The phone rang in my dorm room during the dawning hours of a frigid Monday morning in January 1999. Already awake and blearily trying to memorize the opening prologue of Shakespeare’s Henry V that I had to perform for my acting class in just a few hours, I answered it.
On the Contrary’s Joe Rusin was on the other line. One of the charter members of our close-nit group of friends, Joe was two years younger than me and should have been getting ready for school.
“Emily’s in the hospital,” he said. “She tried to kill herself.”
After hanging up, I tossed the Shakespeare aside, put on my overcoat and stumbled through the thickening layer of snow accumulating on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, wondering… What should I do?
My initial response was to call my parents and have them pick me up so I could visit Emily in the hospital. This is what a best friend would do. This is what an aspiring boyfriend would do. But was I either of those things anymore?
I had gotten used to repressing my romantic longings for Emily. I satisfied myself with our strong friendship, but since that October night at Hell House, she and I had barely communicated. Our epically long IM sessions had gone the way of the dodo. Emails were returned, not within minutes or hours, but days. Calls were non-existent. In the month and a half between our Hell House adventure and Christmas break, I threw myself fully into school work and made an effort to bond with my classmates so I could avoid thinking about Emily.
But I cherished our relationship too much to let it suffocate in silence. After the semester ended I headed home, determined to re-connect with Emily at least as “friends.” The ideal event to begin the reconciliation process was our group’s traditional day-after Christmas movie.
Robert Rodriguez’s sci-fi horror film The Faculty had been released on Christmas day and I assumed all of us, film geeks one and all, would be eager to see what that great garage sale auteur would do outside the realm of post-modern action exploitation. But during the trip-organizing game of telephone, my plans crashed into an unexpected obstacle: Emily didn’t want to see The Faculty.
“But you love sci-fi horror,” I pleaded with her over the phone, “You can quote Evil Dead 2 and Repo Man better than I can.”
“David doesn’t want to see such a thematically questionable film so close to Jesus’ birthday,” she replied. “He thought we would all be better off seeing The Prince of Egypt.”
Who in the fuck was David?!
He was, as I found out when Emily introduced him to us the next night, her boyfriend. They had met at a friend’s birthday party at a roller skating rink in nearby Indiana, PA, and had started dating about two weeks after our Hell House trip. When Joe Rusin asked, during our pre-movie dinner at Applebee’s, what she and David had in common, Emily replied, “We just totally click.”
In the past when either of us was dating someone, we always kept the references to the romantic partner to a minimum and never, ever, brought them along on any of our group’s adventures. Now Emily was blatantly breaking our great unspoken Prime Directive. Not only breaking it, but tearing it to pieces, setting it on fire and forcing it down my throat.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, our trip to see Dreamworks’ dreary retelling of the Ten Commandments myth was one made up of agonizingly awkward interludes, cross-cutting between the in-jokes and short-hand references our group was tossing to one another and… things David said.
Those things usually had nothing to do with the topic at hand, but focused ad nauseum on the biblical fidelity of Prince and the certainty that the film’s box office success would lead to, “a series of kick-ass cartoons based on the Bible.” David personally hoped that next film would be about his favorite biblical character… (wait for it) King David.
For her part, Emily stayed mostly silent, adding only a few curt comments to our conversations and nodding her head in eager agreement with seemingly every syllable that spewed forth from David’s well-chiseled face (that he was handsome in a corn-fed idiot kinda way, I cannot deny).
When I returned to school right after New Years I had accepted the fact that Emily and I were probably friends in name only. So, on the weekend following her suicide attempt, it was with a great deal of trepidation that I had my father pick me up in Pittsburgh and drive me an hour east to the psychiatric ward where she had been temporarily committed.
I was led through a series of long, bleak, labyrinthine corridors until we finally reached her room. I stepped inside, my eyes squinting from the refulgent power of the room’s only source of illumination, a blinding winter light blasting in through the caged window from a snow drenched courtyard.
After my eyes adjusted, Emily came into sharp focus despite the harsh backlight. Her once porcelain, silky face, which resembled nothing less than the subject of a Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, was, due to stress and loss of blood, now coarse and spectral, like the surface of a once-fertile planet that had seen its natural beauty ravaged by an asteroid attack.
She gave a hesitant, slightly embarrassed smile and said, “Hi.”
I sat in the rigid, squeaky wooden chair by her bed and we began the meandering sort of empty chit-chat which could have lasted for hours if not for the moment when she stretched her right arm out to pick up her small plastic cup of orange juice. The fleshy underside of her forearm revealed itself from the protective wrap of the battered Penn State sweatshirt she was wearing and I let out an audible gasp, not from the bandages covering her wrists, but what was beyond the bandages, carved into the fleshly underside of her forearm.
Before I could even ask what these letters and numbers meant, she stretched out her other arm, pulled up her sleeve and revealed another red, raw scarring jangle of words beyond the bandaged wrist.
Without prompting, she said, “This one’s from Jeremiah.”
‘Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.’
“Emily, why did you–”
“And that one’s from Job,” she said, her eyes returning to the first arm.
‘What then shall I do when God rises up? When He punishes, how shall I answer Him? Did not He who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same One fashion us in the womb?’
Tears teased out of her eyes. And she told me what happened.
Having been raised by proudly secular parents, Emily had always taken a particular glee in arguing with the religious crazies at her school during lunchtime, but after Hell House, she began to wonder if they weren’t somehow right. What if she were ignoring her only real chance of salvation?
And like a white, Christian knight riding in to rescue her at the moment of greatest danger, David appeared. He filled in her cracks of doubt with the confidence and relief of belief. Their romance metastasized so quickly that a few days before our ill-gotten movie trip she and David had taken a “True Love Waits” abstinence pledge (“Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, and my future mate to be sexually pure until the day I enter marriage.”) in front of the entire congregation of David’s church.
But a day after seeing The Prince of Egypt, she and David were in a hot and heavy make-out session (I worked hard to not visibly cringe when she said “make-out session”), scrunched up in David’s Ford Bronco II. “And it just kept going further and further until we did it.” Emily said. “Then I found out I was pregnant.”
Emily curled her arms tightly around her stomach before continuing, “After I told David, he kissed me and said everything was gonna be okay. But the next day he didn’t return my calls.”
Nor did he return her calls the day after. Or the day after after. Unable to take the unbearable burden of his silence any longer, she drove to his house where his parents answered the door. “They wouldn’t let me in and told me David said that he didn’t have sex with me.”
His parents continued their vitriolic harangue, calling her a slut and demanding that she never contact their son again. Emily, despondent, drove around aimlessly until arriving at David’s church at almost midnight.
“I gulped down a bottle of red wine I bought earlier and then smashed the church’s glass front door with a rock. I stumbled up to the altar, having no clue what I was doing. Then I remembered how the whole congregation had chanted those stupid bible verses with us during our virginity pledge and I…”
She paused, looking down to her forearms. The fingers of her right hand began to dance lightly upon the scars on her left arm. “I still had a shard of glass in my hand from the broken door so I carved the verses into my arms, digging as deep as I could to make sure that they’d never go away.”
After finishing her act of carnal calligraphy, she dropped to her knees and imprinted the bloody verses onto the altar’s thick beige carpet. Then she slit her wrists.
“But by that point I was so drunk and fucked up I just did it horizontally, not straight like they say you should do if you really want to kill yourself. I cut through a lot of tendon and gristle, but missed the artery. Still I passed out and would have bled to death on the altar if that asshole preacher hadn’t forgotten the notes to his sermon in the church.”
Emily stopped there, took a sip of the orange juice and stared out at the courtyard where another patient was now beginning the build the lower half of a snowman. Without even bothering to summon any sort of verbal response, I moved to the edge of her bed and gave her an all consuming embrace.
“I can’t have this baby.” She said softly into my ear.
“You don’t have to. Whatever you want to do, I’ll be here for you.”
“I know you will be,” she said. Without any other prompting, her lips moved away from my ear and she kissed me.
After years of fantasizing about this moment, I was so shocked by the fact that it was actually happening that it took me a long beat before I could even kiss her back. But then, we kissed a kiss that felt like it was not taking place in our world, but in some blissful, parallel dimension where we were the only two human beings in existence. The perfection of that kiss was, at long last, the evidence I needed to prove my thesis: Emily and I were meant for each other.
Before I left to go back to Carnegie Mellon, we made plans to see each other the following weekend (for someone without a car, my parents were amazingly flexible when it came to my travel plans). Emily would be out of the hospital by then and both of us eagerly exchanged ideas as to what we would do with a whole weekend entirely to ourselves. Would it be our first weekend as a couple, I wondered?
But that next Friday afternoon, when I stopped by a computer lab near my dorm to check my email before heading out, I encountered an unwelcome surprise:
Good news! During the week David came and apologized. He said he knew what he did was wrong and begged forgiveness. I accepted and am joining his church. Even better, we’re getting married at the end of the month (crazy soon, I know, but it’s for the best) and having the baby! It’s weird thinking that I’m going to be a mom so soon, but I realize now it was Jesus’ decision all along. What David and I did was sinful, but the result will be a miracle.
All the best,
P.S. I know you might be mad at me. But maybe this will help make you understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s from Psalm 139:13-14…”For You formed my inward parts; you covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.”
I didn’t respond to the email, figuring that she probably didn’t want me to. She was done with my world and I would never be allowed into hers. That was the last time I ever heard from Emily.
The years drifted on and, perhaps as a defense mechanism, my relationship with Emily became a comical story that I could toss out when the conversation turned to crazy ex’s. While we never officially dated, I thought that our kiss was good enough of a confirmation of our mutual romantic interest. Plus, “The love of my life broke up with me for Jesus” was an opening line that couldn’t help but grab everyone’s attention.
And that remained the status quo until a few years ago when Chad Feehan and I were bouncing around ideas for the project that would ultimately become Hell House: The Awakening. During a break from writing, I logged onto Facebook and saw Emily’s name staring back at me in the “Friends You May Know” section.
I clicked on her profile and found myself looking at a family, formally and awkwardly posing for what seemed like a Church directory photo. In the center was a smiling woman, at least thirty pounds overweight, her face a mummified mask of mascara, her hair a puffy perm so fresh it was like she had built a time machine, gone back to 1994 and stole it.
Surrounding her was a brood of three kids and behind all of them was a beast of a man who must have been David, though his bulging stomach, roly-poly cheeks and graying goatee– which looked more like an aborted beard–made him almost unrecognizable from the good-looking, clean-cut teen who had once forced us to see The Prince of Egypt.
My eyes drifted toward Emily’s arms. She was wearing a blouse with sleeves that went down to her wrists, but a small amount of her right forearm was exposed. The scars, faint and faded, were still there.
Those scars, I realized, were a true Mark of the Beast. The Beast of religious belief. This Beast preyed upon Emily, twisting her mind so that she confused fear with salvation, delusion with hope. It feasted on everything that was funny, beautiful, smart and good about her until she was just another member of the countless throng that make up the real living dead who walk among us.
Getting back to work after our break, I told Chad that a terrible Beast that was on the loose in our world. “We need to fight it,” I said. And our first battle would take place in a Hell House.