Yep, still here and still writing. It occurred to me the other day that I haven’t posted any samples or any kind here in a while. So I thought I would share something from my current project, Penance.
Penance picks up several months after Our Own Devils where we find Mac Connally adrift emotionally and professionally until he is hired by an old high school acquaintance to look into a mysterious death in a remote Nebraska town seemingly ran by a strange religious sect. Through the course of his investigation, he meets a young woman named Jeddy Gray. The following is her story.
AUTHOR’S NOTE!!! The events are entirely fictional. However, I did draw great inspiration from Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven.
Jedediah Gray was fifteen years old. She was the youngest of six girls, no brothers. Her father, Joseph (named for Joseph Smith) was a mason and worked for Harris Sand and Gravel while her mother, Rebecca, taught first and second grade at the official Church of Christ’s True Saints’ school. Jeddy had never seen a television set or a computer, although her friend Ruth claimed to have seen both and even used a computer once to get a recipe for banana bread. She’d made Jeddy promise to never tell anyone.
She spent her afternoons making dresses, cooking meals, and doing other household chores while her mornings were spent at her school work. Bible study was the most important part of her education and the only textbook worth having, really. The children all had math books, but those were practically useless once they learned the most basic algebra equations.
They had no science text books. Why did they? All they needed to know was God wished it to be and therefore it was. How the Lord God made it all to happen was not the concern of his loyal subjects and to attempt to know the ways of God was to be the same as Adam and Eve eating of the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
The history book they had said nothing of Greeks, Romans, or Europeans. It began with the birth of Joseph Smith and skipped soon after to his first meeting with the angel Moroni. Much of the book’s text dealt with the American Government’s persecution of the early Mormons and, later, Christ’s True Saints. World Wars I and II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were referenced but there was no mention of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Adolf Hitler, or Communism. It was only stated that the federal government begged the Church for its help in fighting those that would see God’s one true faith burned and that many of Christ’s True Saints fell fighting these armies of the Devil.
Most importantly, they were taught that Jedediah Freely (Jeddy’s namesake) was not only the leader of their church and community but was also the President of the United States, long may he reign until the moment he is called back to serve Jesus in Heaven.
No explanation was ever given as to how Pastor Jed became the President for life after the United States’ history of persecution against his people.
Jeddy’s father, Joseph was an elder in the church; one of Pastor Jed’s senior deacons and the chairman of the Church Quorum, the governing body for the Church’s civil order. Jeddy had asked her father about the Quorum when she was small.
“You remember reading about the Court of Solomon, don’t’ you?” her father explained to her one evening as he bounced her on his knee and stroked her cheek affectionately. Jeddy had always loved how his rough, stone worker’s hands felt against her skin.
“Of course, Papa!” she replied. “But you don’t cut babies, do you?”
“No,” he’d laughed. “But, we can’t bother Pastor Jed with every little problem or quarrel that our members have, can we? If we did, why he’d have no time to sit and speak with God, would he. And if Pastor Jed doesn’t talk with God we couldn’t get to know His will we’d all be as lost as Moses and Israelites in the desert, right?”
“So, Pastor Jed let’s you lead us?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that exactly, Jeddy,” he said. “But he certainly lets me help.”
Learning that her father was a leader in her community filled Jeddy with as much pride she was bursting inside. She knew pride was a sin, but she didn’t care. Her daddy was a very important man!
She had no idea that her pride and adoration for her father would be their undoing.
Jeddy thought nothing of it when sitting outside with her friends one afternoon when she told them in an offhand way how important her father was to their church and their way of life.
“How do you mean?’ said her friend, Harriet.
“Why, my father helps lead the community,” she said simply. “He leads the Quorum and helps make decisions for Pastor Jed.”
Harriet chose to ignore that Jeddy mentioned Pastor Jed when she went home that evening and told her parents that Jeddy said her father led the Church and their community. Her father was shocked that someone would dare undermine their great Pastor and dare usurp his position. He called upon Pastor Jed right away to tell him of their disturbing news.
Two days later, Pastor Jedediah made a surprise visit to the Gray home. Joseph and Rebecca were delighted to see their religious leader on their front step, despite the lateness of the hour. Jeddy had just gone to bed when the bell had rung. She was curious as to who would be calling on them so late so she snuck out of her bed and into the hallway just enough to hear the conversation.
“I do hope you’ll forgive me showing up so late,” said Pastor Jed, “and without a phone call.”
“There’s no apology necessary,” said Jeddy’s father. “You are always welcome in our home, regardless of the hour. Isn’t that right, Mother?”
“Well, of course, Joseph,” answered her mother. “Our home is always open to you, Pastor Jed, no matter what hour it may be.”
“Well, my dear, Rebecca,” said Pastor Jed, “that’s always a wonderful sentiment to hear from my flock.”
“But what I’m wondering,” he said, “is whether your husband feels the same way.”
Jeddy couldn’t see her parents or the pastor, but she could feel the weight of the silence in the room and the sudden tension in the air.
“Pastor, I don’t quite think I follow,” said Joseph,.
“Come now, Brother Joseph,” said Jed, his voice heavy with condescension, “don’t be coy. You know the good Lord doesn’t abide sinners.”
“But…Pastor… How have I sinned?”
“Have you forgotten your commandments, Brother Joseph? ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,’ Joseph,” said the pastor. His voice did not waver, but Jeddy couldn’t help but think that her pastor’s words were like ice. Her parents said nothing in reply. Pastor Jed went on quoting scripture, “‘There are six things the Lord strongly dislikes: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and…’” she heard him click his tongue and sigh “… ‘one who sows discord among others.’”
“Pastor Jed,” spoke her mother, “I’m afraid we don’t follow what you’re saying.”
“Oh dear, sweet, ‘Becca,” said Pastor Jed. As far as Jeddy could remember, Pastor Jed was the only person to ever call her mother ‘Becca’. “Becca, your husband’s been sowing discord.”
“Pastor Jed, my brother,” said her father, ‘on my honor, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You have no honor!” screamed the pastor, his voice turning shrill and followed by the sound of dishes being smashed. “I know…I know that you’re looking to usurp my position as the right hand of the Lord God our Father. Do not try to deny it, Joseph. I already am convinced that it is so.”
Joseph Gray stammered. It was the first time she’d ever heard her father be uncertain in his speech.
“Pastor, have I ever once give you reason to doubt my fidelity? My faith?”
Jed Freely laughed. “Do not the most wicked sinners first appear as the most pious?” he said. “The wolf in the fold does not bear his fangs until he is ready to strike. It is only by the divinity of my connection to the Lord that I was able to learn of your betrayal.”
“Pastor, I demand to meet my accusers,” said Joseph, “to question them so as to learn why they would make such despicable claims against me.”
The Gray home was filled with the sound of Jed Freely’s laughter. In the past it had made Jeddy laugh and smile and filled her with warmth. This time it turned her bowels to water.
“Why, Joseph, you need not look any further than your own home,” said Freely. “Your sweet daughter, Jeddy, has already let others know of your treachery.”
“No!” screamed Jeddy as she ran into the kitchen. Her mother was seated at the breakfast table with her hands folded in her lap and her head hung in shame. Her father stood in the middle of the room. Jeddy had always thought of her father as a gentle giant that towered over everything. But now, being called a criminal in his home, he looked small and almost feeble.
“It’s not true!” cried Jeddy as she threw herself at Jed’s feet.
“Come now, child,” said the pastor as he reached down and stroked her tear stained cheeks. “You may speak true. There is no need to try and lie to conceal your father’s ill deeds. I know you told your friend, Harriet Fargis, that your father is plotting to take the Church and community for himself and cast me out into the wilderness.”
“No, I never!” she cried out again. “Pastor Jed, I only—”
“Hush,” cooed the leader of Christ’s True Saints. “I know, my child. I know what you said. And God knows, as well. Joseph, I have valued your council and friendship for too long to simply accept rumor as fact. So I went and I prayed to God. I asked God, ‘Could my good friend, Joseph, really be seeking to betray me?’”
Freely took in a sharp breath and seemed to force back tears.
“And God said, ‘Yes, Jed, it is true.’”
Jeddy was looking up at her once beloved pastor. Tears still poured from her eyes and her mouth was open as she cried but no sound escaped her throat. Her mother was still seated at the kitchen table and staring at her hands. But now she was sobbing and shaking her head. Jeddy kept waiting for her mother to speak out in her husband’s defense. She didn’t realize that Becca had already accepted her husband’s guilt because God had told Pastor Jed that it was true.
Her father, meanwhile, stood before them a broken man. His once straight posture and broad shoulders were now slouched and hunched. There were lines on his face that Jeddy had not been there when he had kissed her good night a short while earlier.
“Now what, Jed?’ said her father, his voice little more than a harsh whisper.
“Expulsion,” said Freely, his voice as calm as though he were asked what kind of bread he’d like for his sandwich. “You and your family shall be excommunicated from the church and exiled. You, your wife, your children shall all be wiped from our church, our community, our minds. All that you have was given to you by the grace of God. Therefore, because you have fallen from His grace, all that you and your family have shall be taken and given to those who are worthy. Unless…”
“Unless what?” said Joseph, his voice lifted on the small hint of hope.
Pastor Jed smiled down at the crying child at his feet and patted her cheek. “Unless you admit to your crimes,” he said. “If you admit to treason against the Church of Christ’s True Saints and the United States and attempting to usurp the position held by Jedediah Freely, the voice of God on Earth, your family will be spared.”
“What do you mean?” said Rebecca.
“My sweet Becca, you and your children will keep your home, your belongings, and your place in our precious community.”
“But what about Daddy?” sobbed Jeddy. For the first time since she had run into the kitchen, she saw her mother look up. Rebecca sneered at her daughter and Jeddy knew that her father was already dead in her mother’s eyes.
“Your father will be cast out,” said Jed. “He shall be sent out to roam the wilderness like John the Baptist. He will survive on locusts and water from streams until his wickedness has been driven out.”
“But he didn’t really do it!” Jeddy insisted.
“Yes, I did,” said Joseph.
Jed Freely looked at him and smiled. “I’m sorry, Joe? I didn’t quite catch that.”
“I said I did it,” said her father.
“No, Papa,” Jeddy sobbed. She moved to throw herself at her father’s feet but Freely grabbed her by her shoulders and held her back. She couldn’t help but notice that he seemed to be smiling a little.
“Thank you so much, Brother Joseph for your candor and owning up to your crimes.”
“Now what happens?” said her father. “What happens to my family?”
Jed Freely smiled. “It is none of your concern,” he said. “Just know that God will care for them.”
Jeddy wanted her father to lash out, to cry out that it was his concern and always would be. But he didn’t. He just continued to stare at the floor and nod his head with the acceptance of punishment for a crime that did not exist. Then, without a word, two of Freely’s constant companions entered the house. They each took Joseph Gray by the arm and escorted him out of the house.
Jeddy Gray never saw her father again.
At Sunday worship several days later, Pastor Jed went to the pulpit with his head hung low and a heavy expression on his face. He opened his mouth to speak only to overcome by emotion. A collective gasp came from the congregation. Jeddy and her mother were seated in the front pew along with her sisters. They all had their heads hung low in shame.
“My friends,” said the pastor, “I stand before you all this morning with a heavy and broken heart.” He looked up to God and gasped for air. “We have had a traitor in our midst, my friends.”
The way the crowd immediately began to murmur seemed almost scripted. Jeddy didn’t dare lift her head to look around at the rest of her church family. She knew that they were all staring at her and her family; there was no other reason for them to be seated in the front row without their patriarch.
“Yes, it is true, my friends and children,” said Freely with a solemn nod. “Yes, there was one in our midst who did seek to strike me down from my pulpit. To claim our loving community for his own and drive out church into ruin!” There were more gasps of shock from the congregation.
Jed Freely held out his arms and gave them a soothing hush. “Do not worry, my friends. The wolf in the fold has been found out because we are so very fortunate that our church family is strong and loyal. Before our traitor had the chance to move in and make his final strike, our friends, with the help of the Lord Jesus, moved to protect us and expose the traitor, Joseph Gray.”
More gasps escaped the mouths. Each gasp felt like a stab in Jeddy’s back.
“Our friend, Joseph, has been taken care of, friends,” Freely assured them. “He has been excommunicated from our church and banished from our lives. He shall be allowed to live with his sin and knowing that it has cost him all that is dear to him. But, but, my friends…know this…if you should ever come across him…he is dead! He is a man who died three days ago for his sins against God and His holy messenger on Earth. If you see him, you do not see him. He is nothing more than a hole in the air around you, a hole that cannot speak or hear. Do you understand, my children?”
The cries of “amen”, “praise Jesus”, and “God bless Pastor Jed” sent shivers down Jeddy’s spine.
“But now, my friends, we must look forward, not behind. We have Joseph’s widow and his orphaned children to care for. I know that we all want what is best for them and that we all have plans for their future.”
It was then that Jeddy looked up and found Jed Freely smiling down at her.
His smile made her want to cry.
A month passed. On the surface, the surviving members of the Gray family were just as loved by their friends as they had been before Joseph’s fabricated betrayal. Rebecca would always be welcomed at the church when she joined in conversations, as were her girls at church and at school. But no one came to study the Bible, to make dresses, or just to say hi.
Except for Pastor Jed, that is.
The pastor was now coming by the house two or three times a week, joining the Gray women for dinner or dessert. At first, he would leave as Jeddy and her sisters readied themselves for bed. Then he was helping Rebecca put the girls to bed. Jeddy could hear her mother and the pastor talking as she lay in bed. She couldn’t make out what they said; she could only hear the sound of their voices and the occasional sound of their laughter.
It made Jeddy sick to her stomach.
One night after Pastor Jed had finished having dinner with them—for the fourth evening in a row—Rebecca asked Jeddy to sit and talk with the pastor after dinner. Jeddy didn’t care to, but she was still obedient and respectful to her mother and was now horribly afraid of Pastor Jed. So she sat back down in her usual spot while Pastor Jed sat in the spot that had been her father’s for as long as she could remember. To see the man that had ripped him from her world in his chair filled her with rage. But she swallowed it down and sat penitently in her chair.
“How have you been, Jeddy?” said the pastor.
The girl shrugged her shoulders.
“You and I haven’t had much chance to speak as of late,” he said. “I always considered us to be close, Jeddy. I hope you feel the same way. You do, don’t you, Jeddy?”
Her breath caught in her throat. She swallowed it down and nodded.
“What’s that, my dear? I can’t hear a nod.” He used a paternal tone and it angered her. Still, she fought her baser instincts.
“I do, Pastor.”
“Good, I am glad to hear it. You know, your mother and I have been talking about you.”
“Really, Pastor? What about?”
“About your future,” he said with an easy smile as he picked at a spot on the tablecloth.
“Yes, in the church and within our community,” he said. He leaned forward and smiled at her. His yellowing smile made her blood run cold. “Your mother tells me that you’re a woman now.”
“I—I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Pastor,” Jeddy lied.
He smiled. “Your flower has bloomed,” he said. “You’re flower has bloomed, my dear Jeddy, and with its flow hath your womanhood arrived.”
She shivered with cold but felt her face flush. She wanted to speak but couldn’t, she was far too mortified and afraid.
“I’m afraid I still don’t understand,” she said. “What does that have to do with anything?”
He chuckled. “My dear Jeddy, you’re now a woman grown. You are able to give life and raise a family of your own.”
“Begging your pardon, Pastor,” she said, her whole body trembling, “but I’m only fifteen. I’m just a child, really.”
“Not in the eyes of the Lord, my child,” he chuckled. “Why, the Virgin Mary was only thirteen herself when she gave birth to Lord and Savior.”
“I would never presume to compare myself to the Blessed Virgin,” she said.
Pastor Jed laughed. “I should certainly hope not. I would also hope that you would not dare question the wisdom of your humble pastor.”
Jeddy could neither nod nor shake her head. She could only sit and wait to find out what the man that had destroyed her father now had in mind for her. She looked up for the first time and saw his eyes smiling at her. She wanted to cry.
“What do you think about marriage, Jeddy?”
“What about marriage, Pastor?”
“Have you given any thought to it?”
Of course she had. Every little girl dreams about the day she gets married, doesn’t she? About walking down the aisle in the dress she made herself and meeting her betrothed while all of her family and friends looked on. The only thing she’d left blank in the fantasy was the face of her groom-to-be.
“No, Pastor, I haven’t.”
Pastor Jed nodded with a thoughtful frown.
“Well, perhaps that’s just because you had no great reason to,” he said. Jeddy felt something inside of her sink.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’ve orchestrated a pairing for you, my dear Jedediah,” said the pastor with a great smile.
“You have?” She couldn’t keep her voice from trembling.
The pastor held his hands wide and nodded with a smile. It was plain that he was quite pleased with himself.
“But…” Jeddy caught herself. She wanted to shout and scream but she fought hard to keep her composure. The last thing she wanted to do was risk angering the man she now feared most in the world. “Begging your pardon, Pastor, but isn’t Mister Fargis a bit too old?”
“Why would you say that?”
“Isn’t Mister Fargis in his early seventies? When I’m of marrying age and done with my schooling, how will he be able to provide me with a child as God has commanded?”
He chuckled. “Well, my child,” he said in a tone as though she were ten years younger, “God doesn’t necessarily ask every couple to provide him with children. Also, I’m sure you’ll recall from your scripture that many a man has provided his wife with a child despite his advanced age.” He saw Jeddy’s face fall and he laughed. “Do not worry, dear child. I’ve already accounted for it.”
“That’s why you will be married in three days’ time.”
Jeddy’s body crumpled in her chair. Any modicum of control was gone. She doubled over and began sobbing and wailing. She cried so hard her throat hurt. Pastor Jed laughed with a snort and a smile as he stood and patted her head.
“Your tears of joy are all the thanks I need,” he said before he left the house.
Her mother entered the room shortly after with a basket of laundry and whistled a hymn. She seemed completely oblivious to the fact that her eldest daughter was doubled over in deep emotional pain. She set the basket down and began folding under things with a content smile on her face.
“Oh, what’s got you so upset, my dear?” she said finally.
Jeddy looked up at her mother as though she’d just said that the moon wasn’t a second sun (she wouldn’t find out the truth about that for several years). Then Jeddy did something she had never done in her life: she raised her voice to her mother.
“Have you lost your mind, Mother?” she shrieked. “Pastor Jed wants me to marry! Old Man Fargis! In just a few days!”
“Oh yes,” nodded Rebecca with an appreciative smirk, “what a great pairing for you, Jeddy.”
“But, Mother! Old Man Fargis seventy years old!”
Her mother reached out and slapped her across the face.
“That’s Elder Fargis to you, young lady,” scolded Rebecca. “He is the head of the Quorum and soon to be your husband. Show some respect.”
Jeddy’s heart continued to break. “But, Mama, how…how can you be in favor of this?”
Rebecca gave her a compassionate frown and caressed the cheek she’d just truck.
“Oh, sweet child,” she cooed, “you’re so young in the world. Don’t you see what this marriage will do for us? It will take us out of the darkness of your father’s disgrace and return us to the light within the church.”
“What disgrace, Mother? You know that Papa was never anything but loyal to Pastor Jed and the church! He was righteous and penitent always!”
Rebecca Gray covered her ears and shook her head like a stubborn child.
“No, no, no, Jeddy!” she insisted with her eyes clamped shut. “Your father was wicked and deceitful and wanted to hurt the church, Pastor Jed said so!~”
“But he wasn’t! You know Papa wasn’t!”
“If he wasn’t then he was going to and God told Pastor Jed before he could hurt us and the church,” said her mother with an emphatic nod. “He was expelled for it and is as good as dead and this marriage will help us.”
Jeddy had had enough. She stamped her feet and, with her nostrils flared, spat, “Well if it’s such a great darn idea then why don’t you marry him?”
Rebecca gasped and held her hand over her heart. “Because that is not God’s wish. It is God’s will that you wed Gerald Fargis in three days’ time. And you will, Jeddy you will marry him and let him bed you and plant his seed in you and raise his children because Pastor Jed Freely tells us that God has commanded it!”
“So he says,” muttered Jeddy.
“What did you just say?”
For a moment Jeddy hadn’t realized that she’d uttered the words out loud. But as she saw her mother’s horrified eyes wide open and her mouth ajar she decided to let out everything that had been building in her since her father’s excommunication.
“What if Pastor Jed’s wrong?” she said, her voice soft and earnest. Her mother doubled over as though she’d been stabbed. “What if he has been misunderstanding God’s word all this time? Or what if God doesn’t even talk to him at all?”
Her mother did not speak or move for a very long time. She remained doubled over with her rear against the wall and her large eyes fixed on the floor as saliva dripped from her awestruck mouth. Jeddy wasn’t even sure that her mother was still breathing until she took in a gasp for air that seemed to suck all of the oxygen from the room.
“You ungrateful, sinful child!” her mother screamed at the top of her lungs. “You heretic! Are you so selfish that you would deny the will of God and blaspheme?”
“Silence, Devil’s child! Your father’s evil treachery has spread to you and I will not hear it! For all I know, it was you that drove your father into wickedness! You will repent! With fire if necessary!”
Rebecca grabbed her daughter by the wrist and dragged her down the hall. When Jeddy cried out and tried to pull away her mother struck her with the back of her hand so hard that blood flew from her mouth and ran freely from her nose. It was only the second time she’d been struck by either of her parents she had been small.
Rebecca dragged her daughter to the bathroom and threw her, clothes and all, into the bathtub and turned on the shower, dousing her in icy cold water. Jeddy held her hands up in a vain attempt to shield herself from the water. When that failed, she tried to swat at her mother who was holding her down.
“No, you dirty child!” scolded Rebecca. “You have the mark of the Devil’s filth and must have your sin washed away!”
Jeddy tried to swat at her mother’s hands. For this she was rewarded with another swift strike form the back of her mother’s hand. This time, she felt something crack in her face and knew right away that her beloved mother had broken her nose.
It was only then that her mother relented. She let go of her daughter, shut off the water, and clicked her tongue in disappointment. Jeddy had heard her mother make the same sound when a bit of mustard had landed on her dress at the church barbecue the previous summer.
“Now you’re going to have a busted up nose for the wedding,” she said with a small pout. “No matter, it shall be what it shall be.”
Rebecca had no problem moving her daughter around now. Jeddy was numb and docile from the sock of what had transpired. She was only vaguely aware of the throbbing in her nose as her mother led her from the bathroom to her bedroom where she was stripped naked and wrapped in a towel.
“I must say,” said Rebecca as she dried her daughter’s hair, “I am so glad that you’ve finally calmed down and regained your composure.” She patted the girl’s cheek and wrapped the towel tight around her shoulders. “Now, you dry yourself off and get into your pajamas. Meanwhile, I’ll go find someone to take care of that nose for you. You just sit tight and pray for guidance.”
She squeezed Jeddy’s shoulders and left her alone in her bedroom but not without locking the door from the outside. It took Jeddy several moments before she finally got her wits about her again. She thought about what was going to happen to her in only a matter of days, of what would happen to her after, and about her mother’s strange behavior.
Jeddy began to weep. She had nowhere and no one turn to; her best friend had sold out her father based off of something she had said, her sisters were far too young, and her mother had become a completely different person.
She cried harder, but not because of the pain in her face. She found her book bag and loaded it with clothes before getting dressed herself. She tried opening her bedroom window for the first time that she could ever recall. The glass wouldn’t budge. She wasn’t sure if the window had been sealed shut by her parents or by time and lack of use. Regardless, she resorted to breaking it with the biggest and heaviest objet she could find in her room.
Then she climbed through the window and ran as far as she could without ever looking back.