prize for Poetry. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and their website.