Later that day Gary would think back hard, looking for some warning he might have missed. At least a hint – a sinister elongation of the hallway; a cold spot curdling the soup on the tray; something foreboding about his perfunctory, Dad-I-hope-you’re-not-naked rap on the door before he pushed it open.
But there was nothing. Nothing more substantial than the five months of veiled nightmares since his father had moved in – five months of finding the remote in the freezer, of double-locking the front door so he couldn’t wander off. And so the nightmares, while horrible, had torn themselves apart quickly under daylight’s routine of care and vigilance. They were simply the product of far-fetched worry. Nothing prophetic.
When Gary opened the door, his father’s head swung toward the sound like a chunk of wood suspended from a string. That head was three times the size it’d been when Gary had started making the soup.
The swollen cheeks and forehead had stretched the old man’s wrinkles to a shiny pink tallow. Eyes like bright, buried marbles stared out from the hydrocephalic depths, their gaze as unstable as the rest of the teetering body. His suddenly-too-plump legs strained the bed rails with rolls of baby fat.
Gary’s father had Cherubed.
Hot soup seeping through his slippers, and Amy calling out about the breaking noise from far, far away.
Cherub. Cherub. Like a heartbeat, a grotesquely huge pulse in his mind.
The hint of citrus and sunflower – Amy’s “happy” perfume – told Gary his wife was close. Slowly, Amy entered his stunned field of vision.
“Oh my god,” she breathed.
Amy approached her father-in-law like a bridesmaid – stride measured yet hesitant, trying to find a respectful rhythm but very, very desperate to reach her destination. Gary’s father, watching with wonder, gurgled out a smile and reached toward her.
Too awed to make contact, she could only manage, “Gary . . . it’s wonderful . . . “
The joy in her voice nailed Gary, broke a sob through him. She wrapped him in her arms as tears lit up her eyes and she laughed out, “God is good, God is sooo good . . .”
Behind them the Cherub cooed. Gary struggled not to be sick.
He lay rigid on the couch while Amy called their pastor. Creaking from his former den as three hundred pounds of infant shifted in the used hospital bed. Gary tried to block out the sounds by focusing on Amy’s conversation, but his attention kept returning to the wall with the mirror and piano and pictures of all their nieces and nephews. The wall behind which his father – Cherub, the Cherub – now sat.
How big do they get?
There was no certain answer. Many never grew beyond their initial size, but Gary had read of one for whom the family had needed to convert a barn. Too easy to imagine – the mirror splitting, piano lurching, pictures dancing as an ever-swelling head shoved through the wall toward him –
Amy had hung up the phone. “Word’s going out through the prayer chain. Pastor Hershel says to come down, to bring him down -”
At the look on Gary’s face, she hurried to his side. “Please don’t. Don’t be scared. This – this is the answer to our prayers.”
Her prayers, she meant. For his doubts, for their arguments and the resulting thick silences. But not . . . not for the other, right? Surely this wasn’t some sort of correction to the picture wall of only other people’s children . . .
Please, her shining face begged him. Please share this happiness with me. The desperation behind her rapture closed off his throat.
A crash from the former den. Amy’s eyes widened – some fear, but mostly excitement. Baby’s first fall. She scampered away like a little kid herself.
Gary stared at the ceiling as he heard his wife asking his eighty-year-old father, “Did you break bed, go boom?”
They had to take out the sliding glass doors to fit him through. One door slipped from Gary’s numb fingers and burst against the patio furniture. Amy made him shop-vac the deck twice, to ensure no chance of shards in giant bubbly feet.
In the former den she patted her legs – C’mon! Can you do it? Can you do it? The Cherub sat amid the wreckage of the bed, huffing in an attempt to crawl toward her.
His father was now a cutely-stupid puppy. Gary could take it no more.
“C’mon Dad,” he said automatically. “Gimme your hand.”
Gary pressed the squishy palm into his own grasp, lost his arm in the folds of an armpit, and hoisted. The Cherub came up too easily, almost sailing face-first back to the floor. Gary threw his other arm around, so that father and son staggered in a bear hug. His nose inches from the bare chest, Gary struggled to detect the spicy cologne he helped his father apply every morning. Nothing – just a hint of talcum, and some gas.
The pajamas were indecently ripped, so Amy wrapped the bed sheet around his lower half. Gary tried to ignore the semblance of a diaper. She threw a blanket over his shoulders but still fretted.
“I don’t know, it’s warm for September but still –”
“Let’s get him walking,” Gary said, his face still smashed against his father’s taut skin.
The huge head bobbled back and forth with those first few steps. His blubbery form seemed to weigh nothing, and Gary quickly figured out the trick was to let momentum do most of the work. Gary guided the head through doorways as best he could. The floppy arms wiped out decorative shelves, the shoulders whacked into corners.
“Oh be careful!” Amy cried.
When they made it outside, the Cherub lifted his head to the early-afternoon glare of Indian summer. Gary squinted, hoping for a trick of lighting. But no – his father’s salt-and-pepper hair had faded to a wispy, almost translucent blonde.
Amy saw it too. “Oh Gary, it looks like a halo.”
They were halfway to the truck when Mrs. Neddleman lurched to a halt at her bird feeder. “Is that . . . is that Frank?”
Amy could only nod with a clown-like smile. Gary found himself thankful for her silence.
“Sweet Jesus!” The heavy old woman threw down the bag of bird seed and bustled back toward her house. “Oh Sweet Jesus, wait til Marlene hears I saw one, I’m – living, I’m living next to one – “
She had almost disappeared inside when her head thrust back out. “Congratulations you two!”
Amy began crying again. What you always wanted to hear, Gary thought. He felt something wet on his hand and looked up to find his father drooling.
It took a while to load him in the bed of the pick-up. In the end Gary planted his shoulder against the Cherub’s considerable rear end and drove him forward as gently as possible. He still crash-landed, striking his head against the cab’s rear glass.
Amy’s hands fluttered “You need to be care-“
“Yes.” Gary could barely speak.
Her features softened. She took his hand. “I know, I know this is hard, but . . . see this for the blessing it is. A miracle.”
A car passing by honked enthusiastically. “God bless you!” the driver called.
His father was already on all the religious stations. Not mentioned by name or address – if that’d been the case, Gary doubted they could have gotten out of the driveway. Still, he prickled with chills as each voice whispered the transformation across the radio winds.
“Another miracle, this one close to home – “
“Praise be! God, in his infinite wisdom, has blessed yet another local family –“
“ – continues to baffle the scientific community – ”
Gary’s station-changing finger paused.
“– ranging the gambit of the biological and environmental, from previously inactive chromosomal defects to unknown side effects from dementia medications. This contentious debate is intensified by the resistance of the families involved to allow investigation. The faithful, it seems, have their own explanation – ”
Amy punched the button to a channel of choir music. “Yes we do,” she said quietly. “Yes we do.”
His father seemed to enjoy the ride. Then again, he always had been of the old, let’s-go-for-a-Sunday-drive variety. Over the last months Gary had found that on bad days, when memory’s hide-and-seek was especially malicious, a quick trip in the truck could stop the quivering of his lips, sooth the worry lines creasing his brow –
Except worry lines weren’t a problem now. They had been pulled flat as freshly-pressed paper, and the only mouth-quivering came from the wind as the Cherub tried to taste the air. In the rearview mirror, Gary was dimly horrified to see the infant still had his father’s age-stained teeth jammed into its pearly-pink gums.
“Watch your speed,” Amy said. “Don’t want him to get chilled.”
I can’t do this, Gary thought. I can’t drive him around like we’re pulling a float in a parade, or transporting some freak to the county fair. Come one, come all, see the world’s oldest fattest baby! Some say genes, some say God, I say I wouldn’t want to change the diapers! HA HA HA!
But he just continued driving, crawling through the outskirts of town, even managing a limp wave to the passers-by who shouted their well-wishes. No one leered, or pointed and screamed, especially not in a small Ohio town like Granley. Seeing this was a tangible expression of faith, an affirmation they’d been right all along.
And after all, who doesn’t love a baby?
The church, low and modernly beige, was built on the brink of a sea of soybean fields. Farmhouses and barns dotted the horizon like old sailing ships. A wide cross-section of the congregation, from farm-dusted pick-ups to sparkling SUVs, had already gathered in the parking lot. Doors swung open domino-style as the truck and its amazing cargo were sighted. People rose quickly and then froze.
Gary’s itchiness flared – he didn’t like crowds, and all those smiles made it worse. Too wide, too many teeth, as if their joy had wiped them dumb and any minute they would surge forward, tipping the truck in order to get a hand on what gurgled in its bed.
Movement among the throng – Pastor Hershel approaching. The breeze clutched at the robe sleeves dangling from his sticklike wrists. Plant him in the field and watch the crows flee, Gary thought, immediately followed by, here comes the barker. He instantly regretted such pettiness, though as with everything else today he felt powerless to stop it.
Pastor had reached their truck. His youthful appearance was betrayed only by his eyes, which had the pinch of someone well beyond middle-age. That powerful peering grabbed Gary just as tangibly as Pastor’s hand touching Amy’s arm.
“Good morning,” he chuckled. But his barely-contained mirth seemed directed only at Amy. What Gary received was concern. Conviction. Just a hint of I-told-you-so.
She’s told him, about our troubles. Gary wasn’t surprised, though the pang of betrayal in his chest caught him off-guard.
“That’s my father,” Gary said. Whether out of defiance or simply to hear his own voice, Gary wasn’t sure.
“I know. Glory be to the Father.”
The old man with the child’s body and the young man with the aged eyes took each other in. A palpable quiet pressed down on the whole of the parking lot. Gary felt Amy stiffen, holding her breath. For his part, he just savored the soft whistle of the breeze, the calm he knew would not last –
His father giggled, and the atmosphere broke into a tidal wave of cheering. Pastor Hershel beamed at his cue.
“Good morning!” The crowd echoed back.
Gary leaned his forehead against the steering wheel. The pep rally has begun.
“It IS a good morning! A God-given morning, and of course what God gives is always good.” Pastor laid a hand on the Cherub’s foot. “Would you look at Brother Frank?
“WOULD YOU LOOK AT BROTHER FRANK!”
A frenzy of emoting. The Cherub, sensing it was for him, grinned at them.
“Let us pray.”
The crumbled-paper sound of chins scraping collars as heads dropped.
“Oh Father, in your divine judgment you have blessed us all. Everything touched by Your hand shines anew. You have given Gary and Amy the child that they, and we, and most of all YOU, always wanted. You have risen Frank to a place of pure innocence. And you have tapped this church, to go forward with the others you have chosen, to show the world the POWER of INNOCENCE. Just as your Son granted salvation to this world, let all these new Sons and Daughters be beacons that draw more and more people back into your good, pure light. Amen.”
Gary hadn’t heard anything beyond the proclamation that he had always wanted a child. At one time, like some many other things in his life, that may have been true. But after all the tests, the fertility medicines, the miscarriages . . . Gary had finally found acceptance in belief. Belief that some things were not meant to be.
But that was back when Gary had believed in ANYTHING. Before any sense of ultimate reason had slowly slipped away from him, followed shortly by his connection to his wife and his father’s hold on reality.
That was also before giant babies started taking over the world as cult godheads. That didn’t help much either.
“Hold up your children!” Pastor Hershel beseeched.
A smattering of infants and toddlers were raised up with two arms, lofted onto shoulders. All their wide, gawking eyes trained on Pastor and the Cherub.
“THIS – ” Pastor motioned in a sweeping circle “ – this is life. That most precious of gifts, the one that tells us more than anything else that GOD LOVES US. And how does he love us best? HOW does he consider us closest to his glory?”
The congregation made some indiscriminate noise. Tell us! Tell us!
“God loves us best when we are INNOCENT. When we are PURE AND SIMPLE. When we are LIKE THE CHILDREN OUR FATHER WANTS US TO BE! And this is why our culture hates children so much. So much so that we say its OK to use pills or rubber barriers to interfere with God’s design to expand his kingdom. And if that doesn’t work . . . we just kill them. Kill them right inside their mothers.”
Or God kills them. Dribbles them out in a stream of blood, flows them forever away from a woman who wanted them more than anything in the world. Even if Gary had the courage to scream his thoughts, he doubted he’d have been heard over the crowd’s throaty harangue.
“It’s not hard, folks.” Pastor raised his worn Bible. “Matthew 11:25 – ‘I praise you Father because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.’ And then, Mark 10:15 – ‘I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’”
Pastor’s voice dropped reverently as he turned to face the Cherub. “Brothers and Sisters . . . this simple innocence is the path to Salvation.”
Gary’s raging doubt was too intense for thought. It manifested itself only as a throbbing at the base of his skull, seemingly in rhythm with Pastor’s gestures. Hershel’s momentum seemed in time with everything – Amy’s meek nodding, the crowd’s tides, even the slight rocking of his father. Back and forth, with a contented strain on his face –
Suspicion sunk through Gary.
He craned his neck, peering through the truck’s back window at the sheet encircling the Cherub’s lower half. At the misshapen lump smooshed from his father’s rear end, and the watery brown stain seeping through the sheet.
The perfect pathway to heaven was dirtying his diaper.
Gary barely registered Amy’s stare as he fumbled with the door handle. The air outside the truck cool on his face, or maybe that was just his speed, his near-run carrying him past outstretched hands, away from Hershel’s attempt at explanation, about how overwhelming this experience can be –
Overwhelming? Just wait til you get overwhelmed by the smell –
Gary made it around the corner and out of the crowd’s sight before his breakfast splattered across the church’s brick. Then he crammed his stinking teeth against the thick of his thumb as full-body contortions rolled him.
I can’t go back and listen to more of that. Should just drive away, leave Amy here and take off down the road with Dad, just another one of our afternoon drives. Just going, going . . .
The service continued for hours. An impromptu tent was constructed around the Cherub, to shade tender skin from the afternoon’s dry burn. Gary sat amid the sweat and the ecstasy, waiting. Waiting for someone to step in the sheeted lump. To crinkle their nose at the smell. Even just a polite offering of a clean sheet from the church’s linen closet.
Nothing. Just continued revelry, revelation
Finally, amid the charred orange rays that announced the lurking of twilight, the congregation dispersed. Hand after hand shaking his, thumping his shoulder, pulling him close. Everyone stank of heat and emotional exertion – everyone except Amy. Hair wind-torn, face ruddy and moist, and yet Gary hadn’t seen her so beautiful or happy in years. A beautiful happy stranger. Someone you might pass on the street and wonder what had happened to make them seem so, so . . .
They drove home with the radio off, the exhausted silence between them like a third passenger. Behind them, his father rose a pudgy hand to the broken yolk of the sun, letting it spill through his fingers.
Their front porch was littered with gifts – baby figurines, teddy bears, even a few maternity balloons screaming more congratulations in pastel letters. Amy carefully carried these things inside while Gary scooted his father to the tailgate. The approaching night masked the long divots of mess smeared across the truck bed but did nothing to hide the smell, which had baked to eye-watering richness. Yet Amy made no mention of it as she and Gary guided the Cherub through the yard and back into his room. The sagging, stinking sogginess of the sheet seemed to pass wholly out of her recognition.
An utter refusal, to notice that her blessing was leaving a trail of shit behind it.
When Gary came back in from hosing out the truck, she was in a robe in the bathroom. “I’m going to get cleaned up.”
They stared at each other. Gary was aware he needed to say something, even just “OK”, but it was so much easier to not talk.
“I love you,” she announced. “And I love this new life we have. I love – I love our baby, our little angel.”
There it was. The solution laid before him. All he had to do was repeat it back to her, and everything would be fine.
Say you love the baby and live happily ever after.
Instead, he said “Yeah.”
When nothing else came, she cast her eyes down. Softly shut the door between them.
And then it was just Gary and the Cherub, and the heavy stench clogging the room between them. Gary got several old towels, soaked half of them, and began the task of cleaning him up.
Gary had prepared himself over the months to feed, bathe, wipe, do whatever was needed. For his father. Not this – not some cosmic practical joke that gawked while he scrubbed its fleshy thighs.
I thought we were safe, that this only happened to the faithful. Was this for Amy’s faith, then? That was even worse – that his father could be stolen away, to reward her piety.
The Cherub hitched a bit as Gary dug behind his ear.
Or perhaps a punishment, to show me what a lack of faith brings you. But that only sounded like Hershel, cracking the brimstone whip.
Gary ran his last clean towel over this transformed face, rough enough that the mouth pinched and the eyes teared up.
If this is anything, anything other than Fate’s bad dice throw . . . then it’s a test. A last shot of finding the inherent brightness in life, the hope that went into hiding from me a long time ago . . .
The Cherub was genuinely crying now – low whines that started deep in its blubbery chest and ended with a wheeze.
Next to the soiled towels was the plump pillow his father had always liked. Gary lifted it, used the corners to wipe at the trembling tears.
He took longer and longer dabs, even after the tears were gone. Patting the softness against those overstuffed cheeks. Then pushing.
The pillow was almost too small to fit over the Cherub’s bulbous face – Gary surprised himself with how far he stretched the pillow. How much force he used.
If this is a test, then I have failed.
When he finally pulled back, the Cherub’s face was stuck in a grimace – one eye squinting, the mouth set like an old-movie gangster’s. A menacing, I-know-what-you-did wink.
You don’t know anything. Just a baby, the bare-bones version of humanity. Innocent? Try ignorant. No thought, just all base desires – eat and shit, want and need, and my dad wasn’t that far gone yet, not yet . . .
Gary brought the pillow to his own face, hoping for a last scent of his father.
Instead, he felt his own bowels letting loose. Everything turning to liquid, no solidity left in the entire world.
Want and need. Unreasonable. Screaming in their desires, to get their way.
The pillow was the Cherub’s death-mask, the features as clearly indented into the fabric as if the face had been pressed into concrete. The contortion, the unrestrained rage against stolen breath, the absolute refusal to go to sleep –
Want and need.
The pillow-image squirmed.
This egoless, mewling spirit surging forward, and Gary had time to think of the petulance of children, their greed, how they don’t always play nice . . .
At the funeral, Hershel extolled the congregation not to judge Gary. “The world is a rock-strewn place, and we all may fall. There but for the grace of God . . .”
Amy sat in the front row, nodding. She could forgive her husband for his weakness. He was in a better place now.
And then, after the pall-bearers had laid Frank’s normal-sized body to rest – a celebration. Jubilance that even a soul as lost as Gary’s – someone who tried to kill a miracle – could still be graced.
Gary sat on the floor, since there was no chair big enough for him. Sat there amid the party in the church basement, and smiled sometimes when people smiled at him. That made everyone, including Gary, very happy.
Sat there, with a naïve stare. Thinking nothing. Vaguely wanting to void.
And then eat.