Every person in this auditorium believes in things they've never seen and places they've never been. They have faith in places no one has ever gone to and returned from, in spite of the stories they tell. Behind the pulpit, a red Christmas light mounted to the wall flashes about sixty times a minute. A sign below it reads: "Each second, three souls slip into hell." The statistic is unverifiable, but the word, slip, bothers me most. Such an easy verb. To slip is effortless.
Hundreds of souls slip into hell as we sing hymns and I surreptitiously tap my foot like a heathen. My stepmother, beside me, is no heathen, and neither is my step-dad, up there leading the hymn. He'll sit behind the pastor throughout the sermon, nodding and tossing in an occasional "Amen." I can't say the word, amen. It would be like trying to speak a language I don't know.
I've been fighting my belief in hell for two years, since I was thirteen, since my mother died. She always told me my father was a heathen and burning in hell, but until she died, it never felt real to me. People love to talk about Mom being in heaven. No one talks about my father. Talking about people who are surely in hell is unmannerly.
I don't want to believe in hell. I want to be a heathen. I want to be free.
The sermon tonight is from Revelations. The true believers will be called home and the dead-in-Christ shall rise. I hate this sermon, and I think instead of a movie I saw on TV last night where a Jewish tavern-keeper was turned into a vampire by the local count. When someone thrust a crucifix at him, the Jewish blood drinker laughed and said, "Boy, have you got the wrong vampire."
I pretend to cough, but it can't be fooling anyone. The pastor is talking about the dead-in-Christ rising, and I'm giggling. They all think I'm crazy. Some of them have told me so. I head for the auditorium doors, and no one seems surprised, but they watch me. I pay a long visit to the bathroom during every sermon.
A thin red carpet covers the basement stairs, as if the underworld is welcoming me. Naked white bulbs light the cinderblock hallways. It's always chilly, even in summer, like a cave. I pass the bathrooms, pass their dripping, gurgling sounds, and go to the room at the end of the hall, the room with the water heater and the curtain instead of a door. I sit on a metal folding chair, listening to the water heater hum, breathing in the scent of cold dust.
I only hear two footsteps before Robin ducks through the curtain, into the room. He sits across from me on another folding chair, kicks his long legs out between us, crossing them at the ankles, and asks, "You like basements, don't you?"
I do tend to go downstairs whenever I go into a building.
He pulls a candy bar out of his jacket and unwraps it. "Want a Twix?"
I take one and we eat them. Candy bars are all I've seen him eat. He's the church rebel, the kid everyone is desperately trying to save from hell. He never sings the hymns, never bows his head at prayer. He just watches everyone. Whenever I talk to him, my step-dad looks at us like I'm nine years old and talking to a man holding his trenchcoat closed with both hands. I've never seen Robin wear a trenchcoat, but I bet he'd look good in one. And a fedora.
The first time we talked, after he dragged all my fears out of me like he was my therapist, he said, "Olivia, explain to me why the existence of hell makes sense to you."
He gave me some M-n-Ms.
He's my only friend, this handsome boy who is half Welsh, one quarter Seneca, one quarter Gitano, and planning to be a mortician. He's the only one I talk to about hell, fear, and my dead father.
He always seems to know what I'm thinking.
"We can always handle more than we think we can," he says. "We surprise ourselves when we just hang in there."
In two years, I will graduate from high school, a year early. He seems to believe my life will change then.
"Church is starting to make me physically ill," I say.
He stares at the Twix I'm gobbling. "Maybe it's your blood sugar."
"It doesn't matter what I eat," I say.
"Maybe you're pregnant."
"I'm a virgin."
"So was Mary." He grins as he bites off a chunk of Twix. Everything about religion is funny to him.
We hear someone peeing in one of the bathrooms down the hall. The splash echoes off the walls. I stand, holding the chair steady with both hands to keep it from rattling on the floor. Robin sweeps his legs out of my path and tips me an invisible hat as I move toward the curtain.
Yes, he'd look good in a fedora.
"I'll be in the shack tomorrow," I whisper.
• • •
The shack was my grandfather's playhouse. My mom's dad. He lived with us before he went crazy and they sent him to the nuthouse. Now his playhouse is mine. It's a partially underground one-room shed at the back of our property on the edge of the woods. It's furnished with a worktable, a loveseat, a TV, a tiny sink, and a toilet behind a shower curtain. Grandpa drank beer and made fishing lures here. A half case of warm Goebel still sleeps under the sink. Several unfinished lures hang from a wire strung along the table's edge.
I'm watching Night Owl Theater, hosted by Fritz the Night Owl. My stepdad has probably been asleep since he said goodnight to me through my closed bedroom door a couple of hours ago. My stepmom is miles away. She works all night at the rest home twice a week, doing rounds, changing soiled bedclothes, dispersing twilight medication, and quelling riots during the full moon.
Fritz is showing the original Amityville Horror. We're up to the scene where the sniffling, bleary-eyed neighbor shows up at the back door with a six-pack of beer. He's come to welcome Mrs. Lutz to the neighborhood, but she doesn't look like she wants to let him in. And then her phone rings.
Robin comes into the shack and shrugs out of his camouflage jacket with the target painted on the back. He gets one of Grandpa's beers from under the sink.
"Get me one, please," I say. He brings me a warm beer and opens it for me. I take a big drink, trying to get as much down my throat as I can before I taste it.
"It's All Souls' Day," he says.
He's right. It's twelve-thirty a.m. on the Day of the Dead. It's my birthday. I am fifteen.
"Happy birthday," he says.
I will get presents but not a party. Who would they invite? "Where do they celebrate All Soul's Day?" I ask.
I close my eyes and see a child's finger, my finger, drift in an arc across a globe I used to own. El Salvador is purple. Mexico is orange. Ecuador is green.
He's still naming places: "France…Tucson…Vatican City…"
I think of a chamber of horrors I saw in a wax museum in Niagara Falls. One wax figure was cutting out the eyes of another because they didn't have the same religion. I open my eyes.
"Lots of places," Robin finishes.
Mrs. Lutz has returned from answering the phone, where only static was on the line. The neighbor is gone. We never see him again. Oddest scene in the movie, really.
I try to get a beer buzz before it's time to crawl back through my window and get some sleep. Getting a warm beer buzz without getting a stomachache isn't easy for me. Robin chuckles as I take another gulp. "When your grandpa's case is empty," he says, "I'm not bringing you another one." He's only sixteen, but he looks at least twenty and has older brothers who would probably buy for him if he asked.
"Where do you think he is?" I ask, knowing he'll know who I mean, knowing he'll understand what I'm really asking.
"Hell is like the boogeyman," he says. "People use it as a threat to make you behave a certain way."
And logically, I know this. But belief is hard to shake. I was born on a Sunday, and the very next Sunday, my mom took me to church.
"We know what causes volcanoes now," Robin says. "When people invented hell, no one knew where lava came from."
"Keep talking," I say.
"It's the same with God. We made up God to explain what we couldn't understand. As long as there are things we don't understand, some people will attribute them to a deity's plan. I prefer the mystery myself."
Get a couple of beers in him, and he can talk like nobody's business. I feel like he's brainwashing me, and I like it.
When Fritz the Night Owl wishes us goodnight, Robin is asleep, one arm and his head resting on the back of the loveseat. I remember the first time he fell asleep here. I touched his arm through his sleeve to be sure he was real, and then I put my hands on his wrists, his fingers, and his hair. Either he didn't wake up, or he pretended not to. Tonight, I do it again. I even put my hands on his neck, and he doesn't move.
He's still real.
I turn off the TV and leave the shack, stumbling on my way to the dark house. I never worry about where Robin's car is parked. Like its owner, it'll be gone when the sun comes, before my stepmom even scrapes the frost from her windshield up at Oakwood Manor.
• • •
My assigned literature book at the Christian Academy is The Hiding Place, a book about Jewish people and Nazis. There are no scenes of eternal torture, just concentration camp terror. When people die, their problems end, as far as I know. But The Hiding Place lies closed at my elbow on the partitioned desk I'm sitting at in the college library's basement.
I come here one evening a week with my stepmom. Assistant Librarian is her other part-time job. I usually spend the three hours in the photography section or reading the graffiti that students have carved into the desks. Most of the graffiti is obscene, and it sometimes inspires fantasies in me.
Tonight I've found a book called Go Ask Alice. It's a diary, supposedly published by the parents of the dead girl who wrote it. It's anti-drug propaganda, but I'm so into reading it, I jump when Robin says my name.
"Are you bored with the smut?" he asks, teasing me about the graffiti. I show him what I'm reading. He nods, as if he's familiar with it.
"People use all sorts of things to try to make you behave a certain way," I said, lifting the book and sort of waving it around. "Even books. Even art."
"Billboards and sitcoms," he says. "Magazines and television."
"Hymns," I say. "Flashing lights on painted signs."
We hear the elevator opening and a book cart being wheeled out of it. It might be my stepmom. I turn back to Go Ask Alice, and Robin walks down the next aisle, looking at the call numbers. The book cart's squeaking gets fainter as whoever's there pushes it farther away.
Robin comes back. "So you're feeling all right tonight," he says.
I am. I do, sometimes—feel all right. But I don't want him to leave, as he sometimes does when he thinks I don't need him. I raise the book again. "Can I read this to you?" I ask.
I've never asked him such a thing, and his expression is hard to interpret. Surprise? Confusion? Is he impressed? He passes me and goes to sit at the end of the aisle, at the reading desk against the wall. He leans back, folds his hands across his chest, and closes his eyes.
He looks like a body in a casket.
I flip back to page one and begin.
• • •
It's Wednesday night and the church is sponsoring a showing of The Burning Hell, a terrifying movie for someone with a dead heathen father and a case of Hades-phobia. Some of the other kids snicker at it.
I don't know if Robin is here tonight, but I imagine him glaring at the screen the way he glares at the pastor when he starts talking brimstone.
In one scene, two leather-clad motorcycle men jump their bikes over a steep hill, one after the other. When the second man gets to the crest, he sees his buddy, mangled and beheaded by a barbed-wire fence at a sudden curve. In the next scene, the dead man is screaming in flames, and maggots are boring through the charred flesh of his cheeks.
I escape down the red-carpeted stairway to the basement, where I press my back to the cold wall.
It seems like an hour before the nausea passes, but it probably isn't. The movie upstairs plays on and on. I sit next to the water heater for a while and then wander the basement, listening for footsteps.
Robin meets me every Tuesday at the college library. He meets me every Monday and Friday at the shack. He's been coming down to talk to me in the church basement every Wednesday and Sunday night for months. But not tonight.
I wait until it sounds like the film is over, and then I go upstairs.
I swear the red Christmas light is blinking faster.
• • •
On Friday night, I steal out to the shack to watch Shock Theater, hosted by Doctor Creep. He's a heavy man with his face painted white. Black paint circles his eyes, but his lips are obscenely naked. He has stringy black hair, wears a black cape and a top hat. He laughs like this: "HOO ha-ha-ha-ha-ha."
I'm missing Robin and feeling sick over glimpsing hell. This irreverent ghoul cheers me up. And then he shows me a film that lets me think of death differently for one hundred and twenty minutes.
"Have you ever seen this film?" I ask Robin as if, wherever he is, he can hear me.
I try to imagine his answer, but I know it would be more elaborate than a yes or a no, and nothing I come up with sounds right.
• • •
I'm looking out the window at the church parking lot, at the first snow of the season. My stepmom is talking to the pastor's wife while their husbands go over the hymns we'll be singing this morning. I don't discern any words they speak until the pastor's wife mentions Robin: "Did you hear about our black sheep? He nearly drowned again."
"I heard." My stepmom's voice is low. "There's some question about whether his accidents are really accidents." This will be his third near drowning. He's crashed a couple of cars, too.
The pastor's wife nods. "It's only by the grace of God that he's alive."
I go to the basement and cry.
• • •
He calls me from the hospital after school, before Mom gets home, and I'm so grateful to hear his voice, I'm not actually listening.
When he pauses, I say, "I want you to stay out of water. I don't want you to drive cars."
A kid in the background shouts, "You're just like my mom, just like my mom!"
A woman, closer to Robin than the voice in the background, asks, "Are you supposed to have a phone?"
"They're not going to let me out of here, Liv," he says.
"Where?" But I'm sure he told me when I wasn't listening, and I know, anyway—the part of the hospital they lock you in.
"You are not supposed to have a phone in here," says the woman on the other end, and she has authority there. I can hear it.
But Robin takes his mouth away from the phone and tells her, "Let's see if you can take it away from me."
"I'm getting the doctor," she says, and he laughs.
I wonder who I'm going to talk to. "Never? They're never letting you out?"
"Maybe in a few months," he says. "I want you to keep it together. You can do that, right?"
I breathe deeply in, slowly out. The world is getting smaller.
"I count myself a coward," he says, "for leaving you to the devildoms of the Baptist church." He's quoting someone. I don't really care who. I think of the end of Go Ask Alice, where her voice disappears and a new voice reports that Alice is dead from a drug overdose.
"What was on Shock Theater last night?" Robin asks.
It was the original and more gruesome Meet Joe Black, called Death Takes a Holiday, where Death becomes human and travels to a remote island to visit a mortal family. Death falls in love with the daughter and puts off returning to his work. The news reports that people have stopped dying all over the world. People are butchered, burned, and dismembered without dying. The population increases exponentially. Finally, Death returns to his position of soul-repossession.
"Death has a near-life experience," Robin says. "I'm sorry I missed it."
"It was a good movie," I say. "No one in it believed in hell."
"Listen carefully to me, Olivia," he says. "Millions of people don't."
A man's voice says, "Let's see if we can take that phone away from you, hotshot."
Robin laughs again, and says quietly in my ear, "My friend, I have to go."
• • •
I'm sitting in the shack, drinking a warm Goebel. I'm not going to church again. I plan to be expelled from the Christian Academy, starting tomorrow. I want to read literature books written by people who break the Ten Commandments and don't care.
The unfinished lures hanging on the wire along the edge of the worktable sway in a draft from somewhere. I'm sure Grandpa meant to finish them. I wonder what other plans he had that he never got a chance to carry out. I wonder if my father ever thought about hell one single time, if he suffered even one moment of terrible belief.
I drink the last drink of the last bottle of grandpa's beer and place the empty with the others, in the case under the sink.
It seems important that I ritualize this moment.
"Amen," I say. But it still feels funny.
"Hare Krishna," I say, and that sounds weird.
It doesn't matter. I'm not going to believe in anything anymore unless I can put my hands on it.
And even if I can put my hands on it, maybe not even then.