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Alan Frost pulled up to the building, eased himself from his rented car, and clicked the door shut. The cold made his joints ache more than usual. Vapor plumed from his nostrils and he blew on his hands to warm them. There was only a single street light to joust with the night and its flickering glow pooled in a sad circle on the gravel parking lot. He pulled his coat tighter around him as he looked at the building.
It had been a schoolhouse back in the thirties. It was long and low, half brick and half wood with tall, double-paned windows that glowed with yellow, non-fluorescent light that spilled out into the icy, Fall night and tossed knife-sharp shadows from the leafless trees.
The parking lot was speckled with pickup trucks and older vehicles sporting peeling paint and decaying mufflers held up with twisted coat hangers. Through the schoolhouse windows, Alan saw a fair number of people assembled and knew if he had arrived a little earlier, he would have heard hymns being sung and drifting into the stillness of the night.
He had asked for this gig, winging his way from New York into Flyover Country this afternoon and driving his rented car to the charmless little town of Currant, NC. He had no love for the quacks that parted sick people from their money and gave them false hope. The FTC had managed to put Cyrus Taylor’s Traveling Con Show in its coffin a year earlier, and he was here to complete the job of shoveling dirt into the grave.
He walked into the building, welcoming the warmth inside. A few heads in the room turned at his arrival, but no-one spoke. The antechamber -the waiting room for those who had come to be healed- was even more depressing than the building’s exterior. Most of the pilgrims were older people. Wrinkled skin, bleached-white dentures, and gray hair were the order of the night. Walkers and canes clattered in abundance in the aisles and a couple of aged pensioners in wheelchairs patiently awaited their audience with the miracle man. A fair number of those waiting held chickens in their arms, or baskets of fruit or homemade syrups and jams. A poorly dressed woman of haggard countenance held a clutch of two dozen eggs arranged in a pyramid. She favored Alan with an uncertain smile, the melancholy in her face telepathing her anxiety that her gift would prove insufficient.
Down a hallway, Alan could see the main attraction in a small room at the end of a hallway. Cyrus Taylor was little more than a boy, barely twenty-two years old, with thick, black hair carelessly combed. He might have been five-seven, soaking wet. Blind from birth, his eyes were a secret hidden behind old-fashioned, plastic-framed sunglasses. He sat behind a table while those with whom he held audience bowed their heads and prayed. The run down building, the poor chairs and the meager surroundings were a sorry comedown from the days he had packed auditoriums on nationwide revivals. That was before the FTC had come down on him with both feet and a sledgehammer. He had managed to beat the rap, but, looking at him now, he might as well have been in a six by nine cell.
Their consultation concluded, the elderly couple at the table before Cyrus slowly stood up and turned to make their way back down the hallway. The elderly man helped his wife hobble down the narrow corridor, her cane thumping on the wooden floor. The woman’s face was untroubled and with a serene glow that Alan didn’t understand.
So much for healing the lame, he thought. She would have done better consulting a fortune teller.
Alan watched the couple pass out of the building, a cold hiccup of wind gusting through as the door was opened. Then the door closed and they were gone, only to be replaced by another hopeful rising from the audience and making the slow promenade down the hallway.
Alan talked with several of the people in the waiting room and had the bulk of the story he wanted before ever speaking to Cyrus. He watched the same charade of “healing” occur a dozen times more before the last attendee besides himself closed the door behind him. As if in anticipation, Cyrus turned his sightless eyes towards him, almost as if he could see Alan, and motioned him to come down the hallway. It was a little creepy.
As Alan stepped into the room, his heavy overcoat draped over his arm, he noticed the gifts of food set carefully on a table out of the way. There were no fowl to be seen.
Without thinking, and before he could stop himself, Alan blurted out,“Where are the chickens?”
“People pay what they can,” Cyrus replied. “We have no need for livestock. Better to let them keep their hens so they can eat the eggs.”
Alan held out his hand and introduced himself, as well as producing his credentials from the American Fanfare, a scandal sheet only a little less notorious than the Enquirer. Alan couldn’t really see what it was, but Cyrus had his hands below the table and seemed to be doing something like counting rosaries or feeling his way around a puzzle, and that might have been what kept him from putting out his own hand. When Cyrus made no move to respond it was up to Cyrus’s companion in the room to remind Alan of what should have been obvious.
“He can’t see,” the man said. “He doesn’t know you have your hand out.”
Embarrassed, Alan withdrew his hand and sat down. Cyrus’s companion stood by his right side. Whatever light had been stolen from Cyrus Taylor’s eyes had found their way into those of his associate. He was a very tall man with ice blue irises, almost albino-like, only a whisper away from colorless. His sedate black suit looked as if he had been born to it and his heavy brow ridges lent him a thuggish, threatening quality.
“Emmanuel Green,” Cyrus said. “My attendant. We call him Manny.” Manny made no effort to shake hands and Alan was glad. The man was a little frightening. Tall, rat-tail thin and dour as a Baptist preacher with those white eyes staring into him. Alan wasn’t about to call him anything.
Thanks,” Alan said, “for agreeing to see me. You have, to put it mildly, been out of the spotlight since your… unpleasantness with the FTC.” He pulled out an electronic recorder and set it on the table.
Cyrus seemed to debate something internally for a second, then reverted to the phantom of a smile.
“What do you want to know?”
“Well, first off, how do you feel about the charges that were leveled against you?”
“I was acquitted,” Cyrus said. “What more is there to say?”
“Do you think the charges were just? Do you think it was right to take money from all those people under false pretenses? To give them false hope? Do you think you should be in jail?”
Cyrus didn’t rise to the bait, but sustained the diminutive, tranquil smile upon his lips.
“I never took money under false pretenses.”
“The FTC would differ with you.”
Cyrus took a slow breath through his nose. When he spoke, his voice was entirely unruffled.
“Why do you have this animus against me?”
“I watched a dozen people walk out of this place tonight, after giving you everything they could possibly spare. Poor people, sick people that should be seeing a doctor, not you. I didn’t see any of them healed.”
“Perhaps,” Cyrus said, “God doesn’t work on your timetable. Maybe He has a different purpose you can’t fathom. Maybe simple peace of mind is the best thing for these people. One of man’s greatest sins is claiming to know the Will of God.” Cyrus paused. “Perhaps your pain muddles your mind.”
Alan’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“What do you mean?”
“ You’re hurting,” Cyrus said. “It’s not too bad today, but on some days you can barely move. I’m thinking Rheumatoid Arthritis, a cruel joke -one dropped stitch- played on you by God while you were still being knit together in your mother’s womb.”
“If it is,” Alan said, sensing an opening, “maybe you can convince me that you’re not a flim flam artist.”
“Ah,” Cyrus said. “You want a show. You realize that I do nothing? God works through me and it is His choice as to who is healed and who is not?”
“That’s a convenient out for you, isn’t it?”
“If you choose to see it that way. Despite that, I’ll give you your show. That’s really what you’re here for, isn’t it? But it’s going to cost you. Maybe more than you’re willing to pay. Do you still want it?”
“Is that some kind of threat,” Alan cast a quick look at the menacing presence of Manny standing by Cyrus’s side.
“Why would God threaten? He holds all the cards. He sets down a set of rules and if you don’t follow them, that’s on your head. Tears are too late when you’ve lived an ungodly life and are suddenly confronted with the cost of your sin.”
“I’ll risk it. What’s the price of a ticket to this freak show?”
“Just a few questions. And a test.” Cyrus’s smile finally touched his teeth and they shone in a grin. “God always wants a test.”
“Alright. Fire away.”
“You arrived by car, did you not?”
“Yes. From the airport.”
“You return to New York in the morning?”
From beneath the table, Cyrus produced a legal pad and laid it out on the table top with all the slow, tactile finesse of a blind man. Drawn in pencil on the legal pad was a very good rendering of an airliner in a downward spiral, one of its engines in flames, lightning flashing in the background and smoke billowing from the stricken engine. On its tail was the ID number of the plane Alan would be taking back to New York in the morning.
“Do not,” Cyrus warned, “get on that plane.”
Alan looked at the drawing for a few seconds, then dismissed it.
“Do you expect me to believe you just drew that?”
“Only if you have faith in what God can do through man. I sense you have lost that faith. If you ever had it.”
“Even a poor mind reader,” Alan said, “could see that. Or a blind man. I don’t suppose,” he went on, “you’d be willing to take off those sunglasses? Let me take a peek at those milky whites?”
“I would not. My medical issues are a matter of public record. They’re not fake.”
“I tried to reach your doctor,” Alan said casually. “He’s not in. The answering service said he’s golfing at Hilton Head?”
“Nothing scandalous about that. He has a private plane that he flies there once a month. He’s due back tomorrow morning. You might run into him at the airport.”
“I’ll make a point of it.”
Cyrus seemed troubled, his concern molding itself into a stern line on his lower jaw, just below his lips.
“I have been derided all my life,” he said. “Called a Snake Oil salesman, false prophet, crook, swindler and con man. What is that compared to being sightless and an outcast? But this is what God asked of me. And while you judge me and scoff at the Will of God, you might do well to remember that the Bible has two parts. A New Testament and an Old. The Old Testament God was jealous and did not take kindly to being mocked. The Old Testament God created the world and all that was in it, only to destroy it and start again. The Old Testament God slew entire nations and mighty armies. Are you sure,” Cyrus asked, “that’s the sort of Power you want to piss off?”
“That might frighten me if I were a ten year old schoolgirl living in 1620,” Alan said, “or didn’t have more than one firing brain cell. So either show me what you got or let me get out of here and back to my hotel.”
Cyrus motioned Manny to come closer. Alan was a little uncomfortable as he realized he was alone in this room with a couple of fruitcakes. There was something about Manny that was beyond intimidating. He moved with a liquid, overarching grace that was almost like gliding and his black suit flowed like a hanging judge’s robes. He stood directly next to Cyrus and glared silently down at Alan, a dangerous dislike plain in those cold orbs, like a snarling dog with bared canines about to strike.
“Give me your hands,” Cyrus said.
Alan extended his arms slowly across the table, not showing the pain in his face as his aching shoulders barked out their objection. He was now less dismissive of the whole farce than he would have expected. He could not brush aside the palpable sensation of power that came through Cyrus’s hands as he grasped each of Alan’s forearms. It wasn’t earth-moving or startling -Alan didn’t roll on the floor with his eyes rolled up, or speak in tongues- but it was real.
Cyrus held onto Alan’s arms for a full five seconds that seemed to last an age. He never spoke, he never looked up, just held Alan’s arms in a fierce grip that seemed impossible for someone of his miniscule build. The grinding, unrelenting pain in Alan’s lower back and shoulders eased. It didn’t vanish completely, but its severity had unquestionably lessened.
Alan wanted to pull his arms back from the strange sensation but forced himself to wait, knowing that to show surprise would give the fraud a victory. He wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. After a few more seconds, Cyrus released Alan’s arms.
Cyrus sat back, completely complacent. If his face was any indication of the effort he had just expended, he might have done no more than tick up a thermostat.
When Alan didn’t speak, Cyrus broke the silence.
“Show’s over,” he said. “How was it?”
“Would have been better with popcorn,” Alan answered. “I have to admit, I do feel a little better. But placebos can do that. It won’t last.”
“ ‘You do not believe, though you have seen,’ ” Cyrus quoted. “What else can I do?”
“Even the Monkey’s Paw granted three wishes,” Alan poked. “Can’t your god do better than that?”
For the first time, Cyrus showed a flash of anger. “You came here to extract your pound of flesh like some cut rate Shylock. You wanted me to jump through hoops like a trained dog. Your mind was closed from the moment you walked in the door and nothing that happened here was going to change it. So you’ve got your pound of flesh, you’ve seen your show, and your mind is yet closed. I think you should leave. Manny will show you out.”
Alan gathered up his recorder and his coat and stood up. Manny came around the table and any parting shots Alan might have wanted to squeeze off were quickly squelched by the seven foot tall caregiver. Cyrus had turned away in his chair and gazed blindly at a wall.
Just before seeing Alan out the door and into the starry icebox of the night, Manny halted the pair at the doorway and stared into Alan’s eyes. Manny’s gaze somehow seemed less resolute, almost kind.
“You aren’t the first to mock God, nor will you be the last. Jesus in his passion knew this, begging forgiveness for those who knew not what they did. Heed these words if you never heed anything else: Do not get on that plane.”
Manny opened the door and, as Alan walked out of the building, Manny said one last thing:
“You’ve been warned.”
The cold of the previous night had thawed to a fairly tepid dawn that commenced with distant rumbles of thunder that grew steadily closer and more formidable. By the time Alan got to the airport that morning a roaring thunderstorm was in full voice. The wipers of his rental car could barely keep pace with the pelting downpour and standing water on the roads sloshed into his engine compartment, causing the little red battery light to glow feebly a couple of times. Thunder didn’t crack but rumbled, shaking the earth as if some massive metal machine were pounding the ground. Lightning was steady and bright, sometimes blinding.
Though he kept the idea of the prophesied crashing plane somewhere near the front of his thoughts, Alan’s most pressing cogitation was on his physical well being. He had awakened that morning pain-free for the first time in years. His sleep the previous night had been untroubled and deep and he literally felt twenty years younger. He hadn’t felt this good since he’d been a teenager. The pain wasn’t dammed up by a pill. It was gone.
He sprinted nimbly from his rental car, his jacket over his head in the torrential rain, and into the airport terminal, his knee joints springy and willing. His flight wouldn’t be leaving for an hour and, just on the off chance, he strolled over to one of the information desks and asked the agent there to page Daryl King, Cyrus’s doctor. Perhaps he had arrived from Hilton Head. Only a moment after the page went out over the intercom, the courtesy phone buzzed and Alan picked it up.
Alan explained who he was and what he was doing, and would it be possible for the doctor to answer a couple of questions? Dr. King suggested they meet for coffee at the Skycap Cafe.
Dr. King was short and affable. His hair was wet and his umbrella still dripped as he sat at the table. His black overcoat gleamed from rivulets of water catching the light. Growls of thunder were still clearly perceptible even deep inside the airport terminal.
King took the proffered cup of coffee in both hands and gulped it gratefully.
“Nasty out there,” he said. “I’ve got a thousand hours of flight time in and this is about as bad as I’ve ever seen it. My advice: don’t fly a little Cessna in this weather.”
“I appreciate your seeing me, Dr. King,” Alan said. “But I’m pressed for time…”
“Of course. What do you want to know?”
“In my interview last evening, I got the feeling that… well, maybe, Cyrus isn’t really blind.”
Dr. King cut him off with a laugh.
“Oh, I assure you, he’s sightless. Has been since birth. But he’s very perceptive. Not enough to fool anyone, but enough to make them wonder.”
“Okay. About this healing business…”
“What do you mean?” Alan didn’t know what to make of the twinkle in Dr. King’s eyes.
“The science doesn’t support it. But science doesn’t support spontaneous remissions of cancers, recovery from brain death, or spontaneous reversal of paralysis. And all those things happen. Some physicians won’t cop to it, but they’ve all seen it. Medicine is like a blunt instrument, but sometimes pure will can best brute force. And that might explain Cyrus’s abilities.”
“So you think it’s real?”
“I said I’ve seen it happen. How it happens, through God, or force of will, or suggestion, or a pill, doesn’t make it any less real.”
“Okay. One last thing.” Alan wavered for a moment, trying to properly phrase the question.
“Have you ever known him to have the gift of prophecy?”
“Prophecy? That’s a new one on me. No, Cyrus has never claimed that.”
Alan thanked the doctor for his time and the doctor wished him a safe trip. The intercom vibrated overhead. Alan’s flight was boarding.
It was touch and go for a few minutes, before the plane broke above the weather, but two hours later, the flight landed in New York safe and whole.
Alan had clutched his armrest as the plane initially struggled against the storm, wondering if perhaps Cyrus’s prophecy might somehow come to fruition. But ten minutes after takeoff, the 737 was cruising comfortably above the weather and beautiful blue skies and sunshine stretched out on all sides of the plane, the boiling clouds and crackling lightning safely below them.
Alan wrote the story on the two hour flight, injecting a little more malice and sarcasm than he normally might have, compensating for his own feelings of foolishness in having given weight to any of it. Nowhere in the story was there any mention of his own deliverance from pain. He transmitted the story to his editor and had a drink.
He arrived at his office at one p.m. and spent most of the day researching upcoming articles and attending editorial meetings, where he hammered out the final details of the story on Cyrus Taylor which would run in next week’s issue. Once that was done, he forgot about Cyrus Taylor completely.
At 5:30 he called it a day. Before leaving the office, he called his lady friend, Rachel Bennet, and invited her over to his apartment. She said she’d be there around seven thirty.
When he got to his apartment, a detached duplex outside of the city, it was past six o’clock and the Wintertime darkness had come early. He wasn’t overly concerned to see his lights out when he returned home. It was quite possible he had forgotten to turn them on, or there was a power failure. He unlocked his door and stepped inside, flicking on one of the hateful CFL’s that had to warm up before getting to full brightness, and even then, they were all but worthless. The apartment was still in half-light even with the bulb burning. He walked into the bathroom to relieve himself and wash up a little. When he came back, he was more shocked than frightened to see Cyrus Taylor sitting on his living room couch. Realizing he had seen no vehicles outside, the first thing he thought to ask was:
“How did you get here?”
“Maybe,” Cyrus answered, “I mounted up as on wings of eagles. We have unfinished business.”
“I’m calling the cops.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
A cold shudder crawled down Alan’s spine and he knew Manny was there even before he turned around and saw him, hulking in the background like some steroid-infused wrestler, his pale eyes milky in the semi-dark. Manny blocked the doorway and Alan knew if he reached for his cell phone he would be quickly subdued.
“What do you want,” Alan asked, his mouth dry as desert-parched leather.
“Payment, of course,” Cyrus said. “I asked you last night if you were willing to pay the cost for your demonstration. You scoffed, thinking you knew better than God, that He wouldn’t exact his price. You were tested and found wanting.”
“What are you talking about,” Alan stammered. “There was no test.”
“Ah, but there was. You were told not to board that plane. But you defied God and did that very thing. That was your test.”
Alan tried to think on his feet, knowing he should have seen it coming, but his fear garbled his tongue.
“But nothing happened,” he objected, knowing even as he said it that it was a lie. Something very major had happened, he just didn’t yet know what it was.
“And why would it? Did you think God would murder a hundred innocent people to teach you a lesson? You think too much of yourself. No, you alone owe the debt for your mockery.”
With the delicate touch born of a lifetime of darkness, Cyrus removed his sunglasses to unveil eye sockets that were simply empty. Two bottomless black holes bore down on Alan, gaping sightlessly along both sides of Cyrus’s nose. The craters held a curious, reddish tinge, as if blood could be seen circulating beneath the thin skin that lined the sightless wells.
“I was chosen before I was born,” Cyrus said, a little sadly. “I could heal the blind, but I could never heal myself. That was my yoke and I bore it without complaint. Now, for your insolence, God will yoke you.”
Alan turned to make a dash for the door, but Manny reached out with the quickness of a striking mongoose and grabbed Alan’s arm. At the instant of Manny’s touch, Alan felt as if an electric bolt staked him to the spot with unbreakable bands of steel. He stood an inflexible statue, powerless to move or topple, staring helplessly up into the austere face and icy eyes of Emmanuel. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
All the pain that had so recently disappeared crashed into him with a hundredfold vengeance, a lifetime of joint degeneration packed into a few seconds. To Alan it felt as if some wild-eyed mad doctor were inside of him, ratcheting and twisting the ligaments of every grinding joint with a metal lever, binding up the connective tissues in screaming knots so tight they might burst in sprays of fluid and protein. His fingers petrified to immovable stone and his back twisted and arched into a tortured pretzel. His knees and hip joints contracted and withered; his toes curled backwards in a bone-breaking constriction. He wanted to scream at the unbearable agony, but his jaw seemed bolted shut and he could only moan like a tormented animal.
When Manny released him he fell to the floor and lay there, not immobile, but squirming like a bisected serpent, his every breath a knife slash, his every movement a spear thrust.
He looked pitifully up at Cyrus sitting untroubled on the couch, his sunglasses again riding the bridge of his nose, those stripped sockets once more a question.
“What is in me?” Alan croaked out in a painful rasp.
“He who is in you,” Cyrus answered, “is greater than he who is in the world.”
Cyrus stood and took Emmanuel by the arm to be led. They walked from the room, never to be seen again. Whether they dematerialized, vanished in a blinding flash with a herald of trumpets, or simply walked out the front door, Alan never knew. He could only twist on the floor in agony, a humbled Rumpelstiltskin, shriveled and wasted.
The word didn’t take long to get out. Even now he could feel them looking at him from the corners of their eyes with a desperate, eye-popping expectation. It was always the same, and was going to get worse.
Rachel had found him two weeks previously, rocking on the floor of his apartment, wailing and in fiery pain. A week in the hospital had brought some relief from the pain, but the joint degeneration from his Rheumatoid Arthritis had accelerated dramatically and he was now housebound to a wheelchair. He had regained some use of his arms, able to grasp objects as big or bigger than a can, but unable to type or even use a fork. He had been relocated to a rehab center where the doctors reckoned he would spend the next few months, learning how to live with his infirmity. His editors at American Fanfare had been kind in taking their time distancing themselves from him, but he knew the tether would be cut shortly and his life as a journalist was at an end.
It was only a chance encounter in the drab dining hall a week ago, when he had reached out to touch one of the other wheelchair bound patients, that had started it all. He didn’t even remember why he had touched the man. Maybe to comfort him. He had turned back to his meal of liquid gruel, something he could hold in his hand and drink with a straw.
A stunned clattering behind him had caused him to look back. The man he had touched, a twenty year old black man who had been paralyzed in a car accident, had stood up with wobbling sureness from his wheelchair and pushed it over. That was the clattering sound Alan had heard. The man had stood there shakily, his eyes wide and white and bulging in his black face, staring at Alan with fright and wonderment. He took a step, then another, growing steadier by the second. He took another step towards Alan and Alan, in that instant, wanted more than anything to cower away from this freak of nature: a man with a sheared spinal cord who should never walk again steadily plodding towards him.
The two dozen other invalid patients in the dining room erupted in shouts and amazement. Every eye turned towards Alan and he recoiled in fright as their hungry, demanding gaze landed on him. The rehab attendants appeared then and settled the protesting, newly ambulatory man back into his wheelchair and spirited him and Alan away. They had seen it, too.
A week later, they could put it off no longer. It was time for Alan to return to the general rehab population. The attendant pushed him down the hallway and Alan could as much feel as see those in their rooms wheeling their useless bodies to the doorways, parking their wheelchairs in the openings and staring after him as he rolled by, hungry lions in the den. But, Alan thought, God would not shut the lions’ mouths and they would eat him up, bit by bit and day by day until he was all used up.
He began to weep, his warm tears running down his face and spotting his white hospital gown, knowing that his gift, like Cyrus’s, had come at a dreadful cost. He thought back to the punishing touch of the angel, Emmanuel (it meant “God is with us”. Alan had looked it up). He remembered Cyrus removing his sunglasses on that terrible night, looking at him with those empty sockets and saying: “I could heal the blind, but I could never heal myself.”
And Alan knew that those he touched might yet rise from their imprisonment, but he would remain forever jailed, a wizened husk left to live out his useless years in pain and want.
God was not mocked.
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