The walk was uneventful. Bird's truck was parked in the driveway under the carport. The house inside is quiet except for the blare of a NASCAR race and sound of Bird popping the top off a beer can. Cary crept past, not wanting to alert his foster-father to his presence. The man was likely not drunk enough to have lost all aim and Cary didn't want a beer can flying at his head. He passed Lana's door and noticed it resolutely shut.
Where is she? And why isn't Bird worried about her?
He may not ever worry about Cary, as long as the State's check came every month, but Bird DID worry about Lana, even if she now, and maybe always had, resented the man for it. Inside the guest bedroom, Cary lay on the bed, his arms behind head, his knees drawn up, as he stared at the pebbled, popcorned ceiling. His mind was relatively clear. The only undue thought which cascaded through was the ever recurring image of the Book of Fates on the Pottermore website; and a haunting echo of Cary's own voice declaring his most fervent wish.
“I want a REAL friend.”
Cary fell asleep with these two thoughts on his mind.
The next morning Cary awoke, surprised, to the sounds of someone cooking in the kitchen. When he had brushed his teeth and washed his face, Cary walked past the living room and into the kitchen where a second surprise greeted him.
Lana was back.
His foster-sister was busy making a huge breakfast, and shockingly, seemed to have made enough for everyone, even Cary. Bird already sat at the table, eating pancakes and bacon between guzzles of cold milk, condensation dripped down the tall glass. He looked horrible, with great bulging bags under his eyes, spider-webbed veins on his cheeks and a very, very yellow tinge to his skin, as if he had not eaten a good meal or slept a sober, whole night in years, maybe decades. Lana, however, looked well rested and chipper. She hummed as she flipped more pancakes from a skillet onto a plate and set them on the empty place at the table where Cary occasionally sat. Cary stared at the table as she tossed three pieces of warm bacon next to the pancakes and scooted over some syrup.
“Sit down and eat, Cary!” she said.
Cary blinked. What's the catch?
Lana stopped and considered him. Cary looked into her face, expecting a frown to crease its surface. He remembered their fight only days before, when he had tackled her and she had nearly beaten him to a pulp, until Lurlene saved him. A large part of him was still shocked she hadn't found him and beaten him up afterward. She had beaten him up in the past over far, far less. Instead of frowning, she smiled benevolently down at him.
This was so unusual Cary wondered if for a second he had somehow also wished for this from the Book of Fates and it miraculously came true. He wracked his brain trying to remember if he had wished for something like this:
Did I secretly ask for the Stay-Puft Man?
But he did not think he had. He had wished for horrible things to happen to Lana and Bird in the past, if not while absorbed in the Book of Fates; not for them to treat him like family, because that wish had never seemed even remotely probable. Yet...stop being stupid, Cary!
Neither of them had done more than include him in an unusual family breakfast, instead of ordering him to clean up after one he wasn't allowed to enjoy. Still, it was a big strange.
“Now. Cary.” Lana said, after she had put the skillet in the sink and run some cold water over it. She sat down at the table, to her own plate of pancakes and bacon. "I've gotten Bird to agree and I need you to agree as well.”
Cary paused, a fork full of pancake quivered just below his mouth, dripping syrup on the table.
Did I unwittingly agree to something by eating her food? I wouldn't put it past her.
Lana sighed, catching his expression. “It's OK, Cary. Eat.” Cary woodenly pushed pancake triangles into his mouth, chewed robotically. He hardly tasted the svelte crumbliness or sweetness.
“You both should come to church with me, today.” Lana said. Cary shuddered involuntarily. It was Sunday. He hadn't really realized it, not in relation to church, until Lana's words. Lana was always trying to get Bird to go to church with her, she never tried to get Cary to go. Bird rarely let her get too far into her steam before he cut her off and outright refused, but now he just nodded and shoved another piece of bacon into his mouth, the crunching sound like boots grinding small stones on pavement. “S'best we go, Cary.” Bird said with his jaws smacking as he chewed bacon. Cary looked from Bird to Lana, his face overcome by incredulity. He certainly had not wished for THIS... And yet, somehow knew he could not refuse, even they would let him, which he was sure they would not.
They are being nice to me. They have not yelled or threatened me, or told him I don't really have any choice...
They could force him if they wished, he knew. He had always relied on them being at odds over church to keep him free of it, but with both of them clearly set on going...
Cary sighed and nodded at Lana. “I'll go.” he said to his plate. He ate another triangular stack of pancakes and drank some milk. Might as well enjoy it, since I'm going to suffer for it all day. Lana clapped joyfully, leapt up and hugged Bird with one arm, Cary with the other.
“Just you wait! It's going to be GREAT! You'll LOVE Pastor! He specifically requested I get you both to come! He's all about family, Pastor is. He's going to be so excited!”
Lana was so brimming with happiness had it been anyone else, even Bird, Cary might have found it infectious. Might have responded to it. But it was Lana. Her voice went splittlingly high when she mentioned how excited Pastor would be. This wasn't the first time she had mentioned this "Pastor.”
Why does Pastor want his flock to bring their families to a service? What's he up to? Is he going to try and throw water on me, or...
Part of his mind raced along with such thoughts. But the better part went on with breakfast, enjoyed it as much as possible. Lana cleared the table, directed him and Bird to dressed for Church. Cary pictured the Book of Fates and wondered if his wish had come true, as stupid as he felt for continuously thinking this, part of him simply would not let it go, a most tenacious dog gripping a squeaky toy one more time. Shouldn't there be so some sign if it had? Wouldn't I have been met by a new friend as soon as I left Clearing's the night before?
These questions nagged at Cary, making him feel more foolish by the second, until a truly disturbing thought dislodged them.
I was not that specific.
What if the Book was one of those cruel magical items which gave you what you asked for but never in the way you would want it? Like that awful commercial about a million bucks? What if Lana and Bird are my new “real” friends? He shuddered at the thought and something snapped - he was no longer as fixated on the Book, the tablet, on Pottermore – on his wish as he had been moments before. It still loomed somewhere in his subconscious, though buried deep.
“Cary...you ready?” Lana's voice came from across the house. Not a yell, just a loud, pleasant call. Cary sighed and finished buttoning up the nicest shirt he owned: a cast-off of Bird's, several sizes too large, frayed at the cuffs and collar, in a shade of light, periwinkle blue. When he emerged into the living room he found Lana and Bird already there. Lana wore a starched and pressed denim skirt, a creamy white blouse with no frills or decoration and, oddly, a pearlescent black ring, a circle of some shimmery stone like hematite, with no jewel on it, which Cary had never seen before. He glared at the ring trying to remember if he had ever seen it before. Lana noticed.
“Pastor gave it to me! Said it was a mark of my connection to the Divine!” Lana said proudly, displaying her hand and the ring to Cary. He saw strange symbols graven upon it, and they were familiar, though he couldn't say exactly why.
Bird showed no interest in the ring, was too busy failing to tie up his old, threadbare tie. Lana eventually did it for him, with a bubbly look of long-suffering pleasure. Bird's hands shook steadily and never stopped, far worse than Cary had ever seen.
Is Bird nervous for some reason? Or is he...SOBER?
“OK, girl. Let's get it done.” Bird mumbled, but not unpleasantly. Cary decided, improbably, his foster-father was sober.
As they had backed out of the driveway, Cary saw Lurlene Darxis unload something heavy from her Cadillac's trunk. It was heavily wrapped in plastic and though large, she did not strain lifting it. She gave Bird's truck, and the occupants, a withering stare before she disappeared inside her house. Bird drove them in the truck toward First Book Pentecostal Church, which was a few miles across town from their house.
To his surprise Cary saw another familiar face as they drove to the end of his street. The girl from school he was sure had never seen before, Carise Edgecombe. She lives on my street? How is that possible? That house was abandoned and close to being condemned only two weeks before! It didn't look abandoned anymore, however, there were two cars parked in its driveway, one of which Carise was climbing into. The house, what Cary saw in the moment, looked in good repair. He did not see Carise's parents beyond shadowy shapes in the front of the vehicle, as they passed.
Cary sighed and looked back towards the inside of Bird's truck. He had so wanted the Book of Fates to grant his wish, as foolish as that was, and felt more stupid for believing such nonsense was even possible. Likely something is wrong with my brain to make me see what I had saw on the tablet. It wasn't magical or fantastic, merely sad. He sighed and stared down at the floorboard, unable to stop being dejected by the realization. Bird noticed from the front seat and wonder of wonders, actually tried to console him.
“S'ok kid, a little religion ain't never hurt nobody yet.” Bird muttered, though he sounded unsure of his own words. His head twitched in a crazy counter-rhythm to his hands, his hands shook against the steering wheel making gentle thwaps.
How long it had been since Bird had a drink?
And really? A little religion never hurt anyone? Maybe. Maybe it was only a lot of religion that hurts people.
Cary sighed, held his laugh in.
The church's parking lot was full of cars, but a row of spaces nearest the building was empty save for three cars. Bird parked here as though he were meant to do so. Once he put the truck in park, Lana faced Bird and Cary in turn.
“Now, you guys try and listen to Pastor, OK?” Lana chided for all the world like a patient mother. Bird nodded as he grumbled under his breath while fiddling with his tie. Cary stared back confused, waiting for the catch.
There has to be a catch.
They filed inside the sanctuary and sat down. Cary turned back as he sat and again to his great surprise saw Carise Edgecombe and two adults sitting down in the row directly behind. There faces were shadowed by a pillar and Cary couldn't make them out. Carise gave him a little smile and wave he could not help but return. Her face went attentive and her eyes flew to the dais.
Cary followed her line of sight and he saw the man she now stared at. Bird stared as well, and Lana openly adored the man.
He had a round, craggy face topped by a fluffy mound of very, almost white, silver hair, grown long in the front and whipped backwards into a pompadour. His skin was wrinkle-free, aside from the crags around the eyes and two very deep trenches around his mouth, as though he smiled very often. His eyes were a deep color, either very brown, maybe even a sooty black, with little or no distinction between the cornea and the iris. He wore a suit of very shiny black material, a very thin tie and a ring like Lana's, only his was capped by a brilliant black stone, like onyx, possibly hematite like Cary assumed Lana's was made from.
“Welcome, Children!” Pastor said, throwing his arms wide, a gesture of welcome. Cary shivered unexpectedly. Something in the man's voice had a chilling effect on the air. “I know many of you are new here tonight, gathered by your families and friends at my request. To listen and hopefully hear tonight's very special sermon.”
He jerked his arms dramatically down and winked. “You see,” Pastor paused, licked his lips. “I told my flock - 'spreading the message of the Divine to everyone was a tremendously important task, one we must all work to achieve'. Likely many of you do not yet believe as I, or my parishioners, do. That is perfectly fine. Hopefully, after tonight's sermon you will at the very least understand your loved one better. Perhaps find something within yourself that will bring you closer to the Divine.”
Another long pause. Pastor started walking up and down the length of the dais as he spoke. He turned and grinned wide-mouthed at the crowd, his eyes gone directly to Cary.
“Tonight, l am going to discuss a topic many confuse or just plain don't understand. The nature of Light and Dark. I wanted you all here so perhaps my words would connect to each and everyone of you, and thus bring a little more enlightenment to all.” At these words, Cary felt a tug just under his heart, in the exact spot he had felt the evening before as he stood in front of the tablet, and the Book of Fates. He paid it no mind. Pastor had his attention.
“Once, I was a student of Physics, before my...calling. Anyone who studies Physics can tell you what the nature of light is. But let's see if any of you knows. Raise your hand if you know what the nature of light truly is.” Pastor asked for a volunteer. A woman two rows in front of Cary raised her hand. She had hair in a bun, like Lana's, but hers was entirely gray. She also wore a white blouse and denim skirt.
“Light is radiation given off by the release of energy, in the form of photons, from an atom.” the woman said. Pastor shook his hand appreciatively.
“Exactly, Sister Johnson. Exactly.” Pastor confirmed. “Now, maybe someone can tell me what the nature of Dark is?” Pastor strung the word “Dark” out, as if he enjoyed the taste of each letter bouncing off his tongue. The same woman, Sister Johnson, offered herself again but Pastor glanced over her and chose Lana instead, who had raised her hand excitedly.
“Dark is the absence of Light!” Lana chirped.
Pastor looked saddened. "I'm afraid not, Sister Lana.” Lana looked as though someone had just killed her favorite pet. She stared at the floor. Pastor smiled down at her.
“The absence of light is just one type of dark, Lana dear. There is another. Light exists, we know that it does. Now imagine the area around a beam of light is hot, as hot as it was at the very beginning of creation. And light cannot travel far, because of the heat, without interacting with other particles. Therefore that light cannot be seen. All in that area would be dark, despite being all light! Can you see it, my flock? The sum of all the light of Creation, is in fact, the Dark. True dark is Dark because it absorbs ALL things! It takes all the Light into itself! Can Light absorb the Dark?” Pastor gestured at the lights which lined the ceiling. They flickered fitfully and one popped with a loud snap.
Stunned gasps around the room. Many people looked alarmed, scandalized. Cary found the opposite was true for him, his attention was riveted to Pastor. He did not notice the fervent gaze of all both Sister Johnson and Lana, mirroring his own.
“I see many of you are concerned by this, fear not! There is nothing to fear in the Dark, my flock, your family members understand this! They have brought you here so you might understand this truth as well! Dark is an abundance of ALL Light! But still this is not all. Can anyone tell me the further type of Dark?”
And to Cary's utter shock, a familiar voice cleared its throat and drew Cary's attention away from Pastor. Carise Edgecombe raised her hand and held it still, confidently so. Pastor graciously called on her.
Carise cleared her throat before she began. “Edgecombe. Some things can be unable to interact with ordinary matter and energy, and thus will emit no visible radiation. Like dark matter and dark energy.” Carise said this with the casual confidence of someone who knew exactly what she was talking about.
Pastor nodded and beamed down at her. Lana shot Carise a very nasty look. “Exactly, Miss Edgecombe.” Pastor said, his tone making it clear he had never said Carise's name before, did not know her. Cary couldn't say why, but he was relieved Carise was apparently unknown to Pastor, wasn't a member of his church.
Carise spoke again, just as Pastor opened his mouth to continue. She did not smile. “But that doesn't have anything to do with religion.”
Pastor stopped moving and gave Carise a penetrating look from which she did not blink or shy away. He spoke with a cocky twist to his mouth. “So, now you understand what the Dark is, you should understand it is not to be feared, for it is the Light, just not seen, and stronger for it. That which consumes is ALWAYS STRONGER than that which is consumed! As the Dark TAKES Light in – it becomes stronger than the Light! Can anyone tell me what truth this reveals?” Hands shot up. Including Lana's. Pastor chose Lana, who shot Carise an indulgent, snide look. Cary had known Lana's behavior earlier was too-good-to-be-true and he now saw the truth. When she spoke it was with the rushed cadence of someone who feared being cut off, who wanted to assert superiority in the eyes of someone superior.
“The Dark and the Light are the SAME thing!” Lana said triumphantly. Pastor threw out a hand to her and snapped his fingers. The light above which had popped off popped back on.
“YES!” Pastor cried out. The whole sanctuary twittered with a buzz of excitement as the regular church goers responded to Pastor's enthusiasm, as though some current had infected them all. It is mildly electric, Cary had to admit, if only to himself, moreso for being technically true. He had learned some of what Pastor and the others had said in Clearing's Physics class. But Cary didn't see how it had anything to do with religion or God or Jesus, or any of the things Pentecostals supposedly cared about, like sin and salvation and the Bible.
Pastor spoke for another ten minutes, eloquently, as it were, about the Dark, as though it were God, and something everyone should worship. He called it the Divine. Several times during the sermon, Cary felt that strange pull under his heart again, but wrote it off as just some muscle spasm or something, a nervous tic. His mind drifted, though he tried to pay attention to the sermon after Lana's correct answer. Eventually he turned around, bored, and saw Carise Edgecombe now looked quite as bored as he did. When she saw him look at her she smiled sheepishly and waved. Cary snickered and waved back. Lana nudged him to pay attention. He turned back and continued to let Pastor's words wash over him without really taking them in.
Without warning, it seemed to Cary, Pastor was done and had bid them all a good night. People around them got to their feet, some clearly not Pentecostals but now with the same spellbound look as Pastor's flock, including Bird. Lana grabbed Cary and Bird by the arm.
“Come on, I want you guys to meet Pastor!” Lana said feverishly.
She drug them towards the dais towards Pastor who was glad-handing each of the horde of people coming up to talk with him. Cary noticed very few wore the ring Lana wore, maybe five in total, though each of them was clearly a devoted member of the Church. Once they were near the dais, Pastor waved them over and tactfully dismissed all the others with brief touches and benisons.
“Sister Lana!” Pastor exclaimed, “Excellent spirit this afternoon! I could really feel the Divine flowing through you!” Lana beamed and shivered in enjoyment of Pastor's praise.
“Pastor,” she said, breathless, “This is my father, Bird Carver and my...brother, Cary Carver.” At the mention of his name, Pastor's head whipped in Cary's direction. His eyes, which Cary saw now truly were a crystalline black, were exactly the same shade as the onyx on the man's ring. Those eyes bored into him, slid right past Cary's skin and bones, and into his brain. The spot below his heart spasmed again and Cary went dizzy under the gaze. Pastor held it until Cary started to get dizzy. But just as Cary was sure he would topple over, Pastor broke the stare and smiled wide at them.
“What a pleasure it is to meet you both! Sister Lana is a most devout follower of the Divine and to meet her family has long been a desire of mine.”
Bird nodded avidly and shook the Pastor's hand but said nothing. Cary also shook the man's hand when offered, though he pulled back as soon as he could without being rude, Pastor's hand felt cold to the touch. The man's eyes never left him. Cary hardly heard a word that was said at first.
“Well. You all have a pleasant evening, and I am sure I will be seeing you again. Soon.”
As they left the church Cary glanced back and saw Pastor's black eyes tracking him, a quirky, knowing smile on the man's face. Cary wrapped his arms around his chest from the chill it gave him.
The ride home was full of Lana's joy and gushing over Pastor. She could not sing his praises enough, though she didn't talk much about the sermon, or any other facet of the service or even her religion itself. It was all about Pastor. As she spoke, Cary's mind drifted to Lana - as she had been months before - when she had been rebellious, wild, and unruly. All of that seemed subsumed into her hero worship of Pastor. Cary sighed.
“Didn't you just LOVE it, Cary?” Lana said turning back from the driver's seat, paying no attention to the road ahead. Bird had shown no interest in driving and Lana had jumped at the chance. Cary smiled fakely at her and said, "Sure did, Lana. It was eye opening.” What he thought was – That Pastor is scary. Cary was already putting it out of his mind though. The only thing which stuck with him, which he could not dispel were Pastor's shiny, black eyes.
He though about going to Clearing's house and finishing his computer. He wasn't much concerned with the tablet though, or the weird Book of Fates he'd seen on Pottermore. It was clearly not what he'd hoped it would be, and worse it had not granted his wish.
Just gibberish. Some kind of trick or something.
At home, Bird made a bee-line for the fridge and a six-pack. With a long, exasperated sigh he drank a whole beer in a single gulp, as if he had been dreaming of the moment since the pancakes earlier in the day. His hands immediately ceased shaking. Lana sniffed with disapproval, but said nothing. She must have gotten some promise from Bird... and having fulfilled it he now enjoyed his reward. So much for sober Bird! Cary took the chance to slip away and change, and using the loud sounds of NASCAR as cover, he hastened out the door.