"Homecoming"

I could be the one to save you.

Joseph stares at the words scrawled on his notebook. He mouths the line quietly to himself, testing the weight of it on his tongue. It's decent on paper. Sounds like the exact average of a praise song and a love song.

It's also the first thing he's actually written in months. That much is evident in the clunky half competence of the words, as well as the yawning emptiness around them. He sighs heavily and sets his pen and notebook down, staring around the cafe. He had thought that getting out of his tiny, empty apartment would help. He was almost right. At least here in the clatter of other people's coffee cups and conversations, it's harder for him to think about the empty calendar, the empty notebook, the full bottles.

Other people write masterpieces when they get sober.

Joseph just stops writing.

His phone buzzes next to him, and he glances over it. It's his agent, and against his first instincts, he picks it up to answer him. "Hey. What's up?"

"Hey, Joe. How are you doing?"

He shrugs, before he remembers that Bentley can't see him. "I'm making it. Working on some new material," he says, covering the single line he's written with his free hand. "Any news?"

"We're still working on getting you the best deal for that theme song thing. That's not why I called, though."

"Yeah? What's up?"

"Got a weird message for you at the office."

"Yeah? Another weirdo wanting me to send a lock of hair?"

"I wish it were a garden variety weird fuck. No."

"Then what is it?" Joseph can hear Bentley suck in a breath and shuffle around some of the papers on his desk, the way he does when he's trying to figure out the least shitty way to word whatever he has to say. "Bentley? What is it?"

"The guy says he's your brother. Needs to talk to you urgently."

It feels like all of Joseph's internal organs have been scooped out of his body in one swift and brutally precise movement. He presses his hand down firmly against the table, as if to reassure himself that he's still here, not yanked back to some other time and place. "What's his name?"

"Jacob. Jacob Warren."

"Fuck," Joseph breathes.

"Hey, hey, you okay? You with me?"

"I'm fine," he says, although he is far above himself, watching him calmly lie into the phone.

"You sure? You know, you don't have to engage with this fucking asshole. You say the word, I jettison his bullshit message, straight into the trash. Like it never happened."

Joseph lets out a faint laugh, but doesn’t answer. This only serves to agitate Bentley further. "I mean it. You say the word. He's probably just some dumbass trying to lie his way into your life. Like that crazy bitch out of Boston who insisted she was your fiancée."

"He had the name right, Bentley. I haven't been a Warren since I left."

"So he's a dumbass who does his research. Ignore him."

"What did he want?"

"He left a phone number. Says he wants to talk to you. Something about wanting to make it right."

You can't go, Joseph! You can still make it right! Just tell them you lied, that you made it all up. You can come back!

"You're sure that's what he said?"

"Says so right here-- 'Hello, Joseph. I heard your songs the other day and I felt really moved. Your music is beautiful. Mom always said the Lord would speak through your music. I know I don't have any right to ask, but I want to talk to you again. I want to make it right. Only in Grace, Jacob Warren.' What, 'sincerely' isn't good enough for this self righteous prick?"

"That's my brother, Bentley."

There's a strained silence on the line, and Joseph can practically feel Bentley's discomfort in breaking it. The shuffling intensifies in the background. "He left a phone number."

Joseph picks up the pen again, willing his hand not to shake. "I'll take it."

"Joe, this is a bad fucking idea. You don't owe him shit. These people spent 17 years fucking up your head, don't let them do it over again, not now that you've finally got your shit together."

"I'll be fine, Bentley."

"You always say that. Usually right before you get fucked up in some especially outrageous way. Seriously, Joe. You don't owe him shit."

Bentley means well. He always has. He's spent the whole eight years he's known Joseph fighting like a tiger to make sure he gets his share of everything.

But Bentley is an only child. He doesn't have a hope in hell of understanding.

You owe a brother everything.

Joseph sinks to the mattress sitting directly on the floor of his one bedroom apartment. His legs, his hands, his whole body feels numb, pulled tight like a piano wire. It would only take a drink to help, he thinks, before he can stop himself. He can practically feel the sweet, calming bite of it on his tongue. He probably has something somewhere. Half a bottle of the cheap shit even the college kids won't pay for, buried in the back of a suitcase or a crate he never unpacked.

It would only take one.

But that's not the lie he has chosen to tell himself tonight.

Instead, he forces his numb and clumsy fingers to enter the phone number he had written under the one line he's managed to write in six months. He stares at it almost a full minute before he manages to hit the button that sends the call through.

He hangs up before the first ring, drops the phone, and paces the room.

The whole process repeats itself again before he can finally keep himself on the line long enough for Jacob to answer.

"Hello?"

Joseph's voice curls up and dies in his throat. The voice at the other end is like his own, before almost a decade on the coasts knocked all the soft Midwestern film off of the vowels. For a few seconds, the bottom part of his brain buzzes with the absolute conviction that time has glitched and he has somehow managed to connect with another Joseph, the one who is still called Warren.

"Hello? Can you hear me?"

"Uh. Hey. It's Joseph. I... uh, I got your message."

A smile flickers on in Jacob's voice, like turning on a light switch. "Joseph! I had a feeling you'd call. I'm so glad you did."

Joseph can already feel himself running out of road. "What's wrong? I saw your message, you said you needed to make something right?" He's acting now. He knows what he wants Jacob to make right. He's just not sure that he will, even if he can.

His brother sighs heavily into the phone. "I've been praying on this a while." Joseph feels his stomach drop-- this was always a precursor to admonishment, their elder's explanation for how difficult they've been to deal with.

"Okay."

"I didn't quite tell the truth in my message, Joseph. I heard your music. But that was almost a year ago. I was in that bowling alley, helping with the kids' bowling night. And that song of yours, 'Minutes to Miles,' kept playing. I think a couple of the kids kept buying it on the jukebox, over and over. I recognized your voice right away, even with that girl hollering over you."

"I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not."

The soft chuckle is doubly disconcerting-- somehow, it is both their father and their old pastor. Is that how Jacob had learned to laugh? "It is, Joseph. You always had a beautiful voice. It made me mad at first, hearing you on the radio. You left us, and now you're going out there and making that big name for yourself, while the rest of us are stuck back in Whitebridge. And I tried to let it go, let God, but you were stuck in my head, like a little grain of sand. I went home and I looked you up. All your music. And you know what I noticed?"

"All the other bands we were ripping off?"

Jacob lets out another chuckle. "You never did know how to take a compliment. No, Joseph. I noticed how lost you were. You sang about it all the time. Being stranded on your own and tempted.."

"I wasn't holy, Jacob. I was depressed."

This time, there's a silence that neither of them knows how to fill. Jacob, always the daring one, is the one to try. "Then I realized something else. I missed you. I missed my brother. After everything that happened... I wanted you back."

"Jacob..."

"I know, I know. I can't... I can't undo it. But I want to help make it right. As much as I can. I don't want you to be alone, Joseph."

"So what do you want?"

This time, Jacob lets out a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob, definitely not the father/pastor chuckle. "I'm not sure. I've been praying and thinking about that so much, but I haven't got an answer yet. Can we start with talking? You're the only one left. You're the only one who knows what it was like."

There's so much weight in that last sentence. Joseph feels the conversation groaning under all the memories of old hymns and closed doors and clasped hands, teetering under the edge of collapse. He doesn't know why he feels compelled to try and save it.

"Yeah. We can keep talking, Jacob."

He hears that warmth flicker back on in his brother's voice. "Good. Good. Do you remember that time the wasps got in the church on Easter morning?"

Before he can catch himself, Jacob is laughing. It's strangely easy to fall into this kind of rhythm, naming people and places he had thought he had forgotten years ago. Jacob leads them along the safest lines of conversation, deftly steering them past the threatening growl of the words neither of them can say.

Just past midnight, Jacob finally lets him go, murmuring a prayer. For the first time in months, Joseph sinks easily into a deep sleep. For the first time in years, he has that dream again.

He is sitting in the Sunday school classroom, but the light that filters through the windows is the late afternoon of Saturday, and he is the only one sitting at the folding tables, hands in front of him, balled into fists. It has that smell of dessicated flowers, glue, old paper, and he is choking on it like smoke.

A pair of hands comes out of the deepening shadows, the fingertips callused from guitar strings, nails trimmed neatly, a wedding ring gleaming from one finger. One hand covers both of his clenched fists, and he is startled to realize how small, how young he has become. The hand gently uncurls his fists and presses them together in prayer. The other hand comes up to rest on his cheek, gently stroking the soft skin. Wherever the hands touch him, a shadow blooms on his skin like ink in water.

He wants to look up, to see the body the hands belong to, but he is locked in stillness and silence.

Whitebridge is different now.

The realization startles Joseph as he crosses the city limits sign and hits the first ring of fast food and gas stations. These are almost all new-- when he was growing up, there was only the Marathon, where his father would sometimes stop late at night to buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke them in the car, one after the other, tossing the butts out the window. Now there's four new ones, with signs glowing brightly, advertising OPEN 24/7 BEER WINE CIGARETTES STATE MINIMUM TRUCKERS WELCOME!

The shouting isn't working-- the stations are empty, even in the middle of the day. For a moment, he isn't even sure any of them are open. But he sees a young man in an apron outside the BP, smoking a cigarette and staring out at the empty road with bored indifference, so he pulls his shiny black car in and fills up. He can feel the man's eyes on him, and he stiffens slightly, as though he's been caught fidgeting in church. He bobs his head in a nod of acknowledgement, drumming his fingers nervously on the roof of the car as he fills up the car. He's about to climb back in the car and leave when the man leaning against the wall calls out to him. "Do I know you from somewhere?"

Joseph shakes his head quickly. "I don't think so. I haven't been here in a long time."

"You look familiar."

"Must just have one of those faces."

"You know that preacher guy?"

Joseph shakes his head and gets back in his car, practically peeling out of the parking lot.

Bentley was right. This was a fucking mistake.

He's not sure how Jacob managed to talk him into coming back. They'd been talking for a few weeks now, trading stories of the shared past and letting each other see little glimpses of their separate presents. The nightmares haven't been this frequent or powerful in years, not since he'd left Whitebridge. He'd tried to talk to Jacob about them, but his brother had gently steered them away from it every time-- "that's the kind of thing I think we should talk about in person, Joseph. I'll pray for you."

The last phone call had ended in a promise. "Daily Bread has changed since you've left, Joseph. I changed it. It would mean a lot to me if you could come out and see it. We could talk about it all then." The promise had fallen out of his mouth before he can stop it. "I'll come. I'll come."

He flies past the ring of mostly abandoned housing developments into Whitebridge’s historic downtown with all its storefronts empty or soaped over, through that into the shuttered middle and high schools and the tall central building that had replaced them, its parking lot empty for Sunday, through that into the tangle of back roads in the hills. He remembers the roads well, finding the one back to the church without really thinking about it. His body knows the way.

He slows down as he rounds the last curve, and for a moment, it's as if nothing has changed. The steeple still stands tall, and there are even cars in the parking lot. But as he comes to a stop, he notices that the windows have been shattered. The letters are falling off of the sign by the road, and the grass growing in the cracks of the parking lot is tall enough to touch the doors of the cars abandoned there. No one's used this place as anything but a dumping ground in years.

He knows this isn't where he was supposed to go-- that was one of the first things that Jacob had told him. The church board of trustees had fallen behind on payments, and the original church property had been foreclosed. Jacob had taken the opportunity to move them to the old movie theater downtown, the one that had been failing even when they were children.

"This was a bad fucking idea," he breathes, as he puts the car in gear to turn around.

Joseph pulls into the parking lot beside the movie theater, managing to snag one of the last available spots. The marquee reads DAILY BREAD MINISTRIES SUNDAY SERVICES 10:00 AM 6:00 PM. He's got over 45 minutes before the evening service begins, but there's already a steady flow of people coming into the room. They emerge from shiny new trucks and SUVs, wearing boots and neatly pressed jeans, bright colored button ups and flowy blouses. Services when he was a kid used to be formal, everyone in suits and dresses.

Maybe Jacob is right. Maybe it really has changed.

With minutes to go before the service starts, he finally gets out of the car and slips through the doors of the new church. He's relieved to breathe in the smell of stale popcorn and a hundred or more people's perfumes and colognes. The frames that used to hold the coming attraction posters have been filled with prints of Bible verses and flyers for church events. He doesn't fit in at all, dressed all in black, the sleeves of his hoodie rolled up to reveal full sleeve tattoos, long hair pulled back into a messy ponytail. The third time he sees someone staring at him, he rolls the sleeves down, feeling the familiar flush of embarrassment throughout his body.

He walks into the sanctuary alone, avoiding the attention of the teenage bouncers. It had been the only screen in the small theater. He has faint memories of watching the few cartoons that their pastor and their parents had approved of here. The movie screen is filled with a slideshow of various beautiful, far away landscapes, as someone plays a praise song that Joseph doesn't recognize at a low volume through a shitty sound system. He settles into a seat in one of the empty middle rows. People are still gathered to socialize and chatter, and they don't seem to pay much attention to him.

It doesn't last.

"Is that Joseph Warren?"

He snaps to attention, looking up at the old woman who is slowly working her way towards him, dressed in a worn flowered dress. He stands up and walks over to help her. "Mrs. Carroll?"

She smiles, holding her arms out for a hug. He stoops down to her level, carefully wrapping his arms around her. Mrs. Carroll was old when he was a child, and it honestly seems a little impossible that she's still here, after all this time. Her paper thin skin is creased with wrinkles, and she lugs around with her a clunky oxygen tank. "It's good to see you, sweetheart. It's been so long..."

"Jacob invited me."

She beams as he helps her down into the seat next to him. "He's a sweet boy too. We all love Jacob. I thought the whole church would dry up and blow away when we lost the old building. But he really stepped up. He got us in here, and now all these young people come in, and it's lively in here now that it's young."

Joseph looks around at the people streaming in and finding seats. The Daily Bread he'd grown up in was largely old. Young people left as soon as they could, suffocated by the same worn scriptures and the stale air in the sanctuary. His parents had been some of the youngest people in the congregation, and some of the only ones with children by the end. This Daily Bread is different. There's a scattering of children, even a baby or two, but the congregation is largely people Jacob and Joseph's age, young and lively, bright and laughing. Mrs. Carroll is one of only three or four elderly people in the sanctuary. She's nodding when his gaze comes back to focus on her., talking more to herself than to him. "Getting younger all the time around here... younger all the time..."

The music suddenly begins blaring much louder, and the rest of the congregation stands, singing the lyrics that appear over the landscape on the screen. Mrs. Carroll stays in her seat, humming along, closing her eyes. The sound quality gets much worse with the sudden spike in volume, but Joseph still recognizes the song right away, even without the lyrics in the front of the room-- "I give You my heart, I give You my soul, I live for You alone..."

It's too easy to fall back into step, moving his mouth along with the lyrics. Up at the front of the room, two little girls run up to the front of the room, clambering onto the makeshift stage and picking up little purple flags to twirl as they dance. They're not quite in time, but they're trying their hardest, and Joseph can see their mothers at the front, filming every moment on their phones. He thinks of two little boys up on another stage, singing out of tune for patient adults. They'd probably even sung the same songs. It isn't like the catalog updates very often for Daily Bread. He clenches his jaw and forces himself to stop following the music, crossing his arms across his chest, focusing on the purple flags as they whirl around and around, counting each rotation.

Losing that purple whirl when the music fades out is almost as jarring as seeing his brother walk onto the stage. It's like seeing some unwarped version of himself, dressed in faded jeans and a dark purple v-neck, bare and unmarred arms waving to the audience that cheers him like a rock star. He pauses and leans down to kiss one of the little girls on the forehead, pulling the other into a side hug. "Thank you, thank you, girls. Folks, let's give Charity and Becca a hand, they always do a beautiful job, come on." Joseph pulls his arms tighter to his chest and fights the urge to tuck one knee up to his chest as the congregation applauds the girls scurrying back to their seats.

Jacob goes to the lone microphone at the center stage and takes it off the stand. "Good morning," he says, his voice booming in the tiny room. The congregation answers him back, more wave than words-- "good morning!" He smiles and starts to pace the little stage as he talks. "You know, I love that song, I've always loved that song. It's what we all want, it's what we all want to promise God," he says, lifting the mic to his mouth and cradling it in both hands, crooning in a voice just this side of falsetto, "every breath I take, every moment I'm awake... I give You my heart, Lord..." The congregation laughs uproariously in response. His brother stays where he is, still cradling the mic, basking in the laughter with a little grin that Joseph recognizes from when they were kids, trying not to make noise during the service. Joseph doesn't quite get what the joke is. Maybe he would, if he knew who Jacob was mimicking.

Once the laughter subsides, Jacob starts to pace again. "But what about when God doesn't give back? What does that feel like?"

The congregation is silent, but only Joseph seems uncomfortable. Is this what Jacob meant when he promised that the church had changed? Are they allowed to ask these kinds of questions now?

"What about when God gives to someone else? Someone who isn't where we are, someone who doesn't honor Him, even someone who defies Him, or rejects Him? How does that feel?"

In the congregation, a baby wails. Jacob laughs. "Yeah, like that." The congregation takes his cues and laughs. The baby only wails louder, and Joseph watches as a woman in a yellow dress rushes out of the theater, a red faced screaming baby over her shoulder. "I think that last one is the hardest for me. When I see someone who grew up in God's love and light abandon that for the world... that's hard! That's painful! And the worst part is, God asks us to sit down with sinners! To sit down with them, break bread and share what we have with them! Jesus even tells us, Luke 15:7, 'I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner than 99 righteous men!'

Someone in the seats ahead of Joseph raises their hands above their head, reaching for grace. Beside him, Mrs. Carroll lets out an appreciative murmur. Jacob has cycled back around to the microphone stand, and now he lingers there, resting one hand on the stand, almost leaning on it. "I'd like to tell you a story now." The congregation responds with a soft ripple of applause, but Jacob lifts a hand to stop them, waiting until they're quiet again to continue. "It's about a man with two sons. Let's picture a well off man-- not rich, but comfortable, with a nice farm, one he's built from the ground up, building his family a nice life. And he's got two sons, young and handsome, who've never wanted for anything. After all, why would they? Dad's worked hard so they don't have to. But we all know how that can backfire, right?"

Mrs. Carroll lets out a little huff of laughter, an impossibly bitter sound from the sweet old woman that Joseph remembers. "Spoiled," she mutters to herself, shaking her head, the corners of her mouth turned down into deep creases. "Spoiled, all of them."

"So just as Dad is getting ready to hand the reins over to his kids and enjoy his retirement, his younger son says, 'hey, Dad, can I take my share now? Hold the responsibility?'" The congregation laughs, none louder than Mrs. Carroll. "And Dad's never been one to tell his boys no, so he hands it over. And wouldn't you know it, that sweet boy takes the money and runs off to Vegas. And he spends his time and his money the way you do in Vegas. We all know why they call it Sin City... and if you're too young to know, don't find out!" he says, waving an admonishing finger at the children scattered in the congregation.

"Well, Vegas guzzles up money like a Buick guzzles gas, and before long, that younger son is flat broke, and the city spits him right out. And he doesn't have any place to go-- all his Vegas friends, see, have vanished like a flock of roaches with the lights on-- so he goes back home with nothing but the shirt on his back and the tail between his legs." It's strange. The sermon isn't anything more than a long string of cliches strung together in a story that anyone even half familiar with the Bible would recognize right away, but the way he delivers it, with pointed humor and complete sincerity, it becomes utterly compelling. The congregation drinks it as eagerly as water, and even Joseph feels strangely thirsty for more of the words. He can't look away.

"And he may be in his hometown, but he isn't going to go home. After all, he was gonna make it big! He was gonna be somebody, outside of this one horse town! So he goes back to the neighbor across the road, and he begs for a job and a place to say. So that neighbor gives him a cot in the barn in exchange for having him slop the pigs every day. And he was hungry enough that even the pig slop started to look good. But he stops, hand halfway to the slop bucket, and he says... 'the heck with this. I'm gonna go back to my dad on the farm. I'm not a good son, but he has to take me back, right? I need to go back.' So he throws down the bucket for the pigs, and he sneaks back across the road to his dad's farm. And Dad sees him coming from his front porch, and what does he do? What does he do?"

The congregation stares up at Jacob, rapt and waiting for the answer that he dangles in front of them. "He's overjoyed, hollering for his older boy to come out here and bring new clothes, and a nice hot meal. And he goes to his son, still stinking of pig slop and Vegas, and he pulls him into a big bear hug. Then he calls all their friends and family and tells them, come out to the farm, my boy's back! And before you know it, there's a big old party happening out at Dad's farm, with the younger son right in the middle."

"Now, the older son is sitting there on the edge, watching this, and he's starting to seethe a little bit. Because he's been here, right? Working with Dad, running the farm, working out there in the field, and no one's ever thrown a party for him. He's done all this hard work, and here they are celebrating the one who flushed all his money away in Vegas! Frustrating, right? Fortunately, our dad here is a good dad, and he notices that his older son isn't happy, so he asks what's wrong. 'I've been here! I've never left! But he runs away and makes a fool of himself and all of us, and you throw him a party and take him right back!'"

"And Dad gets quiet and thoughtful, and he pulls his son close. 'Son, you're right. You've always been with me, and all that I have is yours. That hasn't changed. But we thought your brother was lost, and we found him! We have to celebrate when the lost come back!'"

This time, when the congregation cheers for him, Jacob lets them do it, basking in it for a few seconds. "You might recognize that as Jesus's Parable of the Prodigal Son. I've taken a few liberties, of course, updating it for you cool kids, but that's the basics of it. And I'll admit... I've struggled with this story and what it asks of me. I've been more like that older son than I'd like to admit. I think most of us have that feeling of bitterness in us. Because we're the good Christians, right? We come to church, we give everything we have, we try to live out God's love in every part of our lives... even for people who don't believe?"

"But how Christian is that bitterness? How can we resent the people God has asked us to love?" Jacob closes his eyes and puts a hand on his heart, as if Joseph and the congregation have caught him in a moment of intimate contemplation. "My brother and I, we haven't spoken in many years. But a few months ago, I decided to reach out. I decided I needed to let go of the bitterness in my own heart, and help heal the bitterness in his. Joseph, can you join me up here, please?" As one, everyone in the room follows the line of Jacob's hand directly to Joseph. Mrs. Carroll elbows him lightly. "Well, get up there, Joseph!"

Joseph moves like someone in a dream, like he's watching the scene from somewhere else. He can't really be here. But he stumbles up onto the little stage, towards her brother. His brother pulls him into a hug, and Joseph stiffly lifts his arms up and wraps them around his brother's shoulders. "Good to have you back, Joseph," his brother whispers, lingering there and slapping him on the back. Joseph tries to slip off the stage, but Jacob loops the hand that isn't holding the microphone around his shoulder. The congregation cries out with delight, cheering for them both. "Well, I have to tell you... I don't have an easy answer. But I can tell you to open your heart to show others God's love, even when it's hard. Maybe even especially when it's hard. I encourage you to reach out to the prodigals in your life. Because having my brother back... it's been beautiful. Go out into the world this week, thinking about Luke-- 'There's more joy in one sinner coming home than in 99 righteous men!'"

Jacob leads him off the stage as a group of women walk onto stage to belt out another praise song that Joseph doesn't recognize. He settles in a seat off to the side, patting the empty one beside him as he chugs from a bottle of water. Joseph settles there uncertainly, his eyes focusing on the singers onstage.

"Didn't realize I was such a big sinner," he says quietly, a tired almost-smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. Jacob claps a hand on Joseph's shoulder again, letting the drained water bottle fall to the floor and roll away.

"Aren't we all, Joseph?"

Jacob takes him to the only nice restaurant in town. The smoking ban has been in place for decades, but the air still reeks of stale cigarette smoke like it's soaked into the heavy velvet curtains and the fake stucco wallpaper. Dust has settled permanently on the plastic ivy clinging to the wall, and the yellowed window glass and orange brown lamps give the whole room a perpetual sunset cast. He leads them back to a booth at the very back, far away from the windows and the few late lunch stragglers scattered through the room.

"You have to try their alfredo. Best I've ever had," his brother says confidently, before Joseph has even had a chance to look at the menu. He doesn't even look at his own. It's still sitting unopened on the table in front of them by the time the waiter comes around. "I'll have my usual, Ted."

"Wine and all?"

"Of course. Joseph, would you like a glass?"

Joseph's mouth feels dry and cracked, his stomach empty and folding in on itself. Every cell in his body sings yes. But he shakes his head. "No, just... water for me, thanks. And the chicken alfredo."

Jacob raises an eyebrow as he hands back both of their menus. "Really? Rumor has it you're... quite the party animal."

Joseph does his best not to flinch. "I was. I'm trying not to be."

Jacob's eyebrow is still arched up, but he raises the glass that the waiter has just poured for him. "Good for you, then. Best of luck."

"It's going well so far," Joseph lies, his eyes fixed on the dark red of his brother's glass. He had never been much for wine, had always preferred the stuff that made no pretense of sweetness and burned all the way down, but any port in a storm...

He focuses instead on drawing imaginary roads and city blocks in the red checkered print of the vinyl tablecloth. It works until his brother speaks again. "I lied to you, Joseph."

Joseph looks up from the tablecloth, reluctantly focusing on Jacob's face. "What?"

"I lied to you. About why I asked you to come here. It wasn't... just to make things right. There's that too, but it wasn't the real reason."

His tongue feels numb and heavy in his mouth, almost impossible to move. "What do you mean?"

"I don't suppose it was really a lie-- more like a white lie, or a lie of omission, but I'm pretty sure God weighs all of those the same in the end--"

"Jacob, what's the real reason?"

"Do you remember the story of Jacob and Isaac?"

"Jacob, will you quit fucking around and just tell me what the fuck you're talking about?"

His brother stops for a moment, his mouth agape. "Well. You've certainly learned to stand up for yourself. Sorry. It's a long story, and not an easy one to tell."

"So tell it."

"A few years ago, I graduated from seminary. And I came back here. Got myself set up as the youth pastor, for all two of the kids at Daily Bread."

Joseph nods slowly. The congregation had been aging and shrinking even when they were kids. Some Sundays, they had been the only children there at all. Not that they ever acted like it. They'd always been commended for that. Perfect little gentlemen. "And I was good at it, but I wanted... more. I always thought I'd be bigger than this. I thought, you know, I was born for more. I wanted bigger things. And I did my best, but... it ate at me. I could really feel it, down here in my gut. All this resentment and anger just sitting there like a hot coal. And then I started hearing your voice on the radio, with that song..."

Joseph's stomach drops. He can't meet Jacob's eyes. The guilt wells up in his throat, eating at him like bile. He wants to apologize, but he can't find the words.

"I did my best. And eventually... Pastor Dan got old. Got sick. And I had to step up and pull double duty. They really liked me-- the people who were still coming, anyway. I was a great preacher, just like Dad. They didn't know that I'd lost my faith. I couldn't carry faith and hate in one body. And well... one wins over the other."

His voice is low, and there's no microphone, no congregants but him, but Joseph has the oddest feeling that all of this is a sermon too.

"It was Mrs. Carroll who noticed at first. How I wasn't hardly eating, how I was getting thinner and thinner. How I just didn't look right anymore. She practically dragged me to the doctor kicking and screaming."

Joseph's whole body tenses, punishingly tight, like he's bracing for a blow. "What happened? What did the doctor..."

Jacob smiles, but it's thin, no humor or warmth in it. It might as well have been an involuntary spasm of the muscles. Maybe at this point, that's all it is for him. "Cancer. Far gone by then, too late for anybody to do anything about it. Nothing to do but pray."

Now it's all clear to Joseph. This is the reason, the real reason for the trip-- a chance to break the bone and set it properly again, open up all the wounds so they can really heal. "Jesus, Jacob, I'm so sorry, I didn't-- I didn't know--"

Jacob waves a hand away. "Don't apologize. It's not your fault. It's not anybody's fault. Trust me, I spent enough time looking for anybody to blame. But you know, they showed me an x-ray. And all those tumors... they sat right there, where all that anger and hate used to live."

Even in the face of death, he can come up with an object lesson. He really was born for this. "That's not why I brought you here, Joseph. I brought you here because... I went out walking. Out in the hills at night. Just to try and collect myself and let it all wash over me. I hadn't prayed in years, I wasn't even sure I knew how to anymore. I wasn't even sure someone was listening, but at least I was trying to believe."

Jacob lifts the wine glass to his mouth and tilts it back. Joseph hunches forward over the table, fingers tangling in his hair, pulling tighter and tighter as his brother continues to talk.

"And then... God spoke to me. He heard me calling and came out of the hills to find me. He gave me a miracle, Joseph. He washed me in His blood and made me clean."

"What?"

"I got a call back from the doctor a few days ago. It's all gone. They don't understand it. But I do. It's my job to understand miracles, right?"

Jacob smiles as he sets the wine glass down. It's as full as it was when the waiter poured it for him a few moments ago. Joseph shakes his head, recoiling instinctively when Jacob reaches out for him. His entire body is boiling with guilt and fear and confusion, burning him up from the inside. "What the fuck."

"Joseph--"

"I can't-- I have to go--"

He gets up and stumbles out of the restaurant. He barely makes it to his car and tears out of the lot to the motel. He intends to pack all of his shit and get out of town, leave all of this behind and never look back. It's not enough for the cancer to eat up Jacob and everything he could have been if he'd gotten the fuck out of the place. Now the crazy that always permeated Daily Bread is working at his mind too, and for what? So the next pastor can preach about it, if there even is one?

"Fuck this," he mutters, pulling his duffel bag off the dresser and throwing it onto the noxious print bed. He steps into the bathroom, intending to grab up his toothbrush. Instead, he drops to his knees in front of the toilet, coming up with nothing but bile. He wipes haphazardly at his mouth and leans back against the bathroom wall, staring up at the flies trapped in the light fixture. One is still alive, a small shadow bumping futilely against the cloudy glass, going around and around to confirm that there really is no escape.

When that small shadow finally stops stirring, Joseph gets to his feet. It drains everything that he has left in him, and he hits the bed like a felled tree. He lies there, but it's hours before he manages to fall into a restless sleep, cut through with images of Jacob with his crisp white shirt unbuttoned to reveal an empty rib cage buzzing with flies, holding a wine glass full of thick, clotted blood out to Joseph.

He made me clean, Joseph. He made me clean.

The dream falls apart as soon as the ringing phone cuts through the paper thin layer of sleep that Joseph has tried to take refuge in. He fumbles for the phone on the night stand behind him, not even bothering to check and see who's calling. His first instinct will always be to answer.

"H'lo," he mumbles, squinting around the darkness of the motel room. The only sources of light in the room are the orange yellow shreds of the parking lot lights sneaking around the edges of the curtains and the harsh red glow of the alarm clock. 1:24 am.

The call breaks apart every other word, the signal in Whitebridge as terrible as ever, but Joseph would know that voice anywhere. It's Jacob, the Jacob he's known since birth, all the veneer of the preacher and the man of God stripped away, leaving only the frightened boy who would wake up with nightmares and cling to Joseph like he was drowning. Joseph sits straight up in the bed, awake all at once. "Jacob?" he says, voice too loud in the quiet room, his knuckles going white around the phone as he tries to piece together the words in all the static.

"Need-- help-- I'm-- it's running out--"

"Jacob? Jacob, what's wrong?"

"-- needs you here-- told me--"

"Jacob, are you okay?"

"No-- have to-- won't last-- he-- Joseph, please--"

"Where are you?"

"The church-- the old-- on 36-- Joseph, please-- wants--"

The call goes dead, and Joseph scrambles out of the bed, grabbing at his keys. Whatever's happening, he needs to go back out to Daily Bread. Jacob needs him. He drives far too fast even for these empty streets, flying recklessly past an empty downtown, empty half built houses, until he's rounding that last curve and pulling up at Daily Bread. There's a shiny white truck parked outside among the abandoned, broken cars, fresh, staggering tracks in the dirt leading up to the half open door. "Jacob!"

The smell washes over him in a wave-- a foul potpourri of ancient, still air, old paper, smoke, wet coins, all washed over with years and years of an earthy rot working its way up from the hills and into the bricks and the banners left to hang limply on the wall. Joseph presses a hand over his mouth and nose for a moment, struggling to take a deep, grounding breath through his mouth. He can taste the rot then, but that at least is not familiar. It doesn't threaten to drag him out of the present like the smell does.

At the altar, he can see the dim outline of Jacob lying stretched out on a floor scattered with old leaves, lit faintly by the moonlight filtering through the hole in the roof. He runs down the aisle, almost sick with relief when he sees the shallow rise and fall of his brother's chest. "Fuck-- okay, come on, Jacob, get up, get up, we're going to the hospital--"

His brother does not respond. Joseph pushes at his shoulder, trying to gently, and then not so gently, shake him back into consciousness. When that doesn't work, he bends down and wraps his arms around his brother's shoulder, trying to get the heavy, dead weight off the floor. Jacob flops against him as soon as Joseph manages to haul him into a sitting position, his lips moving as though he's trying to say something. "What, Jacob?" His brother's lips brush against the skin on his neck, like he's still to talk.

The pressure of Jacob's teeth against his neck feels like some kind of sick joke until he starts to break the skin. Joseph does what he's always done when the room gets strange-- he freezes. He feels the trickle of the blood before he feels the pain. He manages to lift one hand up to Jacob's shoulder, trying to push him away. His brother only straightens up, pushing Joseph down onto the floor of the altar. There's blood on his fingers, and he drags his fingertips along the dirty carpet, leaving a bright red trail in the dust, humming softly to himself.

Joseph tries to get up and run out of the church, but as soon as he's dragged himself up into a sitting position, he freezes. The whole sanctuary is surrounded by shadows, but in the corner behind Jacob, there's a shape in the shadows like a child's crude drawing of a monster, fading in and out of the rest of the shadows. It towers over Jacob, in the seconds that Joseph is able to see it.

"Jacob..."

His brother reaches out and smooths a hand over Joseph's forehead, brushing his hair out of his eyes. "It's okay, Joseph. It'll all be over soon."

"Why are you doing this?"

Jacob smiles, just like he did at the pulpit. There's blood on his teeth. "I told you. God washed me clean in the blood. He gave me a miracle. And miracles..." His voice trails off as he presses down on Joseph's shoulder, forcing him to lie down again. "Miracles aren't free. He demands... sacrifice."

He trails his fingers up from Joseph's shoulder to the wound at his neck. For a moment, Joseph thinks that the blood will somehow wake him up, that Jacob will tend to the wound and take both of them away from here, away from the thing in the shadows.

Jacob sticks his fingers in the wound and pulls. Joseph cannot scream. The sound is inadequate for the pain of a face just like him, brow furrowed in concentration as he pulls him apart. Jacob lifts his hands up to his mouth, drinking Joseph's blood from his cupped hands like water from a stream. As he drinks, the thing in the shadows stops flickering, settles solidly into the world and stepping closer to the altar. The shape isn't as distorted now-- it could almost be an ordinary man in a suit. Jacob closes his eyes and lifts his bloody hands and face to the moonlight, swaying gently, like a worshiper in ecstasy. The man in the shadows has stepped close enough to place a hand on Jacob's shoulder. A wedding ring catches the light.

They whisper together, voices undercut with the buzz of hungry flies.

"Take that which you love, which is yours..."

There's a new scent in the room, one that almost overpowers the rot of the church-- gasoline. It sloshes over him in great gouts, and he moans softly.

"...and bring it to me as a burnt offering."

"Jacob, please..."

His brother shakes his head, searching through his pockets for something. "Come on now, Joseph. You're perfect for this. You were always staring out at the world like a lamb for slaughter... it's better this way." It's Jacob's voice, but there are white teeth flashing in the moonlight as the thing in the shadows smiles. The buzz of flies grows louder and louder.

Joseph turns his head away, searching the back of the church for anything-- a rescue, an escape. All he sees is the familiar banner hanging over the empty baptismal pool, white fabric yellowed with age, spotted with mold and fungus. God Works For The Good of All Who Love Him. Daily Bread Ministries, Est. 1971.

He hears the scratch and hiss of a match. Jacob has found what he's looking for.

Joseph hasn't prayed in a long time. Now is not the time to start.

He scrambles to his feet on a floor now slick with blood and gasoline, breathing hard. Jacob reaches out for him again, and he shoves him away. All he means to do is buy time enough to get away, get back to his car. But Jacob stumbles backwards, into the puddle of blood and gasoline on the altar, the match still in his hand.

The altar goes up in seconds, with Jacob on it. The flames don't touch the thing from the shadows, but it can't move beyond them. Jacob screams, writhing in the flames. Time is expensive, as it turns out.

Joseph stumbles towards the door on unsteady legs. He has to stop there, leaning against the door frame, breathing hard.

"Joseph! Joseph, help me!"

He turns, staring out at the flames. Now they're creeping towards the pews, licking at the carpet of the aisle. He can't even see Jacob in the smoke and the flames. But he can see the outline of the thing from the shadows, flickering back into the monstrous form he had first seen, arms open wide enough for both of them.

He turns away and steps out into the cool night air, sucking down greedy lungfuls of air without a trace of the church in it. He collapses into the driver's seat, fumbling for an old hoodie abandoned on the passenger seat to press to the wound. He drapes it around his neck and puts the car into gear, the pedal almost to the floor as he peels out of the parking lot. He blows past the motel with all his stuff, the empty downtown with his brother's new church, the strip of gas stations and fast food restaurants, like he's convinced that something is right behind him. Just before he passes the sign for Whitebridge city limits, he glances into his rearview mirror.

In the bright red of his tail lights, he can just barely make out two long, distorted shadows standing on the road behind him. His ears are filled with the buzz of flies.

"Take that which you love..."

The words echo in his head no matter how far he goes.

Mike Flanagan was onto something-- vampires/vampire-adjacent things are a great vehicle for working out your religious-flavored trauma.