Karen Brightdell was still talking up Jesus to him, and he was still nodding every now and then while waiting for an opportunity to slip a lightspeed glance at her chest. There was something unreal about the hazel-eyed chick with the wavy chocolate hair. She was like a Sunday school teacher trapped in a body of Satan's own craftwork, some fantasy he'd forgotten to indulge in during his teenage years that had recently walked out of a church picnic.
Every word offered a sweet coddling to it, as if she presumed every other living, breathing, sinning creature that shared the shitpool planet with her was as pure in intent and thought as she came off. There was no way she bought that navy blue blouse knowing exactly how far the neckline receded down into her cleavage. It wasn't that there was a lot of it; rather, it was the shape and gravity of her breasts, the tautness of them, that made this a particularly notable fashion choice.
Even the way she transitioned her hips was careful and nuanced, making her seem to take no single step for granted, or like she was forever walking steadily barefoot across a supple mattress. This was an especially maddening effect when witnessing her walking away, Stone found. Her buttocks was already pert, womanly curved and weighted yet not obscenely so, but in motion it transcended any form either photoshopped or surgically enhanced he'd studied. She moved in an inherent choreography of distilled grace with which he figured a hula dancer would carry herself, though he doubted she practiced this skill regularly. If she could do this in simple jeans, he could only imagine her in a short skirt (actually, he'd skipped that, and had gone straight to sheer panties).
Not that Stone was one of these repair guys who showed up at the homes of female customers ready to play the pushy, creepy handiman that the chick had to suddenly 'go to the grocery store' to get away from. He was under no illusions, unlike others in the business who liked to sell the idea that they were living a porno every day. Bullshit.
Yes, in a sense, she was the hottest customer he had in seven years of doing this. But come on, she'd mentioned from the get-go that her husband was upstairs. He'd worked the math, and it told him that at age 27-29, probably married for several years now but with no kids yet, she was a closet cocktease. That was the easiest answer, and keeping himself returning to that conclusion had kept him focused on the work at hand while there.
He did wonder if the naive sexiness was in actuality a classic hook for getting him into a church pew. Jesus was a fisherman, after all. Or was that carpenter? Yeah, probably carpenter, he settled. Obviously she wouldn't be fishing for Jesus. In a religious sense, that was. Random single repairmen probably didn't make for coveted recruits.
In the physical attraction sense, he wasn't repulsive, he had settled on once he'd hit 35 earlier this year. Sure, he'd gotten a little rounder where he'd been more square ten years earlier, but he certainly hadn't grown outright fat. The moment he'd noticed his metabolism slowing and stomach ballooning, he'd cut out drinking altogether. He was greying at the temples, which were falling further back every three years or so, but in no way would he be construed as balding. But he was nothing worth going past cockteasing with, either. Not that he had pursued such a goal at this point.
And yet, there he was, at the Brightdell residence for the second time in a week. Nodding amens.
"But it's so liberating, you know? Walking in the spirit frees your mind and your soul to really be in the moment," Karen elaborated on a point Stone assumed she made while he was determining where her bra cup ended and her left boob began beneath her blouse.
"Yes, I could imagine that," he nodded like a champion. This one had a slight circular motion towards the end, as his chin dipped, really hammering home the notion that he'd been hanging on every damn word. It was nothing like that last nod, which of course had been carefully spaced out from the one before it, but came off totally phoned in.
Bruins kickoff in twenty minutes. Probably ten now. Just go home, just go, Stone pleaded with himself.
"And would you believe that I used to be a really anxious person?" Karen offered with a shake of her head, as if she herself had not yet come to terms with such a resounding change of character.
Stone swung at the softball, slammed that sonofabitch out of the yard. "Really, you?"
Mother of fuck, the Bruins, just leave--
"I don't come across that way now, do I?" Mrs. Brightdell marveled.
"No, not really," Stone agreed flashing a puzzled look. "Geez, I need to get to my next job site. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to keep yapping."
Karen dismissed this statement of guilt with a dainty wave of her fingers. "Oh, it's okay. I really do talk too much sometimes. I didn't mean to keep you."
"It's no bother. I enjoyed it," Stone said with a sincere grin. "Call me back if you're still having problems with it, okay?"
"Will do," she smiled. "Bye now!"
With the heavy white house door closing behind him, Stone marched to his truck parked on the curb. Once he jumped in and strapped his belt, he cast a glance up to the second story of the fairly new construction of the brick home. The windows were black inside or otherwise plastered with curtains. It was impossible to tell if Mr. Brightdell had been watching him. He shook this paranoia off, though. All he did was fix the guy's security system.
It had been the same problem as earlier this week: something had reset the control panel in the downstairs hallway. Both times, Karen couldn't really point out a cause for it. He figured there must have been some short in the panel somewhere, or in the wiring running to it, because only a direct power failure would have reset the whole thing. That's why this time he'd spent 45 minutes meticulously disassembling the components in the wall and checking each wire on his meter. Everything checked out, which only served to further perplex him.
He had his own stuff to work on, though. He had a special project in the works back at his place. He decided he'd put a little time into today. For some reason, he felt more motivated to finish now than ever.
Stone drove home, watched most of the Bruins game, jumped onto the project, and pondered a little more on Mrs. Brightdell.
Several days later, which brought an uncharacteristic south-Cal downpour, Stone was home from doing service calls by two in the afternoon. People weren't interested in dragging out the poor maintenance guy in a monsoon. So the poor maintenance guy was on the verge of a nap when his phone went off on the coffee table next to the couch. Work was calling.
Shit. His bungalow was all nice and dark, and it was raining, and this was perfect freaking nap weather, for the love of--
"Stone. What's up?"
Duty called, and Stone couldn't turn down Duty, or something terrible would happen. He didn't have a firm grasp on what form that something terrible might take, but Duty was not to be trifled with, because...well, because.)
"Hi, Stone? Oh, this is so embarrassing, but, this is Karen Brightdell. We seem to be having trouble with the security system again. I know, I know, I'm as fed up with it as you probably are."
The Harland Security Technician didn't always give out his direct line number. Sometimes, exceptions were made, Karen Brightdell-type exceptions, which he inevitably ended up regretting on days just like this.
Maybe not as much this time.
He scratched his cheek stubble. "Wow, man, that unit just needs to be replaced altogether, huh? Um...tell you what. I'll put in a req for a new panel from the home office, and I'll probably be able to put it in within the next few days. That sound okay?"
There was a popping over the line for a moment which came in intervals of about a second, then died away. Interference. This observation prodded him nearer to another theory. Stone wondered if there wasn't something external that was in the home causing the panel to reset.
"Yeah...yeah, we could do that. It's just that it's making that beeping noise every now and then because it's in that passive state you told me about," she explained. "Do you think yould you come get it out of that passive state?"
Stone wasn't, again, one to dabble in tales of slaying housewife ass. But he heard them, and this sounded like part of what he'd heard. Not that what he'd heard wasn't b. s., but... He knew he was reading into her statement, and had no idea if he was supposed to be or not.
Do you think you could come get it out of that passive state?
It wasn't like she was on the other end, poolside, on a sunny day, swishing her wine glass around and glistening in a barely-there bikini. She wasn't even the glistening type, he'd concluded much earlier on. It would have something classier than that, more subtle--
"Sure, sure, I could do that," he said with an underlying bed of nerves neatly surpressed beneath his voice. "Is about thirty minutes okay?"
"You don't mind? In this weather?"
The weather sucked. Sometimes, the weather sucked.
"Not at all. See you soon, Karen."
Umbrellas don't get replaced often in general besides for being outright lost, but Stone's beat-up white and blue piece of shit was making a compelling argument as he dashed across the Brightdells' yard. It was serving more as a rain deterrent than obstruction with its worn strips of lining having turned into gutters that fed the mess directly down on his shoulders through the top. He looked the part of soaked when he rang the doorbell. Not that it mattered.
Karen opened the white door with a Jesus-themed salutation. "I guess God even gives southern California some rain sometimes, huh? Come on in."
Stone nodded and smiled like a trained monkey, and was met with a brisk coolness when he stepped onto the hardwood floor of the open-concept living space and kitchen area. He snapped up his raggedy umbrella. Still no sign of Mr. Brightdell.
"Here," she offered to take it, hanging it on a wooden hook set beside the door. The tell-tale beep of the security system being in its passive state echoed from the wide hallway past the open floor plan. Harland systems beeped every minute when they were first installed but not set up, which Stone figured had to grow extraordinarily irritating for the couple.
"When did it start doing this again?" Stone asked, now taking time to notice in the adjusted light that Mrs. Brightdell must have found it cool in the house as well. Her low nipples were erect beneath her white femme-fitting shirt. Maybe she'd forgotten about needing a bra. Maybe she had other things on her mind. Passive states and such.
Not you. Other things, he argued. Then again, this would be textbook cockteasing.
"The day after the last time you were here," she told him.
"You should have told me sooner," he said.
"I really didn't want to bother you, though. I hate that this keeps happening."
"Geez, we really do need to replace this thing," he said as he approached the hallway. He remembered where the switch was at the start of the twelve feet or so that featured a bathroom door entry, downstairs guestroom entry, and the stairs. The recessed light was not ideal from overhead, but it was enough to program the pest once more.
She stood beside him, and he took her in more formally with another sneaked glance. Her hair was done up with pins, little dark curls that fell here and there with no grand scheme to adhere to. She was in jeans again, too. Casual. He liked that about her.
"So it's just defective?" she followed up.
"You've only had the unit for three weeks or so, so probably. Either that, or you have a hall gremlin creeping out at night to who knows how to override the setup programming." He finished the rest by holding the menu button and dialing in a code. "There we go. Yeah, if it's not the unit itself, the only thing I can think of would be something in the environment scrambling it. A large enough electromagnetic source hitting it would do it, but nothing in your standard household would produce that. And it's located well enough away from your breaker box."
"Oh. I see." Karen said it with a look about her that told Stone she'd heard something like his explanation before. This again.
Stone picked up on it. "Something wrong? Has...this kind of thing happened to any other electronics in your house?"
Karen gave him a contemplative look, an expression that felt like she was daring to be anything but upbeat (old anxious Karen?). It left quickly, replaced by her resilient smile.
"You know...if you cast your burden upon the Lord, he will sustain you. That's out of Psalms. Galatians directly instructs us to bear one another's burdens. Says it's Christly to be responsible for one another. Little troubles like these...they're nothing that's not worth putting up with. Not for the glory of God. For the promise of salvation."
She smiled after this mini-sermon, and Stone only half-followed her there this time.
"Well, I...I hope you don't mind me asking, Karen, but what burden are you carrying?" he probed. In his many years in this line of work, he'd never presumed to get this personal with someone. It unnerved him to try, but he could feel her wanting to reach out in an odd way.
"I--" she began slowly, eyes searching wide and low at the apricot hallway wall, when the control panel beeped. They both turned toward it.
"Are you kidding me? Damn thing's already reset itself," he noted with frustration.
"It's okay. It is," Karen said nodding. "We'll just wait for the new one to come in. We'll be fine."
Stone tilted his head. "No, it's alright. Let me just disable the power to it so it at least stops beeping every minute." His hand reached for the Philips head screwdriver from his toolbelt.
"No, don't worry about it. You should go now," Karen suggested. He looked at her with confusion.
"Really, it'll just take--"
"Stone, please, that's enough. You can go," she insisted, though her pleading stare went beyond insistance. He said nothing in response, just watched the panic seep from her unsteady irises as the hum of the rain hitting the roof relentlessly percussed above them. From that drone rose a divergent sound. Unhurried footfalls were coming down the stairs.
Stone watched the front of ashen grey slacks stop along the staircase. In the poor lighting of the hallway, most of the figure was obstructed by darkness. But he made the assumption that this was the reclusive Mr. Brightdell.
"In Matthew, Jesus takes his disciples to Gethsemane," Karen babbled. "They were tired after their journey. He told them to stay awake while he prayed, though, to fight human nature, for just an hour. And Peter couldn't do it. He couldn't do it--"
"Telling your stoies?" carried down the oddly bass voice of Mr. Brightdell. "He doesn't care about your stories. He just wants to fuck you."
"Whoa, guy," Stone interjected. "I'm just here to fix the security system. In fact, I was just about to leave."
"You didn't fix it the first two times," Mr. Brightdell noted.
"Please leave him alone. It's early for him," Karen defended Stone, who was trying to decipher what that remark meant.
The man on the stairs did not respond. Stone watched his legs stand in one spot in awkward silence.
When they fell forward from the third step without a torso attached and slumped against the opposite wall, Stone gasped a wavering blare of shock.
"What..." He didn't know whether to help in some way or to heed Karen's advice and jet. His first instinct was to aid somehow, but there was nothing to help. There was a pair of legs, ending in some jagged, unrefined nub of crimson and flesh, jerking haplessly against the hardwood floor. Karen, he found meanwhile, was astoundingly unaffected by the event.
"You need to leave now," she stated definitively. "Please leave. This is making me very anxious. I don't want to be that way again."
Stone reeled, locking in on her pretty, nervous eyes. "What the hell...what is that?"
"I'll be fine," she smiled. He put on a fake smile briefly (are you joking?), but mostly he was too rattled to play this game any longer, hard Christian nipples or not.
He turned to put some distance between them and the hallway, and took a step out of it before he fixed in on the shirtless man suddenly standing between the living area and kitchen. The stranger was taller than Stone, with a bald head and crazed glare. Some kind of rusted metallic twine was weaved into his chest, dipping in and out of his skin between the divets in his ribcage. He spoke in the accusatory voice Stone had heard moments ago.
"She's ours. We don't share."
Crazy Legs thudded the wall behind him. Right on, right on.
"She tells her Jesus stories like a well-rehearsed actor. She's a fraud," The Accuser chided.
"That's not true," Karen defended, stepping towards the imposing man. "I have slept but not slumbered. I am not you. In Christ I am washed anew."
The Accuser tilted his head with a maniacally crooked grin. A serpent-like writhing worked around the rough-hewn canvas material of his pants. The maintenance man was both envious and disgusted at once.
"And here you are, with us yet," he pointed out. "You've had thousands of days and nights to leave us. Countless evenings since the love of your life hurled himself in front of a bus just to get away from your irrepressible wretchedness."
In the background, the security panel popped off another beep.
"Stone," Karen said turning to him with a mix of anger and sadness. "I asked you to leave. Why didn't you leave?"
The bedroom door beside Stone yanked open, and in response he plastered himself against the wall opposite. A short man in shades and a robin's egg blue polo briskly stepped out, and pulled Karen Brightdell hip to hip with him. She leaned away with a patient reluctance. Stone saw that his face was scarred and peeling in hues of pink and white, and that a sheen of mucous-like body fluid covered his skin. He found the man's dress and cocky grin reminiscent of Tom Cruise, if Mr. Cruise had taken to being as thorough a burn victim as scientologist.
From behind the bald man, out of the kitchen, emerged another figure. This one was female, but so emaciated and hairless herself that that was only determinable by the way she hugged herself as she timidly hid. Her eyes were ebon marbles, and her face looked as though it might have been pretty once if not for the dozens of slits that Stone guessed were stab wounds littering her cheeks and neck. A grey-brown robe wrapped around her like a funeral cloak.
"Karen, who the fuck are all these weird freaks? I mean, we're both seeing this, right? What is this? You live with these...people? Are they family?"
"They're not family, Stone. They're..." Karen sighed with an impatient frustration. "Jesus asked them stay awake, to resist the failings of the flesh, and they slumbered. They slumbered so deeply, so profoundly, that they became the nightmares Christ was afraid to speak of."
She pushed away Burnt Tom Cruise, who acted playfully disappointed, then started punching himself in the cock.
"What the fuck--"
"Far beneath the tree of knowledge," Karen continued, "were buried the mistakes God made on his march for perfection. But even still humanity knows them. Feels them. It feeds our roots. It taps into us, and when it does, we simply cannot deny it."
"Blah, blah, blah, Jesus, Jesus," The Accuser mocked. She tuned this out as if she'd done it countless times before.
"It's my calling to bear their burden, Stone. God took from me a great love, but he replaced that with something greater: his purpose for me. He came to me. He told me that if I were to make this sacrifice for him, then my love, Robert, would not be cast into Hell for his suicide but made safe in Heaven. And when I am done fulfilling his purpose, I shall join he and Robert at their sides in eternal paradise."
"Uh..." Stone shook his head. "What happened to them? Why are they so messed up? I mean, this guy's just a fucking pair of legs over here..."
"Leave him alone!" the robed girl suddenly exploded. Stone saw her black doll eyes had burst into tears. "You don't understand us! Fuck you!"
Karen, undeterred still, answered his question. "When someone is placed here, it's by being stricken by the blight of Hell. They are crippled, made lame. Some are cursed more intensely than others, though, out of necessity."
"'Placed'?" Stone repeated. "My grandma got 'placed' in a home. This isn't 'placing', this is like living in a bad trip full of hostile weirdos, Karen. Aren't you afraid of them?"
"No. They're chained to this place, as I am. I will leave when I die. But they'll be here forever, unable to harm anyone else," she elaborated. "That's why they're here, Stone. They know that, and they chose to be here. Like you're choosing to be here."
"Yeah, but this service call is a little overextended, so why don't I just...go?" Stone eyed the withered umbrella at the door, and planned to move toward it. The Accuser and Robes stepped aside, to his surprise, to allow him passage.
"I tried to get you to turn back. Tried to convince myself that maybe you weren't one of them," Karen said softly behind his back as he eyed the exit. He couldn't seem to find the motivation to move his feet any further.
"I'm not one of anything," he denied. "Why...how come I can't seem to want to..."
"You belong here, Stone. You know it, too. That's why you refuse to fix the security system."
Like an illusion bleeding away from the authentic, the new construction of the open floor plan had become something else as he regarded the entryway. The walls were dark and metallic, and more rounded. They reached upward, past where he'd assumed the ceiling was, to stretch to some circular pinnacle too far above to detect. His new compatriots now all appeared chained, cuffed and linked to spots on the concrete-colored floor. In the empty void of the tower, the links clanged with echoes.
"There are places like this one all over the world. Within them are beacons like myself," she divulged. "All doing God's secret work."
"Sweeping up his secret mess, you mean," Stone added, who felt like he'd been dropped in some hypnagogic deep end, slipping further and further from what had been real. "But I'm not...these aren't..."
But you are, Stone affirmed for himself. That's what the project was all about. That's why you're outfitting your basement with restraints. That's why you special ordered the sound-proof door. All those boasts, all those stories by those assholes you saw passing in and out of the main office, you were going to show them. And Karen was going to be the first. You were going to take her home and fuck the Jesus out of her. In the coming years of her enslavement, she would learn to tell stories about you, to preach your word to all of the other snooty bitches you found to shove under your thumb.
Karen had given him a cushion of silence. It was something that came naturally to her now, allowing the prospect to come to their own conclusions. Finally, Stone fixed a lustful glare on her.
"What do I have to do to stay?" he asked in a dead flat voice.
Pulling her shirt over her head, Karen's full tits fell out. Directly below where they sat propped, along her stomach, were etched names into her flesh. She produced a small, shiny silver letter opener from her back jeans pocket.
"You have to sign of your own free will," she advised.
"And then?" he followed up in a mutter, eyes locked on her chest.
"All you have to do is slumber."