NOVEL EXCERPT
The Soul is a Stowaway
William Lemon
Writer of the Month

The headset caused me to sweat more than usual that day. After morning prayer, I positioned it around my neck so I’d still able to hear Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews sing “Be Thou Faithful Saints” while listening to my cubicle-mate gossip about her trip to the new Prayer Booths at the DoHR, the ones where you could pay a small nominal fee to have your prayers heard in an expedited manner. Though it was just one booth that preformed our job, I imagined rows of them at DoHR headquarters, a light forest of robots scattered around the lobby, each bot repeating the same lines I used. I not only wrote down location of the booth, but also wrote a question mark next to the type of prayer that would be accepted. I suppressed the twitch in my eye, nodding along as it found rhythm within the song eking out of my headset.      

Work continued unabated after that. Phones rang in the distance, humming like cicada. The Xerox machine, still broken from our Christmas office party, spit out copies, spewing them onto the floor. My cubicle-mate, once done with gossip, practiced her lines, attempting to recreate a phone interaction by playing both her role and that of a parishioner. She fumbled through the Indulgences we offered while mispronouncing Pastor Dvoynik’s name twice. I mouthed it along with her, enunciating the syllables underneath my breath, which helped control the spasm. Before she got to the part about the DoHR’s new payment plan, the one that could guarantee forgiveness of even murder, Pastor Dvoynik appeared with a stack of paperwork, as if summoned by her mispronunciation.

Pastor Dvoynik didn’t speak when he arrived; instead, he flipped through his mound of paperwork, eyes transfixed on the pages fluttering past at random. Once reaching the end, he began again, but then, halfway through the pile, stopped shuffling. 

“Mondays,” he said, returning to shuffling the paperwork.
 
I shrugged my shoulders, unable to speak without floundering my words. The duo of Robert Goulet and Julie Andrews underscored the moment, filling the gaps within our conversation. 

“The week’s gotta start somewhere.”

“Too true. Too true.”

While fiddling with his belt, Pastor Dvoynik dropped his paperwork on my desk, scattering it across my keyboard and half-eaten breakfast sandwich. Before he could apologize, I waved off his attempt at penance, already helping to organize the mess. I noticed the correspondence had my name across the top, sort of like the Friendly Index charts we received each hour. This paperwork, however, had personal information along with performance evaluations from years back.

The twitch overtook my vision at this point, causing me to wink without provocation. Why did he have these files? My mind scrambled, attempting to run through each call I had for the past week or so, hoping I didn’t violate any Codes of Conduct. 

“So,” I said, pretending not to read, “um, what can I help you with?”

“I’d like to speak with you about your position here at the Redeemer.”

“Is it my rankings? I mean, they are at par. Aren’t they at par?”

“Let’s not get into it yet, son,” he replied. “Just come meet me once you’re done with this round of calls. Bring your file, too.” 

Slapping my back, Pastor Dvoynik left a sweat stain near the collar of my shirt, a perfect imprint of his palm. Normally, when he did this to me, I’d run to the restroom and loiter in the handicap stall until everyone was gone, then hunch underneath the hand-dryer, attempting to dry his massive paw print without burning myself. I didn’t do that this time. My eye convulsed in such a manner that I was transfixed, unable to answer the call on the other line, even when the alarm sounded at my station. 

The voice on the other end repeated hello twice before I answered. 
“Hello Brother or Sister, you’ve reached the Redeemer, the only church officially aligned with Heaven and the DoHR to indulge your sins. How may I help you this fine morning?”

“I’d like to buy an Indulgence,” the man on the other end replied. 

“Certainly,” I said, now typing. “What level of sin would you like to purchase?”

“I dunno,” the man stammered. “What level would masturbation be?”

“Are you watching anything while performing the sin? Or will you be thinking about intercourse?”

“Does it matter?”

Before I made a quip about salvation, which would’ve sent my Friendly Index all the way down to Grumpy Gus, I covered the microphone with my left hand, then coughed into my free palm.

“Brother, of course it matters,” I replied. “This is very important. We wouldn’t want you, for example, to end up with a one-way ticket to Hell or, God forbid, Las Vegas, Nevada.”

He didn’t laugh. 

“Are you still there?” 

“Yeah, still here,” he said. “Whatever’s cheaper I suppose.”  

“Got it. You’ll need to go with the No Porn package, which includes some fantasy of a woman, preferably your spouse, without any thoughts of oral or anal intercourse, of course.”

He didn’t reply but rather began breathing rather heavily. At first, I figured it was Quality & Assurance fumbling on the line with hand cupped around the receiver. The voice began to moan, though, intensifying each time I attempted to speak. 

“Brother?”

“Uh-huh?”

“What are you doing right now?”

There was another slight pause, followed by several small grunts. The man seemed normal after the groaning dissipated, his voice now full of timbre, dripping with energy. 

“Okay, wow, thank you,” he said, interrupting the silence. 

“Brother, here at the Redeemer we do not, I repeat, do not—.”

He disconnected the call, not having paid for the Indulgence of Auditory Molestation.

I documented the offense, which, as even my cubical-mate will tell you, required a triplicate form detailing the entirety of the call, recounting each moment, including the inflection of the perpetrator’s voice and how I reacted to his/her advances. E.g.: was I aroused by this Sinner, disgusted with the thought of Manual Stimulation, hopeful for the perpetrator’s salvation when/if they received helped for their mental illness? All standard procedure around here.  

After logging the interaction, I gazed at Pastor Dvoynik’s office, hands supporting my chin, headset still playing “Be Thou Faithful Saints”. I expected the door to open, for seraphim to exit out with horns and coronets, yet the door remained shut. Despite not wanting the phone to ring, several calls funneled through the receiver, mainly nervous octogenarians attempting to remember any leftover sins from their lives. I told them how we would make sure those sins were forgiven, even if they were half-remembered, somewhere in the flotsam and jetsam of memory. Truth was, these seemed more like fantasies, and I never knew if anyone actually double-checked the forms I submitted, or fact-checked them at all, for that matter. I tried not to think about that. The twitch might get worse. I kept my eyes trained on the door whilst taking calls, half-focused on both. 
     
On my lunch break I drove to the Department of Heaven Relations, waiting ten minutes to exit the freeway and another to find a parking spot. As I drove through the isles, the building sparkled, gold and silver statures of Jesus and his disciples, along with several angels watching over them. These figures replaced the gargoyles that less sophisticated folks used in the Dark Ages to ward off evil. What a time to be alive. Inside, I waited in the lobby listening to the same song, now sung by Kirk Cameron, who slogged through the melody in a half-garbled warble. The waiting room was filled with people just like me, clutching the same manila envelopes, filled with stacks of faded forms, all written in the mandated blue ink, phthalocyanine blue to be specific. None of us looked directly at each other, despite the fact that we were all united in the same plight. It was better to flip through the outdated magazines, trace invisible lines in the thinning beige carpet, or pretend to watch daytime television. I cycled through each of these choices until the overhead speaker squawked my name three times. 
    The voice in the loudspeaker directed me to a metal folding chair that faced Plexiglas, which, from its appearance, had been defiled by several disgruntled patrons. A nondescript man appeared on the other side, partially obscured by the thick scratches in the Plexiglas divider. 

“ID,” the man said, not even looking at me, “and paperwork.”

I slid the manila envelope through the slot but not my driver’s license. 

“I forgot my wallet.”

He scoffed at me, then turned his attention to my packet. 

“Yeah, there’s a problem here. Your claim will still be denied, sir,” he replied. “I can’t send this through as is.” 

“But I filled out the new NH482,” I said. “It’s right there.”

“That may be, but you didn’t fill out REASON FOR REQUEST, sir.”

He pressed the form against the Plexiglas. I couldn’t make out my handwriting through the deep scratches, though it was inches away from my face. The music, still the same song mind you, now sounded as if Pastor Dvoynik’s voice took over the melody, but he didn’t follow along with the normal lyrics, repeating, “You cannot do anything right, son.”

“Isn’t that optional?”

“Do you know how many Archangels we have to approve requests like yours?”

“I don’t know, like a hundred?”

“Four.” He replied, still pressing the form against the Plexiglas. “In the whole world, we have four Archangels who can approve or deny all contact with Heaven. So if you want me to forward this form, I need a reason –– and a good one at that –– as to why you need to speak with your grandmother.” 

The twitch. God bless it all. He saw it and smirked at me. With my hand now covering my right eye, I searched for the words to write on the application, the one good eye fixated on the form he flaunted. Was my handwriting that uniform and composed? Did that say something about me, vis à vis my personality, even what made the me me, in this case?

“She said something,” I replied. “You know, like on her deathbed.”

“Doesn’t everyone do that?”

“This was different.”

“What did she ask?”

“Is this it?”

He took the paper off the faux glass. 

“What’s the it there?” he said. “The antecedent in that sentence?”

“I dunno. That’s the problem. I really need to know what she meant in that moment. Was she talking about me? Life itself?”

“Sir, that isn’t what this place is for,” he replied, then stamped DENIED across the form. “Thank you and have a blessed day.”

The manila envelope was handed back, and then we were done. The man seemed to disappear even, not just in the vague way people disappear into memory, but rather in such a way I could no longer perceive his presence behind the Plexiglas. He blended in with the same office noises that surrounded me back at the Call Center. I folded the envelope in two, tucking it in my back pocket where my wallet should’ve been, if I didn’t forget back at the Redeemer. 

In the car, the same song played on the radio, this time sung by the band One Direction with special guest Phil Collins. I could’ve tuned the radio off, but I preferred to listen, now perplexed on how a single song could follow me, all sung by various people. It must need me to answer the question in its title. 

“Are you a faithful saint?” I asked, to myself. “Are you?”

I didn’t know how to answer or how to find another song. My eye convulsed with the beat, now in full control of me. The world went black, shrouded in a marine layer of paperwork.  

* * *

After lunch, Pastor Dvoynik lingered outside of the Call Center, snacking on a bag of Cheetos, fingertips bright orange from the cheese-dust coating his hands. He gripped my shoulder when we met, leaving neon impressions of his fingerprints doting my shirt. I dusted his prints off as he led me through the Call Center, hands now on my neck, gritty with pieces of fried cornmeal. I couldn’t move on my own since his hands directed my gait toward our destination, leaving me unable find my own rhythm. Even as he unlocked the Command Center, I mimicked his stance, aping his every behavior. 

The others in the Call Center watched him as he guided me into the room: they noted our progress, and then returned the Sinners filling up the phone lines, who were desperate to change that title on their DoHR issued ID cards.  

They did not, however, notice me. I was a part of Pastor Dvoynik.

“Is this in reference to what we talked about earlier?” I asked, concentrating on each word as I surveyed the Command Booth – I mean Command Center – part of the Call Center. 

While it was only one room adjacent to the Call Center, we, the members of the congregation, always thought it was not a place where he could just monitor us, but also somewhere to survive the always-impending Apocalypse. If that were true, Lord help the pastor. This room was nothing more than two Vizio televisions mounted to a wall with an old laptop below them. There wasn’t even a printer or a phone. The desk was faded, years past its prime, as was the chair. He sat down and spun once he was seated, careful not to suck the laptop cord up in his gravitational pull.

“Here’s the man-cave, buddy,” he said whilst spinning once more. “I come here to do the work that can’t be done inside the real office. You know, the real secret, DoHR stuff. Haha!”

“Cool.”

“Wanna see some of it?”

“But I don’t have any kind of DoHR clearance.”

“It won’t hurt to peek,” he replied. “After all, you’re a rising star here, right?”

He powered on the old laptop, which also turned on the Vizios above, both screens mimicking the same old start-up routine. I watched transfixed by the outpour of ones and zeros, thinking that each number meant something, a small part of the whole. Suddenly, the DoHR logo appeared, and then a program initiated, one where each member of our call team was represented in emoji form, even the part-time, elderly workers. 

“Here’s the crew, son,” he said, hands in prayer position, “the whole team.”

“What is it?”

“You don’t recognize it from this end, do you?” he asked. “It’s the Praise & Recognition system the DoHR gave us.”

“Oh, wow. We only see the printouts of the monitoring system.”

He, with his still bright orange hands, swatted at me as if to change the topic, leaving behind Cheeto dust across the bottom of my shirt. Though I attempted looking at the monitors, I looked at the reflection instead, noting the faded scars that contact with Pastor Dvoynik caused: the sweaty handprint from earlier and now the neon cheese dust. It was as if I could tell how much contact I’d had with him just based off how dirty I’d become. Without attracting his attention, I was able to remove most of the loose Cheeto powder, but the stain still remained, ridged from his fingerprints. 

As I readjusted my clothing, he now cycled through the individuated employees list on the screen, highlighting all the information he had on any particular worker. Take, for example, my cubical-mate. There was her Redeemer ID badge photo, the one with her mousy glasses and cardigan sweater, along with a summary of her last five calls. This part of the screen was more a collection of words that ran quickly underneath her picture than anything coherent, much like the ticker that was on any 24-hour news program; however, I could make out the gist of the calls, gleaning how effective – or, in her case, ineffective – she had been. There were also transparent graphics that depicted other statistics, such as Friendly index, which was represented as the aforementioned emojis. Her emoji was a crying cat with an exaggerated frown, a not-so-subtle way to demonstrate the machine’s displeasure with her ability to recreate the script for Sinners. After a moment, he toggled the comment section of her profile, letting the cursor hover over. 

“We can get pretty much anything about her, Elliott,” he said, “even what she had for breakfast.”

“Is that the problem?”

He pulled up her receipt for McDonald’s, along with her coffee order from Starbucks. Nothing but sugar and fat, really, though I’m not certain Pastor Dvoynik could discern the problem with that. 

“Looks like a junk-food lover,” he replied. “So typical.”

Without any further discussion, he began typing a strongly worded email about her performance. In the email, there were veiled threats, accompanied by graphs and charts depicting her foibles. It was one thing to know that you were unmotivated, maybe even lazy, but it was something completely different when a machine had digital proof. There was something more true to these figures than the real world it represented. It was something about how they were grouped into easily digestible segments of information, almost like a perverse menu. I mean this wasn’t anything I couldn’t get from hearing her calls all day long, yet having something official such as this made the ideas concrete in a way that casual eavesdropping couldn’t. It was as if God were here on Earth, leasing His powers to the pastor, to us, really. My right hand went toward the screen, then recoiled, afraid to touch its brilliance.     

Halfway through the email he paused, then pivoted toward me.

“Why am I writing this?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well you know this place better than anyone,” he said. “Why don’t you compose this email for me?”

“Ah.”

I kept repeating that sound until my hands were on the keyboard. At first, I mimicked the words I saw on sample  that popped up in the right hand window, though the words were not as precise as the corporate speak DoHR came up with. The pace of my fingers wouldn’t clue you into the fact I lacked the gravitas to convey in an official document. The words flowed, whole paragraphs even, despite the part of me that wanted to copy and paste the template email, stealing the soul hidden within the phraseology. I brought all sorts of imagery to the email — whole metaphors constructed on the fly, just for her. Near the end, the space near my heart began to flutter, filling up with this red liquid that made both cheeks red. 

“Can I read it?”

I nodded ever so slightly, shifting my weight backward in order for him to read. With each line, his breath increased in pace, straining against gravity like a locomotive up a hill. Normally, I might pull my head to the side, rolling my eyes as he went about his business, but this time, I felt let that warm part in my chest increase inside me, matching the cadence of his breathing. Once he finished the email, we both paused for a moment, searching for the right words to comment on the perfect ones on the screen. Sure it was kind of mess – maybe even a couple typos here or there. I just knew there was a part of me in that letter, words that were my own, though jumbled at certain times. 

“Well, it’s not official.”

“I can change that.”   

“Ah, don’t bother,” he replied. “We have an app for that. That’s if we don’t feel like taking the DoHR’s templates.”

“You mean an app that translates all the—,” I stopped myself, unable to continue. “I mean, okay. Can I watch it work?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

With a right click of the mouse the option appeared on my document; it seemed as routine as changing the font or checking the spelling. The program took out all the extraneous details – all the emotion within the flowery prose. By the end of the new email, all personality was scrubbed, the syntax and verbiage altered into DoHR corporate speak until that part of me disappeared.   

“Wanna read over it one more time before we send it?” he asked.

Even when I attempted to speak, the once full space in my chest, the one that told you right and wrong, disappeared, leaving just a husk, an empty cavity. Each time I attempted to focus on this motion, the flashing ticker underneath reminded me of what I lost inside the template, the perfect sheen that covered up my messy beauty underneath. 

“You okay, Elliott?”

“Oh, yeah… why do you ask?”

“Nothing.”

His hands wondered toward his pockets, soon revealing another bag of Cheetos, one that you might put in a child’s lunch. I sized up his pants, wondering how many he had in there. 

“Look,” he said, “you know this isn’t me, right? I loved your version. This one is just more correct, but you get that. No more old Elliott. No, you found your way into the Redeemer’s arms.” 

“Ha, yeah, always on script.”

My fingers tightened, but instead of balling into a fist, they dance, each to a different melody. To quiet them, I shoved them inside my pockets, straining to keep them contained.   

“And think of what you’ve accomplished, son,” he said. “You’ve seen what it is to help, to bring them in. You’re one of us now.” 

Instead of responding, I just watched the ticker underneath this woman’s profile, unsure who she was anymore. I’d worked with her for weeks, yet I couldn’t recognize her name any longer, nor the words flashing beside her. There was no longer a connection between the two. 

As Pastor Dvoynik mashed his fingers on the keyboard, the screen went dead for a moment, leaving the woman’s profile etched into the blackness. Though I could discern her features, the once vibrant image was more ghostlike than I remembered, silver lining comprising each curve of her face. Without warning, the specter disappeared, replaced by another program that was similar in appearance, displaying our parishioner’s statics, such as height, age, job, and overall church attendance; however, instead of an emoji detailing said individual’s performance on the job, or church for that matter, it presented a mixture of their credit rating and overall financial health. Most people he scrolled the mouse over had that sick emoji, the one with the mask of their face, protecting the world against their illness. 

“Lot of people don’t know how to spend their money,” he said, scrolling through the list without bothering to discern the nuances in appearance. He only cared about the emoji.

“It’s hard,” I replied. “There’s so much out there for us.”

“That won’t always be a problem,” he said, honing in on Edgar Kitzinger. “Take, for instance, this guy right here, Elliott.”

He hovered over Mr. Kitzinger, a man in his fifties with a deathly ill emoji, one with an icepack on its head and exploding thermometer rested between its lips. Poor guy. Looked like he was a janitor here, but also worked nights at the local 24-hour WalMart down in Santa Ana. The computer said he lived in his car just to fulfill his monthly DoHR payment of $2,400 dollars. Good. He hit a boy with his pickup years back, the computer said, killing him instantly. 

“In the past, I wouldn’t know what to do with this man,” Pastor Dvoynik said, “but now with the DoHR’s new campaign, I’ll be able to use Financial Peace Analysis to help this man pay off his debt.”

“To the DoHR.”

“Yeah, to the DoHR,” he replied, eye sideways with an indignant glare. “Why would you say that? This beats having to send them to Heaven’s Waiting Room when he dies just because he’s still in debt.” 

“No, no,” I said, kind of shaking, “I didn’t mean it that way.” 

He kept clicking on the emoji so the thermometer graphic would explode. 

“Would you want to learn this system, Elliott?” he asked. “The computer has a whole program that runs itself practically.”

“But I don’t have that level of clearance for DoHR activity.” 

“What if I got you one?”

“Really?”

He stood up, not bothering to wipe off the orange dust from the keyboard, then twisted himself so that I could squeeze into his chair. I plopped down, still shaking, unsure if I remembered how to do simple motor tasks such as breathe.

“I’ll let you be,” Elliott,” he said. “We’ll talk later.”

“Okay.”

When he left, the computer screen morphed into Financial  Peace University, which was a program narrated by Bill O'Reilly. I leaned back in the faded chair, letting his voice and the program wash over me, digital waves of progress. With every new command I mastered, I found that I gained a new sense of clarity, and each moment that proceeded showed me how bad my vision had been before. The program lasted for several hours, but all I could think about was getting the diploma in the mail, weeks later, secure in the knowledge that I could now help people out of debt. I would be a certified Financial Expert, one ordained by the DoHR and Bill O'Reilly, along with the computer-generated clients I would save. Maybe this was what I needed. What good did the past, my personality, get me? A diploma from the DoHR would change that. 

* * * 

 
That night, once the Call Center had emptied, the noise from the day quieted, a lone Callbot squawking, taking prayers via text message. The machine clicked with excitement after receiving a new prayer, repeating them in its own unique, foreign tongue before transcribing them for Heaven. I could almost discern their prayers, like some invisible interlocutor, here just to confirm that said prayers were indeed being sent. I was the receipt of an important masked, transaction. When I looked up from my computer screen, Pastor Dvoynik came out of his office, hair disheveled, a fresh ring sweat pooled around his armpits and stomach. He scanned the room until he locked eyes with me. Deep inside those crystal blues, his pupils danced in frantic circles but, strangely enough, remained still. He waved in the distance, both hands directing me toward his office like those guys on the runway, guiding planes. 

Inside, Pastor Dvoynik paced around, hands shoved in his pockets. I watched him for a bit but became distracted by the gentleman in his chair, facing the window that peered straight into the Call Center. Each time I made an effort to discover this mystery man’s identity, he would, ever so slightly, move in the opposite direction. Once again, I began cycling through the inventory of calls I received over the past week, attempting, in a matter of moments, to ascertain if any of them broke the cardinal rules of the Redeemer. This man could, in no way, just be here to talk about a promotion. 

“Can you sit down, Elliott,” Pastor Dvoynik said, hands still dug in his pockets. 

“What’s this about?

“Just sit down, son.”

I didn’t reply but rather slouched backward, resting my weight on the upholstery, hoping this relaxed approached would coax out the mystery man. While my body sank inward, I kept thinking about the Precious Moments figurines I inherited from Gran, who, against the wishes of most our family, bought them in droves, especially the religious ones; yet the only one I had left was Li’l Angel Jesus on the cross, which, understandably, the company discontinued after much protest. Though I loved the model with all its supposed flaws, I understood why people had a problem with a little cherub Jesus on the cross, hands bloody from Roman spikes. 

“Um, ah, so,” Pastor Dvoynik said, now wiping his forehead. “Let’s get started.”

With all the grace of drunkard, he hastily navigated through his office, and then placed his arm around me, inadvertently wiping his sweat all over my shirt once again. 

Even when I distanced myself, I was too close, hands nearly grazing, seemingly attached at this point. I could hear his bodily functions as if they were my own: from the smack of his lips to a gurgling near the midsection, each one seemed like they were a part of me. Instead of fighting, I rested my head on his shoulder but didn’t close my eyes. 

“Now you know how much I believe in this mission,” Pastor Dvoynik stated. “Eighty cents of each dollar gets put back into the Redeemer. We’re unlike any other church out there.”
I raised my head to make eye contact yet only caught his double chin.

“How can I help?”

His lips quivered, shaking like they were speaking, yet no words came, just dry clicking noises.  Beyond reason, I began tracking his movements, decoding the nonexistent words as if they contained something of real value. They didn’t. There were only empty whispers and involuntary spasms. 

“Is there something I can do?” I asked, emphasizing my question. 

“What if you could really help someone with their problems?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean I could put you in a program that would, undoubtedly, change the way you — maybe even all of us — help the needy,” he replied, pulling even me closer, now inches away from his face. “Now, this here program isn’t entirely new, but we’re eager to make this a signature part of what we do here at the Redeemer. Maybe even our own department like the DoHR. Can you even imagine it, Elliott? Our own department? It will be a way of downsizing  the DoHR.”

He let go of me, then paraded around the room in circles. 

“Well, I’d say that sounds great. I just don’t know how I fit in.”

I couldn’t listen to his answer, nor comprehend it if I did. Intent on discovering the identity of the man looking out the window, I positioned myself forward, butt resting almost above the coach cushions. The spasm resurfaced within me. Who was he to watch this moment, this special connection? My body pressed against another man, the ultimate sign of intimacy. Nuts to his spying. He listened to us, which he did with a smug backside, but I couldn’t discern his role in this scenario. I leaned over, now halfway out of the chair, hands still dug into the sides of the faux leather. 

When I sat up his face became apparent in the glass, a hazy distortion, but nonetheless clear enough for me. Maybe a double? A Xerox even? Upon discovering his identity, though, I stumbled back in the seat, shocked to discover the man in the other chair was another Pastor Dvoynik. This didn’t happen, not even in a world where Heaven was just a form away. I mean, after all, when I say, “he was another Pastor Dvoynik”, please don’t misunderstand me. This Pastor Dvoynik, however, didn’t have the bulging gut; he was the doppelgänger only the Pastor’s ex-wife could have imagined. 

“The Pastor is having some difficulty in explaining our endeavor,” the second Pastor Dvoynik said, now reclined in his chair, “which is understandable, given the nature of the project.”

“Which is?” 

“Your chance to literally go inside someone else’s mind,” he replied. “There you’ll help them make correct life choices, even help with bodily functions once you two get along.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” I replied. “I’m alive, not some spirit.”

The two pastors turned toward each other, nodded twice, then looked back at me. They, individually, had this look that indicated I was somehow wrong in that assertion about my life being worth something.  

“What was that?” I replied. 

“What was what?” my Pastor Dvoynik said. 

“That look you gave each other.”

The pastors turned toward each other again, silently debating. 

“Well, yes, you might have to give up certain things for this position, Elliott,” the skinny Dvoynik said, both eyes still locked on the fat Pastor Dvoynik. “But they don’t need to be permanent.”

“Death isn’t permanent?”

“Spirit-hood,” my pastor interjected. “It’s called Temporary Spirit Reassignment, and no, it’s not always permanent.”

I shot upward, only to shuffle backward to the chair, using both hands for support when easing my way between the cushions. The pastors exchanged glances once again, prompting one another to continue the discussion; however, when one would begin to speak, the other would stop mid-thought, leaving their respective mouths agape. Each time they’d feign modesty, I dug my fingers deeper into the sides of the chair, almost puncturing its faux leather skin. 

“Look,” the fake Pastor Dvoynik finally said. “This is a way to give your life to something higher, something bigger than yourself.”

“But why not use someone who’s already dead for this mission?” I asked, fingers still dug into the chair. “Sure, I’m sure there’s some legal things with the DoHR to get around, but it would be so better than making someone to give up their life – even if it’s for a short amount of time.”

“Like you said, the DoHR would never let us use their dead,” my pastor said. “The only reason we got this contract was because we told them there was someone special in the congregation that would be able to handle this much power.”

“Power,” the skinny pastor interjected, “that’s the key here.”

Both pastors glanced at me, and then at the floor below our feet, focusing on imperfections within the beige carpeting. These blemishes were built into the system of the carpet, not caused by a foot or some stray cup of coffee. 

Poetic almost. 

“Let’s be honest,” the fake pastor said, “you’re in your mid-thirties, no prospect of a wife, kids are forever a long shot, and if it wasn’t for this church, you’d still be a telemarketer. Where else are you going to find this opportunity?”   

“This first one needs to special,” my pastor added. “Extraordinary. That’s why we need someone like you: a person who wants to lead, but won’t let the power overtake them.”

“And wouldn’t Grandma be proud if your life meant something?”

The fake Pastor D. left his real leather chair, repositioned his Armani tie, and then folded his arms as if in prayer. His stature seemed to increase, rising to the ceiling.

“After all, don’t you see that all life, even death, is posterity? It’s building some thing that’s great. It’s moving the teleological needle toward progress, to the ultimate place where some department has control of both Heaven and Earth at the same time. Unless you’re part of building that great monument of our Father, then you’ll be forever outside of it.” 

“Jesus just said believe in me and you all shall be forever—”

“What’s one man to an entire organization?” he replied. “Don’t you see that even Jesus wanted some company to rule us? It was He, after all, who gave Peter authority to create the DoHR. Did He not say to him, ‘upon this rock I will build my church and organization?’ If love was all we needed, we’d still be back in the desert, waiting for divine calling. No, He wanted us to build something great in His name.” 

I hiccupped so forcefully some vomit came up. That bile taste lingered in my mouth, coating every inch. To distract myself, I slumped back further into the chair, almost disappearing. From this new position, the Call Center, which was empty, could be seen in his eyes. Not clearly, of course, but rather opaquely. For a moment, I imagined the whole office filled to capacity, all members working just like they did back at the Department of Heaven Relations. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. I continued my retreat back into my seat until I was reclined. 

“You’re a part of this whole system,” the other pastor said, “and no one can take that from you. But don’t you want to be an even bigger part of it all? Be a rock, like Peter?”
“Yeah, I imagine. I mean, it’s what we should all want.”

I paused before speaking again, now focused on the imperfection in the carpeting below. Now I saw why it was so interesting. If you crossed your eyes, the blemishes blended with the normal parts, until you couldn’t tell them apart. 

“I have no reason to say no, but I can’t find a reason to say yes.”

“You can’t say yes because you lack faith in yourself, son,” my pastor said. “Let my faith sustain yours, Elliott.”

“Exactly,” the skinny Dvoynik interjected, “and all of Heaven will be watching his one case. Imagine that. You’ll even have a spirit watching to see how you perform. One in Heaven no less. It’s a great honor to be thought of. This, if we all play our cards right, could become its own branch of Heaven, just like the DoHR.”  

Now I gasped for air. My lungs felt buried underneath hundreds of horrible images, all designed to remind me how much I’d suffer in death. I kept imagining the Precious Moments’ Jesus on the cross with my face plastered over our Lord’s. My expression, however, seemed obscured in my mind’s eye. I hoped my face expressed grace, one still courageous under the ultimate test, yet the more I thought about the kind of expression I’d actually wear in that moment, I saw a frighten child instead, who couldn’t leave his bed without hearing voices. I wasn’t anything more than a man. 

“I can’t go through what He did,” I said, between heavy breaths. “I don’t know how to give my life like that, and, besides, I’d just be letting you all down. Another failure.” 

“That’s part of the point,” the real Pastor Dvoynik said. “We’d walk you through the process, and, because of your struggle, you’ll set such an example all others will follow.”

“Huh… I guess if you were helping me through the process—”

“Yes? Yes?” they interjected simultaneously, almost tripping over each other.
I wanted to be back on the floor at that moment, serving anonymously but still connected to the people. Though I never thought of the consequences, I turned away from what I wanted now and began thinking of what was next. Their eyes, after all, prompted me to do so. In my mind’s eye, I watched myself in the cubical, hair thinning and growing gray, until I was nothing more than yellow skin. That was the best-case scenario, really. Or I could be dead. Dead wasn’t so bad in the past, but now it was. Entrance to Heaven had a waiting list for generations, leaving most people wade through the Department of Heaven Relations limbo, whatever that was. No one knew for sure, not even the people that worked there. I pictured myself in purgatory, minus a testicle for some strange reason, maybe with Gran or without her, but definitely unsure of what she said back before she died.

“What else should I know about the program?” I said, still looking at the cross and the fluorescent light cascading down its sheen finish.

“You’ll be our first born, Elliott, destined for greatness. You’ll help us make this third-rate program into something great. Better than the Department of Heaven Relations, or even the Jesus Initiative in inner-city schools.”

“Well, what do you say?” the skinny one asked. “This offer will make this church the epicenter of all religious thought.” 

I looked toward my Pastor Dvoynik for some guidance, any form of reassurance to help curb the emotion welling up in my gut. He couldn’t muster more than a head nod. Truth be told, it wasn’t so much a head nod, more like a quiver that masqueraded for a sign of affection. His fat giggled for the briefest moment, then began to produce sweat along his razor burn. 

“It seems as if there’s nothing left to argue,” I said. “In the service of our Lord the Redeemer stands alone.”

“Amen,” they both said in unison. “All glory to the Redeemer.”

That was that then. 

I picked a path. 

The outline of Pastor Dvoynik and, eventually, the entire room faded into the surrounding office, which then prompted the office to disappear into the world outside, until all existence became white. Now you might hear white and think snow or even the page you’re reading this story from, but this whiteness blinded me, saturating every pour with its brilliance.

My mind drifted toward the television shows Gran watched about the afterlife, the ones with cheesy acting, minimal consideration to the Word, and cheap sets. Everything they depicted seemed true enough, but in this version, the real one, I experienced the big budget counterpart to their half-baked interpretation. It reminded me of what Gran said about Frank Sinatra Jr.: “He might look like the real thing, even sound like it, but honey, stand three feet away from the man and tell me he isn’t just a phony. A pale imitation.” 


After receiving his M.A. in Literature and Writing at California State University San Marcos, William Lemon began teaching creative writing and composition at Santa Monica College. He has been published in Bartleby Snopes, BlazeVOX, Drunk Monkeys, and the Eunoia Review.