Inferno, Christine


Zachariah made it clear to Selma that caring for the baby did not take priority over her responsibilities as a wife, so often, Christine was neglected as Selma saw to the needs of her husband. Despite this, Christine thrived, always large for her age. Doctors who examined her thought she was several months older than she actually was and sometimes insisted on seeing her birth certificate to confirm. As she grew, she spent much time with her uncle Alvin’s family in another county whenever her father would declare he was tired of looking at her and as Christine gained awareness of her situation, she was thankful for the warm and loving environment her uncle provided, versus the cold and cruel confines of her father’s house. On numerous occasions, Alvin insinuated that he and his family would be happy to let Christine stay with them on a permanent basis, but Zachariah always said no.

“The girl’s my responsibility,” he’d say. He never called Christine by name, always calling her “the girl” or just “girl” when addressing her directly.

One person who took a lot of interest in Christine was Deacon Frederick, who was his usual warm and accepting self. In Christine’s case, he was especially so, and always had a piece of peppermint candy for her, and took a genuine delight in whatever story she would tell. Christine came to wish that Deacon Frederick was her father and that she could go live in his fine house in town, rather than the modest and unadorned household her mother maintained at Zachariah’s insistence. For his part, Deacon Frederick always felt a closeness to Christine that was different than what he felt for all the other children in the congregation. He frequently scolded Messner for not showing more affection toward his daughter.

“You got you a fine little girl there, Zachariah,” Frederick said once. “It’s just not right to treat her like you do.”

“The Lord has given me this burden to endure and I shall endure it as I see fit,” was Messner’s reply.

Whenever Frederick would raise the issue with Selma, she would get quiet and change the subject quickly.

“He’s my husband,” she’d say of Zachariah. “I must yield to his judgment.”

At age thirteen, Christine was considered awkward and pudgy, with full, rosy cheeks, very long feet and short, dark hair. Zachariah rarely spent any money on her, other than for food and what he paid for upkeep on their house. He especially didn’t want to waste funds on things she’d only outgrow in a year or so, so her clothing was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs from kindly neighbors with older kids, or tidbits Selma picked up at the local thrift shop for less than a dollar. The kids at school often teased her about her clothes, but despite this, Christine remained outwardly cheerful and friendly, often laughing along with the other kids, though sometimes when she was alone, she’d cry because of their taunting. Her best friend was Jodie Newcombe, and Christine often spent the afternoon at Jodie’s home, studying and doing their homework, since Zachariah forbade her from reading anything other than the Bible under his roof.

In school, Christine was mostly studious and polite, but in one class, English, she earned a reputation for being disruptive, prompting her teacher, Mr. Standridge, to keep her after school a lot. Mr. Standridge noticed, however, that when Christine was in detention, she never acted out, but was always polite and courteous.

“Is it okay if I read, Mr. Standridge?” Christine asked the first time she showed up after school.

“You may work on your assignments, Christine,” he replied. “That’s fine.”

“No. I was hoping I can read some of them books on that shelf,” she said, pointing to the literary works he assigned to the older students.

“If you’d like,” he said.

For the next few days, Christine would report for detention, and sit, quietly reading books from the shelf. The rate at which she finished them astonished Mr. Standridge, who began to recognize a pattern.

“Christine, can I ask you a question?” he asked her one afternoon.

“Yes sir, Mr. Standridge.”

“Why are you always acting up in my class?” he says. “I’ve spoken to the other teachers and they say you’re a model student in their classes. Why not mine?”

Christine lowered her head. “I don’t mean no disrespect, Mr. Standridge. I just wanted to read some of your books and figured if you kept me after class, I could.”

“If you like to read, I can loan you the books.”

“No sir. My father don’t want me reading at the house.”

“You can’t read at home?”

“No sir. My father only lets me read the Bible at home. I have to leave my book bag at my friend Jodie’s at night. He won’t even let me bring my school books in.”

“I’ll tell you what, Christine,” Standridge said, “I’ll let you come here in the afternoon and read all you want. You can tell your parents whatever you need to as to why you stayed after school. I won’t count it against you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Standridge,” Christine said, very excited.

From then on, Christine was a regular presence in Mr. Standridge’s classroom after school. While she normally would greet him when she entered, read for a while, then say goodbye as she exited, sometimes they’d have brief conversations. He came to enjoy having her there, and admired her studiousness.

“Is that your family?” Christine asked about a photo on his desk.

“It is. My mom and dad, brother Rex, and sister Claire.”

“You still close with your sister?”

“I was. She died when we were children,” he said.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Christine said. “Was she in an accident or something?”

“No, she had a rare heart condition. Now they have a surgery that might have saved her, but they hadn’t developed it back then. Such a shame.”

“Bet you miss her.”

“I do, Christine. Very much.”

“Why ain’t you married, Mr. Standridge?” Christine asked.

“Aren’t, Christine. The proper way to say that is, ‘Why aren’t you married’.”

Christine laughed. “Okay, Mr. Standridge. Why aren’t you married? I mean, you’re a good-looking guy. Lot of the older girls got crushes on you.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she said. “I’m just wondering.”

“Not every man is marriage material Christine. I’m still young, though, so, who knows?”

Inferno, The Birth of Christine 


Christine Messner was a large baby, nearly ten pounds, and Selma was in labor with her for twenty-seven hours. Zachariah forbade her from accepting anything for the pain, owing to Genesis 3:16, so Selma was in quite a bit of distress throughout. While the doctors had not known the gender, based on how much weight Selma had gained, she and Zachariah assumed the child would be a boy. 

When she learned she had a girl and Zachariah had left the hospital, Selma took this as a bad sign. She wondered if, perhaps, her husband had done the math, or if, maybe the news that his new child wasn’t the son he had prayed for so vigorously throughout her pregnancy was too much for Messner to bear. In any event, his lack of enthusiasm signaled to Selma that the worst was still to come. 

She had to call her brother Alvin to come pick her up and take her and the baby home. As she expected, Zachariah wasn’t there. He was most likely at work or the church, which is where she could count on him being when he wasn’t at home. 

In fact, Zachariah had taken a drive into Macon to a strip club he sometimes visited when he felt he needed to renew his purpose. He wasn’t titillated by the dancers or their bodies and never interacted with them. He just sat away from the action, observing, judging, filling his mind with images of fire and brimstone, and all the inhabitants swimming in a lake of fire. If he ordered any food, he’d pay for it without leaving a tip then venture forth, back into his existence fueled by his hatred and disgust. 

See, Zachariah had already determined that he hated the girl. He knew this from the moment the words left the nurse’s lips at the hospital. His hatred for her knew no depths, but he chose to take a pragmatic approach to the situation and ask himself why God had chosen to test him in this manner. He resolved that he would not be found lacking and at first, imagined himself some evening after Selma had gone to bed, placing a pillow over the child’s face and holding it there as she stopped squirming. As he drove, however, a new idea replaced this one. Smothering her would be too kind, too easy, and he wanted to be sure nothing for her would ever be easy. 

Inferno 


Zachariah Messner was a stern and pious man, a deacon at the Messianic Holiness Congregation, a small church in Houston County, Georgia, near Perry, with no known affiliations to any of the recognized Christian denominations. A man with few pleasures in life, he believed himself to be head of his household and insisted his wife arise at least a half hour before him to start breakfast and would not allow a morsel to be consumed before the morning prayer was said. He started and ended each day with a reading of the Bible, and was always mindful of how those around him perceived his and his family’s actions. Those who knew him often commented on his steadfastness and piety. He clung to his beliefs, not because he felt them in his heart, but because they made the world manageable for him.

In this same congregation, was another deacon, James Frederick, and there was no one more different than Messner. Frederick was a jovial man, who enjoyed the presence of others and made those with whom he interacted feel comfortable and more certain in their beliefs. While Messner was rigid and unyielding in his faith, Frederick could read between the lines and recognized the subtle shades of gray that existed in all interactions. One could claim Frederick’s motto was “always forgive” while Messner’s was “never forget”. Frederick also opened each day with a prayer, but while Messner’s tended to be shallow and self-serving, Frederick concentrated on those in the congregation most in need of guidance and assistance. Needless to say, the two were frequently at odds over church doctrine, with Frederick an unapologetic believer in the Apostle Paul’s message of love and fellowship, while Messner called for a rigid adherence to dogma.

In his thirties, Messner met and married Mylene Tucker, an attractive woman twelve years his junior, with a good heart and a pleasant disposition which contrasted sharply with that of her husband. Despite this, their marriage seemed happy as they anticipated starting a family. Within a few months, Mylene announced she was pregnant, but just two months in, she miscarried. Nevertheless, the couple persisted and six months after her first conception, Mylene was expecting another. This one, too, ended abruptly, establishing a pattern that would recur again and again. As it became a predictable occurrence, Messner took to blaming Mylene, attributing her inability to carry a child on some moral failing he had yet to ascertain. Her once cheery disposition withered, as Zachariah found more and more ways in which she failed in her devotion.

The end finally came in the ninth year of their marriage. Zachariah found some lipstick she had purchased and severely chastised her for catering to her vanity. She swore she only did it to help out her friend who was selling cosmetics, and had no intention of using it. Still, Messner was merciless in his condemnation, and ordered her to spend the day reading the Bible and atoning for her selfishness. That evening, when Messner arrived home, he found Mylene dead in the bathtub having cut her throat using one of his straight razors. On the mirror, written in the lipstick, were the words, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”. Messner wasn’t long in finding another wife and less than four months after burying Mylene, he married Selma, the thirty-five-year-old spinster sister of Alvin Porter.

Theirs wasn’t a particularly loving marriage. For one thing, changing wives had not changed Messner’s fortunes in starting a family. Just as Mylene before her, Selma endured numerous difficult pregnancies, which all ended within the first two to three months. Rather than look inward and wonder if, perhaps, he was the cause, Messner instead blamed Selma’s lack of devotion on their misfortunes. As a result, Selma became despondent, and finally sought out Deacon Frederick for advice and counsel. He invited her to his home so he could counsel her in private. After this had gone on two or three times a week for nearly a month, Selma once again found she was pregnant. When she made it past four months, Messner’s spirits were raised, and when Selma made it to term, Zachariah was certain the Lord had finally given him the son he hoped to mold into the perfect Christian warrior.

At last, Selma announced the time was at hand and Messner drove her to the regional medical center, where he waited in the maternity ward for news. Finally, a nurse emerged and called his name.

“Congratulations, Mr. Messner. You have a daughter.”

“A girl,” Zachariah said with little enthusiasm.

“That’s right.”

Zachariah took in the news, shook his head and walked out of the hospital. Selma named the girl Christine.

Mockingbird, Brian

Mockingbird Title Image
Brian Sanger sits in the Starbucks at 1776 Peachtree Street, halfway through a venti, black, dark-roast, Ethiopian coffee, and an almond scone, and looks over a piece of music he’s composing. He typically prefers Caribou to Starbucks, but has no car, since his was totaled in an accident early the previous year, and doesn’t live close enough to the Caribou at Ansley to pop in whenever he feels like it, plus, he’s hooked on the Blue Note blend his friend, Claire Belmonte, convinced him to try a week or so before. He can easily walk from his apartment to the Starbucks on Peachtree, near Coach and Six where he works as a maitre’d, so he stops in every few days to stock up on coffee, try out whatever dark roast they’ve brewed up that day, and work on his music. Certain days, Claire joins him if she’s worked a club nearby.

When Brian arrived in Atlanta, the Braves were in the middle of their “worst to first” season and the city had won the privilege of hosting the Olympics the previous year. While he never considered himself much of a sports fan, aside from high school football games he had to attend with the band, he found himself getting caught up in the fervor surrounding the team, but usually couldn’t afford to attend games, instead watching them when they were on the television at bars he inhabited. He was glad the Major League strike ended the previous season and is happy to be supporting the team again.

In addition to becoming a baseball fan, Brian has spent much of his first first few years in town familiarizing himself with the gay scene in Atlanta and it was here he met Claire, who had gone to work as a bartender at his favorite hangout as soon as she turned twenty-one in ’94. She explained that she’d been working as a waitress in restaurants and bars while attending junior college and had grown tired of the men hitting on her. In gay clubs, they either left her alone, or chatted her up on the topics of the day while she mixed their drinks. Plus, she found, the older men left better tips.

Almost as if on cue, Claire enters and looks around. Spotting Brian, she gives a quick nod, then stops at his table. Brian regards her as a rather formidable woman, very close to his own height of six foot three inches, and well-proportioned, with long dark hair she usually pulls back, especially if she’s working. Today, she’s letting it flow freely. She doesn’t meet the conventional standards of beauty, but Brian still considers her extremely attractive, with expressive brown eyes and a charming smile she only displays to those she knows well. To everyone else, she’s an ice princess.

“What are you having?” Claire asks.

“Today’s dark roast.”

She seems less than enthused and dumps her bag onto the seat beside Brian and goes to check out the pastry counter.

Claire has a non-distinct “Atlanta” accent, which she’s worked hard to cultivate since she arrived there as a teen, but when she and Brian are together, she ditches it in favor of her original middle Georgia vernacular. She grew up less than fifty miles west of where Brian had been raised, far enough away for it to take coming to Atlanta for them to meet. Claire has quite a complicated past, which she’s been gradually revealing to Brian as he gains her trust. He knows she came from a deeply religious family and can easily imagine what that meant for a young woman coming of age in rural Georgia. Her difficulty in trusting people tells him much of the story. Learning more about what Claire has experienced deepens his conviction to bring his sister Charlotte to Atlanta when she finishes high school, hoping to spare her from the fate of their two sisters, already married and starting families.

Brian is the oldest and only son in his family, raised mostly by their mother after his father died in an accident at the agricultural plant where he’d worked most of his adult life. Brian sang in the choir at his church and was the drum major in his high school marching band, as well as playing in the brass section. He’s also accomplished on the piano and organ. When she was a toddler, Charlotte would sit nearby while he was practicing, enrapt by the music. When she got older, and began exhibiting signs of echolalia, Brian worked with her to help her try to communicate and would intercede when one of their siblings or a kid from school made fun of her. When she started writing lyrics as a teenager, Brian set them to music. His background in music and his involvement in their church made it almost inevitable that he’d be approached about taking over the choir when Gladys Phelps, the previous director, retired at age ninety. It was here where Brian gained the attention of Todd, the son of their pastor, Kenneth Williams.

Growing up, Brian had been in several relationships with much older men, usually under the guise of taking private music lessons or performing odd jobs inside the house, always with the utmost discretion, given that these men had far more to lose than him. Todd was the first person close to Brian’s age who had shown any interest in him, and Brian didn’t know how to interpret that, given that Todd was married and had two little girls at home. Todd had been relentless in his pursuit, however, and finally coaxed Brian into a clandestine relationship, which was mostly carried out at Todd’s house on days when his wife was out running errands or attending church functions. Brian suggested that it might not be the best idea to have their encounters at Todd’s home, but Todd insisted they’d have complete privacy. This proved to be wrong when Todd’s wife, Myra Lynn, showed up unexpectedly, after her women’s devotional group ended early, having found the book of Revelation too cryptic to be digested in a two-hour lunchtime conversation. After most of the screaming and yelling had devolved into tears and apologies, during which time Brian hastily pulled on his clothes, he bowed politely to the couple and excused himself with, “I’ll just be on my way now.”

Two hours later, when the call came from Pastor Williams, Brian had already written his letter resigning as choir director, and packed his bags, and loaded up his car, since he knew it was probably best not to stick around. He gave his mother a somewhat expanded explanation about what had happened after she’d already heard an abbreviated version from the pastor, and left a letter for Charlotte, letting her know he’d stay in touch, and renewing his promise to bring her to Atlanta when she graduated. Once his meeting with the pastor was concluded, he hit I-16 west toward Macon, and from there, took I-75 north to Atlanta.