It’s that time again! Story time. A time where I get to feature some original short fiction by some of today’s up-and-coming authors. It’s a time in which you can survey some incredible talent, determine whether you like the writer’s style and voice, and perhaps move on to purchasing other works by that author.
Tonight’s short story, The Atonement of Bryston Grey, was written by Zachary Ankeny. It’s an intriguing piece. Asking some tough major theological questions for today’s world: “What truly constitutes faith?” And “just because we think we’re doing God’s will…does that really make it so?” Though the story isn’t what you would call “Christian fiction” per se, it definitely leaves both believer and unbeliever alike asking some serious questions about what it means to be “one of the flock”. And it does so in a very entertaining and Twilight Zone-esque way (seriously, if you like Twilight Zone, you should thoroughly enjoy this story!). I really enjoyed this story. I truly hope you do as well. And as always, I encourage you to share your comments at the end.
The Atonement of Bryston Grey
By Zachary Ankeny
(Originally Published in Cynic Magazine)
Already late for his 9:30am appointment, the last thing Bryston needed was a shot radiator stranding him on the side of the road. Even worse, was that he was already lost to begin with. The GPS system in his car unexpectedly went blank as he crossed the line into Hull county; an area unfamiliar to him and off the grid of his outdated paper map. He had considered tossing out the old map during a routine car cleaning after buying the GPS, but he held onto it, feeling he may still need it one day. That day turned out to be today, but it couldn’t offer much help. All he could do now was wait for someone to pass by, notice his immobile car and hopefully offer their assistance.
Frustrated, he leaned up against the trunk of his car and dialed his would-be client; the man he had hoped to solicit his services to. Bryston was a financial advisor – not a very good one at that – who had hoped to attain Gerard Monstead’s vast investment portfolio for his small financing firm. Already late and now stranded, it didn’t look like that would happen. Bryston pulled out his cell phone and dialed the Monstead Estate, hoping he could still salvage some sort of business relationship with the rich, old miser. He dialed the number and pulled the phone to his ear – no dial tone. A glance at the screen showed there was no service in the area. “I guess that explains the GPS,” he thought.
Bryston took a pack of cheap cigarettes from his coat pocket, flipped the paper lid open and slid a cigarette from the box to his lips; a familiar motion he had performed thousands of times before giving them up seven months earlier. With his business failing, his girlfriend having left him, now on top of it all blowing his one lead to try and make some money; he gave in to the pack that had been hidden in his coat. What care was there for health when you can’t support yourself anyway?
The cool menthol and spice of the smoke tickled his lungs, and immediately he questioned why he ever quit the little devils in the first place. There were no cars at all on the small country road and the air was quiet. A small creek trickled in its narrow bed across from him; its soft splashes being the only sound that could be heard in the woodland clearing. On both sides of the road there was lush, green foliage held back by rustic, red-stone walls. Calmed by the dose of nicotine pulsing through him, he noticed that the area was quite serene and beautiful, not a bad place to break down if it was unavoidable. In this seemingly picturesque setting, Bryston’s mind was racing with thoughts – and not pleasant ones. His firm still held steady at a whopping one client and his $58,000 pension plan; not nearly enough to keep the business afloat. If revenue could not be found, he would soon lose both his business and his modest – more suitably described as cruddy – apartment. As the apprehensive thoughts ripped through his already stressed mind, he puffed away on his cigarette and shook his throbbing head.
“It’s all over,” he thought. “There’s no way out of it anymore. I might as well just give up… Give up on this, my dream… Give up on it like I’ve given up on everything else throughout my life.”
He groaned and rounded his car back to the driver’s side door, opening it. He anchored himself into the seat, expecting quite a long wait before anyone would be by. The cigarette had made him lightheaded, but he was already craving another. Once an addict always an addict. Flipping open his cell phone, he hoped that a full signal would have returned, but his wishful thinking didn’t pay off. Even restarting the GPS produced the same blank results and his frustration grew. “Dammit!” he yelled, slapping the dash of the car. “Why? Why me? It’s always me.”
He took a deep breath, trying to re-center himself. He wanted more than anything to cry. He wanted to, but he couldn’t. That would be too weak of him – men don’t let their emotions get to that point. The only options for a real man were to either punch or destroy something, or to gulp the emotions back down and hide them in a part of his body where they couldn’t be seen by others or himself; the latter was the technique which he both preferred and came naturally for him. He had learned it from his father, he supposed. The old man was the master and magician of making thoughts, emotions, beliefs and dreams disappear; as if they’d never even existed. As a child his father had once told him, “Some trees are hundreds of years old… They’re living creatures just like us… They do have silly things like thoughts and feelings; but they never show them. They hold them all in and let them build thicker and thicker, which in-turn gives them their strength and rigidity. That’s why they live for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years while the pitiful emotional animals die after a short, painful life… Because animals refuse to learn from and take their pain, fears and anger… Refuse to make it into that which builds, not destroys them.”
Bryston had always taken this to heart, and believed the old man – made it the code of his life. At least until his father kicked the bucket at the ripe, old age of 51 – a short life for both animals and trees alike. For a moment, Bryston felt another wave of anger and pain rising from the thoughts of his father; he quickly employed another emotion-gulp, sinking it back down like a hot swallow of heartburn.
After about a half hour of waiting, Bryston couldn’t take it anymore; he had done a fairly good job keeping control of himself up to this point, but it seemed he was the only soul on the road. In all likelihood, it could be days before anyone might meander by. He stepped out of the car, grumbling to himself, pulled off his sports coat and loosened his tie.
“Where in God’s name am I?” he shouted off into the surrounding trees. He pulled another cigarette from the pack and lit it; dragging the smoke in hard enough to let the end sizzle, glow and pop. Nearly defeated, he slouched against the car’s quarter-panel and sat in the gravel of the road. It wasn’t ordinary, dusty-brown gravel you would normally find out in the country; Bryston pulled a handful together and let it fall through his fingers. It was grey in color and had a soft, almost polished feel to it; no dust or dirt whatsoever. Curious, he stood back up and walked to the back of his car, staring down the length of the grey-gravel road he had come from. Only two thin rivets dug into the road, the two trails ending under his stopped tires; the rest of the road was cleanly raked, its sides creating a perfect line where the road ended and the grass began. Walking to the front of his car, he saw that there were no tire marks at all ahead of him. Obviously someone took meticulous care of this stretch of road, and either there hadn’t been any traffic in a few days, or someone must spend a great deal of time keeping it in pristine condition. Surely, someone would be by soon, if only to rake his tire marks away.
As he continued to ponder the strange perfection of everything around him – the gravel, the neatly manicured forest and grasses just off of the road, the complete absence of litter and leaves – he began to hear an eerie sort of singing. At first it sounded like someone humming Christmas Carols; soon it became clearer, and a group of people rounded the bend in the road behind his car. As the group drew closer to him, still humming in choir, Bryston dabbed his cigarette against the bottom of his shoe and waited for the wandering choir to take notice of him. The group looked as if they were in a daze and stared blankly at the gravel; they took short steps along the road as it inclined upwards, swaying rhythmically from left to right. About twenty feet out from Bryston and his stalled car, the old woman at the front of the parade stopped and looked up slowly at him; the humming behind her faded into silence.
“Umm… Hi… I’m sorry to disturb your group, but I seem to be in sort of a situation here,” Bryston hesitantly stuttered. “You see I’m having a bit of car trouble, and… And, to be quite honest, I’m totally lost. I have no idea where I am—“
“Why you’re in New Bethany,” the lead woman broke in.
Bryston swung around, looking at his surroundings, “New Bethany? Hmm… My map is a bit old, but I didn’t see anything called New Bethany on it.” He gave a short, nervous laugh, which was not received well by the group, who continued to pierce their blank stares through him. “Well… I tried to call for tow service but my cell phone isn’t working out here and I’m severely late for an appoint—”
“Phones have a tendency to do that out here in our part of the county,” the woman interrupted again. “We’re nearly two miles above sea level you know; it plays havoc with many a things.” The group behind her giggled in unison.
“Well I don’t mean to bother you at all, if you could just point me in the direction of an auto shop or toward a payphone I can go ahead and let you be off.”
“We’re a small community sir,” said the woman. “We don’t have much in the way of automobile shops and the like.”
Bryston thought it over; those weren’t Christmas Carols they were mumbling, they were hymns – he apparently was in the middle of some sort of Amish community or religious commonwealth.
“But don’t fret young sir,” the woman continued. “We were making our way up the hill to mass, and we do have a phone in the church office – and what kind of Christians would we be if we left a stranded young man like yourself out here to fend for himself. Do follow us to mass and we’ll make sure that you’re taken care of.”
“Well, that’s very kind of you, Ms—“
“Misses,” she sternly corrected. “Misses Jenihl Anathoth.”
“Mrs. Anathoth,” he nodded. “That’s very kind of you – my name is Bryston Grey and I thank you so much for your hospitality.”
The woman’s face dropped and took on an angry twist as her lips puckered; she looked off to the side of the road and walked toward the lush, short-cropped grass. “Well, well, well,” she ticked, kneeling down into the grass. She pulled out a handkerchief, shooting Bryston a very dissatisfied look. “This just will not do,” she said as she picked up a cigarette butt, holding it through the cloth. She presented it to her following, who gasped at the sight, and turned back to Bryston who was still holding another butt in his right hand.
“Oh… umm,” Bryston laughed nervously again, clearing his throat. “I… I’m sorry about that… Here, I have an ashtray in the car where I can put it.” He took the butt away from the old woman and walked backed to his car to dispose of it. He wasn’t sure why the group made him so nervous, almost fearful; but he did know that something just wasn’t quite right about them – about this place. “Okay,” Bryston announced as he walked back to meet the group. “All taken care of.”
“I don’t think I need to tell you, Mr. Grey, that we hold a great and deep respect for this land,” she lectured as she waived her hand, pointing out the pristine beauty of the surroundings. “This land was given to us by God as he spoke through the third angel of warning on the Mountain of Scythe; it is our most treasured possession and we don’t take kindly to those who seek to mar its beauty.”
Bryston had no idea what she was talking about, but did realize he had pissed them off, “I’m very sorry ma’am, in my frustration about the car I must have tossed it out without thinking; I apologize and it won’t happen again.”
“Frustration?” she questioned. “Frustration is a dangerous emotion Mr. Grey… Indulgence in such emotions can lead you directly into the smiting gaze of the lord, do you not agree?”
He was taken aback by the tone of the woman’s accusation, but he gulped down his anger and said, “My father used to tell me the same thing. Again, I apologize… My father died when I was young and I guess I’m lacking wisdom and guidance in some areas.”
This seemed to please the old woman and she once again smiled, “Well I guess the church really is the best destination for you on this morning sir. Follow us up the hill and we will give you all the wisdom and guidance our humble congregation can provide.” She pulled Bryston to her side, locking his arm in hers and the parade up the hill began again.
They’re nonsensical, musical mumbles; turned out to be hymns sung in Latin. Bryston didn’t speak or understand Latin, but being in the finance business, he had heard enough clichés like caveat emptor and pro bono to surmise the language. The five hundred yard shuffle up to the church gates took nearly another half hour and he was beginning to feel the returning itch of nicotine cravings that had nearly gone away during his abstinence from smoking. He was getting frustrated again, but didn’t dare let on; not out of fear of being smote by God, but of being lectured again by the old woman at his side.
As the horde turned into the gate and onto the church gardens, Bryston was astounded at what he saw. The church sat atop a looming red-rock cliff another 2000 feet above the gardens; everything inside of the gates was more lush, green and breath-taking than the wondrous scenery outside. A waterfall spilled from the summit of the peak where the church was and trickled back down to the gardens, zigzagging its way to a crystal clear pond surrounded by vibrant flowers.
Mrs. Anathoth noticed him staring at the flowers that ran along the stream and smiled, “Beautiful aren’t they?” The followers broke away from them and began lighting candles in a grey marble shrine near the pond.
“I’ve never seen flowers like that,” Bryston admitted. “Those colors… I… I’ve never seen those colors before.”
“The flowers,” she nodded. “Another gift from our lord – you will never find anything that compares to them outside these gates, Mr. Grey. You’re quite privileged indeed – most people can go their entire life without seeing one of the lord’s miracles… The flowers are one of his creations made solely for his own enjoyment. After the lord recognized our devotion and love for him, he shared one of his greatest loves with us.” She shifted from Bryston’s left to his right and plucked one of the budding flowers. “Here,” she handed the flower to him. “Its fragrance is the real miracle.”
Bryston dipped his nose into the bud and smelled it; immediately he was hit with a familiar aroma; familiar enough to know he recognized it, but he couldn’t quite place it. It reminded him of something from far back in his lifetime; his childhood maybe, but its true origin escaped him. Pulling the flower away from his nose, he was hit with another sensation; his tongue and gums felt as though they had turned to sugar and a sweet taste ran against the back of his throat. A sweetness that was not familiar, a taste sweeter than any he had ever known or dreamed of. “Oh my,” he tried to say, but his mouth was salivating to the point of inhibiting any words.
“No need for words,” she said, the smile on her face growing wider. “No words can truly do it justice anyway.” A bell rang out from the top of the cliff and the flock praying at the marble shrine stood up, congregating at the foot of a broad set of steps carved out of the bright red-rock mountain. “Come,” the woman directed. “There’s more… Oh, there’s much more than you could ever envision.”
The woman led the caravan of parishioners up the magnificent stairway, once again locking her arm into Bryston’s. The steps were polished smooth and swept up into the rock wall. All along the ascending staircase, there were notches carved into the wall, holding grey and black marble statues of patron saints. The statues were adorned with rosaries and some of the fluorescent flowers from the pond. The group continued upward – their droning hymns leading the way – to where the stream hugged the outside of the steps. In the stream, Bryston noticed shiny hunks of metal; through the rippling water, he couldn’t quite tell what the objects were, but they were innumerable and dotted along the stream, gleaming in the sunlight.
Halfway up, the steps leveled out into a long hallway between two red rock cliffs; bright green shrubs poured over the edge and draped down on both sides of the path. A second turn to the left gave way to another set of steps on the edge of a steep cliff. The procession kept their heads lowered to the steps, continuing their hymns. Bryston peered over the edge and saw only the tops of clouds. The woman said that the garden was 2 miles above sea level, but how high had they ascended since the summit? Bryston felt woozy and stepped into Mrs. Anathoth, gripping her arm harder. The woman didn’t seem to notice; her eyes remained shut as she shuffled forward humming along with the chorale. Bryston turned his head and looked back at the rest of the group and saw that no one had their eyes open while they traversed the precarious steps. He felt disturbed; he was never a big fan of heights to begin with, but the sight of the group advancing blindly, just inches away from nothing, dizzied him. He wobbled, trying to keep his eyes forward as they rounded another corner. Above his head, Bryston got a close up of the waterfall he had seen from the garden; the rock cliff hung over the pathway making a ceiling where the stone funneled the rushing water out and over the edge, dropping it down into the unseen air below the clouds. The path cornered left again, giving way to the entrance of the church. The entrance was carved out of a hunk of black and white marble embedded into the red mountain at its peak. The looming doors were also carved from the marble, with ornate cherubs and creatures dancing along its frame. The procession stopped just short of the door, and a booming, brass bell rang out, obfuscating the wispy sounds of the breeze scraping against the mountain.
The old woman called out a moaning Latin phrase and the heavy marble doors rumbled open. At last, the woman opened her eyes and peered at Bryston. “We now enter the Foyer of the Cherub’s Gaze,” she spoke softly, as if a louder tone would awaken something inside.
Bryston wanted to ask what that meant – what all of this meant – but simply kept quiet. They moved silently into the entryway which was lavishly decorated in gold and white-slate marble; it looked more like an ancient roman palace than a humble church. The opulence of the hall should have comforted Bryston, but only exasperated his uneasiness. Where was he? Who were these people? Not an hour ago, he was still in the normal world he had lived in for so long; now it seemed as if he was in an entirely different universe altogether.
“Speak softly and without ego,” the old woman instructed as she let go of Bryston’s arm and walked to an altar set up in the front hall. The altar held many random objects made of gold and pearl; a long knife sat in the center of the objects, made of what looked like ivory – though, Bryston had never actually seen ivory – and the sight of the knife reaffirmed his anxiety.
“Sacrifice,” he thought. “Did they really bring me here to help, or for something awful.”
He took a few steps back as the old woman mixed oils and fragrances into a pearl basin. His backpedal was met by a large gentleman in a purple velvet robe. The man didn’t say anything, but it was obvious that he was there to block any attempt at fleeing. Bryston looked at the monstrous man and heard a voice in his head, “Just wait here… You have to be cleansed before entering the kingdom.” It was the large blocker’s voice – but the man’s lips never moved.
Bryston stepped away from the man, confused; then he heard the woman’s voice. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We don’t sacrifice anything except ourselves – in devotion to God.”
He whirled around and gave the woman a surprised look, “How—“
“There are many miracles here Mr. Grey,” she said; her lips motionless. “In the kingdom, they grow stronger… You do not need to speak; we all are connected through our thoughts.”
“What the he…” He cut his thoughts short. “They know everything I’m thinking!”
The woman came towards him with the pearl basin, saying, “It takes some getting used to, I know – but just try and clear your mind and let the lord in.” She dipped her two longest fingers into the oils and anointed his head; immediately, Bryston felt a strange, buzzing numbness on his forehead.
He wanted to shout – he wanted to think – think for himself without anyone else eavesdropping into his cognitions; he desperately wanted to unhinge himself from the collective conscious he had been cast into, but knew he couldn’t. Not here, not in The Kingdom, as they called it. Finally, he broke, “Listen, I really don’t mean to be rude, but all of this is just not for me… It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, but I think I should just go back and call for some help.”
“We are help,” the woman’s thoughts beamed into his mind. “You are a very lost soul, Mr. Grey. We could read it in your thoughts the moment we met. Your problems with money, the love of your life leaving you for another, more successful man… And your father… Yes, your father… He left a blood-red stain on your life that supersedes all other problems, didn’t he?”
“I’m leaving,” he jabbed as he turned toward the exit. A group of parishioners filed in and blocked the door; Panic filled him. “What the hell do you want?” he shouted.
“I’ve already instructed you to speak quietly when in the kingdom, Mr. Grey; use your thoughts.”
“No!” he shouted again. “Whatever you’re doing to try and help me, I don’t want it. I just want to go back… Thank you for your concern, but I’ll be just fine on my own.”
The crowd slowly started to collapse in on him, inching closer and closer; their eyes fixed and lifeless.
“We are your saviors,” the woman’s voice echoed. “It’s no accident that you came to us – the lord has brought you to our attention in order to cleanse you and let you see his glory. Let us in… Let him in…”
His heart raced as the group closed in on him; he spun in circles, eying every individual that moved closer. “I don’t want it!” he shouted. “I don’t want any of it!”
Mrs. Anathoth sped towards him, her heels gliding above the polished floor; Bryston caught her move and grabbed her by the rosary hanging from her neck, tugging it until it broke. The beads of the rosary shattered off and hit the marble floor unleashing a deep, slamming thud that echoed through the cavernous hall; a sound like the beat of a drum that slammed into his eardrums, nearly deafening him. The group halted and stared at the fallen beads in shock and fear.
“Do you know what you’ve just done?” Mrs. Anathoth shouted in her thoughts. “Bring the emissaries!” The crowd backed away from Bryston. Baffled and his heart pounding, he still kept his guard. From his right, the marble wall began to drip; melting in front of his eyes. A hole began to appear as the liquefied wall sank to the floor; behind the wall, there was only darkness. Suddenly, the darkness gave off a blurred haze as beings emerged from the depths of the blackness; they were in the image of pregnant females, floating out of the opening and circling overhead. Bryston looked above him at the naked creatures as they skipped off of the ceiling, bellowing high-pitched songs as they moved faster and faster in circles. Soon, there were dozens of them, now blurred by their rate of spin. One by one they dove to the floor, smashing into the individual beads, which disappeared at their touch. When all of the beads were gone they stopped spinning instantaneously and the cross that had once crowned the rosary floated towards the ceiling, centering itself between the floating emissaries. Bryston looked on in awe as the hovering maidens guided the cross back into the opening from which they came; weeping and sobbing as they disappeared back into the darkness beyond the hole. The punctured wall filled itself back in as the last emissary passed through it, but left the melted marble of the original wall molded onto the floor.
A few of the group members walked toward the altar and grabbed hammers and chisels; they passed by Bryston without even looking at him and began chiseling the wall back into its clean, polished state.
Bryston was speechless – never before had he witnessed anything like the ballet of angels that had been birthed from the wall. He dropped his guard and fell into a sitting position on the floor.
“Yes,” the old woman said. “This is the place for you, Mr. Grey – of all the people in the world, you require atonement the most… God has brought you to us, and we will do our duty to make you right with him once again.” The group renewed their creeping advance towards him; Mrs. Anathoth in the lead. Bryston didn’t move, didn’t defend himself – he sat there on the floor and let himself be taken – taken by the horde of followers that had brought him to the Church of the Mountain Scythe.
Bryston slouched himself against the wall, immersed in total darkness. He was in a cell of some sort, he supposed, cut off from the outside world while he labored through his atonement. He had gone through life living it the best way he knew how; even though it never brought him peace or understanding, he had lived with the freedom of choice. He had always had the ability to be ignorant or unfaithful if that’s what suited him at the time; he was an individual with free will. All of that was gone now. Only two choices remained: either he spent the rest of eternity in the darkness as he clutched to the last inkling of free will that hadn’t been driven away, or he could complete his atonement and give his life over to the congregation that held him captive. Even death wasn’t an option; the cuts and scrapes he had received as the mob tossed him into his present chamber, had disappeared. Even though Bryston had abandoned his father’s allegory of the lifespan of trees long ago; here, it was no allegory, it was the undeniable truth. Here, he would live much longer than any animal or tree; his choice was to either live on as he suffered in defense of his own beliefs, or to live on as he suffered the mental torment of abandoning all he truly believed in. Until he made his decision, he would remain in the ethereal darkness. It seemed like he had already been there for millennia; time no longer had any real importance in his mind. All thoughts had been stripped from his mind, and the only thought that remained was the decision – which way would he choose?
His decision was prolonged by his inability to assimilate himself into the congregation. One thought smoldered at the back of his head: the congregation had been touched by God, bore witness to his miracles; still, they had one fault that all beings carry – they changed God’s plan, intermingling it with their own plans and beliefs. What resulted was a magical ideal that turned them into the harbingers of fate instead of the one true God. His atonement was actually an inquisition of faith. In the end, he would either have to turn his back on his image and idea of the god that created him, or accept the congregation’s imposed idea. Either way, he was already a damned man.
What bothered him the most, was that the congregation had come so close to heaven, close enough for the clouds it sat on to wet their lips; but their own ignorance, shot them right past heaven off into the unknown that they now mistook for paradise.
Again, his father’s words streamed through Bryston’s head, “A man does what he has to do; not because it’s easy or because it brings finality, he does it because it’s what he believes is true and right – and that is all a man is born with, and it’s all he’ll die with.” His father was right all along, and it was Bryston’s emotion and anger that clouded his view of the truth. He gulped down all thoughts and emotions and made his decision…
If you want to learn more about Zachary and his writing, check out his website at: http://writersandrunoffs.webs.com/ . And here’s a trailer for his short story “The Whispers Bedside”…a haunting tale of the mind of a child featured at http://www.efictionmag.com/.
Thanks Zach, for a very intriguing story! I look forward to seeing more work by you in the future!
If you’re an author who has written some short stories you’d like me to post on this blog, feel free to email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This isn’t an official Seven Realms Publication. Just something to spread the word about you and your writing…and the expose you to some avid readers out there. The only criteria I have is A) it must be fun and entertaining and B) it must by PG-13 or lower rating. No excessive cussing or explicit sex scenes. Oh, but violence is ALWAYS welcome! Ha!
And readers, as always, please let us know what you think. Do you like the short stories? Want to see more? Want to see less and more author introductions? Let me know. I want this blog to appeal to you as readers. And I can only do that if I know what you’re thinking. Thanks!