The cafeteria noise had the crisp feel of autumn. Joseph Petrelli, a newly anointed senior, held the attention of his table as he had never before held the attention of any group before. His brown eyes shifted from one face to the next as he spoke. “There are demons. We all know there are demons. Each of us has seen his own demon and knows deep in his heart the name by which it is called.” He was quoting, but they didn’t know that. He was imitating the pauses and the eye contact, but it was working with a larger charm than he ever thought possible. “Sometimes, we have a chance to confront a host of demons at the same time. To see them in all their grotesque splendor.” Grotesque splendor, he especially liked that phrase. Their eyes were widening. Their mouths open far enough for Joseph to see the metal work on their braces. He took the tapes from his bag and spread them out on the table. The picture on the cover was of a skull holding up a candle. “When you play this tape, you might be frightened, but not as frightened as you will be on Friday night!”
After school he met Branlee. She had been even more successful with distribution. He gazed with wonder at the energy that poured out of her contact tinted blue eyes. She was vibrant. She hugged him and pressed her young breasts into his chest. He felt them against his shirt and immediately became physically excited. She broke the embrace, and he hoped that she wouldn’t notice the evidence of his excitement. He shifted the bag to hold in front of him. “I can’t wait to see how many everybody else gave out,” she said. “It’s only been two days and there are at least a thousand of them everywhere.” Branlee giggled like a zealot and placed her cool white fingernails on his forearm. Reaching up, she kissed him on the cheek. “Let’s go to the church,” she whispered. Joseph nodded. Holding the book bag protectively in front of himself, he walked with her to the car. The scent of her perfume caressed him like a silk glove. Joseph matched her steps as they walked, feeling now for the first time ever that he was part of the plan.
Andrew Blake was still holding his coffee container and wearing his raincoat when the woman came into his office. She was a fiftyish blonde whose concern for her figure had been reduced to avoiding obesity. The lines of her pudgy face showed worry, fear, and insecurity. No one liked Blake’s office. It had a dismal feel to it; stains left by people who weren’t happy to have been in this room. She handed him the tape and said, “This is devil worship.”
Blake trained his eyes on her face without taking off his jacket. She had trouble looking up as she spoke. He liked the feeling of power. “My son brought this home. He told me what was on it. He said that his friends all had them. He’s in fifth grade and told me that it didn’t scare him, but it sure scares me, and something needs to be done about it, either here or by the police.”
“Where did you son say he got the tape?”
“From students here, at the high school,” she said, nodding her head and finding the strength to stare up at his eyes; judging what he was going to do about it. His head was salt and pepper somber, and it reassured her.
Blake drank his coffee. He was turning the hard plastic cover over and over as he listened to the tape. The electric guitar scream that dissolved into a human scream, the confused voices, a choir of them all talking at once; voices all rising at once. The electric guitar coming back over them… The voices screaming, the guitar screaming and then the macabre whisper, “I need you to be with me. It is our destiny to rule the night. It is our future to rule the grave. We must crawl inside of each other. Let me crawl inside of you. You will feel good; you will be strong; you will need nothing else but me inside of you, and I will never crawl back out! Together, sweet decay… We shall make sacrifices of those too stupid to know what we need. Together we will drink blood. Together we will feast on the unimaginable. There will be no rules to stop us. We will be all of what we are; all of what we can be. We’ll be all.” The screams and the guitar rising with a frantic drum roll. “We can be.” Then the screams became laughter, uncontrolled, unstable, mocking laughter, and then thin high voices singing, small children’s voices singing a fairy tale rhyme. The rhyme voicing the invitation to come on Friday night over and over like an incantation… Blake’s face darkened into a perplexed frown. He hadn’t encountered anything like this before
By the end of the morning, two more tapes had been turned into him. One was brought by a freshman named Jacob, who said that he thought that it was “screwed up” and that somebody should know about it. Jacob’s hair hung in his face while he talked. Blake questioned him in a soft voice and got a name.
Then he brought the tape to the principal’s office and tried to explain what was happening, but she was on her way to a conference and wasn’t really listening. She told Blake that she was sure he could deal with whatever it was. He nodded and said, “I can handle it.”
Now Joseph Petrelli sat in Blake’s office and stared at the poster on the wall that read, Be Under Your Own Influence. The boy tried to console himself, but he was too nervous. He told himself that we were all always either under the influence of God or of Satan. How difficult they made it seem when it was really so simple! Then he tried to convince himself that he believed that, but he knew that he didn’t. He closed his eyes and thought about the way Branlee smiled at him and took his hand.
“Did you give these tapes out, Joseph?” Blake held up the hard plastic cover and twirled it slowly in his hand as he spoke.
“Yes Sir, I gave them out all day yesterday.”
“Where did you get them?”
“At my church.”
“And is that the Church of the Lighted Mountain?” Blake had seen the name in very small print at the bottom of the plastic cover.
“Yes, Sir,” said the boy proudly. Joseph could see the kind, focused eyes of his pastor. Hear the pastor saying, “This is the most important work that you can do with your life.” He remembered the feel of Branlee’s breasts on his bare arm yesterday when she smiled, so he knew that she had pressed them there on purpose.
“Did you have anyone’s permission to distribute these tapes?”
“What kind of permission, Mr. Blake?”
“Well, Joseph, when you bring things from an outside organization into the school, don’t you think that it’s right to let somebody know before you give them out?”
“I didn’t think of it that way, Mr. Blake.”
“What is this tape about, Joseph?”
“It’s an invitation. It’s nothing bad. My church is sponsoring this event on Friday night”
“What kind of church is it?”
“It’s a church that believes in doing God’s work, Mr. Blake.”
“Joseph, I want you to stop giving these tapes out, turn over the ones that you have to me, and promise that you’ll try to get back the tapes that you can recover.”
Joseph’s hands were sweating profusely. They left streak marks on his tan slacks. He closed his eyes and saw Branlee’s breasts. Then he managed to look up at Blake. “No, Sir. I won’t do that!”
“Joseph, did you know that these tapes were scaring people? Did you know that they have frightened young children?
Joseph blinked and tried to think of what to say, but he decided to say nothing. He told himself that maybe it was good that they were scared.
“We don’t belong to this Church,” said Mrs. Petrelli. Her voice showed the stress behind it. We’re Catholics. My husband and I are Italian! We don’t know about cults.”
Blake tried to sound sympathetic. “Have you tried to talk to him about this cult?”
“I don’t know what they are. I really don’t know if it’s a cult.” She shook her head sadly.
“They read the bible. My son used to be normal. He went to church with the family and once in a while with his friends, but that was it. My husband and I don’t talk religion in our home. Now, everything is about Jesus.” Her face crumpled up like a bag. “I’ve grown to hate the sound of the Lord’s name, and I feel like there must be something wrong with me because of it.”
Blake nodded again and stared at her. She wore glasses with rhinestones in the corners of the frames. She wore a print dress. She wore one strand of pearls on her wrist. “I want you to take him home, Mrs. Blake. He can return when he’s ready to accept my conditions, or on Monday of next week.”
When the door to Mr. Blake’s office opened, Branlee Tucker was standing there holding a stack of the tapes. “Mr. Blake, I want you to know that I also intend to continue to distribute these tapes, and if you try to stop me that you’ll have to deal with my father!” Blake felt things slipping away just a bit; there was a sound like thunder in the distance of his calm.
Gregory Tucker, speaking into the telephone said, “Let me ask you something, Mr. Blake. When your other students pass the trash that they listen to from one person to the other in the cafeteria, the CD’s with lyrics about drugs, and permissive sex, do you haul those students into your office as well?”
“Mr. Tucker, I didn’t haul Branlee in here either. She presented herself.”
“Yes, after you hauled her friends in and interrogated them. My daughter called me just a few moments ago, Mr. Blake. I know full well what she’s doing, and she’s doing it with my permission.”
Blake’s mind was on a fast track, trying to think ahead now, trying to determine how far into this he had been manipulated. He was silent for a moment. He felt like he was on an island and that the ocean was creeping up the shore as the rain fell.
“Mr. Blake, what policy is it that states my daughter cannot distribute these tapes?”
Blake wasn’t sure. He knew that he must have the right to limit the distribution of the tapes but he couldn’t for the life of him remember seeing something in print. The floating feeling was inside of his stomach. “I’ve had complaints, Mr. Tucker.”
“What kinds of complaints?”
“Parents, other students…” Blake gained confidence as his mind seized onto something. “…and that makes it a disruption of the educational process.” He felt himself find firm ground now. “I have to make decisions about what I believe is in the best interests of the educational process, Mr. Tucker. In this instance, my decision is that since no one was consulted about the distribution of these tapes, and since I have people who have been upset by them, that it is going to stop.”
“Well, we’ll have to see about that.”
“I need your daughter’s promise that she will not continue to distribute these tapes until we have figured this out, Mr. Tucker.”
“My daughter isn’t making any promises.”
“If I see her distributing the tapes, I’ll have to suspend her.”
“That would be an unfortunate decision for you, Mr. Blake.”
Branlee was staring at him with a defiant glow. “I want to talk to my father!”
“Daddy, he might as well suspend me right now. You know that I won’t stop doing the Lord’s work”
Mr. Tucker lowered his voice when he spoke into the receiver. “Do you have any tests this afternoon?”
“Nope,” she said, shaking her head back and forth with little girlish emphasis.
“Mr. Blake, I’ve decided to take this to your Superintendent of Schools before I press charges. Am I correct that you are suspending my daughter?”
“Yes, if she distributes the tapes I’ll suspend her. Mr. Tucker, I was hoping that as the adults involved we could work to give her better counsel.”
Blake heard the phone click down.
Perhaps it was fate, or faith, or mutual boredom, or fear, and maybe they are interchangeable in the instance, but Joseph and Branlee both wound up back at the church after their suspensions. They both went to the basement of the meeting room, where the Hell House was being constructed. There the tiny coffin would be displayed, filled with the blood and bones of the human sacrifice of abortion. There the worm infested, lesion covered corpse of the homosexual aids victim would speak from beyond the grave where the demons continued to torment him.
Joseph was just sitting by the coffins when Branlee walked in. She sat down next to him. They exchanged a smile and shared the comfort of standing up for what was right. Branlee told Joseph that he had been heroic and had inspired her. Joseph kissed her. Branlee wrapped her arms around him and pressed those breasts into his chest again. Joseph squeezed her towards him. Branlee moved on top of him; her mouth open. Her hips moved on him. Joseph kissed her and groaned, transported. Branlee, excited now, was squirming on him. Joseph exploded in his pants; his testicles and penis convulsing, pumping out sperm into his underwear. Holding her tight, panicked at the thought that she must know what had happened. Branlee pushed him away from her, looking at him like he was a little boy. “What did you do?” she said with a look of repulsion.
Joseph was shrinking quickly, feeling sticky and small. “I couldn’t help it,” he said.
That night Joseph got sick. He vomited over and over again. The next morning his mother tried to feed him some broth and he vomited it up before he was done eating it. He ran a fever. They took him to the doctor, who said that it must be some kind of an intestinal thing. Joseph slept and tried to eat, vomited and fell asleep for two days. On Saturday afternoon he was able to keep some toast in his stomach. On Saturday night he held down some cereal and by Sunday he was better.
Branlee’s father met with the Superintendent the afternoon of her suspension. They both agreed that they did not wish their town to become the place for a test case with all the baggage that came along with that kind of publicity. The Superintendent agreed to sponsor the formation of a prayer group that his daughter could lead and which would meet in the school each morning before classes. They both knew that this was better for all concerned in the long run.
Joseph felt lighthearted as he walked into school on Monday morning. He didn’t realize that he had been punched in the side of the face until after he was on the floor. His head began spinning. He felt the blood in his mouth. “That’s what I think of you and you’re fuckin’ Jesus. I’m a Jew, and I’m glad we killed him. We waited too god damned long to kill him. Tell that to your asshole pastor.” Jacob was screaming at him, his red his blonde hair pulled back out of his eyes.
Joseph opened his mouth. “What’s wrong with you?” he sputtered.
Jacob leaned in and swung his fists like hammers, crying “My cousin died of AIDS, you stupid asshole.”
Joseph pushed back blindly, his eyes were closed and he was thrashing to get free. It was then that he felt another presence and thought that god must have intervened for him, but it was Mr. Blake and he was holding Jacob back. He was saying they were going to the nurse.
As they walked down the hall, other kids were laughing at him and staring. Jacob was only a freshman, and Branlee was looking at him like he was a pathetic thing with no self-control.