If you're impatient to read more about Clay Dillon, click on the cover for it (on the right, about midway down the page) for ordering information for Nothing is Right, the prequel to this story.
Editorial Note: My apologies for falling off-schedule lately. I am currently working with Autonomous Press on their debut wave of books, including my own Defiant. As part of our agreement, I am offering editorial services on the other titles they are preparing, and our deadlines have cost me some regular writing time. This might continue until the end of March, but we will return to a weekly schedule as soon as I am capable.
On the way to catechism class that afternoon, it occurred to Clay that Blur and Jules were his imaginary friends, and that therefore he was wrong to believe that imaginary friends were an impossibility. He had never thought of them that way before, but once the notion occurred to him, it made a lot of sense. He was, after all, the inventor of their appearances and the author of their words. They were born in his head, and while his friends controlled their actions, he had been responsible for the world they lived in and the rules that governed their lives. They were his, even if they were not always under his control. He knew that his handing them off to his friends created new versions of them, because Patrick was always thinking of what to do with Blur next, but he was also aware that there was always a version of Blur he carried, and that it had to be periodically reconciled with Patrick’s or they would diverge and become different entities.
Suddenly, Clay became convinced that either God was everyone’s imaginary friend or else they were all His. It was the only explanation--either they were living in a world like the one Van lived in, with a hidden auteur that dictated their rules and their environment but left them to do for themselves in the bodies he had manufactured for them, or else God was invented by them and existed in their heads, occupying some kinds of fantastic realms like the one Clay had built first for himself and then later turned over to Van. If everyone was right about God, and they were all actually thinking about the same thing, then God had to be imagining them. It was the only way to explain how so many people could have the same idea at once.
On the other hand, though, he recalled that people did not have all the same ideas about God. The fact of that was plain, because Clay’s mother often belittled people for having the wrong ideas about God, even though she herself believed many things that the priest had spoken differently about. She never seemed to notice when she did this, but Clay noticed everything, and so he knew that even though people like his mother pretended to all have the same ideas about God, they really did not. They just pretended they did. Like Patrick and Aaron pretended that they all had the same ideas about Blur and Van and the other cyborgs in the castle.
Something fell out of Clay’s insides, and he felt a chasm within himself that was so deep and wide it felt as if he could hold the world in it. As he considered the way he had envisioned and populated Van’s world and also recruited its population, he started to realize that at some point, the stories of ancient Canaan and Judea had been envisioned in exactly the same way. Even if they were real places on the earth, and even if events had occurred at those places that were very similar to the events in the Bible, the lands of the Bible were not the lands of Earth. They were instead a kind of magic castle that was shared not only among a small group of friends, but among everyone who helped to hold the idea of them in their thoughts. They could not be anything else.
By their very nature, the versions recorded in books had to be capable of being turned in at the corners, folded over, and stuffed into a human being’s imagination. That person might fill them with giants and armies, and he might punish the fathers who lusted after their own children because they were vile, but he was also choosing to spend time envisioning a world wherein fathers lusted after their own children. Whether these things had happened in the outside world or not, the people who had enshrined them in books and meant that were not merely entertainments, but attempts at reflecting imaginary friends into the minds of others… they meant for those concepts to sear themselves deep into the assumptions and past history that informed continued play in that realm.
Clay began to feel a little ill because of his thoughts. They did not slow themselves to accommodate him, though.
He put his fists together and looked at them. Clay was aware that this was the size of his brain. Any God that existed could not possibly reduce himself to such a ridiculous extent without losing the properties that allowed Him to be supreme. Nor could any human communicate with a creature they could not find in the world, unless that creature was one that they had created the way that Clay created Van’s friends. The God his mother prayed to had to be her imaginary friend, then, because even if there was a creator out in the universe, he could not be so small that he fit inside the kinds of thoughts that Kitty Dillon usually had.
Clay knew, of course, that Van was his cyborg, and not an imaginary friend, but he might be an imaginary friend to Patrick or to Aaron. Van was more like a suit that Clay could wear, or a profession he could embody. He invented Van, yes, just like he invented his imaginary friends. But there were times when he was Van and he did not know what he would do next, so he knew that he could not be making Van. At the same time, though, he knew that Van was something he had started by writing down stories that were meant to map his castle and show it to others.
Suddenly, Clay felt afraid. He could not stop thinking about the crazy house and the way Grandpa Harry kept warning Kitty and his other daughters to take care of themselves or they would go there. Part of him felt like going to a place he had created probably meant that he was in the crazy house when he was there, and that his grandfather had been warning everyone about what might happen when you lived too long in that space where you could create people.
Part of him feared that Grandpa Harry was being literal, and that having once been forced to go away by the rest of the family, he would no longer hesitate to banish them either.
He never felt this way when he was with Grandpa Harry, who took great care never to fight with his children or anyone else and who always approached temper flares and crying tantrums as problems to be solved. It was when he was away from his grandfather, when his parents talked about Harry, using his first name without any embroidery, that he began to feel his panic rise.
Clay felt very dizzy and worried that he might vomit.
His parents had made Grandpa Harry into God-stuff, shaping Clay’s ideas about his grandfather by using a cyborg version of Harry, or else an imaginary one. They controlled his ideas about what Grandpa Harry was and what he could do by passing Clay a version from their heads, the way that Clay had passed a version of Blur to Patrick. They still controlled that version, even if Clay made it do things and added to it with his fear, he realized. They did it by defining Grandpa Harry to Clay, the same way that Clay had defined Blur and the rules of his world to Patrick. The same way that they were trying to pass an idea about God to him.
It disgusted him. At the same time, though, he felt elated as he began to understand why the Maccabees’ lamp never sputtered or went out, and how it was that Job was still able to love God even after enduring His trials. It was so simple.
The Grandpa Harry that Clay feared was like the Van that was in Patrick’s head, or the God that his mother Kitty prayed to. He might be fully formed by the decisions and stories that Kitty absorbed, but he was still something that she had made, the way Clay had made the imaginary castle. And the God that Clay found in the Bible was no one so much as He was the process by which the book’s contents had been shaped over the centuries. Like the contents of a human brain, a book could no more contain a supreme being than it could the actual land of Canaan.
Clay realized the implications then: There were different Gods that were purported to be the same one, despite their having been changed in makeup and meaning by translations, errors in understanding, and the imaginations of the creatures that brought them into existence. None of those Gods were anything but an imaginary castle at their least intrusive, or a personal cyborg at their most, but that did not mean that there was no God. It only meant that there was no God in the books that sought to simplify and explain, to turn things in at their corners and to let the texture of existence be supplied by whoever happened to stumble across them.
If there was a God that was imagining Clay, then, he would be as unknowable to humans as Clay was to the Van that existed in Patrick’s mind. The people would be limited by being discrete points swimming inside God’s greater imagination, and limited again by the fact that they were swimming in their own mires of re-imagined cyborg selves that those around them used to filter their ideas about the humans trying to imagine God.
Such a God as could actually exist would see them in the same way that Clay saw his characters, and while he might even be surprised by the ways they steered themselves, he would ultimately find himself no more capable of communicating with them than they were of truly communing with him.
That also meant that the God of the Bible was nothing more than the sum of the choices its writers had made, a kind of emergent intelligence that reflected who they were and that was then reflecting Himself into the minds of people like Clay’s mother, who built him up further before attempting to pour Him into their children’s brains. The dashing of babies’ heads against the stones, the killing of the children who made fun of the prophet’s baldness, and even the passions and temptations of Jesus Christ himself were, in some way, the vision of the proper plan of all the people who had made the God that Clay was being taught to hold within himself.
He did vomit then, and as he did, he felt a bitter taste in the back of his mouth. He knew it was Wormwood, and he regretted having allowed his mother to force the demon into him, because he was such a poorly designed source of temptation. Still, this was a lesson itself, because it proved that Clay did not have to accept the thought transplant when other people reflected their imaginary friends into him. It would happen whether he wanted it or not.
That also meant that Clay was living with Ender in his head, and that knowing Ender was a foul genocide, worth even less attention than a demon, was not enough to shut him out. Clay would need to be more careful to pay him no attention, or he might find Ender popping up in thoughts that Clay did not choose to allow him into.
Wormwood, though, was the source of immediate discomfort. He could not be tolerated, and the only way to be rid of him would be for Clay to make himself dislodge the construct from his thoughts. He closed his eyes and let himself be disgusted over again by the brute simplicity and the haughty regard for his own cleverness that Clay had detected in the voice of C.S. Lewis.
Lewis had been such an imperfect God, obviously flawed and fooling only those who expected that since he was purporting to be in the service of a bigger God, his words were guided toward a purpose defined outside of himself. None of them expected that his service was only to a piece of himself that he refused to own, or even to admit to having invented, and his creating such an oily and obvious demon felt to Clay as silly as the idea that the giant green head in the Emerald City was living. Clay’s ability to see Lewis behind the curtain told him that there was no way Clay would ever build his life around the simplistic messages that his text pretended were profound. And still, Wormwood had entered Clay’s ear and found a home in his brain.
Perhaps it was not Lewis, then, who created this version of the demon, but his mother. It was not Lewis, after all, who had made the creature tenacious and profound… Clay had heard that idea from Kitty Dillon. He panicked at the realization. If his mother could put demons in his head that controlled his feelings, and feeling his metal body was the only way to protect himself from the scream, then what?
Van’s armor slammed over Clay’s body, and his joints suddenly strengthened. It was like someone had added steel to his spine. The collision between his thoughts and his metal body pulled him back out of himself, bringing the bus and the scenery outside it into sharp focus and dashing the vertigo of his thoughts against the pain of direct sunlight in his eyes.
The first thing Clay did after feeling himself gain control over his armor was look around to make sure that no one would be able to tell he had thrown up. Luckily, Sully and his friends were several seats away, and Clay’s pool of vomit was quite small. The bus driver, as ever, had her eyes on the road, and the back of her head did not seem exceptionally perceptive as Clay considered it.
He looked down into the vomit, and he realized then that he knew what he had to do. He had to treat the God his mother had created for him the same way he had treated Wormwood. He had to expel it, before its brutality and its sacrifice of its own son determined the way he related to the world. Clay would not wind up with children that he felt the need to shout down and fill with Joy in the same way that his mother did to him.
Van grinned. He had never been able to understand what made up the body of the scream, only how to push it from place to place. Now, though, he began to feel confident that he would be able to find a way to expel it forever.
How else could it be? He could not allow himself to make his choices under the guidance of a fictional entity, created by his parents, that demanded nothing less than the pain of disfiguring young people in their private areas and sending them to die. Nor could he fathom worshipping the ineffability of a creature that would create a man only to prove the point that the man would worship him no matter how badly he was treated. His mother could go on believing that. She could think he was Job, but he would spit her forth in the same way that he had ejected Wormwood onto the floor of the bus.
In Clay’s book, Job would demand that God meet his own moral standards, and he would challenge his maker to either create a just world or to obliterate the masses of sycophants that no longer bowed to his will. Van smiled at the thought.
* * *
When the bus reached St. Sebastian’s, Van relinquished his being back to Clay. He could not stand against people who did not visit his castle. He was not strong enough. He could straighten the spine of this child whose mind was capable of making and unmaking worlds, though.
* * *
Clay went into catechism with the love of his creation in his heart, and never once did he question how Van could know his mind, or what the difference might be between his cyborg and the imaginary friends that others reflected into him. Nor did he think about what that might mean about his own ability to know the mind of God.
Instead, as he looked at the other children, he saw them for the first time as they really were--potential deities, all of them, whose only imperfections were their inability to unmoor themselves from their immediate impressions and consider the ways that words could make and unmake the world.
“How are you today, Clay?” the priest asked as he passed the children in the hallway.
“In the beginning, there was the word, and the word was I am,” Van replied.
* * *
The priest tripped over his own feet as his mind wrestled with the content of Clay’s message and what it meant to hear that emerging from a child who was too young to have even completed the catechism. He tried to recover before anyone noticed, but he felt the Dillon boy’s eyes on him as he did, and they seemed to push him just enough to make him shaky for an extra step or two.
He looked over his shoulder and saw nothing but cheerfulness and joy on Clay’s face. Had the child been saying anything earnestly? Or just babbling, as so many of the children tended to do?
In the decade since he had left the seminary, he had never felt like a child was playing games with him, but it certainly seemed like this one was capable of that kind of thing.
Next: The Judas Goat
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