(reading time: 25 minutes)
Jesus has the Wheels
It was rare to see such a nice car in Watershed, and even rarer to see one driving with purpose, never stopping once for the driver to swear at their GPS until it got them out of that mosquito-infested and mosquito-invested bog that called itself a town.
Tom knew cars, on account of a few years working as a mechanic, and he couldn’t recall if he’d ever even worked on such a fine piece of machinery. He expected it to drive on by, as nobody sitting in that sort of thing could have any business with him, but it stopped, for the first time in days, at the foot of his gravel driveway.
The nearest neighbors would’ve been barely visible even without all the trees surrounding his formerly mobile home, so perhaps these folks were lost. Tom didn’t know if he should approach and offer assistance, as he was in the middle of waiting for his own ride out to the lake. This should’ve been apparent, given that he was wearing waders, overalls, and a hat to keep out the abusive sun, as well as carrying a tackle box and a fishing rod.
Blake was his ride, an old coworker from the auto shop, and he was ten minutes late already. Tom’s brother Dickie, who shared the house, was laying down fresh mulch in the garden, but he was within shouting distance, and with every two and a half minutes that passed Dickie checked his fancy, resilient, sporting goods store watch and yelled exactly how much of a layabout that Blake was.
But Dickie didn’t have anything to say about the black car stopped at the edge of their property. Tom saw him glance at it several times, while bent over with his hands in the dirt, and even check his watch as if he expected it to predict the future, but he did not speak up. Both brothers were in their early forties, and had been taught by several generations of cable television not to trust large black vehicles even if they admired them. Those were government cars, and around here that meant IRS or ATF cars. Not even the most dastardly Watershed criminal ever warranted a passing glance of the FBI. Heck, their most-wanted of the last decade was picked up by animal control. All he knew about their visitor right now was SUV.
The engine started up again, and it turned into their driveway. Tom felt panic needling his throat. He turned around to set his box and rod against the side of the house, but whipped back, afraid that if he wasn’t watching it might run him down. It stopped well short of that. Tom peeked around the side, saw the polished wheel rims. That shouldn’t have been possible, not in his driveway.
There wasn’t a spot or speck of mud or dust anywhere on the vehicle. They’d driven through at least five miles of trees acting as the road’s roof and there were no leaves stuck in the seams, no bird droppings on the top, and no pollen yellowing and clouding the rear-view mirrors. The windshield and windows were tinted, though Tom didn’t think that was the right word. They were just as black as the car.
The door opened, which was something of a relief. For a moment it felt like the vehicle had a mind of its own, like some haunted carriage cursed to roam the countryside until it could bind an unsuspecting coachman in its reins.
Out stepped a white man in black cowboy boots, blue jeans, a simple white tee, and a black leather jacket. He had a snakeskin belt and a silver watch that put Dickie’s to shame. Tom had a feeling there was a designer logo on the arms of his black sunglasses, but it was obscured by the man’s long, wavy, chestnut hair, almost down to his shoulders.
The driver walked around to the shining grill of his big car and leaned up against it, staring at Tom with a perfect smile on his face, teeth like high-beams. He looked familiar, but Tom couldn’t place his face. It seemed the guy could place Tom’s though. He looked at the Watershed local like he’d been watching with a bag of popcorn for his entire life, like he couldn’t wait to see what hijinks Tom would get up to next.
“That… is a mighty fine vehicle,” Tom said to break the skin of pond scum between them.
“Lincoln Navigator 2018,” the man said. “5800 pounds of steely American engineering, assembled in Louisville, Kentucky. All leather interior. Air conditioning that’ll make your whole face feel like the reclining ass of an antarctic penguin. The GPS voice sounds like Marilyn Monroe. And… she’s all yours.”
“For the day I mean! Ha, could you imagine me giving this bad boy up? No, what I mean to say is that today you’re the guest of honor. You get a free ride Tom, all the way up.” Dickie glanced between his legs when he heard the man use his brother’s name, then pretended to go back to spreading mulch with his trowel.
“How is it that you know my name? I don’t know you from Adam… and I don’t remember entering no contest.”
“People don’t really see it as a contest, but it is. There are winners and lots of losers. Come on Tom, you know me. I’m the horse that you bet on. Here, let me give you a hint.” He sidled off the center of his SUV’s grill, revealing the emblem. It was the familiar Lincoln plus contained in a shape like a stretched barrel, except the horizontal bar had been moved up on this one, making it resemble a cross.
Tom was confused, so the driver whipped off his sunglasses, revealing brilliant blue eyes. He waited for Tom to place his face, but the man just shook his head. He repeated that he didn’t know.
“Alright, I’ll spell it out for you. How many people do you know who are of Nazareth, because I’m one of them.”
“Are you telling me that you think you’re Jesus Christ?”
“I am the son of god, in the flesh, as I tend to be. You Tom are looking at the grade A grass-fed messiah. You kept the faith, and I’m here to reward you. This is the rapture. You’re on your way to eternal paradise. All you have to do is get in, since I’ve vouched for you already.”
“What kind of joke is this?” Jesus’s face went grim. He folded his glasses and tucked them away in a jacket pocket. Then his hands gripped each other, hanging over his groin, as if he was resting them in preparation for a fist fight. All of this was done so deliberately that Tom realized, whoever this was, it was no joke. “Jesus lived in the Middle East. He wasn’t white.”
“No? Let’s take a tour of your parents’ house then, see what we see.” Jesus didn’t wait for permission, heading straight for the screen door, which he threw open to get to the real one.
“It’s locked,” Tom said, but their visitor pulled it open with no trouble, glancing at him with a cocked head and pursed lips before he glided inside. Tom chased after him, boots squeaking. He caught up to Jesus in a dim hallway. The tall muscular man took up the whole space, especially when he had his hands on his hips like that, staring up at the portrait on the wall. Tom realized that was why he looked familiar. He’d seen the same face expressed in oils almost every day since he was two years old.
“How did you…”
“I take it you see the family resemblance?” Jesus said sarcastically. “As you can see, I am white. You have always worshiped white Jesus, and now he has come for you.”
“My parents bought that. I never actually thought-”
“To put up an accurate picture of what you believe? Come on, Tom. No self-respecting Christian, who puts every ounce of confidence he can create into my father and I, would throw the old ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ on something like this. That’s up because you believe in it, and you were right, because here I am, just like you thought. It’s all working out.”
Jesus grabbed Tom by the wrist and dragged him back outside, and Tom let him do it, at least until they hit gravel and he had something to dig his heels into. When he did he wrenched himself free and pouted.
“You’re nuts. I’m not going anywhere with you.” Jesus’s expression suggested Tom had better revise those terms. “Honestly, you’ve got to prove something like that mister. Show me a miracle, right here and now, and then I’ll go with you. And I’ve seen all them magicians on TV. I’ll know a trick if you try to pull one.”
“I don’t believe this,” Jesus said with a bitter snort and a shake of his head. “Are you really being a doubting Thomas right now? You’re lucky I’ve got such a thick hide. A miracle huh? Okay. Not how I wanted to start the rapture of my chosen people, but hey, Tom’s just not sure three feet from the finish line. Fine!”
Jesus stormed past him and grabbed the fishing rod. Effortlessly, like he was tying shoelaces, he wrapped the rod around Tom’s wrists, binding them together. The composite material of the rod went bumpy, then scaly, and the reel grew a pair of slit-pupil eyes. Tom whimpered as he realized there was now a hissing water moccasin acting as handcuffs, tongue flicking out onto the sensitive skin of his wrists.
“This… s-snake. Snakes are supposed to be the devil’s thing,” Tom stammered. He’d never seen this on the TV, or in his worst nightmares.
“I already took care of him,” Jesus said, thumb flicking the top of his snakeskin belt. “Besides, he never owned the concept of snakes. Don’t you remember Moses? He turned his rod into a snake, so I did that to yours. Get it, because it’s a different kind of rod?” Tom’s face was white and his bottom lip was quaking. “You didn’t get it. I probably could’ve set it up better. Oh well.”
Jesus slapped Tom’s hands, and the snake was back to being a rod by the time it clattered to the gravel. He strode back to his purchased-in-cash 2018 Lincoln Navigator and opened one of the back doors. Apparently Tom wasn’t quite saved enough to ride shotgun. His approach was slow, and when he peeked around the door to look inside the car he thought he saw a bottomless black void.
Then his eyes adjusted. It was just a black interior, and it was all there: seats, armrests, a cup holder with a frosted glass full of clear something, and some twanging soft rock on the radio. Almost all there. No seatbelts. Jesus reached inside, slapped the supple seat to assure him that it was there, was real.
“I don’t want to,” Tom admitted even though he was out of arguments. Jesus dropped his smile like a wet coat.
“Get in the fucking car Tom.” The man didn’t move, until he thought he heard something slithering behind him. When he whirled around he just saw the rod, though, was it closer? Perhaps Dickie saw if it had moved. Tom looked at his brother, only to see nothing but the seat of his pants. The man was still lazily scraping his trowel back and forth, uselessly in fact.
“Dickie!” he called out, but his brother didn’t stop or turn. Just scraped. Back and forth. Exposing the wet dark underneath and the blinkered nubs of startled purple earthworms. “Can’t he hear me?”
“He can hear you,” Jesus confirmed, “but this isn’t his business. It’s between you and your god. Now get in the car before I lose my shit.” Tom wasn’t going to budge, but another hiss from behind made him lurch forward. Jesus’s hand was on his back, rolling him in, and once he was in the seat the door slammed shut.
Jesus circled around to the driver’s side, grimacing at the stump of a house one more time. Pretty much anything would be an improvement. The Navigator’s wheels kicked up dust like dragon claws, and the clouds hightailed it away from the Lincoln as fast as they could. Before they could dissipate the black car had passed behind the first tree and was gone.
The harsh bell of the Watershed high school rang for the final time that day, and children poured out of the front doors. Normally the majority of them headed out the back to board the buses, but the parents had been called after second period and informed of the situation. As much as they could be informed anyway.
Nobody believed Dickie when he came to his senses, ran the marathon to the neighbor’s, and told them. They didn’t see any big black car, and they didn’t get any rapture offers either, even though they were certain they qualified.
Even the authorities assumed Tom was off drowned in a fishing hole somewhere, or perhaps that Dickie had killed him, possibly also by drowning him in a fishing hole. Tom was just the first one to go missing however. Seven people in one day. A few more reports came in of the black Lincoln Navigator and how it ignored red lights but never crashed. Made sharp turns but never squealed. Didn’t stop anywhere for gas.
Patrol cars were sent out looking for it, and they found it, but none of the officers ever turned on their lights and sirens, never pursued. They just made way, and when interrogated as to why they couldn’t find any words that made sense. They just couldn’t, not as officers of the law anyway. Maybe they could as individuals, but none had the courage.
So Watershed policy seemed to become every man, woman, and child for themselves. The school parking lot was flooded with family cars, hands sticking out of windows and waving their children closer like flimsy branches in a whipping wind. There was plenty of honking as they jockeyed for position and ripped out of there as soon as their prize was aboard, until a black shark came cruising through them.
One by they silenced, and made way, aware of nothing more than what eternal charcoal bathtub awaited them if they were the one to put a scratch on Jesus’s car. Minivans parted like the Red Sea, granting the Navigator passage to the curbside closest to the doors. It stopped and its driver emerged, leaning on the hood, watching with his sunglasses as the school of children tried to break wide around him.
The fisher of men already had his quarry picked out. The lures were on his fingers: several big gaudy rings chunky enough to choke a swan. Emerald. Sapphire. Gold. Class rings for a classless man. Championship rings for the unrivaled. They did catch her eye, but she immediately looked away, tried to keep going with the rest of the stream. Jesus raised one glittering hand and snapped his fingers. They all heard it, but she heard it loudest.
“Millie, over here,” he called out to her. She felt her classmates’ hands on her shoulders, pushing her out of the stream toward him, and before she could wrap her mind around what she was doing she was walking toward him with her head down and both hands wringing the single strap holding up her backpack. She stopped a few feet in front of him. “Hey baby girl.”
“Hi. Where’s my Dad?”
“He’s fine. This is between you and your new daddy.” Jesus pointed at his collarbone with both thumbs. He saw she was more frightened than impressed, and fear didn’t look good on such a sweet young thing. She was still in her cheerleader’s uniform, as the after-school practice had been canceled at the last minute, called on account of revelations. Her sunny hair hang limp. “You do know who I am, right?”
“Jesus,” she answered weakly. “You’ve been going around town and… taking people to heaven.”
“That’s right, and you’re next.” Off came the glasses. “You did it. You’re a good girl. Perfection awaits you. Are you ready for your new forever?”
“I don’t think so,” she squeaked, tears welling up. “There’s a lot I haven’t done.” She glanced away and saw a boy from her grade. Samuel, or ‘Sam the mule’ as he was called. He worked at his mother’s moving company on the weekends, hauling furniture back and forth. He had brought her new wardrobe into her bedroom on her sixteenth birthday and they had talked while he caught his breath. By the time he left she needed to catch hers.
Her eyes begged him for help, and he stared back, but only for a splinter of a moment. A jealous hand grabbed the back of Millie’s neck and pulled her over, not enough to hurt, but clearly informing her that it could.
“Hey,” Jesus said, finishing his own glance at a retreating Samuel. “Be honest with me. Did you fuck that guy?”
“No!” she blurted, surprised that her voice had gone deep instead of high. She shook her head like a trembling dog, but that only made him look even more suspicious. The messiah’s hand hopped off her neck only to grab her much smaller hand and pull it up between them. His thumb rubbed the thin silver ring on her finger.
“What is this?”
“It’s my purity ring.”
“Yeah, and it’s a promise. You promised you wouldn’t fuck anybody until you got married, or until you got to me. Promises are very important to me Millie. Look at me when I’m talking to you!” She raised her head just enough to do so, desperately trying to keep the tears from flowing down her face, terrified of what he might do if he saw them drop.
“I swear Jesus! I didn’t have sex with him. I would never betray you; I love you.” He still didn’t look convinced.
“I’m a man,” he offered. “I live as a man to go through what you go through. That means all of that everything that I know, well most of the time that’s turned off. It’s like a light switch in this meatloaf human brain of mine. One flip and I’ll know everything again. I can leave that switch in the off position because I see that ring on your finger and I know I can trust you.”
“So if I flip that switch and know everything about you, I’m not going to see you fucking that mule over there in that nice walk-in closet of yours am I? I won’t see you taking it in the ass, tremors knocking your curling iron off the chest of drawers you’re leaning on for support?”
“You won’t. I swear.” Her voice had never gone that deep; it hurt.
“Good,” he said after a few agonizing seconds of silence. “You know, there’s still some real estate available here.” He glanced down, to get her to do the same. She saw between a lozenge-sized emerald and a similar sapphire a bare ring finger. “I’ve always had more important things to do than look for a wife, but maybe you’re the one Millie. I do love you baby girl. Now hop in.”
He stepped aside and opened the back door. Just like most of the others, she had trouble with the last few steps. “Get in the fucking car.” That got her; it slammed shut. The Navigator roared out of the parking lot, every head turning to watch it go, except for the mule’s. He was collapsed against the side of his mother’s car, ignoring her, snot-sobbing all over the ripped knees of his pants.
The sun was setting, a few aggressive stars appearing as if the sky was hit with a splash of pink salt. King’s Knee Church sat under the searing hazy dots nervously. Most of the parishioners would’ve said it was impossible for a building to do something nervously, but not that night. The white exterior boards seemed to hold together more tightly despite the high humidity. It was silent, no usual tide of hymns washing out the now-closed windows and washing back.
They were in there, all of them, every last member who attended at least once in the last decade, and they kept as silent as they could. Anyone who needed to cough did so into someone else’s shawl or suit jacket to muffle it that much more.
Only Pastor James was outside, standing tall, waiting for him to get there. James was a stiff and quiet man, not the best person to stoke the spirit of the lord in the spiritual pilot light that was Watershed, yet he had done so for two decades. Some of them had told him, as they were filing inside hours ago, before the doors had been chained and padlocked shut, that they now thought he had been bad at sermons the whole time because this night was his actual god-given purpose.
But the man who claimed to hand deliver those purposes tore up the grass and dirt as his 2018 black Lincoln Navigator swerved up to the doorstep of King’s Knee. Nobody had, at any point in the last four days of his rampage, reported him driving in such a crazed fashion. James swallowed and gripped the large pewter crucifix in his hand even tighter; this would be more of a trial than he thought.
Jesus burst out of the driver’s side and stomped about, but he didn’t pass the pastor. The sunglasses were nowhere to be found, and there was fire in his blue eyes, like a gas stove that had intentionally forgotten how to switch off. Spittle and screams exploded out of him like a creature of pure rage blowing its head-cold nose.
“Marjorie! I know you’re in there you stupid bitch! Get your ass out here right now! Marjorie!”
“She’s not coming out,” Pastor James said calmly, “and she would like you to leave her be. She’s not going wherever you’ve taken the seventy lambs you’ve already robbed from our town.” Jesus stormed up to him, pushed him with both hands, then stormed again to cover the distance and spit on the shorter man’s brow.
“I don’t remember asking you a fucking thing. This is between Marjorie and her god.”
“I’m sure it is, but you aren’t him,” James managed despite the climbing acid in his stomach and throat.
“What the fuck did you just say to me? Who the fuck do you think I am then? Is there so little faith in this brown pothole puddle that even a pastor has to see me turn his own tongue into a snake for me to even get the time of day? You people should be on your knees.”
“This church bows to the lord god almighty, not the demonic servants of Satan come in disguise.”
“Oh! Oh that’s rich! That’s what you dumb fuckers think?” His head arched over the pastor like a scorpion’s barb rearing back for a jab. “Marjorie! You know what I’m going to do if you don’t come out, and it’ll be your fault! You’re making all of this happen you-”
“It has come to our attention,” James interrupted to get his focus back, “that you cannot enter any church unless invited. Mrs. Roy told us that on her cell before the line went dead. If you were truly the son, this would be your house. You are a false prophet.”
“Unless invited,” Jesus repeated with a snort, hands flapping against his side as if the whole building were toddlers testing his patience, refusing to get off the floor of the grocery store. “Like I’m a fucking vampire. Is that what this shitty thing is for, huh?” He snatched the heavy crucifix out of the pastor’s hands and waved it about. “Oh it burns! Ahhh! Oh wait, no it doesn’t. You want to hurt me with this fucker then you better nail me to it. I know you would, but I don’t see any nails.” He tossed it into the grass.
James admittedly didn’t know how demons worked, just that he was positive this creature was one. So he had covered all his bases, including a small glass bottle of holy water in his shirt pocket, the ornate top of which Jesus spotted. He ripped it out and bit the stopper off, spitting it away.
“Holy water too? Watch close you little pussy.” Jesus tilted the bottle with his head, guzzling the whole thing, savoring it like a drunkard so advanced in his illness that he had cirrhosis on his frontal lobe. Jesus chucked the bottle with enough strength to make it up to the church’s bell tower. It tolled as the glass shattered against it, a hundred sharp specks tinkling down both sides of the roof. Everyone inside cringed around Marjorie, holding her head down.
“You want to know why I can’t go in that pathetic excuse for a church?” Jesus asked, pointing. “It’s because you people haven’t invited me into your hearts properly. You’re supposed to accept me, as I am, entirely. The shit I did for you, and this is how you treat me. You’re not a real Christian; you’re a fake-ass Christian.
You know where else I can’t step foot? Mosques. Synagogues. The private residences of rat-fucking atheists. Is that the kind of company you want to keep? Or do you want to give the guy who fucking went to bat for you his dues!”
“You are not him,” James said, which he believed, but he also felt he had to believe it, for his own safety and the comfort of his soul.
“You haven’t kept up with the times,” Jesus accused before raising his voice again. “Has he Marjorie!?” Then he dropped into a whisper, hissed in the pastor’s ear. “That’s not my house anymore. This is my house now.” Jesus whipped away and circled his tank of a Lincoln. “This beast! This is prosperity! This is get-out-of-my-Christian-way energy! This is the money that I have because I wouldn’t have it if God didn’t bless me!”
He stood behind it, grunting, humping the area around the tailpipe. Then he spanked the bumper. It only served to bolster the pastor’s confidence. This was not the behavior of his god. Maybe he was the god of the people he took. Maybe he was the god of those pastors on TV who wore rings like his and drove cars like his and sat in private jets just like the car… but not his.
The chains clattered to the wooden steps behind him, alongside the heavy thunk of the lock. He spun around to see Marjorie emerging despite the protests behind the door, shuffling forward with the bare feet she’s used to run to them and beg for sanctuary.
“Yeah that’s right,” Jesus gloated. “That’s my girl. Come on, I’m not mad I promise. Just come here.”
“Marjorie!” James gasped, but she held up her hand, nightgown sleeve fluttering. Part of it was caught in the zipper of her jeans, which she had pulled on in the middle of her flight.
“It’s alright pastor. I can’t let all of you nice people suffer for me. It just doesn’t make any sense. I’ll handle it.”
“There’s nothing to handle; you’re going to heaven!” Jesus shouted, clapping his hands once. “Hallelujah!” He pulled the back door open and held it for her like a chauffeur.
“Wait,” middle-aged Marjorie said, briefly cupping her hands over her lips. “There’s something I need to tell you. I know- I know you meant nice when you said all those things to me about what we could do in heaven together, but… but I’m gay Jesus. I love women.” Her savior scoffed, lost some of the muscle in his posture. She stared back. He probably could’ve shot lightning bolts out of his eyes and fried her, but he settled for doing it figuratively.
“Are you serious? You’re a fucking queer?”
“Yes. Don’t you trust me?”
“Yeah I trust you,” Jesus said reflexively. “I’m a very trusting person. Fat lot of good it’s done me around here! You’re not even worth flicking the all-knowing switch for. Pff.” Jesus shook his head. “You can fucking keep her Jimmy boy.” He marched up to the pastor, having one more thing to whisper in his ear. “If I’m not your god, and the real one comes calling, how are you going to know? Any demon could pretend at the qualities you’re looking for. It’s supposed to be on faith boy, and you failed the test.”
The parishioners had emerged, and all stood against the church’s front wall as a united, albeit skittish, front.
“What the fuck are you looking at?” Jesus barked at them, circling back to the driver’s side. He made a finger-gun gesture at the steering wheel through the windshield and fired, which brought the engine to life. He got in, but stuck his head out one last time as the car started pulling away. “Have a nice life ‘cause y’all are going to Hell!”
“It was no sin,” James told Marjorie. “It was no sin to lie about your… preferences to get rid of him. God will understand.” Marjorie broke out in tears, and none of those present had the power to dam them up.
The visitor to Watershed drove off, and only when they couldn’t see or hear his vehicle anymore did they start to relax, but they didn’t do so fully for many years. None of those lucky seventy ever returned.
It wasn’t until Lincoln unveiled their new heaviest SUV yet that they stopped holding their breath. That, at least, meant there would be no second coming of the black 2018 Lincoln Navigator with the all-leather interior and the air conditioner that could make Hell freeze over.