By C.M. Chapman
Dogleg Bend. His third and final stop in West Virginia. Roy Cross got out of his car on Main Street and glanced around. The town appeared dead already. Sometimes he wondered what good he could do in places like this, but his was not to question the will of the Lord. Hills rose on three sides of the dilapidated downtown, all two blocks of it. On the western side, it sloped toward a river, reminding him of the opening to a cave. Looking up at the gray sky he thought perhaps it was the low-hanging clouds that made the place so dreary.
And that's when the toad hit him right in the eye.
It was an obscene noise, straight from a porno movie, the sound of flesh slapping flesh, and, if he hadn't been so surprised, he might have taken a moment to register his disgust. But the soft body of the toad perfectly filled the hollow of his eye socket, giving the slap a lurid resonance that echoed across the quiet thoroughfare.
“Holy fuckin’ shit!” came a voice from across the street. Through his watery vision, Cross saw two young men running toward him, at least one of whom was laughing, still saying, “Holy fuckin’ shit! Did you see that?”
“It’s a fuckin’ toad, man! Look! The thing just dropped outta the sky, dude!”
“Holy shit! It’s alive!”
“No way! Fuckin’ thing just fell outta the sky and now it’s hoppin’ away like it's fuckin’ Supertoad or somethin’!”
“Would you please stop cursing?” Roy Cross was starting to come to his senses and resented the unnecessary vulgarity. The fleshy sound was still bouncing around in his brain and now he understood its familiarity, furthering his confusion and anger.
“You okay, man?” said one.
“Fuckin’ thing just fell outta the sky!”
“Yes, I’m okay. And please!”
“Frickin thing just frickin fell out of the frickin sky!”
“The Lord sends signs,” said Cross, still trying to clear the water from his eyes, “to warn us of the end of days.” His face was flushed with embarrassment and he wondered how many people saw it happen.
“Uh-huh,” said one. “You’re probably gonna have a shiner there.”
“I’m fine! I’m fine. Thank you. You can go.” Cross didn’t like to attract this much attention when he got into a town.
The two stood there looking at him for a second. He still could not see them clearly.
“The Lord sent a fuckin' toad, dawg,” said one, and they walked away, laughing. As they left earshot range he heard the other say, “You suppose he'll get a wart on his eyeball?”
The toad disappeared under a bush.
Cross got back in his car. He wondered if the job was compromised. Inordinate attention. But this was just a podunk little place and there hadn’t been anyone around other than those two boys, even in the middle of town and the middle of a Saturday. His plan had been to do his business at the diner today and the Dogleg Bend Baptist Church tomorrow. With slowly clearing sight, he scanned the surroundings from his car. No one else in sight. No one looking.
He examined his eye in the tilted rear-view mirror. Yes, it was going to swell, but all in all it didn’t hurt as badly as the fish in New Haven.
The diner appeared to be useless for his plans at the moment. He could see only a few figures through the front window. He would wait until it was a little busier, but looking around, he wondered if that would ever happen. He sat in his car until his vision began to feel normal again then donned a pair of sunglasses and got out to take in the town.
As he walked, he was periodically reminded of his old life. There was an old hardware store, closed at noon according to the sign, with wooden shelves lining its walls filled with dusty merchandise. He remembered one just like it in Dellroy, Ohio, and he thought of the times he and Mary Ann had spent there, asking Leonard what they needed in the ongoing effort to fix up their old house. Those were the good years, filled with the blessings of God.
For it truly was God, and his angel Mary Ann, who had rescued Roy from the demon alcohol, and he had clutched onto both with a fervent devotion. Mary Ann’s eyes first called him from his exile with their blue-gray compassion and the way they became the ocean when she loved. They were the eyes of his mother long ago, opening the door to the closet after his father’s holy retribution. Mary Ann’s eyes reached back through time and struck that childhood chord, reminding him of the times that God had spoken to him in the hot thirsty black of the wardrobe. So it was that God spoke to him again in the drunken darkness and asked him, “My child, how could you forget? Who was there for you, but Me?” Mary Ann’s eyes and his newfound memories of the voice of the Lord gave him the determination to crawl from the pit of his life, and he dedicated himself to both with an energy that consumed his days. His holy obsessions.
They attended church functions three days a week and twice on Sundays. Willard, from the church, had helped him land a job as a night-shift custodian at a nearby university, and Cross dedicated his free hours to understanding the teachings of the God who had freed him. On his nights off, he and Mary Ann watched televangelists, including the Reverend Jack Van Impe.
Early on, he found himself fascinated by Van Impe and the subject of biblical prophecy. He recorded the programs. He occupied much of his time divining the essence of Daniel’s visions, of Ezekiel, and the Revelation of Saint John, and it was clear the end could not be far away. He would lay in bed and talk about it with Mary Ann. They would thank the Lord that they were saved and talk about how awful it would be if they weren’t. Cross began to understand the wickedness of the world.
Eventually, knowing that the word must be spread, that mankind had to be warned, he started his own website, endtimesacomin.com. There, he would post links to news stories that showed the prophecies coming true: pestilences, earthquakes, debauchery, famine.
At times, Mary Ann would tire of it.
“Can’t we just forget it all? For just one night?”
In those moments, he would hug her. A woman needed attention; he knew this.
“I can’t wait until the day comes when we walk in eternal love, away from the pain of this world,” Roy said, squeezing her tightly.
“Is there no light here?” Her hug was loose, her body limp.
One night, Mary Ann sat with him as he posted links to articles about a new strain of flu ravaging Asia. Above the website links, he put a picture of an Asian woman in a surgical mask, tears streaming from her bloodshot eyes, a baby in her arms and a headline below the picture that read, “Death Toll Nears 1,000.”
As he considered his design work, he became aware that Mary Ann's breathing seemed uneven. He turned to see her eyes glued to the screen, tears rolling over her cheekbones.
“I know,” he said. “It's sad. God have mercy on us.”
“It's not just that,” she said. The tears streamed even harder.
“What? What is it, sweetheart?”
“But the innocents are taken straight into God's loving embrace, honey. You know that.”
She turned to look at him, a horrified expression on her face.
“What am I hoping for?” she asked, but Cross wasn't sure she was talking to him and didn't know what to say. She rose, still crying, and left the room.
Later, when he crawled into bed beside her, her back was turned to him and he tried not to disturb her. As he closed his eyes, he heard her say, “Maybe we should have a baby, Roy."
“I don't know,” said Cross. “Do you think it's a good thing to bring a child into a world like this?”
She never answered.
Something changed that night in Mary Ann. From then on she seemed less enthusiastic about the website. The bedtime talks about the blessings of the Lord, the Rapture, and the End Days were less frequent and she participated less actively, mostly just agreeing with his observations. The behavior struck him as curiously familiar, and that was when he first perceived it at church.
One Wednesday evening, after his adult Bible study class let out early, Cross went to the church bathroom to relieve himself while waiting for Mary Ann to finish choir practice. As he washed his hands, he thought about the point he'd been arguing a few moments earlier. What a shame that Terry Philips broke up the group prematurely. Cross had been enjoying the debate.
Drying his hands, he could hear the choir outside the door, coming out of the sanctuary. He reached for the knob and, as the door cracked, he heard Jim Penney say, “Where's Mr. End-of-the-World?” A couple of the women tittered and Mary Ann replied, “He's probably waiting outside.” There was no light in her voice. Cross slid the door shut. As he waited for them to pass, he could smell mothballs and felt imaginary clothes hanging over him, brushing the top of his hair.
It bothered him, the sniping tone of Jim’s comment and Mary Ann’s weary reply, but he said nothing.
By now, endtimesacomin.com was getting twenty to thirty visitors a day. He received an email from a Ronald Smalls of Barnwell, South Carolina, saying, “Bless you folks. Your website is one of the best I've ever seen. I check it every day. You are doing the work of the Lord and I thank you.”
The implication that he, Roy Cross, was having an effect, that he was playing a part in the unfolding of the Lord’s Plan, was new to him. It felt wondrous, magical, and it made Jim Penney seem small and insignificant.
He related his success to his wife every evening.
“That's great, Roy,” she'd say. “God must be proud of you.”
The website was just beginning to take off when Mary Ann left him.
At first he was bewildered. It didn’t make sense, this “life with you was too dark” stuff. In Roy’s mind, they were fighting the darkness together, resisting the tide of evil, preparing to usher in a new age with the arrival of Lord Jesus. He had only ever envisioned that moment with her by his side. He figured it was just a mistake that she would soon recognize. When she didn’t come back, he knew deep in his heart that they would be reunited in time for the Resurrection. He had faith, even while signing the divorce papers in her lawyer’s office.
“In the eyes of God, you’re still my wife,” he said, handing her the pen.
When he heard that she’d married Jim Penney, he confronted her on the street outside the library.
“He sings,” Mary Ann said. She touched his arm, her look full of pity.
As she walked away he yelled, “You’re still my wife!” but she didn’t turn around.
Cross did not understand why God was punishing him, taking his wife and even his church, where it was clear he was no longer wanted. His energy for the website waned and he updated it less and less frequently. He became quiet. He cried into his pillow every morning when he went to bed, worn out from mopping university floors all night with the ferocity of a cornered beast.
But that was all a long time ago and Cross was alone now, strengthened by the Lord’s work. He was bored with this dead little hamlet and, for now, he'd managed to mostly push the toad from his mind. Small crowd or no, he was going to complete the diner part of the job.
He went back to his car, pulled the Styrofoam container from its bag, and opened the top, removing a test tube with a hinged cap from a form-fitted slot. After this, only one tube remained. He stuck the test tube in his trouser pocket and headed for the diner.
After discovering that Mary Ann had gone the way of the harlot, Cross worked doubly hard on the website and put in more hours at work, trying to avoid idle time and the temptations of the internet. He read the Holy Bible daily and tried to understand his purpose. Surely he’d been saved for a reason. Was it love or vengeance? It began to consume him. Purpose. Destiny. There would come a day when Mary Ann would see his true fate, and she would cry that she hadn’t stayed by his side. It would be part of her eternal torment and he would cry to see her suffer, but God demanded justice. Cross demanded it, too.
He became more and more intrigued by the refrigerators in the laboratory at the university. “Biological Hazard,” the signs warned. “Authorized Personnel Only.” Their red and yellow message pulled at his attention every night.
“We never mop in there,” his boss said to him once. “That room is always locked because that’s where they keep the germs.”
The germs. It fascinated Cross that pandemic lurked behind that glass. It fascinated him that the warning signs bore a sigil of three crescent moons atop a circle, a sun. It fascinated him enough to try the door handle every night until the night he found it unlocked, surely the work of the Lord.
Three cities in each state, for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Cross chose the cities by pinning a road map to the wall, closing his eyes and throwing darts. The Lord guided his hand as he shuffled the state maps and drew one at random. The Lord guided the darts.
Cross had stolen six dozen test tubes from the refrigerator that night, all packed in Styrofoam containers. He put them gingerly into a trash bag and left the room quickly, locking the door behind him. He carried the bag out with the rest of the trash and didn’t stop, taking them to his car and driving straight home, not even clocking out. At home, he packed the containers into coolers with ice and loaded them into the back of his car.
He took nothing from the house except for his clothes and the wooden carving of crucified Jesus that hung over the bed he used to share with Mary Ann. He pictured her moaning and thrusting under Jim Penney, perhaps beneath a Satanic pentagram. He drove into town, withdrew his savings, and left Dellroy forever. Cross drove north to Geneva where he paid cash to rent a cottage on the lake. With his holy treasure stowed in the refrigerator, he slept on the bare floor under the crucifix, listened to Erie’s waves lapping in the night, and prayed for the Lord to reveal the full extent of His plan.
Cross preferred to target restaurants and malls. High-traffic was best, but retail locations could be tricky as one might be taken for a shoplifter, or worse, a terrorist. Churches were his favorite. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Cross was the instrument of the affliction.
This was not terrorism. It was not about sending a message. This was secret work, a means to a larger end, and he was a part of it, making it happen. Roy Cross took on his solitary, holy work with the devotion it deserved. Over the next year, the Lord had guided him by map and dart, up and down the east coast of the United States, from Maine to Florida. He had only ever been sick once. God protected him. He was the herald of the apocalypse, the bringer of Armageddon.
And now he’d been hit in the eye by a toad, in Dogleg Bend, West Virginia.
After a piece of cherry pie, when no one was looking, Cross opened the cap on the test tube hidden in his palm and released his tiny angels that flew from him and gathered on his hands and arms like bees on their keeper. He raised his arms in a fake stretch, and proceeded to the rest room, touching everything near him. When the deed was done, he left Millie’s Diner, letting his hand linger on the doorknob then slide slowly from the brass as the door closed behind him.
Cross examined his eye in the Motel 6 bathroom mirror. It was a light bluish-purple, not as bad as it could have been, he supposed. His mind again lit on the memory of seeing that formless lump with its amphibian feet spread to the sky just before it collided with his face. And again, disquiet struck him as he heard the salacious noise echo through his memory, awakening thoughts of New Haven afresh. He stood there, gently poking and pressing the swollen flesh around his eye. Was God throwing things at him? He'd heard of toads and fish falling from the sky; he had put such things on his website years before, but usually there was more than one fish or toad. He turned from his reflection and back to the bed, where he opened up his Bible to a passage in First Peter that he'd marked right after the fish:
Beloved do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s
sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.
It did not soothe him as quickly as when he'd first found it, so he read it over and over, until the image of flying amphibians left his mind.
Later, he purchased fried chicken from Wal-Mart and ate it in his room. Then he pulled his church clothes from his valise and used the hotel iron to press his suit before he went to bed. He wanted to look his best for services.
The next morning, Roy Cross went to church.
The wooden church was big and white, and Cross was happy to see the pedestal fans in lieu of air conditioning. It would be a hot-closet, thirsty day. He would park himself right behind one of the fans and his invisible angels would fly to every corner of the sanctuary.
The preacher caught him at the door to the chapel, a smug-looking fellow who introduced himself as Pastor Mooney and who seemed infinitely curious about his church’s latest visitor. Cross fed him the usual story of being a traveling pharmaceutical salesman. Forgetting himself in the heat, he almost spoke of his father’s devotion to his salvation. Instead, he gave the standard tale of his family’s involvement with the church, denominationally flavored, of course.
The preacher bragged to him about the church being a hundred-twenty-years old and founded by his great-great grandfather, a “Baptist warrior” who had driven the witches from the hills. Pastor Mooney was so self-righteous and filled with pride that it reminded Cross of why churches were his favorite targets in the first place. His father would have known. There was no real worship anymore. They were all filled with hypocrites who would turn on you in a second. They were all filled with singing men who coveted other men’s wives.
The pastor finally freed him when the deacon pointed at his watch. Cross made it into the chapel where he sat in the back corner, next to one of the fans. From here, no one could see what he was doing. Several paper fans were waving in the congregation of perhaps thirty-five parishioners.
Members turned to scrutinize him, mildly disapproving looks on their faces, as if Cross had purposely kept Pastor Mooney from getting on with it. The preacher’s welcome from the pulpit prompted the rest of the congregation to turn and look at him again. Cross smiled and nodded and before long, they had forgotten him and the sermon had begun.
At one point, Mooney spoke of visiting an elderly woman, a former parishioner. Arthritis had twisted her up in pain and the minister spoke for ten minutes about the elegance of her faith, closing the story with a quote from Second Corinthians: “’And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’”
“Amen,” Cross said under his breath as he pulled the test tube from his jacket pocket.
He imagined that the germs he loosed upon the world would one day break into pandemic, whole cities and governments would fall, and Christ would descend from the clouds with his sword to find his faithful soldier, Roy Cross, waiting for his reward for spreading holy disease among the golden calf worshippers and unfaithful wives. In reality, he knew nothing about the germs he had stolen: common, low-level rhinoviruses, used for drug testing.
And Roy Cross, the eighth angel of the apocalypse, opened the vial upon the face of the earth, and lo, there fell a noisome and grievous case of coughs, fevers, body aches, and runny noses.
Roy smiled, remembering the closet of his boyhood perdition. When it came to holy vengeance, Daddy had nothing on Roy Cross.
As Cross drove out of town he crested a hill just south of Dogleg Bend and the vista opened on a brown and gray landscape that stretched as far as he could see from that hilltop. On one side of the road there were still trees and hills. On the other, all green just stopped, like it had reached the edge of the underworld. The land to the south was leveled and scraped clean, terraced and dead, angled and ordered, a chunk of the world torn away. Clearly nothing could rise here unless it was hideous. The emptiness of it hit his gut like the toad hit his eye, formless, shadowed, and sudden. He’d never seen anything like it. It was an abomination. Surely, he thought, my work is coming to an end.
He drove past the barren landscape and imagined that the Antichrist sat out on that desolate plain, smoke, death, and laughter coiling from his seven heads, blood dripping from his ten horns, ready to devour the world. He shuddered at the monsters loose on the earth.
C.M. Chapman is a graduate of the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. He has appeared in Cheat River Review, Dark Mountain, Kentucky Review, and So It Goes: A Tribute to Kurt Vonnegut. This story is from his thesis collection, Suicidal Gods. www.cmchapman.net.