'Great. Crying and a child' thought Hubbard. This kid was serving up two things Ron could barely tolerate during the best of times, all in one noisy, snotty package. "So, what do we do now? Don't tell me we're going to . . ."
Sid shot him a freezing glance. "No time for your grumbling now. You can stay in the car if you want. Or, perhaps you'd like to get out and see how you do on your own?"
Hubbard looked like a giant, petulant child himself, arms crossed in the bucket seat.
"Do try to be an adult, Ron. He needs our help." Sid had stopped the car and was getting out as he spoke.
Hubbard sighed and followed suit. The two of them stood looking at the boy. "He died so young" said Ron "I'm guessing he was hit by a car or something while playing in the street." It seemed like a logical assumption.
"No. Didn't you see the old man? They're one and the same, and I know him. We've been dreading this one's arrival for some time now. He's in his loop now, see how his crying is repetitious, almost rhythmic? Sometimes newcomers simply can't face themselves and what they've done in their time on Earth. These people panic, and often manifest as children or the elderly. I'm guessing he changed his mind about staying old, too easily recognized. We've got to get him somewhere safe before they get to him." Sid said. The child wailed on.
"Now, just a second" Ron said, grabbing Sid's arm, "What do you mean 'before they get him?' That doesn't sound too good, Sid."
"Ron. Everyone is different. Each arrival is distinct. This man was a bit of a petty monster in his day. Most likely he suffered from a personality disorder. He brutalized his wife and family. Built a following. He too saw gold in starting a religion, and his became a church of hate and fear. There will be . . . others. If these disgruntled souls get hold of him it will only make things worse. He has to be cogent and aware to free his followers and victims . . ." Sid had reached the wailing boy and kneeled before him. "Can you hear me, Fred?"
Nothing. The wailing continued like a broken record from hell.
The Buddha waved his hand before the boy's eyes. No response. He looked up at Hubbard who was pacing in front of the car. "He's in his loop, alright. Grief. Maybe rage. I can't tell." he stood, brushing his dusty pants off "Open the back door, we need to get him to someplace safe."
Hubbard grumbled his way to the back door and held it open as Sid steered the weeping child toward him.
Sid helped the boy into the back seat and looked at Hubbard expectantly. "Well? Get in!" he said gesturing to the back seat.
"Oh, no. Not me brother, that's not gonna . . " and before he knew it Sid pushed him down with surprising strength. Hubbard fell back into the seat and the door slammed solidly.
"Hey! That's not . . ." Ron cut off in mid-sentence. He'd turned to yell at Sid as he walked behind the car. That's when he saw them.
A crowd was coming down the road behind them and they didn't look too happy. He made out soldiers in fatigues and body armor. There were also civilian women and men and what appeared to be a few outlandishly dressed women in huge wigs and heels. There were hundreds of people in the crowd. "Uh, Sid, I think we'd better get out of here" he said, tapping frantically on the glass.
Sid had stopped behind the car, facing the oncoming mob. He had his hands raised and seemed to be trying to talk to the people, but they clearly weren't interested in stopping. Hubbard couldn't hear what he was saying over the boy's caterwauling. They mob moved inexorably nearer.
Hubbard was looking around the cabin to see if he could find something to use as a weapon when the driver's door opened suddenly, and Sid jumped in, and the car should have been in start mode but the display screen said 'key not present in car.' He felt his pockets . . . it was there, right next to his phone.
"Uh, Sid old man, I think we really need to be gone" said Hubbard on the verge of panic.
Sid put the car in gear. Nothing. 'Key not present in car' flashed again. "Shit! Shit! Shit!" Sid sputtered trying to think of a solution.
"Can your little phone lady help us?"Hubbard offered, he figured, computer phone, computer car . . .
"Can't hurt!" blurted Sid and he arched upward to get his hand in his pocket. He pulled the phone out to summon Siri when suddenly the car sprang to life. The fob had been too close to his phone!
Relief was short lived as there was a sudden thud on the trunk followed by a popping/crunching sound as the rear glass gave way. Sid could see two legs in camo fatigues standing where the window had been.
Hubbard bolted forward and tried to wedge himself into the front seat but was thrown back by the sudden surge of acceleration.
"In the name of Avalokiteshvara, Ron. The boy! Protect the boy!" Snapped Sid.
Hubbard righted himself and looked back, the soldier was gone, evidently thrown off the back as the Tesla leapt forward. The boy was unharmed save for some safety glass diamonds in his flaxen hair. He didn't notice the mayhem around him, his crying sounded no different than it had before.
"Aw, he's fine! I threw the bastard out!" Hubbard snapped.
"You most certainly did not, Ron Hubbard. It was simple physics." Sid said firmly. "Let's not start prevaricating so early in the game."
With the crowd receding in the distance, Hubbard sat back and tried to ignore the mewling kid to his left. They drove for about a mile until they were in the middle of farm fields. With no angry mobs in sight, Sid stopped the car. He turned to scold Hubbard.
"Now, look here, Ron. Try, for once in your miserable existence to think of another soul, will you?" Sid had turned around to confront Ron directly. "Really. That poor, twisted creature next you could use a bit of compassion. Ron? Ron, what's the matter with you, now?"
Hubbard was frozen and stared straight ahead, past Sid. "Sid. Are the doors locked?" he asked calmly.
"Yes, yes. They lock automatically. Really, Ron there's nobody for a mile in any direction."
"Then who's bleeding down the windshield?"
And with that there was a sudden dimpling of the ceiling panel and a report of gunfire. Three shots and three small explosions of leather and foam from the front passenger seat.
Sid hit the accelerator and Hubbard was thrown back in his seat yet again. There was another thud as the soldier tumbled off the back of the car in a heap. He then stood slowly, taking careful aim. The receding figure began firing, bright blossoms of muzzle fire bloomed. Bullets pop, pop, popped into the rear deck of the car.
"Is anyone hit?" Sid yelled over the howling wind and roar of the tires.
The boy continued to cry in exactly the same pattern as he'd been in since he'd started.
"I'm OK, I'm OK" said Hubbard checking himself for holes. He was hyperventilating.
"Those poor souls" Sid said. "They're going to be here a long time until this one is capable of facing what he did and releasing them."
"Now, just a second! Maybe they were supposed to get their revenge on the little bastard if he was so goddamned awful." Hubbard said defiantly.
"Well, then, shall I drop you off at the next bus stop? I'm sure there are a few others like Lisa who might want to spend some quality time with you . . ." Sid stared back at him in the rear view mirror.
Nothing from Hubbard. "I didn't think so" Sid muttered under his breath.
The shattered car drove on. Time was crawling. Hubbard plugged his ears. Fred cried unrelentingly. Sid drove intently. They went like this for about an hour, until they came to a two lane highway, then a six lane freeway. The landscape changed from farms to industry and back. Sometimes it looked like a movie, unreal. Hubbard would start to doze, only to awaken to Fred's grinding, ceaseless weeping. It was as if the boy were alone. It was really unsettling. Ron was having feelings again. As usual, they confused him. He thought of little Derek Greene, the four year-old boy he'd locked up in the Apollo's dank, cold chain locker for chewing on a telex. He remembered the boy's piteous crying, how it went on for two days and nights. Where was he now? Would that boy come after him at some future point the way Lisa had? It was chilling. There were probably myriad others with grudges. Was he supposed to be sorry about everything he'd done? Regret was so low toned. So weak.
"Having trouble sleeping Ron?" Sid shouted over the roaring wind noise.
"Oh, no. I'm just ducky." he said bitterly. "I wish I could cry like this one" he gestured at Fred. "Where are we going, anyway?" Ron asked with just a hint of annoyance, his reddening hair whipping about his face.
"I have a friend with whom our young charge will be in good hands." Sid replied. "He's not far now."
They were driving through lush green countryside now. Somewhere on the east coast from the looks of it. Hubbard saw some signs. Evidently they were on Pennsylvania 33. Sid began pulling off onto Industrial Boulevard. They continued through the green countryside until Industrial Boulevard became East Lawn and signs of a small town started to appear.
"Just when are you going to inform me of our destination?" Hubbard was tired, hungry and ready to strangle young Fred.
"We're almost there boys. Just down this lane." Sid slowed the battered car and turned down a narrow dirt road, just past a sign that read 'Creations in Wood by J. St. Claire'.
At the end of the shady lane was a neat, compound of farm buildings set amidst the towering hardwood trees. In the middle of it all large barn with a metal-sided workshop building adjacent to it. There was a huge, crew-cab pickup truck with the 'Creations in Wood' logo on the doors, a sort of crude fish with arms and legs holding a hammer. The truck's bed filled with 6x6 timbers. Hubbard and Sid got out of the car. The boy sat sobbing in the back seat, his shirt now soaked with tears. Sid's once pristine Tesla looked like it had lost the war. Bullet holes riddled the back, the deck lid and roof were dented and scratched. Dried blood added a final gruesome touch.
They stood regarding the ruined car when from behind came a booming voice. "Sid, ya crazy bastard, what brings you to Nazareth, P.A?" said a stocky, dark complected man in a thick New Jersey accent. He looked to be in his thirties. The man was muscular, with a thick five o'clock shadow and had wood shavings in his curly black hair. His hands were calloused and meaty. He embraced Sid. "What the hell happened to yous two? Shit, Sid, who'd you piss off this time?" the swarthy man said looking out at the car. He had a dazzling white smile.
"Jess, I know you've been dreading this, but . . . he's here." said Sid somberly.
"Who? This guy?" said Jess said, appraising Ron.
"No. No . . . I'm afraid it's Phelps."
The man's smile evaporated. "Aw shit. Really? And I was just getting caught up around here, too."
"He transitioned this morning, but he bolted right into a childhood loop. We just happened upon him as we were leaving L'enfant this morning." Sid said picking glass out of his hair.
"Really? Fuckin' Fred Phelps bought the fuckin' farm? You're right, I have been dreading this Sid, goddamn dreading it." He gestured in the direction of the Tesla. "So that's him, eh?" Jess walked around to the back of the car. He made a pained face. "Aw, shit. It's so hard when they're little like that. The kids always look so cute, but you know they're full of all the shit they did in life." The stocky man stood there with his hands in his overall pockets, squinting and scrutinizing the boy through the car window.
"Fuck, Sid. This is messed up. How long you think this loop will last?" Jess asked.
"To be honest, I haven't a clue. You should have seen the mob that showed up for him. He wouldn't have had much of a chance in his state. It was providential that we rounded the bend when we did. So many bound and tied to him by his hate and fear. I don't envy you, but I'm afraid he's your problem, old boy." Sid looked genuinely sorry.
The woodworker was looking down at his dusty work boots, when he noticed Hubbard standing there, "I'm sorry, buddy, I didn't get your name . . ."
"Uh, Ron . . . L. Ron Hubbard." He held out a hand to Jess.
"No shit? L. Ron Hubbard? Really?" he looked at the Buddha, "Sid, this guy is a class-A schmuck. You read about his scam?"
Sid nodded solemnly. Hubbard just stood there, hand out, waiting to be shaken.
"Well I sure did. I read all about your Xenu character and all the money people had to pay. All the outer space shit you made up. Dude. Implant stations? Seriously? But, hey! You got one thing right, and it was about me!" said Jess. He was smiling that dazzling smile again.
This was going to be bad. Hubbard just felt it in his bones. Might as well get it over with. "And, uh, what was that, if I must ask?"
"Now, it's not gonna be an exact quote since I heard the recording a long time ago, but I think it went something like, 'the man on the cross, there was no christ.' Long story short, I was a piece of fuckin' R6 put together by mad men. Am I right? Am I ringin' any bells here?" Jess laughed.
Could the day get any worse? Hubbard didn't know where to even look.
"No, no, Ron, I'm fuckin' with you!" He took Ron's waiting hand and pumped it vigorously. "You were actually right about that. I was no god, no Christ. Just a radical Jew with an attitude. Add a finely tuned sense of injustice and a gift of gab and that's me. I've learned a lot since those days. The world I left has changed, and so have I." He smiled and put his hand on Ron's shoulder. They walked toward the car again. "You're here at a key time, my friend. This asshole in the car, your snotty little pal there? He's one of the worst monsters to ever twist my words, and I've met some doozeys. His church was small, but man, he made a lot of noise." Jess's joviality had turned gray, like a storm brewing on the horizon.
"I don't know anything about the kid, or who he was" said Ron, hoping that would be the end of the conversation. It wasn't.
"Oh, Ronnie. Let me tell you, I am one misquoted bastard. I'm like a fuckin' spiritual Rorschach test. Ladies and Gentlemen, which Jesus do you follow?" he was doing a fair imitation of the classic carnival barker now. "In this tent, Jee-zus Kee-rist, the Prince of Peace, forgiving and kind!" he put his hands together and looked upward. "In this tent, see the angry, vengeful Son o' God! See him flippin' tables, drivin' the money changers out of the temp-le!" Jess was smiling again, but you could feel the darkness underneath.
"So one minute I'm the lamb of god, meek and mild and then, next thing you know, some assholes have me airbrushed on a tailgate, totin' old glory and a fuckin' rifle! Me! A fuckin' weapon! Who does this? All the hating? Hating! In my name. But this guy Phelps . . . he took the fuckin' cake! This is one broken human being, projecting his damage on to me! And I'm used to it Ron. I've heard it all." Jess was growing more agitated with every second. "My words are constantly twisted like a two thousand year game of telephone. I start out with 'Love everyone as yourself" and somehow that gets changed to 'kill the fags.' It's fucked up, Ron. Seriously fucked up. Me, the original hippy! A shit-stirrer Rabbi. I taught love, my friend. Unconditional love. Sharing. Kindness. I imagined a god of kindness. Our father. Right? Now, I'm the poster boy for every bloated, rich, self-absorbed, self-righteous, hate-filled douchebag in the US of A." Jess paused and fumbled in his pockets. "I need a fuckin' cigarette, hang on, bro."
"May I join you, Jeez . . . uh, Jess?" Hubbard didn't really know what to call him.
"Oh, sure, yeah, no prob. Here." he said handing Hubbard an unfiltered American Spirit and a lighter.
Jess took a deep drag and continued, "Yeah, the whole projection thing? Get used to it, bro. I'm sure they do it to all of us. Sid's got some cray-cray action there for sure. And poor Mo, he's got problems galore, but not like me! Everyone thinks they know me! I'm their personal fuckin' savior. Thing is, I really am just a carpenter, Ron. I just want to make my guitars and cellos and the occasional bureau or chair. I see the people I'm bound to as they show up. I set 'em free. I take my lumps. We all move on. But this Phelps guy. I haven't seen his like since that fucker Torquemada."
"Well, not everyone is that bad, are they?" asked Ron, hopefully.
"No. No. Not at all! There are beautiful people in the world, Ron. Beautiful people. But they don't come here as a rule. It's just us, and those we broke in our ignorance. Only the broken show up here. The demons we created and those they wronged in our names. The pissed. The wounded. After two thousand some-odd years, I just want to build my stuff and set these poor bastards free. But, my friend, shit happens. Unintended consequences. I got work to do Ron. Lots of work. Be glad you only had a handful of followers."
Hubbard was too exhausted to be annoyed, but this theme was beginning to get old.
Jess walked up to the Tesla and opened the back door. He crouched down and looked at the weeping child in the back seat. He reached out and touched the boy's head. Fred stopped crying immediately, he stared impassively ahead. Jess looked at Sid and said "this isn't gonna be easy Buddha boy, not easy at all. He's pretty far gone, like Koresh was."
"Oh, Jess, I don't envy you this task, my friend" said Sid, softly.
Jess took the boy's hand and said quietly, "Freddy, you gotta come with me. We got things to talk about . . . when you're ready." The boy got out of the car, his red-eyed stare was unnerving. But the crying had stopped. This was a good start.
"How do they get so broken Sid?" Jess looked down at the comatose boy. "Sometimes it's the brain doesn't work quite right. Sometimes a beating, or simple neglect. How can I look at this and say there's a god? Two thousand years and change, and I still don't know, my friend. I just don't know."
Jess embraced Sid and shook Hubbard's hand. "You got a tough row to hoe, Ron. All of us do. Don't resist the feelings, my friend, 'cause that's hell for real." And with that, he guided Fred into the workshop and slid the door shut with a clang.
"Well, I suppose our work here is done" said Sid straightening out his torn lapel.
Ron just stared at the door where Jess and the boy had disappeared. He couldn't quite wrap his head around who he'd just met. Nobody here was like he imagined they would be. "I had so many questions . . . " Ron trailed off.
"Well, Jess isn't going anywhere. He's really quite approachable. You'll cross paths again, I'm certain of it." Sid was looking past Ron now. "Oh, my goodness, Mr. Hubbard. I do believe we're about to have more company" Sid remarked dryly.
The lane that led to Jess's place was about half a mile long and it was filling up . . . with Rolls-Royces. The lead car was being followed by at least fifty or sixty of the opulent sedans in various colors and years. They appeared to be mostly from the '70s and '80s. The first car made its way to where they stood and began the long slow arc around the circle of pacasandra at the center of Jess's compound and headed out into a freshly mowed field to park. The cars kept coming, and there seemed to be people in all of them, but Ron couldn't really see faces. After a while the last few cars brought up the rear, and Ron could see the final car in the parade was painted a brilliant orange.
The garish luxury car pulled up to stop where Hubbard and Sid stood. A stern looking woman clad in clothing that was the same shade as the car emerged from the driver's door. She had short cropped hair and wore a hard expression. She looked around as if there might be some kind of danger. She reached into the car and pulled out an AK-47, shouldered it and walked around to open the rear passenger door. Out stepped a slight, short man with large, limpid eyes and a gray beard. He seemed to be some kind of guru. He also seemed a little disappointed at the turnout. The two of them took no notice of Sid or Hubbard. The little guru shrugged at the woman with the rifle, and she led him into the field where all the other cars were disgorging their passengers. But it wasn't the small figure holding the bouquet of white flowers that had Hubbard's attention. It was the ruggedly handsome man in a navy flight jacket and Ray Bans who was now standing up through the Rolls' sunroof.
"Ron Hubbard! I heard tell you were in town, you flame-haired bastard! How the hell's it hangin, son?"
Snake Thompson always did know how to make an entrance . . .