In LA, a new job as editor of a small religious magazine awaited him. To Ben Sludge, who had received his doctorate in religious studies years ago from Brown, a new career meant a new life.
For Ben, since the accident seven years ago, living in Tulsa had been like dwelling in purgatory. Since then, he had been under continual treatment for moderate to severe depression. Two Decembers ago, severely depressed, convinced that somehow he'd planned the accident, he had physically attacked a colleague and former close friend in a coffee house; the story had quickly spread throughout the community, and the university's Board of Regents had demanded Dr. Sludge's resignation. Devastated, on Christmas day, an inebriated Sludge had driven his car head-on into one of the walls of the student chapel. The legal system and the court-appointed psychiatrist determined, six months later, that Ben needed a long break away from Tulsa. In short, Ben Sludge had been told to get out of town.
"Things outside Tulsa won't be so bad," Ben's mother, Ida Sludge, had reassured her son again and again. Los Angeles, his friends and his brother Dick had said, is the place to go; Southern California would heal his soul, Pastor Ken had remarked after an intense session with Ben. "Lots of sunshine, friendly people, and beautiful Las Vegas only four hours away," his uncle Ray had told him over dinner last week. "You just need to get away, boy." Uncle Ray, regarded by the largely Baptist family as unrepentant, had been bringing his girl friends to Vegas for thirty years.
It didn't take long for memories to surface after this, and when he reached Flagstaff, he stopped for half an hour to push away the panic swirling within him. At seven in the evening, he had left Barnacle Bill's donut shop to resume the drive. To shorten the distance, he pushed his car up to ninety and listened to Air Supply CDs. Air Supply had been his wife's favorite group.
As he approached the eastern outskirts of Las Vegas, late at night, going eighty, a red semi blew past him. Startled, Ben jerked the steering wheel, nearly missed another car, and slowed to fifty in the far right lane. Damage had been done, however. The incident triggered images related to his wife and daughter's deaths and presented themselves in such vivid detail that Benjamin, driving the I- 95 that snaked east to west through the city, felt himself fragmenting and slowed to thirty.
Struggling with panic, verging on depression, Benjamin removed Air Supply and put another CD into the player. This CD contained old gospel songs by the Holy Ghost Choir of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of Memphis, Tennessee. Ben loved old gospel and figured that the sounds would lift his spirit and drive the haunting images out of his head. Jesus, he knew, was always his friend.
As he drove, listening to the singing and forcing thoughts away from the spectacle that seven years ago had taken his wife and daughter, Benjamin Sludge glanced at the digital clock-radio, set into the dash. The clock read 11:43. Seven years ago, authorities had set the time of the accident at midnight. Feeling dizzy, he looked out the cracked side window of his battered '82 primer gray Chevrolet. In the midnight heat, the city blazed brilliantly, like a lake of fire, yet the lights could not prevent the memory that shot like a bat into Benny's brain.
In his mind's eye, he saw the red semi sliding side-wise toward them down the freeway, sparks shooting everywhere. He, his wife, and daughter had been singing hymns and were returning from a church weekend at a lake, where they had all caught their limit. Benny remembered hearing his daughter screaming at him to make the rig stop.
And suddenly there it was, the picture of his car's tangled mass splattering the screen in his mind. Like one condemned to a perdition of memories, Benny remembered himself trapped in the wreckage, his body bent and encased in a metal coffin as he prayed for deliverance and waited for the emergency crew. He remembered that he had looked to his wife next to him, sure that he had heard her gasping, expecting her to make a motion and assure him that she was all right when he suddenly had the sense that his wife of twelve years was dead. Up to this point, he had depended upon his wife for everything. After the rescue crew had pried him out of the tangled metal coffin, Ben was told that both his wife and six-year old daughter had been crushed on impact and had died immediately. At that instant, standing next to the bodies of the ones he loved, he felt something fly out of his soul. It is God, he had told himself at the time; God has taken my soul.
Now, seven years later, driving through Las Vegas, Benny wondered why he had been allowed to escape the wreckage, why his wife and daughter had been taken from him. He hated himself for the deaths. He feared that God blamed him and wondered if he were an evil man. He was certain that he was. Sweating, he turned off the CD and tried to remember some of his favorite hymns. If I force myself to sing,, Benny thought, I'll be able to forget and to subdue my own diabolical nature. Beautiful Savior -- Benny made himself think of the opening words to an old favorite and tried to visualize Christ standing over him, looking down with compassion.
But, Ben saw instead, the corpses of his wife and daughter lying along the side of the road, blankets covering them. Realizing with a sudden chill that God could not look upon Satan with compassion, he felt himself quickly approaching the fiery lake of psychotic depression. If he reached that place, he knew he'd be capable of anything: he would then believe himself to be the consummate-evil being that had taken innocent lives.
He'd been there before. Five months ago, he had spent a month in a psychiatric unit claiming he was Satan. He had beaten senseless one inmate who insisted upon reading the Bible at breakfast, lunch and dinner. His family and church had nearly disowned him during his confinement. Assuring Ben that he would never go through the ordeal again, the doctor had attributed the disorder to childhood trauma: since childhood, when he had heard his other uncle Ruben preach on the devil and demonic possession, Ben had feared the merging of his personality with that of the Prince of Darkness.
"That's a fiction, Dr. Sludge. At the peak of your delusion, you believe yourself to be one with evil," his doctor had said, and Benny had believed him. "At that point," his doctor had added, "you are capable of anything. Keep in mind: Evil does not exist."
What the hell is happening? he wondered, darkness crowding his mind. But he knew what was happening. It always happened: As the thing inside him grew, darkness would engulf him, and he would be sucked into the vortex of some hideous ritual that would verify what he had long suspected about himself - - that he had an evil heart, that goodness was pretense, that he was beyond forgiveness. The dark mass growing inside him would become tangible as mud and, as the light from the overhead moon now faded along with the lights of Vegas, Benny felt himself falling and at that moment recalled Milton's description of Satan and his legions cast out of heaven. He became, in that instant, the fallen angel.
Gripped by terror, his sense of self dissipating, Benny fought to maintain his sanity and weakly forced out the words to a song he and his wife used to sing with members from their church every Wednesday evening:
I've got a river o' life flowin' outa me
Makes the lame t' walk and the blind to see
Opens prison doors and sets the captives free
I've got the river o' life flowin' outa me.
Benny waited for the soothing hand of his Creator, his heart pounding wildly against his rib cage, the words echoing through him. But as he waited, even staring into his own soul, he sensed the thing inside crawling and scratching itself to the surface of his brain. Crazily, he wondered if the thing had eyes. It was like a cat trapped inside his head, clawing to get out.
"You got shit flowin' outa you, asshole," a voice said in a low growl. The words had come from some far region of Ben's mind and signaled his merging with darkness. Certain as he drove by Las Vegas that he was losing his soul, Benny pounded the steering wheel, whimpered, and struggled to think the words, Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Help me, help me! He couldn't utter the sounds.
Darkness surrounding him like mustard gas.
"Fuck you, Benny!" he heard the low guttural voice proclaim. Sure that he was going to get sick, he pulled his car over to the side of the freeway, slowed down, and stopped. Sludge wondered, for an instant, if he should jump out of his car and run for help when, inexplicably, a diabolical design suddenly took root in his mind.
It was past midnight, and Sludge could see no cars headed his way. He also knew, however, that only one car would drive this way, down this freeway, for another twenty minutes. Assured, somehow, that a family of three was coming, he walked to the middle of the three lanes, lay down on his back, and waited.
As he lay on the highway, he could hear the swish of the lone automobile approaching him. It was a half-mile away, Ben figured, then a quarter, then three hundred yards.
Sludge waited, heart ticking like a bomb. Then, nearly one hundred feet from him, capturing Sludge in the headlights, the vehicle came to a gradual halt. It was a large green suburban. Knowing that the occupants were watching him, waiting for him to move, Sludge lay still as stone, eyes closed, barely breathing. Finally, he heard two doors slam and footsteps slowly approaching him.
"Is he dead, Daddy?" It was the tender voice of a teenage girl.
Daddy didn't answer, and Sludge felt the cool night wind blow over him.
"Richard, answer your daughter!" This would be dear old Mom, Sludge knew. He loved the sound of her voice: low, husky, sexy.
"Daddy?" said the girl. "Is the man dead?"
Finally, Richard spoke, his voice weak, effeminate. "Oh, my God, my gosh, I think he must be."
Sludge could imagine the man cowering as he spoke.
"Well, Richard, let's find out," said the husky voice.
Waiting, Sludge heard the shuffling of shoes, indicating someone approaching. This is it, Sludge thought. He sensed someone bending over him, heard the person's loud and labored breathing, felt the breathing on his face, and banged his baleful eyes open and looked at the eyeballs of the other, inches from his own. Sludge howled.
"Jesus!" the man exclaimed in a high-pitched voice, holding his eye as if something had pricked it and trying to pull himself back. "What is this? Jesus, you're alive. You're alive. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!"
Sludge was cobra-quick, and as the man's daughter and wife screamed he grabbed the little bespectacled man by the throat, drew him toward him, and squeezed.
"I ain't Jesus, little man," Sludge growled. He knew his strength would be too much for the man, who gasped, hacked, thrashed, and kicked, trying to escape Benjamin Sludge's powerful grip. This little man reminded Sludge of a frog on a stick.
As he tightened his grip, Sludge could feel bones popping and cartilage snapping. His air quickly cut off, the man stopped screaming and breathing and finally hung limp in Sludge's grasp. Sludge examined the man's face, twisted in painful contortion, mouth open to form a perpetual "O." Without a word, Sludge stood, dropped the body, towered over the corpse, and then looked at the wife and daughter, temporarily paralyzed with fear.
Sludge briefly felt his heart go out to the girl, who reminded him of Beth. Feeling slight remorse, Ben wished that he could play the whole scene over and just give the father a bad scare, anything really just to keep the father together with his wife and daughter. But Sludge had known the rules of the game for some time, and quickly stepping forward seized the girl and, drawing her to him, wrapped his arm around her head and yanked violently, snapping the girl's neck.
"Good night, baby," he whispered.
It is admirable, Sludge thought to himself, that this little one does not scream. He gently lay the body next to the man and turned to the wife.
Just as the screaming woman reached the street, which dead-ended at the freeway embankment, Sludge grabbed her long, flowing hair. It reminded him of catching a fish in a stream. As he yanked her toward him, she shrieked, flailed her arms, and kicked.
He admired the woman's spunk and held her at arm's length. Again and again, she tried to kick him. Faced with death, this one fights, thought Sludge. Taking the woman in both arms, he easily bore her to the ground. There, she stopped struggling.
In the light of the full moon, Sludge looked down at the woman; she was panting, fear and hatred in her eyes. Intrigued, aroused, Sludge brought his hand up to the woman's face, felt her skin, her full lips, her eyebrows; he ran his fingers through her raven hair, drenched in her own sweat. He reached beneath her jacket and felt her breasts. At that moment, she was the most beautiful woman Sludge had ever seen and he wondered if even the Prince of Darkness might spare this one.
The image of another woman, someone killed in an accident, began to surface; Sludge could not identify the woman. This woman made him think of the other woman. In the next instant, however, unwilling to violate the rules, he put one hand around her throat -- she was silent, waiting for death -- and squeezed quickly. As the woman's neck cracked, death fell.
Sludge rose, feeling that he was flying around the moon. The thrill from the three kills was overwhelming. He looked down at the lifeless body and then turned, glancing back at the freeway. Though he had not heard their sirens, the flashing lights coming from the top of the embankment meant the police had arrived. Certainly, they would find the bodies, the abandoned van, and his own parked car. Within minutes, using their computers, they would even know his identity. However they would have no way to know that he had tracked down the man's wife and stood over her corpse, less than three hundred feet away. Looking back at the neighborhood, he heard more sirens and looking up he noticed three police cars, still blocks away, speeding towards him. Suddenly, he realized what was happening: hearing screams, someone had called the police. Sludge knew he must ask quickly and intelligently. The Prince of Darkness cannot be contained, he thought, and looking around, discovered, five hundred feet down and in the embankment toward the center of the city a large round opening. It was a pipe used for flood control; this would be his avenue to safety. It was just as the first police car came to a halt fifty feet from him that he turned in the direction of the pipe. Sludge knew that the Devil could move at light speed, and so he ran. He felt the wind flowing through his long brown hair, sensed he was nearly flying, wondered if he were invulnerable. Then, hearing a shot fired behind him, Sludge felt something slam into his spine, knocking him forward with incredible force. Not far from the pipe, he fell face down, immobilized, paralyzed, unable to breathe, and as he lay, life blood pouring from him, he began to return to himself.
Remorse washed over him like a wind and he remembered, in a flash, a sermon he had once heard on God's eagerness to forgive. The preacher had stressed that God pardons in an instant. The thief on the cross was a great example; remembering now all his earthly transgressions, Ben identified with the thief to whom Jesus promised paradise. Inwardly, Benny wept and thought of his wife and daughter. He wept because he had killed three people that night in cold blood without batting an eye.
Regretting killing the innocent, vowing in his dying heart to turn from his insidious nature, asking that he be freed from his condition, he felt darkness gently fall like a black cape and heard footsteps rapidly approaching. His eyes closed, he knew he was floating, and released from earthly cares. No one, nothing could hurt him now. Surrounded by light, he inwardly began singing "It is well with my soul," an old hymn that he had known since childhood. In that instant, realizing that his wife and daughter held nothing against him, silently acknowledging that he was not responsible for the accident and certainly not an evil man, he asked God's forgiveness.
Though unspoken, the request required every ounce of strength. Then, he sensed himself gently cradled and born upwards, wondered if he had wings, and felt the undeniable presence of Christ. Looking down he saw in place of the freeway, Las Vegas and the neighborhood an endless lake of fire. I was there, he thought to himself.
Knowing that the pit was not for him, that the world could no longer corrupt
him, that he had been graciously spared eternal torment, he felt the heat from the
flames receding. Glancing upwards, he saw a marvelous city of gold, its spires
and towers reminding him of glorious lost cities in childhood fantasies, the river
running through it sparkling like diamonds. The City went on forever.
"Flying to the City of God," Benny heard angels singing, knew his wife and
daughter were waiting for him, and allowed himself to be born upward and into
the Kingdom of his redeemer.
© 2000 Richard Logsdon, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
This story, like many of my works, represents a response to the emptiness characteristic of much contemporary writing. Having tossed the Judeo-Christian paradigm, many late 20th century authors offer works predicated upon the conviction that awaiting us all is an abyss, a void, the complete negation of being. Not only is this view unsettling; it is also nonsense. In "Flying to the City of God," the main character is locked in the eternal battle between good and evil. He is, in fact, overcome by his delusion that he must be evil. Belief and depression contribute to a psychosis from which he is delivered only in death, the moment of his ascension to the Heavenly City.