Jake Conrad

Jake Conrad
Blog dedicated to my writing and whatever else I want: movies, games, books, electronics, music, ... anything Jake. The interior of my mind is a mixture of grindhouse, steampunk, Lovecraft, and 80's pop. Be very afraid.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Many Mansions - A short story by Jake Conrad

I wrote this a few years ago and had it posted here for awhile.  After the positive feedback from my most recent attempt, I'm posting this again.  After looking at it again I think it seems a little preachy for my taste.

Many Mansions

A short story by Jake Conrad

        The most interesting part of the Final Judgment, in Larry Zabriske’s opinion, was the absence of a line, a waiting room, or the necessity to take a number. After working for the Department of Motor Vehicles for 36 years and 4 months watching countless automatons with glazed eyes shuffling up and down cordoned aisles, Larry was expecting a line. Larry figured the line would be somehow more efficient than terrestrial lines, more perfect in some way, but he definitely expected it to be long.
        When Larry went through the light at the end of the tunnel and found himself in a tastefully white-carpeted room resembling a small amphitheater, instead of a long perfect line leading to an enormous, pearl-encrusted fence, he began feeling uneasy. When he saw that the room was about half-filled with people, posed as if they were expecting him, the unease became anxiety. Say what you will about DMV lines, Larry thought, but at least they give you time to prepare.
        Larry was both tickled and offended that the room he had just entered reminded him of a game show set. Janice, Larry’s wife of 38 years, had been a big “25,000 Pyramid” fan in the 80’s, and an even bigger fan of that “Millionaire” show hosted by Regis Philbin. Larry never liked that show much. He told Janice it was because he thought Reggie, “Regis” she would remind him, was a bit too smug for someone who had the answers written on the back of a card. In reality it had more to do with Janice’s interest in “snuggling” as she called it, which seemed to coincidentally fall on the nights the Gameshow Network played 2 hour “Millionaire” double features. Two chairs sat in the center of a rising circle of stepped seating and large video displays hung down from the ceiling at Larry’s north, south, east and west. Another wave of recognition mix with a bit of abhorrence at the blasphemy of it all hit Larry. This was certainly not the way Miss Donavan taught him the afterlife would be like. Where were the angels with their feathery wings and floating golden halos? Where was St. Peter? Almost the instant that Larry thought of his old Sunday school teacher, he recognized her to be the woman sitting two rows up in the small audience. She was not the hunched, sour woman in her 50’s that he remembered, but looked to be somewhere in her late 20’s. As he scanned the crowd he saw his mother and father near the front. They looked like Larry’s parents, but they looked more vibrant and full of health. They looked like they looked in their wedding photos. Scanning the room Larry saw Coach Atkins, Sergeant Qualls and his cousin Daniella also looking to be in their late 20’s or early 30’s. All were smiling and looking at Larry.
        A man whose skin was too dark to for him to be either Chuck Woolery or Regis Philbin sat in one of the two chairs at the bottom of the amphitheater. The man was dressed in a gray suit, which stood out dramatically against the white room around him. He came to his feet, smiled and motioned with a sweeping gesture for Larry to sit in the chair by his side. “Welcome Larry”, said the man in the charcoal suit. Larry came forward on stiff legs and sat in the curved chair. “Yes. You have entered the afterlife Mr. Zabriske. I am your assigned Conciliator, Stanley Morse, and I will be handling your reassignment hearing.” Larry looked at Morse very closely, and after short pause said, “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you.” Morse smiled, “You and I have never met Mr. Zabriske. I was a defense attorney in Detroit until a Volkswagen bus hit me in 1993. It is the fact that we have never met, and not my law degree that makes me eligible to be your Conciliator.” Morse gave him a conspirator’s wink and said, “It is a bit like jury duty for some of us assigned to the Radiance.” Morse smiled and made another sweeping gesture around the room. “However, you should recognize everyone else here.” Morse pointed to the back of the room at began naming off names Larry hadn’t spoken in many years. “Charlie Medina, Cheryl Jackson, Sandy Gleeson, Jennifer Pope…” Each name Morse listed prompted a spectator to stand for a moment before taking their seat again. Larry was surprised to feel tears sting his eyes as his baby brother James Zabriske’s name was announced and a man Larry he had never seen before stood. Little Jimmy had left the world after 2 years, taken by pneumonia. James, a man who resembled Larry’s grandfather in old pictures gave a small wave and sat down.
Morse sat beside Larry and pulled a small, rectangular object from the inside his suit jacket. Again Larry had a surreal moment as Morse pointed what looked like a white remote control at the ceiling and pressed a button. Two things happened at once. All the video displays that encircled the wall at the top of the amphitheater changed from a dark screen to a light blue screen. At the same time, a triangle-shaped section of the floor between Larry and Morse’s chairs separated itself and rose to table height between the two men forming a small table. Morse reached into a compartment on his side of the table, and removed an ivory mechanical object. It was only after the article was placed on the small pedestal between them, that Larry saw that it was a balance scale. Again Morse reached below Larry’s line of sight and withdrew two clear containers that he placed on either side of the scale. The scale tipped and swayed for a moment before coming into alignment.
        “I began reviewing your case about the time you started having chest pains, so I’m somewhat up to speed, Larry,” Morse said. “Wait a minute.” Larry said “What about God and Jesus and Heaven and Hell…” Morse stopped Larry short with a puzzled look. “Larry, what did you think all this is all about?” Morse said as he swept the audience in one fluid motion. “This is the Judgment you learned about in Sunday school. This is it. This is the moment you cash your chips, pay your debts and see if you will be found wanting. The next hour will determine your future for eternity. The commandments, the holy script… it was all real.” Larry swallowed sideways and then looked out to his mother, who was giving him a comforting smile.
        “Larry Darnell Zabriske, in the name of the Radiance I begin this Judgment, Morse began. “Let the witnesses here today see this one man, naked before all judgment.” Morse touched something on the remote control in his hand and suddenly the monitors began to grow steadily brighter. Their brilliance grew slowly at first but in a matter of seconds Larry had to shield his eyes as the whitest of white lights filled the room. Only he seemed unable to look into the light. “We acknowledge the Radiance’s presence in this judgment,” Morse said, and appeared to be smiling as he said it, although Larry would never have been able to see it. The light retracted swiftly, leaving the room just as it was before. “The judgment is simple and perfect,” Morse said looking now into Larry’s eyes. “First of all, we will review your life’s sins.” Morse touched the remote once again, and what had to be the most vivid video feed Larry had ever seen began to play. “Larry, you are a sinner like us all. You are guilty of many minor sins. For each sin, I will place a black tile onto the left side of the scale. For each good deed, I will place a white tile on the left side of the scale. When your life’s works have been fully, you will then be judged. Your first sin came in the form of a conscious act of theft of a pack of fruit gum from your aunt Tacee’s purse.” The video feed showed a first person perspective of small hands reaching into a maroon, vinyl purse. Morse dropped a black chit the size and color of a domino into the cup on the left side of the scale. The sound it made was strangely loud and piercing and the scale swayed slowly before settling. “The second sin came when you lied to your father about how his prized eagle clock was broken.” The video changed to small hands tossing a basketball into the air and catching it. Larry felt his face flush and could not bear to look into his father’s eyes. He simply watched the ball bounce rogue off the side of the old china hutch and slam his father’s ceramic eagle clock into the wall, like he knew it would. Another sharp click as a black chit fell onto the scale. This continued for what seemed to Larry as a long time. He was mortified when Morse spoke of his frequent self-abuse as a teenager, yet relieved that all his countless fumblings only cost him one black chit. As the inquisition went on, Larry began to feel less shame at his acts and a sense that with each sharp click of tile against tile he lost these sins forever. He began to look at his audience. He saw not harsh, knowing looks, but understanding, sympathy and love. He stole a glance at his mother and father and saw such a look of love in their faces that he found some hope. And why shouldn’t he have hope? He had never murdered. He had never raped or molested. Hell, he had never even fornicated with anyone except Janice, and he didn’t even think it was fornication if you were married. He never cheated at cards or on his taxes. He never drank more than a beer or two a week (always on Saturday watching a game). When the sins had been exposed and listed, including a few that were quite shameful, like the time he French-kissed his younger sister’s best friend to the time when he flipped off the old lady who had cut him off in traffic (which had only been 6 days before his death), Larry looked at the scale, which was now sitting with the side full of black tiles nearly touching the table, and the empty side nearly a foot and a half higher. “Now,” Morse said with a smile, “we come to the more enjoyable part. What will follow, Larry are descriptions of your good deeds.”
        Larry wiped at his brow and sat up a little straighter in his chair. He was relieved to be on to the positive aspects of his life. Morse started with Larry’s church attendance. Larry was a bit dismayed that all the hours spent in his church, from the time he was a boy, to the Sunday before his death only counted for one white chit. He looked up at Morse in surprise, but was still too abashed to say anything outright. Morse then went on to list the time he participated in the scout food drive, the time he shared a wedge of his bologna and cheese sandwich with the Laotian kid, Kim, who had told him he was hungry. Each was worth one chit. Then they were on to the donations that he and Janice had made to their parish, and to the firestation each Christmas. And the time he encouraged Janice to go back to school (which was partly so he could bowl more than once a week, but also because she just seemed so bored in their forties when they had pretty much given up on having children). And just like that, Morse was done with the good deeds. Now Larry had recovered enough from having his sins displayed to stammer out an argument. “Wait a minute here. I should have more than that”, Larry said. Morse looked at Larry for what felt like a long time and said with finality, “No Larry, that’s all there is.” “Wait”, Larry said in a cracked voice. “I never murdered! I never stole! I never… you know, with another woman!” Morse put his dark hand on Larry’s sweating mitts. “That is true Larry”, he said in a kind, but somewhat sad tone. “But, you see, you don’t get credit for not doing bad things, you only get credit for doing good deeds.” Larry looked at the scale, which wasn’t even close to being balanced, and said nothing. There was nothing to say. He looked out to his audience. Larry’s mother was looking at her hands. Larry’s father was slowly shaking his head. “Larry, this judgement is officially over and has been accepted as just. Do you agree that your judgment has been accurate and fair?” Tears began to roll down Larry’s face. He nodded. “Larry Zabriske, you have the equivalent of 2 hours to spend with those in attendance before you are reassigned”, Morse said in a clear, loud voice. “Wait”, Larry said quietly, “Am I going to heaven or to hell?” “Heaven and hell aren’t the only choices Larry. You see, the Radiance is a big place and many of us earn the opportunity to travel. Based on your judgment, and your prior experience, your new assignment will be in sector 7G, the department in charge of renewing travel licenses…”

Saturday, November 14, 2009


So this story began as an homage to Rio de Janeiro, where I served my mission.  I love Rio.  I love the Brazilian culture and Brazilian people.  I really had all the makings of an upbeat, LDS short story.  But I probably wouldn't have pulled that off, so I wrote an odd story because I'm an odd person.  If you read it, I hope you like it.  Whether you like it or not I would love some help with a title for it and any feedback you could give me.

Um Abraco,




Steven opened his rust-flecked screen door with a bang and squinted into the bright noonday sun. Two young men, one portly, with a sun-reddened, baby face, the other tall with bushy, black eyebrows, took a synchronized half step backwards to avoid the door from swiping their shins. “Good morning Sir,” said the cherubic youth, wearing a dark brown suit and yellow tie. “We are representatives of Jesus Christ and we have a very special message for you.”

Steven knew three things before the sales pitch continued – first, that the sweating, young man addressing him was new at his job, second that the two were most likely famished, and third, that even though it was an extremely bad idea, Steven would be inviting them into his home for lunch and discussion. Although it had been over fifteen years since Steven himself had been an LDS missionary, he could recognize the telltale darting eyes of a newbie a mile a way, even if he hadn’t seen the Elder’s snug, new suit and polished shoes. Steven knew that over the next 20 months of walking and riding bikes in Nevada, Elder Morse, as indicated by the small black plastic tag engraved with white lettering clipped to his lapel, would gradually loose his pudgy stomach and toughen up like a trail-worn cowboy. By contrast, Elder Leap, undoubtedly the senior companion, wore a sun-faded jacket that was opened exposing a toothpaste-spotted tie that stopped about an inch short of a pair of tan Dockers that definitely weren't purchased the same day as the boy’s blue suit coat. Leap’s weathered Doc Martins looked like they had recently been given new soles and new laces that almost, but didn't quite match the shoe.

Hypothetically, Steven could assume that the boys were hungry. In Steven's experience, 19 to 21 year old young men are always hungry – usually for food, but also for knowledge, competition, and the bodies of young women. Steven guessed that it was more than general youthful hunger, however, as the two on his doorstep were knocking doors well within the lunch hour. Steven remembered that he had gone without food for two reasons while on his mission: he and his companion denied themselves of food and water when they were seriously in need of spiritual guidance and when they were out of money for the month. Since it was July 27th the boys probably had been short-sighted in their budgeting and were hard up for cash. If asked, the two may say they were fasting so that the Lord would guide them to His elect, but it was likely they were killing two birds with one stone.

Steven decided he wanted to see how the green missionary would do in a contact-situation, and decided to play along. He said, “I have seen people like you around before… aren’t you Jehovah’s Witnesses?” Elder Morse swallowed with an audible gulp, gave a sideways glance to his senior companion then turned his attention to the area around Steven's pantlegs and stammered quickly, “We are similar to other sects you may have had visit you, but we represent the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We have devoted two years of our lives to this work – would you have a minute to spare to hear about our Heavenly Father's plan for you and your family?” Steven allowed his eyes to drift to the left to which he hoped would make the young man feel like he was loosing Steven’s attention. It worked, because Morse quickly blurted, “We aren’t paid to do this work. I thought you would want to know that.” Steven smiled and looked at Leap, who came to his companion’s rescue. “Have you had Mormon missionaries in your home before?” Steven paused for a few seconds, stepped back a few feet, motioned the boys to come in and said, “Come on in Elders.”

Steven’s front room was dim, but neat and organized. His furniture was a mixture of Swedish shelving and overstuffed sofas. He liked to keep his house cool in the Nevada heat and the low light gave the room a cave-like feel. The only real sign that Steven ever occupied the room was a large, ornate ashtray in the middle of the coffee table. Steven watched, amused, as Elder Morse glanced at the ashtray for several seconds, then at Steven, then looked away hurriedly. Steven turned on a brass lamp and motioned for the two missionaries to take a seat at one of the couches.

After the boys were seated on the large, green corduroy sofa, Steven began, “I’m actually a member of your church…at least I was many years ago. I suppose that my name is still on the Church’s records.” Elder Morse smiled, but his eyebrows rose in unmistakable surprise. Elder Leap only nodded for Steven to continue. Steven said, “I know that it is a little disappointing for you to discover a failed member of your church… it must make you feel like you are taking a step backwards… but I actually had a reason for letting you in. I just made a big pot of chili, and I thought you boys might like some…that is if you aren’t fasting today.” Steven was looking at Leap when he said it and was unsurprised that the senior companion began shaking his head slowly. Elder Morse, however, spurted, “Thanks! That sounds great.” Leap shot his companion a dark look, but rather than giving them time to reach an agreement, Steven jumped to his feet and headed into the kitchen. After positioning TV trays in front of the two young men and filling the trays with large brimming bowls of black bean and steak chili, plates of buttered sourdough rolls and glass tumblers containing cream soda on ice, Steven sat on the adjoining sofa and popped the top of a Coors Light. Elder Leap, still wearing a pained expression over their broken fast, asked Steven if they could please bless the food. Steven smiled and said, “Sure… whatever.”

After the blessing over the food (given curtly by Elder Leap) the two began poking at their chili. They started tentatively at first, but when Steven told them there was “plenty more where that came from” they dug in. After a few minutes of spoons clicking against bowls, Elder Morse, with a mouthful of steak asked, “So, how long have you been a member of the Church?” The room grew silent enough to hear the pnematic wheeze of the air conditioner as it kicked back on. “Well,” he started, “I was born into the Mormon Church. I’m actually a fourth generation Mormon and I was born in Salt Lake. Its funny, I've had missionaries knock on my door before, but this is the first time I have spoken to Mormon missionaries in over 21 years. Normally I look out the window and just ignore them. In fact, the last time I spoke to an Elder, I was on my own mission in Brazil.” Steven didn't bother waiting for the boys to question him. He knew from the puzzled looks on their faces that they would be a captive audience to his tale, even when their mouths weren't chewing.

My mission had all the heat of Nevada, but in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, you have the added bonus of humidity. No contest between wet heat and dry heat. From the second I got off the airplane at the Santos Dumont airport, I started sweating, and really never stopped. In fact, I didn't ever towel off in the mornings when I showered before leaving our apartment... I just put on my clothes wet. I figured I would be wet in a few minutes anyway, and at least it was clean water I was wet with, and not sweat. Normally, the only relief from sweating was the daily rainstorm that rolled around after lunch and seemed to be made up of drops the size of your thumb. And that was in the dry season! In the rainy season the locals always asked us if we were made of sugar, because if we were, the rain falling practically all day, every day for months would surely be the end of us. The fact that we didn't have cars and bikes like you guys in the states normally do didn't help. Of course in Rio, there were so many people everywhere, it made a lot more sense walking because it was easier to get the word out. People made contact with you whether you wanted it or not. There are quite a few differences between Americans and Brazilians, but the most noticeable has to be the difference in the "personal bubble". In the USA, if someone you know, like a friend, comes up to talk to you, they usually leave three feet or so between you when they talk to you. Brazilians, on the other hand, give you a good two feet max, and that's when you first meet them.

Anyway, my first area was outside the city of Rio in a quaint, almost European-like town called Itatiaia. From the cobblestone streets, to the architecture, to the green hillsides that surrounded it, the little town really wasn't how I had imagined Rio, especially after horror stories about the crime and poverty I had heard in the Mission Training Center in Provo. My trainer and companion was a short, squat Brazilian from the Amazon a few years older than me. He was dark brown, had a lazy eye, and his name was Elder Pereira. Pereira was a quiet guy who talked very slow and walked very fast. He pushed me to memorize the discussions, a requisite for becoming a senior companion, and since there weren't any other Americans anywhere around me, I learned to understand Portuguese very quickly. As the days and weeks went by I understood more about my companion. He had become a missionary exactly 1 year and one month from being baptized a member of the church. His father had come to his baptism only so he could see for himself that his oldest son was really going to leave the Baptist church against his wishes, and then when he did, to disown him. Pereira lived with LDS friends for the year before his mission, doing his best to absorb everything he could read about the church. He informed me that when he returned home he had a plan to become an electrician. When I inquired about his bad eye, he told me a story about something that happened when he was 4 years old. I couldn't really understand it, but it had something to do with getting really sick.

It was only after I had been in Brazil for about 3 months that people were just beginning to understand my Portuguese. Prior to this time, it was common for me to finish reading a whole page from the discussion material and look up, sweating and exonly to have someone say, "I didn't understand anything this guy said." We were teaching a few people around the city and things were going pretty well. One day we were told about a family by the name of Cardoso who were related by marriage to a church member named Valdir, and who lived a few miles out of town in an area everyone called Contorno. They had come to the church once with their relatives for a baby blessing or something and were interested in having the missionaries teach them.

The first time we went out to the Cardoso house, Valdir came with us. We took a bus I had never been on before, and after 3 or 4 turns hit a very narrow road that wove its way up a small valley. After nearly 45 minutes, Valdir motioned for us to stand and then pulled the bus cord, buzzing the driver to stop. We dismounted the bus onto an orange dirt road, which was really little more than two side-by-side trails through the trees. We followed Valdir up the road which entered a thick green forest. After about 10 minutes of walking we came to a fork in the road. On the left, the road became a muddy, mucky version of the path we were on. On the right, the road narrowed even further and seemed to get choked out by vegetation altogether after a few hundred yards. Of course Valdir pointed us up the muddy path, and a few minutes later we came to his sister Maria's white, brick house surrounded by chicken coops. After a nice first discussion sitting on overturned 5-gallon buckets on the front porch, the Joao Cardoso asked us to stay for a dinner of pan-fried beef steak, black beans, collard greens cooked in bacon grease, and extremely sweet mango juice. They told us they would be happy to come to church on Sunday, and Elder Pereira scheduled a time to come back the following week. I have to say that the whole way down the trail and even the 40 minutes we waited for the bus, I was feeling very happy and excited about my mission and this adventure I was having in another country. I was feeling even a little cocky that my Portuguese was understood as well as it had been during the meeting with the Cardosos. When the bus finally arrived it was nearly dark. I sat near the window and as the bus started down the road, I looked to my left, back up the hill we had come down, and saw a light shining through the trees. I could tell it wasn't the Cardoso home and asked Valdir if he knew who lived there. Valdir, who was already settling in to nap on the bus ride back to the station looked out to where I was pointing, turned back to me and just shook his head. "No. No Elder." was all I could understand but he then he leaned over to my companion and started speaking to him quitely and pointing at the light. I reminded myself to ask Pereira about it later that night, but after a few minutes of being rocked back and forth, I fell asleep and forgot about it.

I remembered the following week when Elder Pereira and I headed up to the Cardoso home, so I pointed down the unkempt trail leading to the right at the fork in the road and said in my thick American accent, "What did Valdir say about that place?" Pereira didn't slow his pace at all and just said, "E' um lugar mal," which means, "It is a bad place." I stopped and after about 5 or 6 steps Elder Pereira stopped and turned around. I told him he had to explain more to me. He said, "It is a place of Macumba, an evil place." In the month or two before my mission I had read everything I could find about Rio and Brazil in general and I remembered something about Macumba being a religion that was a mixture of African voodoo and Catholism. I remembered back to something that happened my 3rd week in Brasil with Elder Pereira. We had been walking up one of the cobblestone sidewalks, heading to a lunch appointment when we came across what looked to be a full dinner that had been laid in the middle of the sidewalk. Pereira sidestepped quickly off the curb into the street to avoid the oddly placed meal as if were a sleeping homeless person, but I just walked up to it and stared at it, trying to figure out what it was. A red cloth had been laid down like a placemat and on it sat a large plate of food. There was a chicken breast, beans, rice and some kind of leafy green. There was a cup of what looked like red wine and a cigar sitting to the side of the plate. Elder Pereira came back to me and at first looked like he was going to try to explain the plate of food to me, but then seemed to change his mind, suspecting that I wouldn't understand anything with 3 weeks of Portuguese, and just said to me, "Nao toca, e' Macumba" or "Don't touch, it's Macumba."

I thought about asking the Cardosos about it, maybe working it into part of the conversation, but the second discussion is when we usually invite people to prepare to be baptized and I was a little nervous when it fell on me to ask them, it so I forgot to bring it up. After the discussion and another one of Maria Cardoso's enormous lunches I was flying high. Not only had the Cardosos gone to church the past Sunday, but the man of the house, Joao Cardoso, actually interrupted me before I was able to ask them to be baptized, and asked ME what they needed to do to join our church. As we tromped down the trail after the discussion in the early afternoon heat, I felt so good I started to sing, "Unchained Melody" loudly, remembering Pereira had told me it was his favorite American song. I was just getting to "...and time, goes by, so slowly..." when suddenly I started to feel what I can only describe as complete dread. The strange thing was that it came on all at once. I went from feeling euphorically happy to feeling incredibly bad in just a few seconds. First I felt chilled, like we had walked into a cold pocket, then I had the sensation that someone was watching us. The way I stopped singing probably sounded like I was a radio with a volume dial being turned down. About 20 feet ahead, the fork in the road was visible. I was suddenly sure about two things right then: A woman was standing in the trees on the very fringe of my peripheral vision, and that if I turned my head to look at her something horrible would happen to us. This was a feeling, but it was so clear to me that it was almost like someone had spoken it in my mind. I couldn't really make out details other than I could tell it was a woman. She seemed to be either a black woman, or a woman standing in shadows. The feeling of being watched was real, although I don’t know why I felt so terrified of her. Mind you, I was 19 years old and after 4 years of high school rugby was in pretty good shape, and not many people intimidated me. I remember thinking that we needed to pretend we didn't see the woman, even though I was somehow sure that she knew we had seen her. From the time I stopped singing to the time we walked past the woman probably only one minute passed, but even right now I can remember the dread I felt. It was nothing less than a feeling of impending doom. I wasn't even sure at that point if Pereira had noticed the woman or felt it too, but when I could stand the feeling no longer, I looked at him and said, "Vamos, Elder." and I started jogging. The minute I could see he was jogging with me, I picked up my pace. We ran down the trail, black bags filled with Book of Mormons swinging at our side, crossed the road, and sat on a big rock panting, and staring up the trail. We didn’t say a word to each other until the bus trundled up to us a few minutes later and we entered it.

Steven sat up and looked at the boys' TV trays, stood up, grabbed both bowls and left the room. He returned with two more heaping servings of the chili with another piece of thickly buttered bread perched atop each bowl. Setting the bowls down in front of the boys, he crossed the room, sat down again, and took a small pull from his beer. "Wait a minute," said Morse. "Do you do you think that was a ghost, or a bad spirit or something?" "No, it was just a woman." Steven said. Leap asked, "Did you see the woman again?" "I did, as a matter of fact." Steven said.

We talked it over the next few days. Elder Pereira told me that he felt something similar to the dark feeling I felt, but that he had seen no woman standing in the trees. He said that he felt bad inside as we walked near the fork in the road, so when I started running, he decided to run too. I specifically remember him saying that that he had felt "scared the way a child feels scared." We talked about going back to the Cardosos. They were at a point right now that we needed to visit them regularly. They needed to hear four more discussions before they could be baptized. Pereira suggested that we ask them to come to the church in town to hear the discussions, but we knew they couldn't afford the bus fare to do that once a week, and go to church on Sunday too. We discussed teaching them after church on Sunday, but after 3 hours of meetings their kids would be hungry and restless. I suggested that we call the Mission President and see what he thought, but Pereira thought we should call our Zone Leaders, Elder Taylor and Elder Block. We visited a few members we hadn't seen in church until about 9:30 that night and when we figured Taylor and Block would be home for the night, we bought some pay phone tokens and called them. Elder Pereira proceeded to tell one of the ZL's the story, although his account was so short I felt there was no way to do justice to how strange the experience had been. After listening for a while, saying, "Ta bom." and hanging up, Pereira told me that they were coming to meet us at our apartment first thing the next morning.

We had just sat down to eat our breakfast when they arrived. Taylor was an enormous Idaho farm kid with a flattop, a nose sunburn, and hands like oven mitts. Block, the senior companion was from Salt Lake me. All I really knew of Block was that he liked telling people that he was related on his mother's side to Ezra Taft Benson, who was the President of the Church at the time. Taylor was big, but seemed to be shy and most comfortable looking and listening. When he spoke, his "lingua Portuguesa" didn't sound like he was three months from reaching the end of his two year mission, in fact it sounded a little worse than mine. The two walked into our tiny, two room rental and while Taylor investigated the papaya and french bread set out for our breakfast, Block came over to me and started questioning me rapid-fire in English. Pereira, who couldn't speak more than 5 or 6 English words looked uncomfortable. Block said, "OK, Elder Crenshaw, what's the deal. Your comp said you guys thought someone wanted to hurt you when you were leaving an investigator's house?" I told him my story the best I could, but I started to get irritated as Block seemed to lose interest quickly. "So you saw a woman and felt a bad spirit?" Block asked. "Well here's the deal, we have a busy day scheduled so we need to do a split. I think Elder Taylor and your companion should go back to our area and visit the families we have scheduled there, and you and I can go talk to this woman. I've had some experience with this kind of thing."

I could tell Elder Pereira wasn't happy with this resolution and seemed to almost be irritated with me, like I had somehow orchestrated him out of the picture. He said nothing to me as Elder Taylor polished off our french bread, and we left for the bus station. All I got out of him was a muffled, "Tchau" when he and Taylor split up with us at the bus station entrance. I would probably have said more if I knew that was to be the last time I ever spoke to my softspoken companion.

On 45 minute bus ride over, I was forced to hear Elder Block gloat about how he had become a senior companion in only 2 months because he was able to speak the language so proficiently. He also talked about the full ride scholarship he had to BYU, and of course, his favorite topic of how his mother's 2nd cousin was Ezra Taft Benson's niece or something. When I couldn't stand it anymore I asked, "So you get together with him much?" He pulled out a photo of a group of people and pointed to a man in the middle who looked kind of like President Benson, then to a woman holding a baby and said, "And that is me, right next to him." He must have figured I wasn't impressed, which I wasn't, and we didn't talk the rest of the bouncy bus ride.

We got off the bus around 11am and walked to the fork in the road. As we approached it, it struck me once again how the trail on the right seemed to get more and more narrow, choked by vegetation to the point of disappearing. I suggested to Block that we go up to the Cardoso house first and ask them what they knew about their neighbors, but he wouldn't hear it. He actually reminded me that he was senior companion, not to mention Zone Leader, and he would be making the decisions. I knew he was upset that I hadn't been impressed by his family tree and I kind of kicked myself then and there for not being a little more political. He started up the path and I followed. After 2 or 3 minutes it did seem like the path had ended into a wall of green, but we pushed through a little further and found the trail again. When i realized noting was going to intercede or redirect us, I began to feel a heavy, sick feeling in my stomach.

We continued on for about 15 minutes through the thick forest. The taller trees blocked the sunlight, and the shorter trees soaked us with their damp leaves. When we emerged into a muddy clearing I was hot, sweaty and itchy. The clearing was the sort of rural sprawl I had grown accustom to outside the city. It lead up to a pink house, the one I had seen from the road, that on closer inspection looked like it was built using a haphazard assortment of plywood and brick and painted over with some kind of pink paint that had run down the walls and into the dirt. To the left there was a squat barn with a pig pen in the front. Broken children's toys and refuse littered every square inch of the muddy clearing. Black chickens roamed and pecked through the yard freely. There was a gnarled black root of a woman in a wooden rocking chair on the porch in front of the pink house. I tried to give my best doubtful look to Elder Block with the hopes we could get out of there, but he avoided my glance and started to pick his way towards the house.

The woman made no indication that she had seen us, even when we mounted the first of the porch steps. Elder Block secured his bag between his knees leaving his hands free to clap a greeting, which is customary instead of knocking on the door in Brazil. The old woman did not look up, but after a few minutes a tall, skinny boy I put at maybe 14 or 15 in a pair of ratty shorts came out of the front door. He didn't seemed very surprised to see us and asked us what we wanted. Block asked if the "Man of the house" was in. The kid rolled his white eyes and laughed and said, "Man of the house, that's ME." Block then asked the kid if his mother was home. Without taking his eyes off of us the kid tilted his head back a bit and shouted for his mom. At first we heard no sound coming from the inside of the house, then a soft scraping as a woman emerged from the shadows inside the house. The woman, who looked to be in her 40's, was wearing a flowing, white skirt, a dark colored halter-top and sandals. Her straight, black hair framed her dark face and accentuated her large, white eyes. At once I felt an anxiety begin to creep into me. I knew that this was the same woman who had been watching me. I felt the same animosity seem to surround her like a cloud, and when she looked at me I could not meet her gaze for more than a few seconds. Elder Block must not have sensed anything, because he introduced us without hesitation and asked the woman her name.

The woman pursed her lips and said that she was Dona Judith and she "knew very well who WE were." Block seemed unphased by the statement. He told Dona Judith nonchalantly that we were teaching a family up the road, the Cardosos, and asked if she knew them. She said, "Claro" or of course. She laughed a light titter which made me break out in goose bumps and staring out from the hair that hung around her face, she held open the door and motioned for us to come into her home saying, "Entra."

Block walked right in, but I stood there for a moment. I looked from the young man sitting on the porch, who gave me a smirk, to the old woman in the rocking chair who stared out into the jungle, then back to the large white eyes of Judith. She said nothing, neither changed her expression, but I still felt like Hansel on the candy-house porch. I felt trapped, but I couldn't see myself bolting down the porch steps, as much as I wanted to. For one thing, mission rules dictate that you stay with your companion always, for another, I was a little afraid of what Block would do if I up and ditched him.

The room we were led into did nothing to soothe my anxiety. The furniture consisted of 3 wooden chairs and 2 benches made from planks stretched across stacks of orange brick. The floor was uneven cement. A TV that looked older than I was cast a green-tinted glare on the room. The green-tinted actress in the soap opera on the TV was crying and being soothed by a green-tinted shirtless man with a mustache. Shelves which lined all 4 walls of the room held statues and small paintings of saints. I was familiar with seeing Catholic saints in people's homes. While paintings were the most common, I had entered a few homes with small shrine-like tables dedicated to statues of the Virgin Mary. Because the room was dim I assumed at first that this was more of the same, but there were so many of them compared to what I had seen, and all of them had a small white candle placed before them. Some of the candles had been burned and the wax had run and made small grey icicles before dripping down to the floor. Block had already taken a seat in one of the wooden chairs and I sat next to him. Dona Judith called for the boy, who's name was Tiago, and directed him to bring the old woman in and join us. We waited as Tiago slowly led the stooped woman inside the home and across from us into the remaining chair before joining Judith on the bench. I remember wanting to tell Elder Block that I wasn't feeling good and that I wanted to leave, but every time I started to do so, I felt Judith's stare from across the room and I could not make myself speak because of it.

Besides the dim lighting and the idols, some carven and crude and some elaborately painted and dressing cloth, the room had a smell to it that while not overpowering, was strong enough to give me the beginnings of a headache. I smelled farm smells, low and pungent below everything, but above it, food, the onion and bean smell I had become accustom to. Mingled with this was the scent of unwashed bodies which became stronger when Tiago brought in the old woman. An odor of illness wafted behind the old woman as she shuffled by, and looking down I saw that one of her feet was wrapped in old gauze, and a yellow patch of seepage could be seen near the ankle. The smell that bothered me the most in the house was an earthy, burnt smell, like dust cooking on a space-heater.

I kept trying to get Block's attention as Tiago and the old woman were taking a seat, but I was dismayed to see that his normally aggressive, engaged demeanor was gone. It was as if entering the house had stunned or shocked him in someway. He just kept staring at Judith with a blank look on his face. Normally I was the reserved one of any companionship, mostly because I the language was still pretty tough for me. Still, I tried to step up and take an active roll at this point if for no other reason than to get us out of there as quickly as possible. I asked Tiago if he played soccer. Tiago looked at Dona Judith and said nothing. I asked the old woman her name. She looked back at me with black glittering eye deep set in her wrinkled face but said nothing. Finally, in almost exasperation, I asked Dona Judith if we could give them a message about Jesus Christ and a Plan Our Heavenly Father has for her and her family. It was at this point that Dona Judith stood up very quickly and walked to the shelf nearest to her. She reached into the folds of her skirt and produced a box of wooden matches. Without a word she began lighting candle after candle, making her way around the room. I remember turning to Elder Block and saying, "We have to leave right now." He continued to watch Dona Judith make her way around the room and made no sign of hearing me. I grabbed his arm nearest to me with both hands and said, "Elder. Elder!" but he continued to ignore me expressionless. I stood up in a panic and looked at the doorway that would lead me back to the porch. I took 2 steps towards the exit when I heard a voice say in English, "Steven, you cannot leave." I looked back and Judith was standing in the middle of the room and smiling an enormous smile, her teeth and white eyes glinting in the candlelight. Elder Block stood up and walked as if sleepwalking to Judith's side, where he knelt down and placed his forehead on the cement floor at her feet. To my left the old woman began to speak low and so rapidly that I could not understand it. I turned to her and was shocked to see she was now on her feet and standing on the seat of her wooden chair, hunched over like a vulture. How she got there, and so quickly, I do not know. Tiago stood up and reached with his long arms to the shelf behind him. When he turned around with a long, thin knife in his hand I began to scream and step toward the door. Judith said again, in English without a trace of an accent, "Steven, you cannot leave." "Why are you doing this?" I asked in a panicked, high-pitched voice. She smiled again and said, "Because you are are innocent, because you are weak."

I still held my leather valise which contained my scriptures, 3 Book of Mormons, several pamphlets and a bus schedule. I threw the bag at Tiago, but threw it too hard and high and it hit the shelf behind him. Three candles went out as the bag struck them and the little statues behind them causing the whole mess to crash to the floor. I looked once more toward Elder Block who was still prostrate at Judith's feet. I no longer felt worried about what he would do to me if I left him. From the little I could see on his face in the greenish glow of the TV, Elder Block had already left, however temporarily, I didn't know.

I crashed out the door and fell down the porch steps into the mud and muck. I scrambled to my feet in time to hear Dona Judith screech and to catch a glimpse of Tiago's long brown legs and arms as he flashed out of the house after me. I sprinted through the wreck of a yard, scattering chickens as I ran and hurtled into the forest looking desperately for the trail. I heard Tiago, all grunts and footfalls only a few yards behind me and abandoned all thought of finding the trail. I ran desperately, jumping over rotted logs, zig-zagging around trees, but not so desperately that I ran wild. I had the idea that I was heading the right way generally so I focused all my effort on not slamming into a tree. Tiago, who was lank and lean with a runner's body, and who undoubtedly knew this forest much better than I did, kept up with me and even began to gain. I started to imagine the feel of his knife piercing my side, and the painful stitch I was developing from running only reinforced this thought. I finally was able to calm my mind enough to realize that I needed to face Tiago before just that sort of thing happened. When I looked over my shoulder expecting to see him bearing down on me, there was no one there. I stopped and looked all around me in panic. I looked back the way I came and saw nothing. I bent over and put my hands on my knees and tried to slow my ragged breathing so I could listen for sounds of movement I heard nothing. Once again I looked back the way I came. Judith stood about 20 yards away like a statue, glaring at me, her face a mask of hate. I felt paralyzed by the dread of her presence. It wasn't until I looked lower and saw her stained, white skirt and dripping hands that my paralysis broke. I ran from her. This time my running was in no way calculated or careful. I slammed my hip into a large boulder. I caught my foot in a gnarled root and just kept my balance enough to sprawl through a thorny bush. I ran until I finally emerged scratched and bleeding near the road and kept running down the middle of the road towards town.

"That is pretty much the story," Stephen said after a long pause. The two missionaries were glassy-eyed, hypnotized by the heavy lunch and Stephen's tale. At some point Morse had picked up a yellow throw pillow off the couch and had set it in his lap. He was likely oblivious to the fact that he was now hugging it with both arms and resting his chin on it. Leap was sitting forward with a pained look on his face, as if he had just pulled a muscle in his back. "I ran down the road until an old truck came up behind me," Stephen continued. "I tried to explain what happened to the driver but my Portuguese had pretty much left the building at that point. The man must have understood something because he dropped me off at the bus station in town, looking very relieved to part ways with this dirty, wild-eyed gringo. I called the mission president's house from the bus station then sat under the bank of phones with my head against the wall for a long, long time." "What happened to Elder Block?" asked Elder Leap. "I have no idea," Stephen replied.

The mission president and 2 missionaries who worked in the office came to pick me up several hours later. I was so exhausted, both mentally and physically, that I honestly had lost all connection to the Portuguese language. It was as if the language being spoken around me was coming in from very far away and although it sounded familiar, I couldn't make out much of it, and when I tried to speak it, the words simply would not come to me. As the three of them were Brazilian and spoke very little English, the President finally gave up and resolved to put me on a bus with one of the office Elders and gave us instructions to go to his apartment. I assumed the President was going to find Elder Pereira, my companion, and try to make sense of this. The bus ride took 3 hours, and during that time I began to feel sick. For the next 3 days I stayed in a bedroom at the Mission President's apartment. I could hold no food down and developed a fever. I remember lying in a small fold-out cot, sweating and waking over and over from bad dreams. I remember the President waking me up at one point. He seemed mad at me and demanded I tell him what happened. When I didn't even attempt the story he got angry and yelled at me in Portuguese and left. Later an American Elder from Salt Lake who had come to the mission on the same day as I did was sent in to speak to me. He asked several times what happened, and I almost told him, but I knew that if I told, there was a chance that I would have to go back to that house, so I said nothing except, "I want to go home right now Elder. Tell the President that I want to go home right now."

The President drove me to the airport in his car himself two days later. My fever was gone by that point and I had started eating again. We had nothing to say to each other on the ride there. I felt guilty for not saying anything, but I knew that what was done was done. I have to give him credit for putting his arm around me and telling me, "Boa Sorte" which means "Good Luck" as I headed up the to the gate. The plane flew direct for 8 hours to Ft. Worth, Texas where I had a two hour layover. The trip was uneventful except that at some point I fell asleep and dreamed of a pink house in the middle of the forest and I woke up screaming. As I sat in the Dallas Fort Worth Airport reflecting on the events of the prior week, something came over me. I sat in the hard, plastic chairs outside my boarding gate and felt compelled to repeat the the final words Dona Judith said to me over and over in my mind. "Because you are innocent, because you are weak." I repeated this filthy mantra something clicked in my head. I knew right then I couldn't go home. Not because I would be returning home in shame. It had nothing to do with pride. I couldn't return home, because if I did, I would go back to feeling safe and continue being both innocent and weak. I decided I would never again put myself in a position that evil could take notice of me. I took my suitcase into a handicapped bathroom stall and changed into a pair of street clothes. Then I walked out of the airport, leaving my life, my family, my mission and the church behind.

"You mean you've never seen your family since?" asked Morse. "No," said Stephen. Elder Leap leaned forward in his chair and looked solemnly into Stephen's eyes. He hid none of his disdain when he said, "So you are saying you left everything important in your life behind because you were scared?" Stephen stood up and pointed at Leap. "What happened to judge not lest ye be not judged?" he shouted. "You weren't there. You didn't see her eyes. So yes, I left everything. And just to be sure that I'm not falling into the 'innocent' category, I do things. I smoke and drink, not because I like it, although I guess it has become a habit now, but because it is a vice. I subscribe a pornographic web site that sends 2 videos and 5 photos to my email every day. I even steal a candy bar from the Top Stop now and then." The boys rose to their feet and Morse shuffled backward towards the door. Leap started to follow his companion, then turned and said, "Ok, fine, let's say we believe everything you told us. But why did you decide to tell this story to us now? Why?" Stephen walked past the boys and opened the door, letting in the hot, desert breeze. He stared into Elder Morse's round face and large eyes and said, "I had to. You see last night Dona Judith appeared to me in a dream. She told me that you would be coming. She told me to feed you and tell you my story. She told me that if I did this one thing, she would forgive my trespass. She told me to tell the story and then tell "the fat one" that she sees him, that she or someone like her will come for him. Because he is innocent, because he is weak."

Elder Leap grabbed his companion's hand and pulled him out of Stephen's front door, down the sidewalk, and into the street. Stephen watched them go. He continued watching them walk down the street until they turned left on Grove Avenue and he could see them no more. When they were out of sight, Stephen shut his front door, put his hands over his face, and wept for a long time.