The sign by the highway read: “HALLOWEEN IS THE ROAD DOWN WHICH SATAN WALKS.”
The sign a half-mile down added: “BY WHICH SIN WILL YOU TURN YOUR BACK ON GOD ALMIGHTY?”
Roadside Evangelical was little more than a white clapboard shack, too small now to hold the congregation it had grown. Most sermons these days were held in the field out back, beneath a blue tarp, in folding chairs that tested your faith. Today the chairs were replaced with plastic tables loaded with food. Children and their parents ran across the grass, alternately laughing and singing hymns. Short hayrides were punctuated with scripture quoted by those in the truck bed. Children bobbed for apples and were awarded pocket Bibles.
The door was open to Reverend Howell’s office, really just a trailer parked behind the church. The lights were off, and with the growing clouds it was hard to see inside. Scattered across the carpet were crudely scribbled Bible tracts, condemning the lust of homosexuals for God’s precious children and the urges of cross-dressers to peek into women’s toilets. In the far corner, the reverend’s chair was overturned.
They’d walked to the woods at such an angle that the church blocked them from the congregants’ view. Howell didn’t try to scream anymore for fear of choking on the torn shirt Lacey had jammed into his mouth. He could feel the fabric a hair away from creeping into his throat, and while the boys held his arms and legs he had no means of pulling the gag free.
They were strong, athletic kids, so they carried him a good ways through the pine trees. An old pickup, license plate removed, was parked about a couple miles in.
They threw Howell down, then picked him up on his feet and wrapped a heavy chrome chain tight around and between his wrists. Colt fastened one end to the truck bumper while Lacey and her brother pulled down his pants. Clint tore away at the reverend’s coat and shirt, utility knife in hand to sever the threads too thick and stubborn to yield to the tugs. Lacey pulled Howell’s pants so that his ankles were snatched from under him. He felt them pull his shoes away before finally pulling his pants loose. Someone snatched away his socks.
The rag had crept a little deeper down Howell’s mouth, and coughed as he fought his urge to gag. He was barely able to mumble “What are you all doing?”
Colt shrugged. “God’s work, I guess.”
“God’s work?” And Howell gagged again as the rag crept deeper down his throat. “How could this be God’s work?” he groaned, nearly unintelligible.
But Colt seemed to hear him. “You know about how my granddaddy was a code breaker after he got drafted? He always used to tell me that the secret of any code was figuring out what it was folks was trying not to say.”
Lacey propped herself up on the pickup’s tailgate. It was late October and cloudy, but the humidity was high and the temperature was in the low eighties. She was in small denim shorts, and she wore boots that hugged her calves. Howell looked away when he caught her catching him.
“Please!” he murmured. He tried to cough some of the rag clear, and felt bile rising in his throat. “There’s nothing Godly in this action!” Then he fell on back on the standby defense: “Look to His Word!”
“Codes always say one thing and mean another. And it’s not even so obvious as just sayin’ the opposite of what ya mean.” Colt flipped a pocket Bible through the air, one of a couple thousand Howell kept in boxes in his office. “You say He’s a God of love. If that’s the case, I ain’t so sure He’s the author.”
Howell’s blood was racing hot, and he tensed to keep from voiding his bladder. The pressure began to stiffen his prick. Lacey noticed and barked a little laugh, then reached out a leg and nudged it with the toe of her boot.
“Damn, reverend,” Clint said off to the side, “you sure have timing, don’t ya?”
A blond-headed boy Howell knew as Zach came out from behind him, stuffing Howell’s clothes into a nylon bag. He threw the torn suit into the truck bed before climbing into the cab and slamming the door shut. After a couple minutes Howell could hear the tinny sounds of country music from the radio.
“When you have us testify in town, you tell folks we’re witnessing before the Lord. I remember a lot of my granddaddy’s stories. That sounded a lot like code to me.”
“What…?” And Howell had to stop and fight back a convulsion in his stomach. He bit down on the shirt to keep from swallowing it. He felt his prick spasm and leap. Lacey watched it and laughed.
“My leg feels a lot better,” she told him then. “Nurse at school says I just strained it a little. Should be running track again in no time. I palmed one of them relaxers you said would help me and gave it to my sister. Put that little girl right to sleep.” She smirked and tossed her honey blond hair over one shoulder. “Just how relaxed were you wanting me to be that day, reverend?”
“They…they’re gonna find you!” Howell gagged.
“Maybe.” Colt shrugged. “Maybe not. If they do I guess that’s His will. Or, you know, somebody’s anyway.
Clint slapped the side of the truck. There was a clang from under the hood, and it lurched as Zach shifted gears. He opened the door and stuck a foot out, his boot digging into the dirt.
Colt clapped Howell’s shoulder. The sound of flesh smacking against flesh was intimate, violating.
“We’re just doing the best we can with what we can figure out.” He squeezed the pale skin of the man’s shoulder in an obscene gesture of comfort. “Plenty of snakes out here. You get a chance, let ’em tell ya a story.”
Zach stepped out, and the truck began to roll. It hit a sharp drop in the soil, and just as it began its descent its tires met an exposed oak root. The truck bucked and lurched, and Howell’s slow march turned to flight. He was slung through the air like the tip of a bullwhip. For a second the kids could hear his screams through the shirt, but he was quickly drowned out by the screeching of smashed steel and shattered glass.
When it was quiet they looked over the edge, and saw Howell lying fifty feet down. The truck he was still chained to stood on its nose, its roof propped against a pine sporting fresh scars. The old bald tires in back were still spinning.
Howell’s body jerked. None of them could tell if he was fighting to breathe or if it was just a muscle spasm. It wouldn’t matter soon.
“You all best get back to where you ought to be,” Colt told the others. “I’ll stick around to make sure it’s finished.”
They disappeared to the crunch of green twigs and the rustling of dry pine needles. Colt dipped some chew, and for good measure lit a cigarette. He sat on the edge of the drop-off, kicking down loose dirt with his boot heels. There was a faint pulse of light, and the distant growl of thunder. A few cool drops of water hit the back of Colt’s neck. He sat waiting until the rain came in force. Once he was cleansed, he would start the work again.