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Day One Hundred and Forty: Campaign Stop

October 8, 2011 Leave a comment

“Everyone knows you don’t rescue the damned, you just make a silent vow not to join them.”
-Jhonen Vasquez

The campaign had been running for eight months now, and Dema Rahib swore that if she saw her brother’s face on TV again, she’d put a brick through it.

The TV. Maybe the face too. She wasn’t sure which.

She checked her hair again and wondered if maybe she should have worn the lighter blue suit. She’d always been told it looked lovely against her dark skin, and today was a day she’d need all the help she could get to look lovely. Her brother was coming as part of his campaign tour, and she needed all her energy just to keep from screaming at him in front of the inevitable media barrage that would surround her house in a few hours.

If it had been up to her, she would have told him to go to hell. She would have told him that she would sooner let her house be torn up by rampaging mobs of wild animals before she would allow him to bring his campaign to it. When he told her, she couldn’t even summon enough words to yell at him – she just hung up, only for him to call again. And then once more.

The next call after that, however, was from their mother, laying down in no uncertain terms that this was important for Musad. This was what would put Musad over the top in the polls. If everything went right, Musad would become the first Muslim governor in the country, and there was nothing that his older sister was going to say or do to jeopardize that. To which Dema replied that she wanted nothing more than to do everything in her power to jeopardize his career. That had elicited a very quiet and simple response from her mother.

“Try it. See what happens.”

Dema checked her watch again and the doorbell rang. She could feel herself grinding her teeth and took a moment to loosen her jaw. She took a quick look around the house and hated herself for the hours she’d put in cleaning it up. It wasn’t much. It was a starter house, set into the suburbs, far from the city and all the apartments and roommates that had let her down over the years. The street was leafy and the lawn was green, and she ached at how perfectly middle-class and American it was going to look when it showed up on TV.

The young blonde woman at the door was Ashleigh French, one of Musad’s campaign advisors. She was talking into a small earpiece, the kind that everyone was using and made it look like someone had filled the mall with schizophrenics, but she turned around as soon as she heard the door open. “She’s here, gotta go,” she said, tapping the device to turn it off. Her face lit up in a gleaming white smile. “You must be Dema!” she cried.

Dema gripped the door handle. “I live here, yes, so I suppose I must be.” She let go and extended a hand to Ashleigh. “You’re Ms. French? Musad told me -”

Ashleigh waved the hand away and came in for a hug, which Dema received with all the warmth of a block of stone. “Call me Ash,” she said, letting Dema go. She pulled her phone out from her pocket and tapped at it a few times. “I’ve heard Musad talk about you so much I feel like I know you already.”

“I’m sure you do,” Dema muttered. “Is he still coming?”

The other woman looked up for a moment and then laughed – too high, too loud. “Of course he’s coming,” she said. “The crew is about fifteen minutes away, and then your brother’s bus is coming later along with a small press convoy.” She checked the phone again. “Just a few networks – CNN, NBC, FOX, you know, the usual.” She looked up and around the front yard. “This is going to look wonderful,” she said, “although I wish we had a little more sunlight.” She pointed to the blooming chrysanthemums. “Did you plant those?” she asked.

“Yes,” Dema said.

“Oh, they’re just gorgeous, and they’ll show up perfectly on TV.” She walked to the rows of flowers and started taking pictures with her phone. A few quick taps later, and Dema was sure that they were on their way to her brother for his approval, and she had to resist the urge to cut them all down.

“Now when he gets here,” Ashleigh said, “he’ll have a few minutes to chat with you – you know, chat, brother-sister stuff – and then the press conference starts at eleven.” She walked out in front of the flowers. “We’ll have our guys set him up here, and the media boys can set up where they want, and -” She looked over at Dema, who hadn’t moved. “Are you following this?” she asked. Her face folded into a look of concern, which Dema was sure was hiding contempt. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine,” Dema said. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Ashleigh spent twenty more minutes telling Dema all about the schedule, and Dema didn’t hear a word of it. When the advance crew arrived to start setting up the remote press conference apparatus, Dema excused herself and went inside to have a cup of tea. It was the only thing she could do that had nothing to do with the circus that was already beginning in her front yard, and which would only get worse as the morning progressed.

More and more people came, some to talk to her, others to get things ready for the crowd that was to come. Dema did her best to stay in the kitchen and drink tea. Or do the crossword. Or draw meaningless shapes on a yellow legal pad. Anything to distract herself, to make the day go faster.

He arrived at quarter to eleven, and walked into her house as if it was his own. He looked just like he did on television: tall, handsome, with a full head of hair and bright teeth and deep brown eyes that had made the girls melt in his hand since he was twelve. The suit was tailored, the tie shimmered, and the little American flag pin on his lapel looked like it had been polished that morning. He walked into the kitchen and looked at her, hands in his pockets. “Hello, Dema,” he said.

She didn’t look up from her sketches. “Musad,” she said.

There would have been silence, if not for all the voices outside. “You’re not even going to look at your brother?” he asked. “I came here to see you.”

Her hand twitched and crumpled a sheet of paper off the pad. “You came here for a photo opportunity,” she said. “Let’s get it over with so you and your minions can get moving to the next one.”

“My minions?” He chuckled. “That’s new.” He pulled a chair out from the table and sat down. “Dema,” he said. She didn’t look at him. He reached out for her hand and took it. She stiffened. “Dema,” he said again. “Look at me.”

She looked up, and felt her hands shaking. She had so much inside her that wanted out, that needed to be said, if only she would just open her mouth and say it. She bit her tongue, literally, and forced herself to look at him.

“Dema, I need to know that you’re not going to do anything… dramatic out there.” He smiled, and for a moment, he looked like himself. “I know you, big sister. I know you have things you want to say.” He dipped his head down to meet her lowering eyes. “Am I right?”

The words seemed to come out of her chest like they were made of stone. “I will smile,” she said. “I will smile and wave, and I will be nice.” She took a deep breath. “I will make you look good on TV and then I will go inside.” She took her hands from his. “You will leave, and never come back.”

Musad’s face fell. “Dema,” he said. “I know you hate this, and I know why.” He leaned back in his chair. “If I could have chosen someone else as a running mate, I would have. Carl is -”

“Carl would be perfectly happy to see you dead, Musad. Dead or dropped out in the middle of a desert somewhere.” She looked up at him and felt her eyes start to well up. She blamed Musad for that, too.

“Dema, please. He’s really not a bad man.”

“Really?” she said. “The man who has an entire YouTube series devoted to how the Muslims in this country are trying to enforce Sharia law?” She stood up and started pacing around her kitchen. “The man who screamed bloody murder for six weeks about that project in New York?” She yanked open a drawer and grabbed another legal pad. “The man who said -” She flipped through it until she found the page she wanted. “The man who said, ‘The day a heathen Muslim man rules over a man of Christ is the day the Devil has his victory.'”

She slammed the pad on the counter and held up a finger. “And yes, I was saving that one just for this conversation, Musad.” She walked over to him and dropped the pad on the table in front of him. It was covered in quotations and references not only to Carl Corbett, but to other party leaders and fundraisers who had been part of Musad’s rise in the campaign. Her handwriting, usually so precise and controlled, was harsh and quick, and there were circles and arrows across the page that were annotated with dates and places and sources. Dema was nothing if not thorough in her research.

He looked at it, turned over a few sheets of paper and let them drop. He took a deep breath and looked up at her. “That was yesterday,” he said. “That was ages ago.” He shrugged. “I had breakfast with Carl this morning as we talked over our strategies for the next few weeks, and he’s really a very nice guy.”

“He’s a monster,” she said through clenched teeth.

“He’s handing me the Evangelicals,” Musad said flatly. “You go check his YouTube site now – that man has turned around to his Muslim brothers and sisters so fast I’m surprised it didn’t break his neck.” He looked down at the pad and traced a doodle with his finger. “I need the votes he’s bringing in,” he said. “I can’t win this race without him and the men he brought with him.”

“And there are more Christian voters in this state than Muslim,” Dema replied.

The words hung in the air, and Dema hated the way they sounded. Even her brother looked uncomfortable.

Finally, Musad nodded. “There are indeed,” he said. “And they’re going to elect the first Muslim governor in the United States.” He looked back up at her, and gave her that smile that she remembered from when he was so much younger. “Joke’s on them.”

Dema wilted. She took his hands and pressed them together. “Please, Musad,” she said. “Don’t do this. Don’t…”

“Sell out?” he asked. After a moment, she nodded, and her eyes overflowed. He patted her hands and stood up. “Big sister, it is far too late for that.” Musad helped her stand up straight and wiped tears from her cheeks. “There is no victory in politics without someone selling out. And if I have to do that so that a Muhammad or a Wahid or an Amir can come after me and sell out a little less?” He shrugged. “I’m willing to pay that price.”

He took a deep breath and pulled her in for a hug. “Thank you, Dema,” he said into her ear. “I know you want the best for me. You always have.” They stood together like that in the kitchen for a long moment before he pulled away. Dema saw motion in the corner of her eye, and she and Musad looked to the front door at the same time. Ashleigh was clutching her clipboard to her chest and looking anxious. Musad nodded to her and looked back at Dema. “You ready?” he asked.

Dema wiped her eyes. “I must look terrible,” she said. “I can’t -”

“You look fine.” He started to walk towards Ashleigh, and Dema saw his demeanor change. His back straightened, his jaw seemed to jut out a little more. “Take a couple of minutes if you need them. Join us when you’re ready.”

Dema watched him turn around and head towards the front lawn, where the shouts and the ratcheting sounds of cameras and flashes began before he was even out the front door. She lost sight of him in moments, and the after-image of flashbulbs blurred her vision along with the tears.

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Day Eighty-three: The Heresy of the Smallest Room [MAKE-UP]

September 5, 2011 2 comments

The man in filthy priest’s robes was dragged into the room and thrown onto the cold stone floor. When the hood was torn from his head, he cried out at the sunlight streaming in through the great stained glass window that framed Archdeacon Tongryn’s tall, thin silhouette. The colored glass shattered the sun into brilliant color, except for the center, which gleamed in purest white the shape of the Church’s most treasured orthodoxy. Brother Deskel groaned and averted his eyes in shame. One of the burly guards who had brought him in gave him a kick to the ribs, rolling him over.

“Enough,” the Archdeacon said, holding up a shadowy hand. The guard looked up and nodded, taking a step away.

“Brother Deskel,” the Archdeacon said. His voice was warm, a voice known by all who attended services in the great Cathedral. When he spoke of God’s love for man, about the order inherent in the Universe, that voice was a source of peace and reassurance. In this room, however, it was stripped of such kindness. “You have been brought here on most grievous charges.” The Archdeacon clucked his tongue. “Most grievous indeed.”

“The truth,” Deskel found himself whispering. “I only spoke the truth.” He cried out as the guard kicked him again.

“Now, now,” the Archdeacon said. “No need to resort to that.” He walked around his desk, his hands clasped behind his back, and the light from the window illuminated his features. There were many who said he looked like a generous grandfather or a kindly uncle, and indeed his expression out among the faithful was affable and merciful. There was no kindness in his eyes today.

“Heresy, Brother Deskel,” he whispered. “Heresy is a poison to the church. An infection that must be stopped.” He stood next to the prone man, and Deskel could smell the incense that the priests burned during their services. It burned his nose. “There are those who say that you should cut infections out. Slice off the limb before it rots and destroys the rest of the body.” He looked up into the light. “I would prefer to prevent the disease, of course. To keep it from spreading at all.” He looked down again. “That would be the best for all of us.” He paused. “Will you recant?”

Brother Deskel’s ribs throbbed. His head felt like it was splitting in two. He had barely eaten in days, barely slept, and his limbs felt like great bags of sand that he was forced to carry with him wherever he went. He longed for rest, and even that cold stone floor would feel like paradise if he knew he wouldn’t be hurt anymore.

But he also knew the truth. He knew that the Church had strayed. He had read the manuscripts that they had tried to suppress. He had listened to the teachings of Tequalor Saf, the renegade who spoke out in defiance. Feros Deskel knew the truth in his heart, and his tongue would not let the lie catch air.

Archdeacon Tongryn knelt down, carefully arranging his robes. He grabbed Deskel’s chin and pointed the man’s face to the great window. Deskel tried to look away, but he was too weak to overcome the older man’s grip. “Look at it,” the Archdeacon growled. “Look at what a thousand years of Church thought and tradition have upheld.” Against his own will, Deskel opened his eyes and looked at the great stained glass window. “The paper,” the Archdeacon hissed, “goes over the roll.” He shook Deskel’s head. “Look at it! Over!” He gave Deskel’s head another shake and then let it drop. “As Our Lord intended,” he said, standing up.

The room was silent except for Brother Deskel’s quiet sobbing. The guards looked down in him with contempt.

The Archdeacon turned to face the window. “You are found guilty of heresy in the eyes of the Church, the punishment for which is death.” He ignored the cry that came from the floor. “Be assured that we will root out the rest of your confederates – especially Tequalor Saf.” His lip curled as he said the name. “They will all be given the chance you were. Recant or face the judgment of the Church.” He looked down at the man, who had curled up into a ball. “I hope they choose more wisely than you did.” He gestured to the guards, who picked Deskel up off the floor. He hung limply in their arms as they dragged him away.

Archdeacon Tongryn gazed at the window and thought on the heretics. They would be destroyed in the end. Destroyed or made to see the truth. He clasped his hands together and offered up a silent prayer that the Lord might guide him and the Church to a victory for the truth. At the prayer’s end, he passed his right hand over his left and made a short bow.

The interesting part of his day finished, the Archdeacon sat down and went back to the more mundane business of the Church.

———————————

This was inspired by a writing contest over on Worth1000.com, where the topic was to invent a new religion based on something unlikely. The first thing to come to mind was the old story about Ann Landers’ column, how the most mail she ever received on a single topic was about the proper orientation of toilet paper. [1] The limit on the entry was 150 words, which was harder than I thought it would be. Here, of course, I’m allowed to use as many words as I like, even though it leads to the devastation of the virgin electron fields of South Hackensack….

[1] The correct orientation, of course, is over. Anything else is clearly wrong, wrong, wrong.

Day Fifty-three: Sun Worshiper

A green field.

A green field and a blue sky.

A green field, with long grass as far as the eye can see, waving in the gentle breeze and whispering its secrets to anyone who can hear them. A blue sky the color of eternity itself, broken only by the bright white clouds, stately and grand, that sail from horizon to horizon.

A warm and bright sun, hanging high in the sky. It keeps all of this running, The grass, the wind, the clouds, the sky.

I lay back in the grass and ponder it all. The light from the sun hitting my face left eight minutes ago. It flew through the emptiness of space, the fastest thing there is, and it still took eight minutes to get to me. And each photon, each tiny, indivisible bit of light, had spent hundreds of thousands of years – maybe millions – getting out of the unimaginably hot and dense center of the sun in the first place.

The light hitting my eyes is older than human civilization. It has struggled greatly to reach me.

I pluck a long stem of grass from the earth and put one end in my mouth, chewing on it as I lie back. I taste… something. That indefinable grassy earthy taste, and it tastes good. The sunlight that fell here yesterday is the green of today, sharp and bitter on my tongue. The other grasses whisper in the breeze, not mourning their lost cousin, not resenting my destruction of their kind. They simply exist, drinking in the sunlight as they have always done and will always do.

The breeze brushes past me, generating another burst of whispers from the grass. That, too, owes its life to the sun. The intricate interplay of heating and cooling, convection and rotation, it all keeps the air from ever being too still, too dull. Energy from a vast nuclear furnace millions of miles away, a body that would vaporize the world if it could, delicately ruffles my hair.

So too with the clouds, and the trees on the edge of the field, and the insects that fly around through the grass. And me. Without the sun, we are as naught.

I stand up and look up towards the sun, lower in the sky now than it was when I came here. I close my eyes and feel the warmth and try to imagine the impossible journey that sunlight has made. I can’t. My solid-state human mind cannot begin to empathize with an indefinable photon. But I can appreciate.

Carefully, I disrobe, removing my clothes slowly and carefully and folding them on the grass. I turn in the sunlight and try to feel how the heat warms my skin, how my very body reacts to the light, generating vitamins, slowly burning and marshaling its defenses, releasing the chemicals that control my health and my mood and which make me who I am. It feels like a shower, like a flood, a flood of warmth and life and love.

The sun is not the sun anymore. It is the creator of all things. It is the generator of all life, that to which we owe our existence. Though I know it cannot love us, I feel the heat as its love. Though I know it cannot see us, I know its light sees us all. And though I know it cannot judge us or damn us or redeem us, I know that it was once part of us, and we of it, and that one day we will be again. The sun gave us birth and it will accept us in our death many, many years from now, and once again all that ever was will be one again.

I turn to the sun and I bow, hands together.

And though I know it cannot hear me, and would not care even if it could, I say:

“Thank you.”