by John Nadas

Robert puts his reasoner to his temple and makes himself believe Emma means well. He fixes a trailer to his bike. It is a short ride. He pumps the hilltop and her house into view. He leaves his bike by her gate. He knows the code. His breath is still sweet with beer; it’s bright, cold, and midday. There is no dead hose on the front lawn. There is no fountain of red, holey leaves. There is just a barbecue beating with coals and smoke.

Robert checks the window above the porch. They are all there: Jo, Emma, Max. They are chopping food, even Jo.

Robert rings the doorbell. He steps back. He listens. He knocks.

Max opens the door. He has some tongs, a cloth, and a plate. “Robert, how are you?” He takes Robert by the arm and shakes his hand.

Robert lets his hand move up and down. He nods. “Hello.” He looks around Max. He wants to tell Jo to get ready.

“You fancy a barbie?” Max asks. He says “barbie” in an Australian accent.

Robert doesn’t like the accent. He doesn’t like Max either: he is the kind of person to do accents in everyday talk; he is too friendly; he is English, and views it as a role to play. “I’m alright,” Robert says. He sees himself shrunken in the other man’s sunglasses.

“Are you ever anything else?” Max asks. He smiles.

Robert never finds anything else in those smiles.

“I’ll get her.” Max puts his plate on a chair and goes inside.

Robert takes his hands out his pockets.

Emma comes out, her coat fat. “She doesn’t want to go just yet.”

Robert nods. “Alright.” He’s careful with his voice. “No problem.” He stands on the edge of the porch. There is only a sun in the sky—nothing to look at. “I spoke to the school.”

“No, Robert,” Emma says, her hands up at him. “I don’t want to talk about it. Please.” She stamps her feet. “I wish it weren’t so cold.”

“We could apply for exemptions, from classes,” Robert says. He’s compromising still.

“How’s your dad?” Emma asks. She stands next to him. She leans on the railings.

“He’s alright.” Robert sees the old man in his nest of blankets, music playing in the dark room because he never liked TV. “His brain is like you wouldn’t believe.”

“That’s good.”

“He’s getting funny about religion,” Robert says. He’d meant it as an offering; he wishes he hadn’t said “funny.”

Emma snorts. “He was so unkind to me about it.” She glances at Robert. “Sorry.”

“He’s just practical.” Robert’s father was a mechanic; he also loves his son.

“It upset Jo,” Emma says. She straightens.

“She can’t go through life thinking it never ends,” Robert says. Jo is too soft, he thinks; they won’t let the world at her.

Emma hides her lips. She looks at him. “Is he scared?”

“He’s dying,” Robert says. And everyone knows it.

Emma touches his arm. “Things needn’t be so hard for you.”

Robert sighs. “I know.” He’d thought about using a reasoner. Inputting some belief and putting it inside his dad’s head. The old man would see there was nothing to worry about, plain as murder. “He’s going to church. Virtual, I mean. St. Francis’.”

“That priest must be as old as he is.”

“I suppose.” Robert doesn’t know. He hasn’t seen the priest since his wedding. Both men are at that manmade age where people bunch close together.

“He’s always welcome at Glory Mountain,” Emma says.

“I know we are,” Robert says. She breathes it, he thinks. He remembers the girl he married. She’d sought ley lines in their part of Melbourne, spooled from Machu Pichu or Lascaux. She’d said Salem was “similarly transgressive.” Robert can’t believe it. “He wouldn’t take to it,” he says. For his father churches must have candles, gold, and kinglets.

Max comes then. He has Jo with him. They are holding hands.

Robert tries to ignore it. “Hi bud,” he says.

“Hi dad,” Jo says. She looks at the barbeque.

“Why don’t you stay?” Max asks. He lifts the plate. “There’s plenty.”

You reasonable bastard, Robert thinks. He looks for the thought in Emma too. “Well, I had plans with Jo.” He doesn’t mean it but the words are a fence.

“Can’t it wait?” Emma asks. “Robert, we hardly see each other.” She cocks her head.

“We were going to go hiking today,” Robert says. He looks at Jo.

“I don’t like rocks,” Jo says.

“I didn’t say we’d go look at rocks,” Robert says. He forgets about the formations.

“Take her tomorrow,” Emma whispers, leaning toward him. “It’s important, for Jo. To see us together.”

Robert has read that. “Alright.” He touches Jo’s head.

Jo puts her hand on his.

“Do you want to stay here a bit?” Robert asks her.

“Yes,” Jo says. She doesn’t wait for a response; she goes back into the house.

Emma follows her.

So much for seeing us together, Robert thinks. He peers past the gate and down on the suburb. There are new builds, some tall and others short, a broil of seeded suns.

Max lays some food on the grill and presses it with his tongs.

The food looks good at least. Robert doesn’t know where to sit. He feels like a drink now that the other one has gone from him but there is nothing to be seen.

“How’s work?” Max asks.

“It’s OK.” Robert doesn’t like to talk about it. Max enjoys his job. He remembers the other man likes fishing too. “Been fishing much?”

Emma used to swim in the river every week. “Water has a memory,” she’d said. “Someone must have drowned in there. The fish are very stressed. I’m trying to calm the place.”

“No,” Max says. “Too busy with work.”

Robert will not be baited.

“At the church.”

“Right,” Robert says. He went there once when he and Emma were still together. It was just a room with some chairs in a circle. They spoke about the Bible a bit. Max was the leader who was not a leader; he remains the leader who is not a leader. No way around leaders, Robert thinks. He hadn’t felt anything. He hadn’t listened. He’d watched the clock, the great cross up front with its shadow rolling onward like soldiers at night. Their baptisms, all turned inside out.

Max troubles some halved zucchinis. He pulls at an eggplant with some tongs. Its flesh tears on the metal beneath.

“You need oil,” Robert says. He regrets it.

Max nods. “I know. I put some on. Don’t worry. Aubergines are tricky.” He turns, with his mouth like little glasses of milk. “We’ve grown a lot, Robert.”

Robert sighs. “Alright.” He looks around for some beers or something. It is too early for music but he must change the topic. “Got any music?”

“I don’t really like music,” Max says. “I’m glad you’re staying.”

“I can’t stay long,” Robert says.

“Emma wants to talk to you.”

“I see,” Robert says.

Max says, “And I don’t have anyone to talk politics with.” He laughs.

“I hate politics.”

“No, you don’t,” Emma says, returning with some salad and two beers. She offers Robert one of the beers and puts the other down. She holds the door with her foot and waits.

Jo doesn’t follow her.

Emma lets the door close.

Robert takes the beer. “Thanks.”

Emma sniffs and smiles. She shakes her head.

“This beer is good,” Robert says. He doesn’t know what else to say.

Emma stands next to Max and takes his hand, squeezing it white. “Robert, I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry about?”

“Jo,” Emma says. “We baptized her.”

Robert drinks his beer. You bastards, he thinks. He feels like punching them both. He tries to shake the anger out of his head. It is just a bit of water. The belief could be undone, he thinks. All I’d have to do is get my own reasoner. He finishes the beer and puts it next to the second, where they clink with laughter. “I said no.”

“I know, Robert, I know,” Emma says. “It’s—”

“It’s such an important thing,” Max says, nursing the food. “Emma, she was up worrying, weren’t you, love? She couldn’t deal with it. What would happen, if she died.”

She never let me interrupt her, Robert thinks. “Did she want to?”

Max frowns. “She’s just a kid.”

“Emma?” Robert asks. He remembers when he wouldn’t let Jo run free. Emma had fought him. “There are so many things we don’t understand, so many lost folkways. Our ancestors saw things we forget to see when we’re children. Or, more accurately, are made to forget,” Emma had said. Robert had said, “Kids don’t know shit.” Emma had said, “That’s just not true. Children have a special kind of wisdom, and we pretty much beat it out of them. You can see it in other animals.” Robert had thought it all ridiculous, but at least she had made some sense then. He calls out for Jo. “She’s a kid. She’s not about to crash a car. Is she sick? Is that it? Don’t I know everything about my own daughter?” He looks at them both.

“No, no,” Emma says. “She’s not sick.” She glances at Max.

Emma is like Max’s kid, Robert thinks. Did he do that, too?

“She’s not sick, Robert.” Max puts his arm around Emma.

Robert walks to the front door. “Jo,” he shouts. “Come here.”

The girl doesn’t answer.

“Don’t lose your temper,” Emma says.

“You people are a joke.” Robert gestures at Max. “Your church is a joke.”

“I’m sorry you see it that way,” Max says.

“I’m not sorry,” Robert says. “If it made sense, then you wouldn’t need to play around with someone else’s head.” The simplicity is dishonest, he knows. He doesn’t care.

“You know that’s not true.” Max removes the food from the grill and puts it on the plate. “How do you like your steaks?” He lifts a slab of meat like he’s just caught it.

“Christ, I don’t want a damn steak. I want to get going.”

“Please, language.” Max forms that sincere smile again.

“It’s no different to raising her,” Emma says. “It’s just faster is all.”

“That’s not the point.” Robert paces. He goes to the window. “Where’s Jo?”

“What would you do, if you saw Jo drowning?”

“I’d let her drown, obviously.” Robert goes to the front door and opens it. He guesses where the girl went. “Jo,” he calls. “We’re going.”

“I don’t want to!” Jo shouts.

Robert can’t see her. He listens for footsteps. He will pick her up if he must. He feels for the reasoner in his coat; he is still wearing his coat. He will do that to her if he must. “Jo?”

Jo comes out from behind a doorway. “I don’t want to go. I don’t like hiking.”

Robert sighs. “You loved hiking. What’s wrong with you?” He is angry then. They have done something to her, he is sure of it.

“I don’t anymore,” Jo says.

“Did mum use her reasoner on you?” Robert asks. There is spit on his lips.

Jo blinks. She looks away.

Robert can see the lightbulb in them, little fires on wet coals. “Sweetie,” he says. “I’m not angry with you.” He extends his hand. He feels a hand on his shoulder. He turns around.

Emma smiles at him. “It’s alright.”

Jo comes to Robert then.

They have turned her against me, Robert thinks. “I just want to get on with my day,” he says. “Where’s your coat?”

Max stands in the doorway, dark in the sun. “Please stay.”

Robert reaches for Jo’s hand. “No, it’s alright. Thank you.” He takes her hand.

The girl struggles.

“What’s wrong?” Robert asks.

“Will dad go to heaven?” Jo asks.

Emma and Max don’t say anything.

Robert rubs his nose. What have they done to her?

“Robert dad,” Jo says, as if it weren’t obvious.

Kids are awful, Robert reminds himself: they have no tact. “Come on.” He begins walking, expecting her to follow like a toy.

She does.

Max stops him at the door. “I can’t let you leave.” He puts his hand on Robert’s shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

Robert doesn’t see Max’s reasoner coming. He feels it on his skin and pushes the other man away but it is too late. And he is grateful for it. He could not have lived without it. He welcomes the Lord. There is water on his face. He hugs Max. He turns to his daughter. He hopes she can forgive him. There is a light inside him, that is how it feels. He stands up and he heads onto the porch. This is what their baptisms are like, he thinks. He looks out. Everything is workmanship. He has done so much wrong; he has lived wrong.

“It’s alright,” Max says. He stands next to Robert. He puts the steaks on the barbeque. The meat sings.

“I feel like such an idiot,” Robert says. He wipes his face.

“You couldn’t help it,” Max says. “Some people, they can’t see. You were like that. You just needed glasses.”

Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” What forms may such grace take, and does it matter? John Nadas is a European writer based in Melbourne, Australia. This is his second story in Mysterion. “What Comes Before” appeared in August 2020.

“Salvation” by John Nadas. Copyright © 2021 by John Nadas.

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