By Caroline Zarlengo Sposto
Alpine Fellowship 2019 Writing Prize Winner
The bouquet of neon-colored plush bears bloomed overnight, as the rain tapered off in muted sunrise. Orange, yellow, turquoise, green, purple, and hot pink, lashed to the utility pole near the spot where they’d covered her body with a sheet. By lunchtime, silver mylar balloons crowned the burgeoning shrine. By evening lit candles surrounded it. When an eighteen year-old street evangelist is shot dead, she becomes a cause.
Two agitated teenage boys had pulled up to the curb. One stepped out of the car, asked for a pamphlet, and pulled a gun. Rachel Blandon thought she heard a balloon popping, struggled to keep her collection jar, then felt herself fall. As she drifted into darkness, the raindrops hitting the sidewalk grew loud–– louder than the screaming ambulance driving down the wrong side of the road. But the pounding she heard wasn’t raindrops. It was her heart pumping blood through the hole in her chest.
She wanted to be the fish tossed back into the water . . . the one that wasn’t big enough. But she wasn’t thrown back. Her heart stopped beating, but for a few moments, her mind continued, coldly on.
“She’s dead,” a flat, male voice pronounced.
When Rachel heard those words, a mixture of annoyance and relief washed through her. Dying had been exhausting. She wouldn’t want to do it more than once. But death wasn’t what Thaddeus had told her. No angels. No Devil. No Jesus. No loved ones to meet her. If it had been temporary, she would have felt gypped, but it was permanent, so it had to be good enough. With that last, hazy thought, Rachel Blandon was gone.
That evening, Jill Morton sat at her Channel 5 news desk, still annoyed with her hairdresser for getting her highlights wrong, she read the following words:
“Once again, the gentrifying Newland Heights Neighborhood has been the site of violence. A charity worker was gunned down today on the corner of Ninth and Jefferson. The victim was identified as eighteen year-old Rachel Blandon, a member of the Morningstar Covenant. At the time of her murder she was collecting donations. Witnesses say the assailants fled the scene in a black Chevy Cruz. Anyone with information should call 1-800-222-TIPS.”
Rachel Blandon became a sign of the times.
Thaddeus Blandon hurried out of the morgue with a sealed zip-lock bag in his overcoat pocket. It contained his step-daughter's still-ticking Timex, the gold-plated cross she had worn at her throat since the day he baptized her, and the object that explained why God had taken her life.
The coroners had cleaned the blood from her personal effects, but the ticket to Las Vegas remained tinged at the edges.
Rachel Blandon became a fallen child.
Thaddeus entered the Morningstar Institute, to find his wife, Esther, laying face-down on the sofa.
At the sound of the doorknob, she looked up like a herding dog poised for a command.
“The Lord took Rachel before she could join her earthly father in Satan’s headquarters.”
Before Esther could catch her breath, Thaddeus took her chin in his hand with an intensity that bordered on violence and hissed, “You were lost in sin when you were with that man. God gave you to me.”
Esther sobbed again and Thaddeus said, “You haven’t got enough faith, Woman. Leave your sorrow at the foot of the cross.”
As Thaddeus slept, Esther lay awake in the dark remembering the night, eleven years ago, when she left Rachel's father. She had been Linda Powers then, just twenty-six years old, with a seven year-old daughter, named Jessie. Linda had just moved back in with Jessie’s father, and they were talking marriage, when she found a condom in the washing machine with his work uniform.
After the yelling and screaming, she stuffed her clothes and Jessie's into a black garbage bag, shoved past his beer-blurry form in the doorway, and hustled their child out of the apartment.
Linda drove Jesse down the highway in silence with no idea where they were going.
She checked them into a roadside motel. In the dingy bathroom mirror she saw that the mark where her twenty-four year-old boyfriend had struck her was blooming into a bruise.
The next day, they drove around some more and came upon a carnival. Linda, displaying ostentatious cheer, bought ride tickets and cotton candy for Jessie. To protect her mother’s feelings, Jessie played along.
On their way to the car, they came upon a large trailer painted with a motif of crosses and doves. A plump lady with dyed, red hair was giving away little Bibles with green leatherette covers.
“The little girl looks like she could use some lemonade,” she said. “Have a seat under the awning out of the sun!”
She poured two tall glasses of oversweet powdered lemonade and offered a plate of cookies, while casually telling Linda how God had saved her from drugs. At the end of their visit, she said, “Come back for fellowship this evening. We’re having a potluck. There’ll be lots of nice people. You’re a beautiful soul, and you’ll fit right in.”
Thaddeus Blandon was the last to arrive at the potluck. He was like no one Linda had ever seen. Dressed in an Italian suit jacket and open-necked silk shirt, his tanned, chiseled face and piercing green eyes gave him a sensuous intensity. He talked about God with fearsome passion. Thaddeus seldom smiled, but when he did, his face erupted like a firecracker.
“Before I came to Morningstar, I was broken,” the red-haired woman said. “Thaddeus saved my life.”
“Amen,” said another.
At the end of the evening, Thaddeus gave Linda a big hug and invited her to come to fellowship at the Morningstar Institute in the city.
“We're like-minded people," the red-haired woman interjected. "This is a community."
That night at the motel, Linda listened to the tearful voicemails her boyfriend had been leaving by the hour. She decided to go home the next day, but found herself driving past her apartment and on to the Morningstar Institute with Thaddeus on her mind.
The Believers were happy to see her and Jessie. They served a home cooked lunch, and asked them a lot of questions about their lives.
It made sense to Linda to accept their invitation to spend a few days at the Morningstar Institute, as a volunteer. When Thaddeus learned Linda’s boyfriend was leaving voicemails, he protected her by taking her phone.
Six weeks later, when Linda and Jessie were baptized, she became Esther, and Jessie became Rachel. They wore white muslin gowns and wreaths of flowers on their heads. The ceremony felt like a dream.
“We honor this new journey,” Thaddeus said. “By what name shall you be known?”
“Rachel,” Jessie said, as she had during the rehearsal.
“Beloved Child of God,” Thaddeus said. “Your name is good. May it reflect your true self, empowering you to live a new life of love and righteousness. Family of Believers, I ask you to look at this child of God, and say, to her, ‘Your name is Rachel.’”
“Your name is Rachel.” They said.
Linda became Esther in the same manner.
Later that year, God told Thaddeus to take Esther as a wife. Esther moved into Thaddeus’ quarters, while Rachel moved into the children’s wing.
When Rachel turned eight, there was no birthday cake.
“Every day is a holiday with God in our hearts,” the adults explained. “You won’t have too many more birthdays,” her mother added. “The world is about to end. Famine and war will soon be upon us, and God will pluck us up to Heaven in the rapture.”
In this new life, with every day a holiday, Rachel was reared with relentless reminders of God’s omnipresence, bedtime stories about the apocalypse, and beatings in the name of love.
Rachel Blandon became an unworthy sinner.
There were no televisions, radios, or computers at Morningstar, and the only phone was the cell that stayed in Thaddeus’ pocket at all times. As the chosen keeper of the True Faith, God anointed him to keep the Believers informed.
Two days after Rachel’s shooting, Thaddeus stood in the pulpit of the Morningstar Covenant Chapel and preached.
“Are you obedient? Are you bringing others to know Him? Rachel’s death is sign from God calling people to repent. You’ll die and go to Hell if you don’t give up your sin to Jesus Christ, who spilled his blood on Calvary. God spared Rachel by taking her home before she ended up in Satan’s hands. The wicked will be cast into Hell. America will be cast into Hell with all of the abortions, homosexuality and pornography. Wicked cities like Las Vegas, where men and women take pleasure in sin, will burn. God appointed a day when He will judge the world in righteousness. He is going to judge your every word and every thought.”
Rachel Blandon became a cautionary tale.
That afternoon, Thaddeus drove Esther to the street shrine. She knelt on the sidewalk in front of the death bears to set Rachel’s framed, captioned portrait among the candles. She set up a statue Jesus, which gave the unintended impression the Messiah was sermonizing the bears. She then took red and gold paint out of her bag, and adorned an adjacent wall with the word, “Rejoice.” Though she had no artistic talent, she attempted to paint a dove beside the words.
The overall effect of Esther’s added touches weren’t lost on the young passersby. As the month wore on, they began stopping to Instagram selfies by the shrine. They captioned the dove painting, “The Holy Chicken.” When they were stoned, they left caramel lattes as offerings beside the portrait.
Rachel Blandon became ironic.
Rachel’s own youth had offered no comparable moments of zaniness. When she was fourteen, she completed her education at the Morningstar Institute, and was assigned street ministry in Newland Heights. At first, this meant shadowing a senior minister who stood on the corner yelling about the Gospel while Rachel handed out pamphlets and solicited funds for vague humanitarian projects.
Rachel Blandon became a street corner fixture.
When she turned sixteen, her ministry mentor married and became pregnant, and Rachel was sent out with a girl her age named Sarah Welch. When they were being driven to their drop-off point, something about Sarah’s demeanor filled Rachel with wariness.
An hour after they were first dropped off, her intuition bore out. Rachel was witnessing to a young man carrying an Urban Outfitters bag when Sarah interrupted, pulled her aside, and whispered, “Some old lady just gave me a twenty. Let’s go to Starbucks.”
Rachel was dumbfounded.
Sarah continued. “We don’t have to beg all day, as long as we bring in enough money, they’ll never check on us.”
“We’re not begging,” Rachel said. “We’re witnessing.”
Sarah stared into Rachel’s eyes like she was staring into the sun. “Stand here all day, and hand all the money over if you like. “I’m going to Starbucks.”
With that, she let go of Rachel’s arm and started down the block.
Before Rachel knew it, she was sitting in the crowded cafe with Sarah drinking her first-ever cup of coffee.
“Let’s stop by the library before we go back out,” Sarah said. “I want to check my Facebook.”
“You go on the internet?”
“Sure. I use my birth name and avatars instead of photos.”
“Come with me, and I’ll show you.”
In the weeks that followed, Rachel learned that Sarah did a lot of sinful things without remorse. She took money from her collection jar, went to the library to chat with people online, and read People magazine. Rachel was horrified to learn that Sarah used tampons, even though the Covenant forbade the girls exploring their bodies before marriage.
Despite her fear, Rachel soon had a Facebook account under her old name, “Jessie Powers” and an avatar that looked like a cat.
Rachel Blandon became a risk taker.
Before the season was over, she was in contact with her father, who was now dealing Blackjack in Las Vegas.
Sarah fled Morningstar at midnight on her 18th birthday. Though her parents wept, Thaddeus reminded them God forbade any contact with Apostates.
Rachel, now temporarily on her own in Newland Heights, continued to message her dad.
U can leave when U R 18 , he told her, I’ll buy U a plane ticket online.
It was the first promise of a birthday gift Rachel had received in ten years.
When the day arrived, she paid 50 cents to use the library printer, folded the ticket with great care, and tucked it into her coat pocket, before meeting her fate at the corner of Jefferson and Ninth.
As months passed, the death bears, with their impassive faces, plastic noses, glassy eyes, and felt tongues became ever more mawkish in context.
When sleet turned to snow, they fell into bleak hibernation, their drenched stuffing freezing them solid, their plush bodies encased in ice crystals. Once the temperature rose to a melting point, they paled, as neon hues streamed to coalesce with rainwater on the sidewalks, flow into the gutter, and rush down the storm drain.
That spring, Candace and Geoff Crawford bought a building near Jefferson and Ninth. They planned to open a Yoga salt room that served artisan vegan sandwiches to the new crop of upscale residents who walked around wearing earbuds.
The power couple wanted the faded bears with their frayed neck ribbons, and the Holy Chicken taken down.
With much conferring, and reliance on thesaurus.com, they crafted an open letter to the paper about the detrimental effect moldy bears, spent candles, and cheap artificial flowers had on property values.
In response, members of the Morningstar Covenant putted up in a van and tied a fresh batch of silver Mylar balloons to the shrine.
Soon Channel 5 covered the story.
Geoff Crawford, aware of the cameras, stood beside his wife. Shoulders back, stomach in, face set in an intelligent expression. Candace read from her prepared statement:
“I feel for the family, and understand their loss. But there is no permanence in trinkets. There comes a time, for the good of all of us, when mourning must cease.”
Three nights later, the shrine caught fire. The official cause was a poorly- placed candle, though many suspected arson.
The scorched death bears were taken down. The detritus swept up, bagged, and hauled to the curb without fanfare.
Two hipsters with lumberjack beards shambled down Jefferson Avenue. They paused for a moment where the shrine had stood. One remarked, in showboat volume, “Ask not for whom the bears hang . . .”
As if in response, the last silver mylar balloon broke free from the rough-hewn pole to catch the glint of the sun before it floated out of sight.
And Rachel Blandon became eternal.