Lambs Chapter 2: An Army of Sheep, Led by a Lion

There are a lot of reasons why you might find yourself on a bridge, ready to kill yourself. Some of them might even be good reasons. I was willing to bet someone in history had thrown themselves off a bridge because it was really the best choice. I wasn’t going to be one of them. This was just another cry for help.

It’s such a pathetic thing, needing help. That’s why so few of us ask for it. After all, when you need help, you’ve fucked up. You’re weak, and vulnerable. Asking for help can just as easily led to getting taken advantage of. Even if someone is kind, and generous, you may just wind up driving them away by taking from them, because no one can keep giving help forever.

I don’t have any great trauma. I don’t have anything wonderful and special. I’m not anything wonderful and special. The reason why I stood out was because I came from a shitheap town full of shitheap people. They were all worthless, and I thought that because I was better than them, I was important. I looked around at people like Derry, Devon, and thought they were worse than me. But that wasn’t really true, was it?

This was a cry for help. And nobody was going to answer it. Nobody had the time. Nobody had the patience. Nobody had hope to offer me that things would ever change. And how greedy was I to want those things?

I looked down at my fingernails. Chipped, frayed, from all the biting. Just another metaphor for the way I’d fallen apart. It all started a year ago. As I sat on the bridge, I decided to waste some time thinking about it. After all, I had the rest of my life to worry about what I’d done wrong.

Last year

The old slaughterhouse had been shut down twenty years ago. Some kind of accident, some malfunction that had killed half a dozen people. They’d shut down the slaughterhouse, just another in a long series of humiliating blows to the city’s industry.

I was the honor student. My parents were demanding but attentive, always trying to push me to excel, but always supporting me. They were good about providing for me, about making sure that I got what I needed to succeed. They were part of what made me special. And they’d thought I should look into some after-school activities to help me stand out for college.

I was going to be the first female president. The chief justice of the Supreme Court. The doctor who cured cancer. I hadn’t made up my mind, but I had so many possibilities in front of me. And the only thing between me and those possibilities was finding something eye-catching to put on my college application.

“You want to help me?” asked Father Steer. The priest was handsome, broad-shouldered, exotic. He didn’t look like anyone in the city. That was part of what made him interesting. He was African, I was pretty sure. He had that kind of strange touch of accent that made me think of Africa. I brushed my fingers through my hair, the cardigan around my shoulders as I nodded. “I am afraid I may not be the best choice. After the allegations, well…”

“They weren’t based in anything but paranoia. You’ve made a strong community here among the students. I’ve been hearing a lot about you. Besides, the other churches around here are mostly only interested in gambling and tithing. I’ve looked into your past. Quite some impressive humanitarian work. How was Rwanda?”

“Depressing,” he said, smiling. “Research?”

“I googled you.”

“Ah. I am not good with technology. Computers, the internet… You know how we adults can be.” He smiled. “I could use your help. Setting up a web page, social media… Do you know Facebook?”

“Yes,” I said, an eyebrow raised. “I have to wonder, though. All that time, all that searching… What were you looking for? I mean, you spend all that time in countries riven by ethnic strife, civil war, genocide… Why come to the United States?”

He paused for a moment, setting down one of the crates he was moving. The slaughterhouse was in a state of partial repair, new flooring, old equipment being cleared out. He crouched down, setting the crate on the floor, and rested his fists on his hips, studying the room silently. “Something of a self-evident question, isn’t it?”

“Well-“

“Tell me, young lady. Do you know what Fentanyl is?”

I shrugged. “I heard a cop talking about it once, but-“

“It is an opioid. A terribly powerful one. It is often mixed with heroin, because it is so powerful that it allows the heroin to be diluted. It is also very easy to get your hands on. People take it, and take more of it, and overdose, and die.” He snapped his fingers sharply, surprisingly loudly, and I flinched back. “Just like that. And do you know why?”

“Because they’re junkies, and they don’t know any better?”

“Because they were hurt. Because they hurt themselves playing sports in high school, or while performing difficult manual labor, and were prescribed opiates while recovering, and became addicted.” He smiled. “What do you call it when the poor are encouraged to kill themselves? It cannot rightly be called genocide, because while the demographics are tilted, it nonetheless kills all quite equally. It cannot be called civil war because only one side fights. There’s a word for it.” He smiled, softly. “Slaughter.”

“That’s very noble of you,” I said, softly.

“You don’t think it could ever happen to you, do you?” He smiled gently. “I pray you are correct. But all it takes is a bit of bad luck. You can wind up trapped by it, like a fly in a web. That is why I am here. Because this is, after all, my homeland.”

“You were born here?”

“Oh, yes. In this state, in fact, just a few miles from here. I left a long time ago, but it’s good to be back, to help people.” He was quiet for a moment. “Tell me, Elizabeth. Would you be satisfied, do you think? If you were to survive this gauntlet unscathed, but someone close to you lost their life to it? Would you be satisfied with your survival while knowing that someone else had been butchered in your place?”

I looked at him, silent for a moment. “I… don’t think I could be, when you put it like that. Who could?”

“So many people. All the adults in this world, sometimes, it seems. Think about it. They care about you, because you succeed. But if you were to fall off that path, if you were to become a junkie, if you were to be badly injured, would your parents still love you as much? Would they be there for you through that pain, help you get back on your feet? If you were to fail their expectations… Would they still be there for you?”

“That’s a really rude, harsh question,” I said, calm. “My parents would still love me.”

“I am glad,” he said, and smiled. “So many people in this world care only for results. They love you if you are a success, but if you fail, they are quick to turn on you. I am glad to learn your parents are different.”

“They are,” I said, less calm.

“Whatever you say.”

I turned, and looked around the room. “So. You need a webmaster and stuff, huh?”

“And stuff.” He smiled. “I have plans that will require money. Quite a great deal of money.”

“Hmmm. Well. My mom’s a pharmacy tech.” I smiled. “I could always steal and sell fentanyl.”

“Hahah. Yes, you could.” He smiled.

That’s the thing, people say things they don’t mean. They say things are a joke, when they’re actually testing your reaction. We use jokes to try to excuse that bad behavior, to say things we’re not supposed to. It’s just another cry for help.

My parents, it turned out, didn’t love me as much when I was failing my classes, when I was talking about not going to college, when I wanted to work with Father Steer on a full-time basis. They didn’t love me as much when I was sniffling all the time, when I was staying out at strange hours. They loved me as long as I succeeded.

I’d thought Father Steer was different.

Maybe that, in itself, was the problem. Nobody loves you for you. You aren’t some ethereal force. You’re just a pile of fat inside a shell of bone inside a sheath of meat inside a suit of skin. Nobody loves you except for what you can do for them, and expecting otherwise is horribly selfish. You aren’t really special, no matter how much you think you are.

I’m not really special. That’s what I should be saying. I wasn’t special, no matter how much I thought I was.

The pile of fat stared out at the world, and down at itself in the mirrored reflection of the water. Staring at itself through filters three deep. The mirror, the eyes, and the pile of fat that tried to assign those things beauty.

“Holstein.”

I turned my head. Gay was standing there, with a woman next to him. She was unfamiliar. I raised an eyebrow. “I don’t have anything, Gay. You just bought from me yesterday, anyways.”

“Come on, Holstein. In this game, we know what’s going on. You’re the one who made a pact with him. What he’s got planned, it’s going to fuck things up, badly, even if he doesn’t succeed. If he does succeed, it’s going to be worse.”

“It’s Elizabeth.” I looked at the woman for a moment. She had these eyes, really intense, really sharp, staring at me fixedly. I looked past him, and noted a van. A couple of guys sat in the front of the car, their eyes scanning the area, looking nervous. “Shit. What, was the stuff bad? I got it from the usual guy, and Father Steer wasn’t involved.”

“Stop playing dumb,” he said, his voice sharp, his eyes narrowing.

Father Steer had warned me about him. That he wasn’t what he seemed. I’d thought he’d meant the guy was in some crime syndicate. But that woman hadn’t blinked yet, and there was something strange about her shadow. I felt like it kept moving when I wasn’t looking at it. I swallowed, feeling a sudden nervous tension. “I-“

“There are worse things in this world than dying, Elizabeth,” said the woman, her eyes glittering. Her lips didn’t move. Her expression remained fixed in an intent stare, burning holes in me, seeming to see right through me. I looked to the side.

“Are you trying to threaten me?”

“No. Fuck’s sakes, Paloma.” Gay cast a hard look at the woman, who returned it without apparent shame or chagrin, before he turned towards me. “Elizabeth. You’re not in your right mind. You’ve been getting used. The thing that calls itself Father Steer, it’s been feeding on you. It’s not a human. It’s been feeding off of your soul, and it abandoned you because you didn’t have anything more to feed it-“

“That’s not why he abandoned me,” I said softly. “He abandoned me because I’m evil. That’s all. Simple and clean.” I dangled my legs over the water, staring down. “What do you want from me, Gay?”

“I-“ He opened his mouth, and closed it. “What do you have planned?”

“I was going to kill myself.”

“No! For fucks sakes- No. That’s what something like it feeds on. It’ll make it stronger. You can’t kill yourself.”

I stared down at the water. “So… That’s why you want me alive. You want to hurt Father Steer. It’d make things easier for you if I’m alive. But if I die, it’d make him stronger. He might be able to beat you.” I was silent for a moment. “He said… He said he wanted to become a god. That I couldn’t do it. That I wasn’t the right person for it. He was going to make a god that would destroy civilization. It’d break the machine.” I stared down at my hands. The darkened nails, the way my once smooth, pink skin had become sallow and pallid. “He’s at the slaughterhouse.”

“Look. I appreciate what you’re going through. I really do. I understand how it feels, but I can’t stay. I need to go, and stop something really horrible from happening. If I don’t, everyone’s going to suffer. I’m sorry I can’t stay, but please, just keep it together for a bit. When we’re done, we can talk about this. Alright?” He took a step away, and turned towards me. “Alright?”

“If you say so,” I murmured.

I saw the moment of doubt in his eyes. The recognition of those words, which said the opposite of their literal meaning. A cry for help. He turned away, and ran towards the van, stepping in. It roared to life and sped away, leaving me sitting where I was.

The cry for help. Desperately saying I needed help, but unable to admit it directly. He didn’t have time, and he didn’t really care. He had somewhere that he had to be, some awful thing he needed to stop, whatever he thought was so important. What really mattered was that it was more important than me.

Maybe he didn’t even think that I was going to do it. Maybe he thought I didn’t have the guts to kill myself. That if my faith in Father Steer was shaken, it would stop me from killing myself. He was dead wrong, but that was still his right.

I stared down at the water. I could still make things right. I wasn’t good for much, but I could still do something to help Father steer.

Earlier, and too late

I loved Father Steer.

It’s the little things. The way he supported me. As my grades degraded, as I spent more time working with him, he still cared for me. I began to help him, working late hours. He would take me out to dinner occasionally, he took care of me, and he didn’t berate me for my failures, for the failed grades, for the times I fucked things up. He supported me, showed me how to succeed, he told me I was special, a thousand little things. A thousand little switches he flicked in my brain that just made me feel like life was worth living. That made me feel like I was worth the intention.

When he found I’d been taking from the supply, he had sat me down, talked with me. He’d been disappointed, but firm. He was going to help me. He’d sat through my rehabilitation as I’d recovered. I’d gotten better. When there was that pregnancy scare after that condom broke with the John, he stayed by my side and bought me the plan B. When my parents kicked me out, when they cut off contact, he was there for me. He was the one who was always there for me. The fact that all these things had happened because I was trying so hard for him, I hadn’t cared about that. Everyone wanted to use you, to use you up. The parents, the teachers, the adults, they all wanted to use you up in order to fulfill their own weird fucked up needs and desires. For money, or prestige, or to have the idea that they’d accomplished more than they had. All Father Steer wanted was for me to do my best, to be the person I could be, and he’d love me. He’d care for me.

Devon? I didn’t give a shit about Devon. I didn’t give a shit about Derry. I didn’t give a shit about anyone in the church, about anyone in the world, except Father Steer. He was the only one who really mattered to me. I wanted to be with him forever. I wanted, so desperately that it burned, for him to show me how he understood all I’d done for him, all I’d suffered for him. I wanted him to love me, to be mine forever. I wanted to spend my life with him, I just wanted to know I was special to him. But through it all, there was the doubt. Would it last?

Turned out to be a bit prescient, really.

I walked into the slaughterhouse that morning, before the sun rose and found Father Steer standing in the entrance to the back room, his arms crossed, his head tilted. Devon was standing in front of him, holding a gun, his back to me. Father Steer’s eyes stayed on me.

“I know what you are. What you’ve done, you inhuman motherfucker. What you’ve got planned.” The pistol was small, but still significant. My heart was in my throat. All of those tense moments, all of those awful things. Father Steer’s eyes remained on Devon, one index finger tapping the opposite bicep.

“Devon. I haven’t lied to you once-“

“No, just omitted the truth. Yeah, that’s what your kind are like. I heard about that, too.” He gritted his teeth. “You-“

I brought the small baton down on the back of his head, knocking him clean out. He slumped forward onto the hard tiles, the gun clattering from his hands. It discharged, a bullet smashing through the wall, smoke rising from the barrel. I stared down at him, breathing hard.

“Thoughtful, but you needn’t have bothered. He wouldn’t have killed me,” said Father Steer, smiling towards me. “Are you alright?”

I stared down at Devon. I gagged a bit, my stomach twisting, my tongue feeling overly thick as I stared down at him. “What- What was-“

“Devon was… agitated. He believed I was going to do something terrible. Of course, I suppose it all depends on your point of view…” He stepped forward, leaning forward, and resting a hand on Devon’s forehead. “Poor boy. But fortuitous.” He paused for a moment, and looked up at me. “I need your help with two more things, Holstein. When we are done, when you have done this for me, then the world will change.” He smiled. “First, come.”

He lifted Devon, gently pulling the boy into the back room, beginning to tie him up in the middle of a circle of iron gridwork, a lattice of cast iron. My eyes flicked to Father Steer’s desk. A bright stainless steel knife sat there, sunk into the wood, its edge catching the light from the ceiling fixture. He stood up, and walked towards the cage where he kept his pet rabbit. He gently reached in, and the docile little bunny jumped into his hands, nestling up in them obediently. He carried her over to me, and smiled as he placed her in my hands. I’d seen her many times, held her many times. She was a darling little creature, warm and cuddly as one could ask for. He’d let me hold her after the pregnancy scare, while I was recovering from the drugs, each time I’d been in pain and needed the simple comfort of warmth and physical contact.

“Break her leg, Holstein.”

I breathed in, and out. I took hold of Daisy’s forepaw, and my fingers tightened around the rabbit’s paw. She began to make sounds of protest as I squeezed harder, and harder.

The back of his hand struck me hard on the chin, spinning me completely around. Daisy let out a sound of protest as she fell to the ground, landing easily, and hopping away. I stared up at the ceiling, the lights spinning as my head lolled from side to side. I’d been hit before, doing the things I did. It wasn’t even all that hard a blow. It wouldn’t bruise or scar me. It was more who the blow had come from. I lifted my head slowly, staring at Father Steer, as he stood over me, his eyes hard. “I am so utterly disappointed in you, Holstein.”

I opened and closed my mouth, trying to push myself up to a sitting position.

“All of the indignities, all of the obscenities I put you through, you never once complained. Never once resisted. Never once fought back. You let go of it all so eagerly. So quickly. When I told you to feed your friends to the machine, when I told you to destroy lives around you with drugs and temptation, you never hesitated for a moment. What did you think was so important, Holstein? Did you think you were justified because you loved me? That your desire for me did anything but sicken me?” He glared down at me. “Did you ever think I would reciprocate those feelings? You sicken me.”

“I’ll be better,” I said, breathing hard, feeling my heart pounding. “I can- I can do it right, I can be better, please, please, don’t leave me, don’t- I love you!”

“You would have cut Devon’s throat, wouldn’t you? Without an instance of hesitation, without the slightest guilt. You are corrupt, Elizabeth.”

My stomach dropped. “Please. I’ll do anything, please, just give me a second chance-“

“Yes. You would do anything. Including harm an innocent animal. There is nothing in you worth a damn to me.” He sighed, and turned back towards Devon. “I really hoped for you, you know. I really thought, maybe… But I suppose it was foolish of me to hope for anything from you.” He shook his head. “I will have to rely on Derry. As for you- I suppose that there is one thing you could do for me that might help, a little bit.”

“Yes. Yes, I swear, I’ll do anything.”

He picked up the gun, and gently placed it in my hands. “Go die.”

I stared, my eyes wide, my heart dropping down into the pit of my stomach and dissolving in the acid there. I felt the tears running down my cheek. My shoulders shook a little bit as I took a step back. “You- You can’t mean that-“

“I do, Elizabeth. Go. I never want to see you again. I want you to die, Elizabeth. You, and everyone like you.” He sighed. “I really had such high hopes for you. It wasn’t about what you did, Elizabeth. It was about what you wouldn’t do. You know what it was that you wouldn’t do?” He turned his head, and his eyes met mine, flat, emotionless, pitiless, loveless. “Nothing.”

“Hey.”

I turned. A man stood behind me. He looked a little older than Gay. Hazel eyes, dark hair, wearing a nice jacket and tie. He had a fedora on, the kind guys wear when they think it makes them look cool and oldschool. He looked awkward in it, a bit too skinny for the suit. A real dork. A failure of an adult. I could appreciate that. We were birds of a feather. “What do you want?”

“To hear what’s the matter.” He leaned forward, on the bridge, leaning forward. “City seems to have a lot of shit going down tonight, but this seemed more important.” He looked down at me, and smiled. “I won’t stop you from doing what you’ve got planned. So what’s the harm in talking?”

I was quiet for a moment. “You don’t really want to listen.”

He met my eyes, with a long, slow stare, his expression firm. “I really, really do.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve been there.”

“You’ve been ready to kill yourself, huh?” I asked, scornfully, glaring at him.

“Your problems aren’t unique.”

I looked down at the water. “Thanks.”

“See, that’s the thing. Your problems aren’t unique. That doesn’t mean they’re not important, it doesn’t mean people shouldn’t care. It means there’s hope. I was where you were. My mother died. I had nothing, no one, all because I fell in love with the wrong person when I was too young to know better. I ruined my career beyond any hope of ever fixing it. I killed an innocent person who I could have saved. And I was ready to die. Put a gun barrel in my mouth and everything.”

“And why didn’t you pull the trigger?”

“I don’t know. I still don’t, really. It was completely irrational. The thing was, I got angry. Angry at the world. Angry at my mother. Angry at the people who had hurt me, at the people who’d made me make those awful choices.” He smiled. “Do you know what there is after death?”

“Oblivion? Hell? That’s what most of the preachers say.”

“They would. I’ve been to Hell. Literal, Dante’s Hell. I walked through nine circles of it, fought demon lords.”

I turned, and stared at him. “You’re insane.”

He smiled. “Probably. It runs in my family. But I don’t really have to prove it to you, either way. I’m not sure I could. Not without quite a few awkward phone calls.” He crossed his arms, and leaned down on the guard rail next to me, staring out. “There are no humans in Hell. No one who dies goes there. I’ve been to other afterlives, and found people there. They’ve got a happy ending. In the end, when we die, there’s something waiting out there for us.” He paused for a moment. “Well. There’s something waiting for you. I’m kind of a special case.” He looked aside at me. “I’m getting a little bit better at sensing this. Do you know what the soul is?”

“Fake. Something we make up to tell ourselves that death isn’t oblivion.”

“Wow, it’s good to see that goths are still popular in high school. Glad to know things haven’t changed too much.” He grinned at me. “The soul is what you are to everyone around you. All those connections we make, all the people we love and hate and envy and fear and admire and who feel those things for us. You’ve worn yours down pretty thin, you’ve been cut down a lot, but it’s still there. People still love you. People still care. And you’ll still be remembered if you die.”

Tears ran down my cheeks, and I wiped at them furiously. “That’s because people are stupid.”

“Hey. Kid. That’s what makes the world wonderful.”

“Souls are fake. A made-up story to try to make us feel better.”

“Everything’s a story. Everything that matters to humans is something we made up, a way to explain the world through the filter of what we have. Money, god, civilization, faith, love, and hope. They’re things we made up. That doesn’t make them not real. That makes them tools.” He smiled.

“You’re here for the same reason that Gay guy is, right? There’s something awful that’s going to happen here. He’s going to summon a god. It’s going to be some Book of Revelations stuff. Why are you even bothering with me? He’s at the slaughterhouse. Go stop Devon from getting murdered. Go stop a lot of people from dying. They mean more than I do.” I looked down at the water. “I probably don’t even have the guts.”

“I’m in no hurry,” he said softly. “I have more than enough time to save you, too.”

I wiped at my eyes. “Who says I asked to be saved, huh? Who says that there’s anything you can do? Maybe I should do it just to spite you, huh?!”

“Hey.”

I turned towards him, and found him smiling softly, pointing out towards the water. I turned towards it

The sun was balanced on the edge of the hill, turning the land into a sea of gold, glittering reflected in the river, positioned perfectly to make the world glitter. The trees were the most brilliant green, standing out against the sky, which shaded from ferocious reds and golds and oranges and purples to the most deep and holy cerulean blue. A bird flew through the air, and a wind washed through the trees. The card that Derry had thrown towards the water twirled slowly down, and the adult caught it between two fingers, holding it gently.

“Every day, I’m grateful I didn’t take my life. I’m grateful that I kept going. But you don’t have to. I did this so other people wouldn’t have to keep fighting if they didn’t want to. Do you want to die? To end it like this, to stop suffering? I won’t hate you for that choice. It’s your choice. But it’ll mean never seeing another sunset like that.”

I looked down at the bag. The pills, the gun, the rope. I slowly opened it. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because I promised to give everyone a happy ending. You’ll die someday. That’s inevitable. So… What’s the rush?” He smiled. “I’ll die too. And trust me when I say that there’s not a heaven for me, or a hell. When I die…” He snapped his fingers, and I jerked from the sharpness of the sound. “I’m gone for good.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to get my head around it. The guy was insane.

“You don’t believe me.” He sighed, and stood up straight. “Come on.”

“I-“

“If you don’t believe in me, after this, you can kill yourself. But give me the chance to show you what the world really is, first.” He turned, and began to walk along the bridge. He paused after a few steps, and turned towards me. “Well?”

There’s a joke my dad was fond of, to demonstrate how stupid faith could make people. A man is standing on the roof of his house as rain floods the valley where he lives, and prays to God to save him. A boat comes up to him, and the captain offers to give him a ride to safety. He refuses, saying God will save him. The boat captain leaves. A helicopter comes, and the pilot offers him a ride to safety. The man refuses, saying God will save him. The helicopter leaves, the valley floods, the man drowns. At the pearly gates, he asks God why he didn’t save him. God tells him, ‘I sent a boat and a helicopter, what more did you want?’

When you’re crying out for help, you don’t get to be picky about who gives that help.

I threw the bag in the water and followed the weird guy. He was right. I had the rest of my life to die.

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