Unlikely Savior

by Douglas James Troxell

 

Two hours was late, Dave Hume decided. Almost too late to bother showing up at all. His Ford 150 flew through the light that had already been red for at least three seconds, his stray tools clattering in the bed of the truck. He deserved the angry honk he received from the driver at the intersection, but that didn’t stop him from thrusting his middle finger out the window anyway.

Technically, he was an entire day late. He had gotten caught up watching the Phillies game the previous day (he had fifty bucks on the Phils) and had completely forgotten about the job at First Calvary Church. It might not have been so bad had the Phillies won, but they blew a three-run lead in the ninth and ended up losing in extra innings. To make up for his blunder, he had agreed to wake up early and complete the job before the 10:30 church service. That was before the case of Rolling Rock and the Death Wish marathon.

It seemed ridiculous to think he would actually arrive at a job by 8:30. Most mornings he wasn’t out of bed until ten. Now here he was two hours late. Fifteen was expected from most handymen in the business and he had a dozen excuses cocked and loaded to explain a half hour tardiness.

There was an accident.

Last job ran late.

GPS sent me to the wrong side of town.

Kid needed to be picked up.

Forgot my tools.

He had less options once he hit an hour—especially when it was first thing on a Sunday morning. He basically had “I overslept” at his disposal. At two hours he had nothing. “I overslept” would be interpreted for what it was: “I was hung over and didn’t give enough of a shit to set an alarm.”

Which was the truth.

“Fuck it. Who cares?” he said aloud as he turned up Blake Shelton on the radio. “You get what you pay for.”

Dave had no disillusions as to how he had gotten the job from First Calvary Church. Out of all the bids from the local HVAC companies and handymen, his had been the cheapest—by far. The quote was so low he’d barely make any profit on the job but he needed the money and he knew, with his reputation, undercutting everyone else was his only hope of landing it. No big deal. He’d claim some complication and use whatever parts he had lying around in the truck. He’d make his money on the backend of the deal.

The small parking lot of First Calvary Church was packed with cars. Ancient Oldsmobiles and minivans filled the lot. The on-street parking was filled, too.

“Shit,” Dave said as he searched for a spot.

He finally found one about two blocks from the church. He threw some tools he thought he might need for the job—his refrigerant scale, cordless drill, vacuum pump, screwdrivers, tin shears—into his tool box and lumbered toward the building in the warm June heat.

First Calvary Church was a small church nestled between an elementary school and a miniature golf course. It was shaped like a triangle with two long rectangles slapped on either end with a giant red and blue stained-glass window decorating the sanctuary. The picture looked like a white bird shitting out a rainbow. Dave hated it—not just the rainbow-shitting bird but the whole building. The last time he had stepped foot inside a church was the day of his wedding 14 years previous and that had resulted in shitstorm after shitstorm so he was less than eager to return to the scene of the crime.

The heat hit him like a brick to the face as soon as he entered the building. It was oppressive, aggressive, and so thick he felt like he was swimming through it. Everyone lingering in the lobby was drenched in sweat, moisture seeping through summer dresses and button-down shirts. It was nearly unbearable.

Marylyn Doyle, the church sexton, cut through the crowd wearing a plastic smile below her frizzled gray hair. “There you are!” she said in a voice sweet and thick as maple syrup. “I was worried you weren’t coming.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Dave mumbled. “I was—well, I’m here now.”

There was a chime and everyone began to file into the sanctuary. The church pastor, Reverend Luciano, lingered behind in the lobby speaking to some parishioners while two young acolytes sidled nervously next to him. Reverend Luciano wore thick glasses on his pock-marked face. He cast a dirty look back at Dave as he wiped the sweat from his forehead.

Marylynn went through the specifics of the job even though it was totally unnecessary. The stifling heat was all the evidence he needed: The AC was busted. Dave finally cut her off.

“You’re not seriously still going to have church, are you? It’s gotta be 95 degrees in here!”

“Of course. We’re not going to let a little heat get in the way of our worship. But—that is kind of why we wanted you here early this morning…”

“Yeah—“

“Of course, now you’ll have to wait until after the service to start.”

“I was planning on starting now.”

“Oh…no. No, no, no,” Marylynn said. “I’m afraid that’s not possible. I had a hard enough time convincing our members it was ok to bring you in on a Sunday. But there will be a riot if anyone hears you banging around during the service. We have a very conservative membership here.”

“Ok. I guess I could come back this afternoon—”

Marylynn’s eyes went wide as dinner plates before she regained control over her features. “No need to go scampering off. The service is only a little over an hour. We’d love to have you as our guest.”

“Are you serious? You want me to sit in this heat for over an hour? It’s hot as—well, you know.”

“Maybe you were late for a reason. Maybe the Lord wants you with us this morning.”

Dave didn’t know about the Lord, but he knew why Marylynn didn’t want him to leave. She knew if he walked out that door, she’d never see him again. And, worse yet, he knew she was right. Plus, making him sit through the church service was a perfect passive-aggressive way to punish him for no-showing. Still, there was no way in hell he was sitting through a boring church service in sweltering heat if he could help it.

“I can just—grab some breakfast or something—”

She smiled. “If you walk out that door, I’m going to have to call someone else.”

He knew she meant it. She took him by the hand and led him toward the sanctuary. Every instinct screamed for him to resist, to run in the opposite direction, as if he would burst into flames as soon as he crossed the threshold of the sanctuary.

“Enjoy the service,” Reverend Luciano said without smiling.

The opening organ music began crackling through the church’s ancient sound system. Dave allowed Marylynn to drag him into the sanctuary, but his feet froze just behind the last row of chairs in the back of the sanctuary. The back two rows were empty whereas the rest of the church was packed. If the back of the bus and the classroom were good enough for Dave, then the back of the sanctuary seemed perfect for him.

“These rows are reserved for parents with young children,” Marylynn told him.

She tugged and pulled, but he would go no further. Finally, he pulled his hand free and threw himself down into a chair in the otherwise deserted row. Marylynn, not willing to make a scene, continued to the front of the sanctuary where she disappeared into a forest of gray hair and waving fans before the first acolyte made his entrance.

The sanctuary didn’t quite match up with Dave’s memories from his wedding. He knew they were different churches, but for some reason he had pictured the inside of all churches to look exactly the same. Instead of pews, metal chairs with cushions formed rows of seating. The huge stained-glass window lit up the entire sanctuary like the sun, adding to the heat, and there wasn’t a crucifix to be found. The whole place made Dave feel uncomfortable. It was too welcoming and open for an event as solemn and boring as church.           

He noticed a smudge of oil on the seat cushion next to him where he had set his toolbox.

“Shit,” he whispered.

He picked up the toolbox and dumped it on the floor next to him just as the opening hymn ended. The loud clang tore through the silence and brought dozens of eyes turned his way. He raised a hand in apology and slunk down further into his chair. Eventually the eyes returned to the front of the sanctuary...except for one pair. Two rows up, a small child—a boy of five or six—remained turned around, staring at Dave. The boy wore a crooked smile and eyes that seemed to quake in their sockets. Dave tried to shoo the boy away, motioned for him to turn around, but the boy continued to stare. His father, sitting next to him, seemed oblivious to the boy (especially since his eyes were buried in his phone), but eventually his mother, a tired looking 30-something in a skin-tight floral sundress, forced him to turn around, sending a look of disdain back at Dave as if the whole thing was his fault.

Dave did his best to keep himself occupied as the service began. He had smashed his phone the previous day when the Phillies lost so that was no help. He surveyed the congregation and counted the number of women he would fuck (Eleven but, to be honest, he wasn’t particularly picky). He spent most of the first part of the service imagining the different positions he would do with each woman. His most creative ideas were reserved for the mother in the floral sundress who was easily the best looking in the room (but still only a 7.8 in any bar). She must have felt his eyes or her because she suddenly turned around and glared at him. He was lost in his perverse daydream and didn’t notice right away so he continued staring directly at her ass much longer than he should have. He finally noticed he had been caught and quickly averted his eyes, pretending to stare at an invisible phone in his lap.

When he finally tuned back into the service, members of the congregation were making requests for prayers and concerns. Most were mundane, but several members of the congregation mentioned a boy named Dennis who they hoped would “find some peace” after his latest “incident.” Each time Dennis was mentioned, the entire congregation would fall deadly silent and several older women would cross themselves. The whole thing sounded like it could have been interesting, but everyone was too vague to keep Dave engaged for very long.

By the time the collection plates were making their way to the front of the sanctuary, Dave had had enough. He had already soaked through his shirt with sweat and he was bored out of his mind. There was no way he was going to make it to the end of the service.

He had to get out of there.

Dave lifted his toolbox as quietly as he could from the chair (ignoring the oil stain on the cushion) and began to walk backwards toward the exit. He got greedy, though, with a large stride that sent him off balance, causing the tools to shift and clatter against the side of the toolbox. The clatter drew more eyes to the back of the room. He set his tools down and nonchalantly and pretended to inspect one of the air ducts leading into the sanctuary. More terrible organ music played while the collection plates moved through the rows. As soon as all the eyes were off him, Dave planned to make a break for it. 

Unfortunately for Dave, loud voices from the lobby drew everyone’s attention to the back of the sanctuary. Then what sounded like a firework ripped through the peaceful organ music. The doors to the sanctuary flew open, nearly striking Dave in the face. A craze-eyed teenage boy of about 17 marched into the sanctuary wearing a black backpack and armed with an AR-15 rifle.

“Everyone to the front of the sanctuary!” he screamed, his voice cracking.

He fired twice into the ceiling. Panic ensued. People stumbled over each other to get away from the gunman. The husband two rows up leaped over the seats in front of him while his wife shielded her children with her own body. People screamed and cried and trampled over others to put as much distance between themselves and the gunman. Reverend Luciano remained frozen behind the pulpit, mouth agape, his hands at chest level in a sign of surrender.

“To the front of the sanctuary!” the gunman screamed again. “Who wants to be the first to die!”

He fired again. Dave remained frozen in ­­place, half hidden behind the door. The gunman was only two feet away from him. Two feet. That was the distance between life and death. Dave thought maybe it was some kind of skit or play—a demonstration. But he knew better. This was actually happening. It was happening.

A few parishioners ran toward a side exit but the gunman herded them back to the front of the sanctuary with a blast of gunfire that ripped through the exit sign and tore it to pieces.

“No one leaves! You people think you can judge me? Well, it’s my turn to judge you!”

Dave realized he was holding metal shears—heavy and dull. He had no idea when he had even picked it up, but he knew what to do with it. He roared, drawing the gunman’s attention. The gunman turned toward him, giving Dave an open target. Dave swung the shears into the side of the gunman’s head. It collided solidly with a dense thud. The gun tumbled from the gunman’s hands onto the floor and the gunman soon followed. Dave mounted the boy, who was probably 30 pounds lighter, pinning his arms down with his knees. And, even though the boy wasn’t moving, Dave hit him with the shears again—and again—and again. He didn’t stop hitting him until he could no longer muster the strength to lift the shears.

Dave rolled off the boy and kicked the gun away. His arm was splattered with blood up to his elbow. He struggled to catch his breath as he stared up at the ceiling, the screams and cries finally falling silent as he faded to darkness.

 

***

 

The phone in Dave’s apartment was ringing—again. He let the machine answer. It was his mother calling for the third time. He couldn’t remember the last time he had heard from her but it had to be almost two years. Since he had been on the news the previous day, everyone was calling. Luckily the number on his Linked-In page was his cell number (which was broken) or else he couldn’t imagine how many calls he would have been flooded by. His ex-wife, Karen, had called almost 15 times. He knew they would stop calling if he actually picked up the phone, but he couldn’t bring himself to answer.

They’d want to talk about what happened, and he wasn’t ready to do that yet.

The previous day had been a blur. The church, the hospital, the police station. Then the reporters and cameras waiting for him outside. He had been excited to step in front of the cameras—at first. But as soon as the first question was asked, his mind went blank. His “umms” and “ahhs” outnumbered any intelligible words he managed to force out. Eventually he was able to muster some words borrowed from a high school football coach about “being ready when your big moment arrives” before retreating from the cameras.

The interview had been played on every local news station and even some of the national news channels that morning and the tale of what he did in that church. T.V. Radio. Newspaper. Online. He was everywhere. And everywhere they were calling him a hero.

 

And it made him sick.

He had secluded himself in his third-story apartment and ordered Hambone, a bouncer at a strip club who lived on the floor below, to guard the stairwell and not allow anyone he didn’t know upstairs. Hambone owed Dave $300 from a UFC pay-per-view fight so he was more than happy to pay off his debt through trade.

Dave tried to think of anything besides what had happened in that church—anything. Baseball, his kids, that thick redhead at the laundromat who was always smiling at him while she washed her thongs. But his thoughts kept returning to that church. There were parts he couldn’t remember, parts he wanted to forget, and parts he knew he would never forget. And then there was that word. That dirty, dirty word.

Hero.

 

A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. He closed his eyes, hoping whoever it was would go away. But then there was more knocking.

 

“Dave!” Hambone called through the door. His voice was raspy and whiny, a stark contrast to his intimidating six-and-a-half feet, 275-lb. physical presence.

 

Dave walked slowly to the door, trying not to make any noise, and peered through the peephole. Hambone’s auburn beard filled the entire peephole.

 

“I thought you were guarding the hallway,” Dave said. “This doesn’t look like I’m getting my money’s worth.”

 

“There’s someone here to see you.”

 

“Now I know I’m not getting my money’s worth. I said I didn’t want to see anyone!”

 

“It’s Reverend Luciano,” came a muffled voice.

 

Dave rested his head against the door. “Fuck fuckfuckfuckfucketyfuck,” he whispered to himself. He unlocked the door and opened it.

 

Behind the oversized bouncer, Reverend Luciano stood holding a plate of cookies wrapped in plastic wrap.

 

Dave poked a finger into Hambone’s massive chest. “Jesus, Ham, I said not to let anyone up!”

 

“But...he’s a priest or whatever.”

 

“I’m a pastor but some feel comfortable with the term reverend,” the reverend said.

 

“He’s a reverend!” Hambone corrected himself. “Didn’t feel right telling him no. Plus, I thought maybe you might want to talk to him. Considering what you been through and all.”

 

“Well I don’t!” 

He stepped aside and motioned for the reverend to enter. As soon as Reverend Luciano was inside, Dave thrust his finger back into Hambone’s chest like a sword.

“No one else! Do you hear me? No one!”

“Got it. No one else.” He turned to leave but then quickly turned back. “We still good on that three hundee, right?”

Dave slammed the door in his face.

He strolled past Reverend Luciano without so much as a glance. Having company made him realize his place was a mess. Several pizza boxes, some from over a month ago, covered his futon and old shorts and boxers littered almost every surface. He usually didn’t wear shirts so that cut down on the dirty laundry. He reasoned that maybe the mess would help to make the reverend’s visit a short one.

Dave threw himself down into his leather recliner, which was ripped nearly to shreds, and put his feet up. “Sorry I can’t offer you nothing to drink. I invested in a 30-pack of Rolling Rock a few days ago and been living off that. Didn’t get out to the grocery store yesterday like I was plannin’.”

“Rolling Rock sounds great,” Luciano said. He swept the pizza boxes to the floor and took a seat on Dave’s futon.

“Oh—really?”

“Sure. I’d love a brew. Goes great with cookies.” He shoved the plate toward Dave. “Ms. Marushak’s snickerdoodles—a personal favorite of mine. She baked them for you as a little thank you for—yesterday.”

Dave waved the cookies away. “Tell Ms. Marushak I said thanks but no thanks.”

He struggled to extract himself from the recliner but finally managed to free himself. He returned from the kitchen with two beers only to find Luciano sitting in his recliner munching on the cookies he’d brought.

“I thought you said those cookies were for me?”

“They were, but if you don’t want them, why let them go to waste?” He snatched the bottle from Dave’s hand. “Thanks for the drink.”

There was no explanation as to why the reverend had stolen his seat.

Dave sat on the futon and watched the reverend eat and drink in his recliner until he couldn’t take it anymore.

“Was there a reason you came here?” he finally asked.

Luciano brushed the cookie crumbs from his chest. “Isn’t it obvious? I came here to thank you.”

“Well you got a funny way of showing it!”

“I apologize. It’s just—after Sunday I’ve been trying to enjoy life as much as possible, know what I mean? A thing like that changes you.” He laughed. “Listen to me prattling on! You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Dave didn’t. Since Sunday he’d been doing just the opposite.

“Look, rev, I’m real tired—”

“I know, I know. This won’t take long. I’m here to invite you on behalf of the congregation to Sunday’s service, a service that will be held in your honor. The children are planning some songs and the congregation and their family members wanted to thank you personally—”

“No chance in hell!” Dave said. “I ain’t steppin’ foot in that church ever again! Are you kidding me?”

“It would mean a lot to everyone. We even found someone to fix the air conditioning!”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re going to make a lot of people very upset, David. You’re their hero.”

Dave cringed at the word. “Please don’t call me that.”

“Why? You saved all those people. You saved me. We owe our lives to you.”

“I’m no hero. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Dave slammed down the rest of his beer and went to the fridge for another one even though he knew he had given Luciano his last one.

“I’d say you were exactly where God intended for you to be.”

Dave opened the fridge for show and was surprised to find one last beer waiting for him. He left it on the otherwise empty shelf and returned to Luciano, who was still nursing his own beer.

“God had nothing to do with that shit on Sunday.”

“No?”

“No! I wasn’t even supposed to be there that day! I was too damn busy watching a ball game to show up on Saturday. Then I was too hung over to show up on time Sunday. Does that sound like God to you? Does that sound like a goddamn hero to you?!”

“It sounds exactly like God to me.” Luciano finished his beer. “Most men dream about being in the position you’re in. Being a hero. Saving the day. You seem uncomfortable with the label.”

“Because it’s bullshit! What I did, I did out of self-preservation. I beat the shit out of that kid to save my own ass. Nothing more.”

“I find that hard to believe. See, I saw you right before young Dennis barged in. You were pressed against the back wall of the church, ready to sneak out before the collection plate made its way back to you. And when Dennis made his dramatic entrance, you were behind him. He never saw you, and you were closer to the exit than you were to him. If self-preservation was your goal, you would have made a break for that door and never looked back. And no one would have thought any less of you for it. But that’s not what you did.”

Dave realized the floor was quaking. Then he realized it wasn’t the floor but his leg beneath him. His fingers trembled. He took a deep breath and focused on regaining control over his body. Reverend Luciano saw all this but did not mention it.

“Without question, your actions in that church were heroic,” Luciano said. “There’s no debating that. So perhaps that’s not the problem.”

“No, it’s not,” Dave said. “Like usual, the problem is me. I’m the furthest thing from a hero. Just ask my ex-wife. We got divorced because I pissed away all our money gambling, whoring, and drinking. That sound like a hero to you? My wife is suing me because I’m six months behind on my child support payments. Sound like a hero to you? My kids hate me. They haven’t spoken to me in almost a year. That sound like a hero to you?”

Reverend Luciano seemed to consider this, unfazed. He checked the contents of his bottle, found it empty, and plugged the hole with his pinky.

“Truth be known, he said, “I was having a bit of a crisis of conscience before your heroics on Sunday. Happens eventually with most members of the clergy. Doubts bloom. They’re small at first, simple weeds in the garden of one’s faith, but soon they grow into redwoods that block out the sun. It’s inevitable in this line of work. You see things that make you question the nature of things. But even as my faith waned, I still carried through with my duties. And as I sat at the bedside of those who were dying, feeling like a fraud, I realized me feeling like a fraud didn’t mean the person in that bed felt any less at peace as we prayed together.”

“So what does that mean?”

“It means God uses us as He sees fit.”

“But I don’t believe in God.”

Reverend Luciano smiled. “Who says you have to believe in God for Him to make use of you? Just as Sunday was proof to you that God does not exist, for countless others, Sunday was definitive proof that He does.” Reverend Luciano held out the plate of cookies. “And if Sunday didn’t prove to you that God exists, maybe these cookies will. Sure you don’t want one?”

 

***

 

Dave drifted in and out of sleep. He kept his apartment pitch black so he wasn’t sure when he was awake and when he wasn’t. Whether awake or asleep, the images were the same. He relived those few seconds in the church over and over and over again and played them out a million different ways. Sometimes he ran out and left everyone to die. Sometimes he died with everyone else. Other times it was him doing the killing. The phone rang a dozen times, but he never answered it.

           

When he heard pounding on the door again, he wasn’t sure whether or not he was dreaming until he heard Hambone’s raspy voice again. 

           

“Dave! It’s Hambone! Someone here to see you, dude!”

          

Then Dave knew he was awake because even in his dreams he wouldn’t torture himself with that voice.

           

He struggled to his feet, nearly toppled over when he found his left leg asleep, and charged the door, dragging his left leg behind him.

           

“What part of ‘Don’t let anyone up here’ don’t you understand?!”

           

He peered through the peephole. Hambone’s beard filled the peephole but whoever was with him was hidden from view.

           

“I know, man, I know. But—this is different. This chick—I’m telling ya—she was pretty insistent.”

           

“She?”

           

His ex-wife’s face flashed in his mind. Dave opened the door. He didn’t recognize the woman at Hambone’s side, but, after looking her up and down, he had no problem letting her inside. When she walked past him into the apartment, he checked out her ass and then he remembered. It was the woman from First Calvary Church, the mother who had been two rows in front of him near the back of the church. She was dressed in a sleeveless white button-down blouse and denim shorts. Her hair was held back in a messy ponytail. But the rest was still there. The perky tits, the curve of her hips, the tight ass. And now he could see her legs—smooth and creamy. 

           

Dave slammed the door in Hambone’s face.

           

“I’m sorry to intrude like this,” she said. “I just—had to see you.” She moved a stray strand of hair from her face and extended her hand. “I know who you are, but you don’t know me. I’m Jill. Jill Marone.”

           

Instead of shaking her hand, Dave invited her into the living room, kicking a stray pizza box out of the way. 

           

“I’d offer you a drink, but I’m all out.”

           

“That’s fine. What I need to say won’t take long.”

           

She sat on the edge of the futon, her hands cradled in her lap. Dave lowered himself into his recliner.

           

“I was disappointed to hear you won’t be joining us this Sunday,” Jill said. “When Reverend Luciano told me at the hospital, I knew I had to come see you personally.”

           

“The hospital? Are you ok? Not the kids I hope—”

           

“I was actually there to see Dennis. Some of our members were holding a prayer circle.”

           

Dave nearly fell off his chair. “Dennis? Dennis Logan? The kid with the gun?”

           

Jill nodded.

           

“Why the hell would you visit him? You looking to pull the plug on that little shit?”

           

Although Dennis was alive, Dave’s attack had left him in a coma. Most of the doctors doubted he would ever regain consciousness.

           

She smiled in a way it was clear she didn’t think what he said was very funny. A smile someone uses at a party when someone tells a dirty joke that is offensive but no one wants to make a scene.

           

“Several of us from the church met there to pray for Dennis and sit with his grandmother.”

           

“But why? He tried to kill you!”

           

“Dennis is a troubled boy. His mother is—was a member of our church. Her husband left her for another woman when Dennis was very young and it broke her. She blamed Dennis for the divorce. Told him her husband left because Dennis was evil and possessed by Satan. This went on for years until the boy was eventually taken from her and she was institutionalized. Unfortunately, the damage was done. Dennis became violent, unstable. His grandmother did what she could for him. The church paid for therapy and we had just raised money to send him to a facility for troubled youths when he did...this.”

           

“So what? I’m supposed to feel sorry for him because he had a fucked-up childhood? Who didn’t?”

           

She smiled at him, but he could feel her disdain behind that smile.

           

“When you believe something about yourself long enough, you become that thing—whether it’s true or not.”

           

Her cold eyes seemed to burrow into his skin. Dave didn’t like the way she was looking at him, but he couldn’t ask her to leave. He was afraid of being alone with his thoughts again.

           

“Do you want me to leave?” she asked, reading his mind.

           

“Well...you came to thank me, didn’t you?”

           

“Yes.”

           

“Then do it and be on your way.”

           

“Ok.”

           

She stood, staring at him with cold eyes. She unbuttoned the top button on her blouse. Then another. She allowed her blouse to fall to the carpet next to the pizza boxes. Then she stepped out of her shorts. She wore simple undergarments. A yellow bra and white cotton panties. There was nothing sexy about them. Hell, they didn’t even match.

           

“What are you doing?” he whispered, terrified someone might hear despite him knowing they were alone in the apartment.

           

“I’m thanking you.”

           

She stepped awkwardly forward and helped him up from the recliner. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck. Dave kept his arms locked at his sides, but he could feel his jeans shrinking.

           

“This is a bit more than a fucking thank you card,” he said.

           

“You saved my life. You saved my children’s lives. I owe you everything. If I had money, I would give you every cent...but I don’t. And since you won’t even agree to show up to a church service in your honor, I had to figure out how to thank you in a way that would mean something. I saw the way you looked at me in the church. I saw what you wanted. I know how to thank men like you.”

           

Her words were a shot to his gut, but he did not move away.

           

Instead he said, “But you have a husband…”

           

Her eyes dropped to the carpet. “I do have a husband. The same man who ran at the first sign of danger. A man who abandoned his family to save his own life. That’s the man I call my husband.”

           

Dave didn’t try to defend the man. Just as Dave did, Jill’s husband had made his choice in the heat of the moment. There was no right or wrong. There was just what happened.

           

“Is this a thank you to me or a fuck you to him?”

           

“Does it matter?”

           

He reached up and unwrapped her arms from around his neck. “I’m not sure I want to be part of this game.”

           

Jill looked at him hard, as if she was trying to look through him. She bit her lower lip and crossed her right hand over her chest. She laughed softly and shook her head in disbelief. Tears wet her eyes, but they were not tears of sadness or shame. She was furious.

           

“Why are you making this so difficult?” she asked. “It’s ok to eye fuck me in church while I sit next to my husband and children, but now that I’m here in your apartment offering myself to you you have some sort of crisis of morality?”

           

Now he was pissed. “I’m sorry I’m not the piece of shit you thought I was. Guess we were both wrong about one another. Here I was thinking you were some sort of wholesome goody-goody church chick, not a—”

           

“Slut?”

           

“Well—yeah!”

           

She shrugged. “Can’t I be both?”

           

Her shorts began to chime and vibrate. She fished her phone from her pocket and read the text. “Shit. I’m going to have to go. My son is having another episode. Episode. What a stupid term. Like it’s a TV show or something. Guess it sounds better than freaking the fuck out.” She threw her clothes back on. “I’ll be back tomorrow to thank you properly. No more games.”

           

“I already told you, I’m not interested in being your revenge fuck.”

           

She laughed. “Please. You can pretend to be the boy scout all you want, but in the end, people are who they are.”

           

“A lot has happened since Sunday.”

           

“Very true,” she said. “I have some lingerie at home. Would you prefer I wear that?”

           

“Do you have any, like, plaid skirts or...no—wait! I don’t even know if I want you to come back.”

           

“Regardless, I’ll be here. Something tells me you won’t be slamming the door in my face.”

 

***

 

The next morning, Dave found himself on the opposite side of the door. After the third round of pounding, he finally called “C’mon! I know you’re in there! I can smell that vanilla bullshit you spray all over yourself!”

           

“It’s called Vanilla Daydream,” his ex-wife, Karen, said through the front door of her home.

           

“Are you gonna let me in or what?”

           

“Why should I? You didn’t bother to answer your phone when I called you fifty times on Sunday. You don’t answer your phone, you don’t answer texts. Now you wanna talk?”

           

“Just let me in, ok?”

           

No reply.

           

He sighed heavy and dense. “If you don’t let me in, I’m going to drop trou and take a dump right on your overgrown front lawn. Is that what you want? Your asshole neighbor’ll love that! What’s his name? The guy with the Jew nose?”

           

He heard the door click open.

           

Dave glanced over his shoulder. The neighbor across the street was watching, his arms crossed over his chest.

           

Dave offered him a friendly wave and stepped inside. Karen still lived in the two-story Colonial they had lived in when they were married five years earlier. He knew her parents were helping her with the mortgage since there was no way she could afford the mortgage on her own working as a nurse at a pediatrician’s office. He had tried to convince her to move into a more affordable place, but she thought moving would be too traumatic for their two girls, Lacey and Adelynn, after the divorce. She didn’t want the girls to lose their home, their school, and their father all at once.

           

The inside of the house was a mess. What appeared to be three weeks’ worth of laundry covered the living room while a Roomba whirred somewhere in one of the other rooms.

           

She had her back to him as he closed the door behind him. The girls were nowhere in sight.

           

“This place is kind of a mess,” Dave said. “Don’t you think it’d be easier to keep this place clean if you moved into a smaller place?”

           

Instead of answering, she turned and wrapped her arms around him. She squeezed him, hugged him hard and desperate. He couldn’t remember the last time she had been this close to him. He placed his hands gently on her hips and did his best not to get a boner.

           

“I’m glad you’re ok,” she said into his ear. “You can’t imagine how terrified the girls were when they heard you were in that church.”

           

“Just the girls?”

           

“Well—all of us.” She sighed. “Are you seriously getting a boner right now?”

           

“Oh—sorry. It’s been a while…”

           

She wiped the tears from her eyes and laughed. “Same ‘ole Dave.”

           

She retreated from the room without a word. He followed her into the kitchen. There was a large rectangular hole cut into the ceiling near the sink. A drop cloth covered the floor and various tools covered the kitchen sink next to a pile of dirty dishes.

           

“What the hell happened in here?”

           

“Had a leak in the upstairs bathroom. Leaked right through the ceiling. Had to get a plumber out to patch it up, but it was extra to have him fix the hole in the ceiling.”

           

“Couldn’t you get your boyfriend to do that for you?”

           

“Darren is my boyfriend, not my handyman.”

           

She began to spackle the ceiling. Dave watched her for a while before he got bored. He checked the fridge, but there was hardly anything inside but condiments and a half gallon of skim milk.

           

He slammed the refrigerator door shut. “Jesus, Karen, I came over to talk to you. I thought this was your day off?”

           

“This is what I do on my day off, Dave! Remember? You left me with a mortgage to pay and two girls to raise on my own! And let’s not forget—” But she cut herself off. She swallowed her anger and continued. “I’m sorry. As glad as I am that you’re not dead, I’m still super pissed at you. You could have at least answered your phone when the girls called.”

           

“My phone is busted.”

           

“Oh yeah? I remember the last time your phone was ‘busted.” Then ten minutes later you were checking your fantasy football stats on your busted phone.”

           

“This time it’s true. Where are the girls? Aren’t they out of school for the summer?”

           

“They’ve been out for almost two weeks...which you would know if you ever called them or talked to them. They’re upstairs in their rooms because they’re pissed at you. They don’t want to talk to you. Can you blame them?”

           

“Well, shit, they could at least say hello.”

 

“And YOU could at least pick up the goddamn phone when they call!” She closed her eyes and took three deep breathes—in, out, in out, in, out. When she continued, it was in a labored, tired voice. “Now, as lovely as it is to see you’re still alive, Dave, was there a specific reason for you dropping by today? God knows you don’t just swing by to say hello.”

           

He wasn’t sure he could say the words. His first instinct was to insult her, to point out that the paint she had bought was eggshell instead of ivory and wouldn’t match the rest of the ceiling, but he suppressed his inner asshole. What he had to ask her was too important, and he knew she was the only person who would give him an honest answer.

           

“Do you think I’m a good person?”

           

She continued to spackle the ceiling. “That’s a hell of a question for someone to ask when that person is six months behind on child support payments.”

           

“So your answer is no?”

           

“I didn’t say that.”

           

“So you think I am a good person—like, deep down?”

           

“I didn’t say that either.”

           

Dave cradled his head in his hands. “This is fucking pointless. I’m just trying to wrap my head around this whole thing. I got a priest or whatever the hell he is telling me I’m some sort of tool of God and this slutty church lady wants to have sex with me because she thinks I’m a piece of shit and I’m trying to figure out what any of this bullshit means—if anything.”

           

“A church lady wants to have sex with you?”

           

“Well...yeah. As, like, a thanks for saving her children but she’s married. It’s a whole thing.”

           

“So you want my permission to fuck her?”

           

“No. I just—want some answers.”

           

She descended the ladder and faced him. “What do you think?”

           

He shrugged and avoided her eyes. “I don’t know. I always thought I had that figured out. I’ve been a sonnavabitch my entire life, and that’s just the way it was. I think that’s why you liked me at first. You liked that I was an asshole who didn’t give a shit.” She opened her mouth to protest but sighed and said nothing. “I was a shitty husband to you and a lousy dad for the girls. I half-assed my work, blew all my money gambling and visiting strip clubs. Never once did I consider myself a good person, and I was fine with that. I never wanted to be a good person.”

           

She nodded as if he had given her an answer. “Maybe the problem is people finally expect more of you and you’re realizing you could be more—if you wanted to be.”

           

“Life was simpler when I was a sonnavabitch. Heroes have too many expectations. What are those people from Trinity gonna do when they find out that I’m no hero?”

           

“What are you gonna do when you find out that you are?”

           

“I’m not sure one good act can wipe out an entire lifetime of being an asshole.”

           

“And I’m not sure why it can’t.”

           

There was a small noise from the living room. Lacey and Adelynn were peering around the corner, tears in their eyes.

           

Dave waved them over. “C’mere.”

           

They rushed into their father’s arms.

 

***

 

The next day, Dave sat in the darkness of his apartment staring at the television. It had been on all night, but he couldn’t recall any of the shows he had watched. There was still a single beer in the fridge. The phone rang significantly less that day and there had been a shooting at a mall in Minnesota so the major news coverage had shifted there. Seven were dead.

           

The local news stations still had blurbs about the incident at the church, but Dave wasn’t present in any of the coverage. Now the focus was solely on the shooter. Dennis’s face was everywhere and the broadcasters spent most of their time dissecting his life, his upbringing, and the tragic events that led to his violent act. Dave was nowhere to be found. Now the villain took center stage.

           

They had forgotten their hero.

           

The knock he had been waiting for came around 2:00 in the afternoon. It seemed like an odd time for a lascivious tryst. He realized he hadn’t hanged clothes from the day before. His shirt was covered in crumbs from his breakfast pizza.

           

He answered the door on the second knock. This time Hambone was nowhere to be found. He opened the door halfway and stood in the opening. Jill was dressed in a turquoise rain coat that went down to her knees. She wore sensible tan heels. Church shoes. She was wearing lipstick this time, but her hair was still a mess.

           

“Didn’t think you were coming,” he said.

           

“This was as soon as I could get here. Mason had another episode this morning and my husband is useless.”

           

She moved to enter, but Dave held his ground. “I was thinking that I might not let you in…”

           

She laughed as if he had said a joke. “Well, before you make that decision, I want you to know something.” She paused for dramatic effect. “I found a plaid skirt.”

           

He thought about it. Then he stepped to the side. She brushed up against him as she entered, her coat making a swishing sound as it opened briefly, offering a sneak preview of what was underneath.

           

“Do you have any beer?” she asked.

           

“Nope. Still tapped out.”

           

He closed the door behind her.

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