Covert Joy

By the time Parker realized service was over, the church was all but empty. Candles burned low on the shadowed alter and two stories above, a stained-glass dome corralled a wooden cross that had a slight lean and early signs of rot. With just a little sunlight left, Parker could still see the Angel Gabriel in the glass, stood over a demon, ready to stab it through the heart with a golden spear. The look on Gabriel’s face seemed disinterested, vacant.

“Where’s his head at?” Parker asked himself.

The room was quiet, save for the wind trying to push its way through cracks in the more weathered spots of the wood walls. Preacher must’ve forgotten he was still there. It wasn’t the first time Parker’d fallen asleep during service. The church did something that made him feel safe for once, so the sleep that eluded him in the night became inescapable.

He got his feet under him and took inventory of the room. To the right of the pulpit, there was a small altar the color of whiskey. On the top of it, there was a toy-sized, plastic replica of Jesus on the cross, flanked by nubs of candles. On a darkened shelf below that, pages torn from a King James bible were half-heartedly stacked on top of an old birthday card — the name on the card was scratched out.

Parker watched the candles’ low flames play tricks on the room, orange light dancing in the corners, bouncing off the pews. He walked over and blew them out, since Preacher was getting up there in age now and likely to forget these kinds of things. Parker felt refreshed, renewed.He grabbed his pack and rifle, marched down the aisle, and pushed through the carved-oak double doors. On the other side, a biting cold met him head on. It was the beginning of another long night and the wind needled through his ratty coat while stabbing at the skin on his face and neck. If it bothered him, Parker never showed it.

He claimed to enjoy the cold. “If you can live up here, you can live anywhere,” he’d say.

He was a man like his father was a man. A crude throwback to a world long-since forgotten, filled with people who thought they knew better.

The wind howled as Parker made his way through a hidden gap in the makeshift gate that surrounded the front steps of the church. In reality, the gate was mostly piles of old car parts and chunks of wood, but it did the job. If somebody who didn’t belong tried to get over or through it, they’d make a helluva racket in the process. Parker wasn’t some crazy, though, guarding himself from a threat that didn’t exist. This was out of necessity. There was something about that ordained roof and the way it caught the light that made this place a magnet for the unwanted.

Parker lived in a quiet part of town, about a ten minute walk from the Bushwick Baptist Church. Even after everything that happened, he’d never left his home. Parker took a kind of stubborn pride in that. He didn’t care what the rest of the world was doing. To him, this was a place that still understood what it meant to be a community. People looked out for each other and Parker looked out for everybody.

After shimmying through a hidden gap in the gate, he climbed on top of an old sedan and stared out into the dark gray like some kind of gargoyle perched on one of those ancient buildings still standing in the city across the frozen waters. The church sat on the corner of a narrow intersection with boarded-up homes on either side. So many had left or got lost in the snow that the town often seemed deserted, but across the street was King’s Deli. In the window, oversized posters of egg sandwiches and light beers circled an argon-blue OPEN sign that slowly rocked from side to side. Through the glass door, Parker saw the owner, a salt-and-peppered man named Darryl, cleaning the counter before closing. Another old school fellow, he gave Parker the slightest nod, never breaking from the task at hand.

Save for a few lights in the distance, the long street was quiet. Shadows leered over blocks of rundown brownstones. On his way home, Parker saw lifeless trees sway and give glimpses of the encroaching moon. The ends of the long branches twitched in the wind like veins desperately trying to pump.

Parker lived on Covert Street or Joy Street, depending on who you asked. That long stretch of concrete, rot iron, and orange-brown brick had been named a second time for Regina Joy — a staunch community leader and civil rights activist in the ’60s. Long before Parker’s time.

A few blocks from home on Front Street, Parker spotted someone in a second floor window of a corner building. It was a little girl named Leila. She lived in a railroad apartment with her mother and older brother. He stopped and waved up to her. She stared at him for a long time before giving a shy wave back.

He stood there for a moment, waiting for the rest of the family to come and say hello when he realized the time. It was almost six and his mother was probably going to murder him for being late to dinner again. He hoisted his gear back on the top of his shoulders and ran the rest of the way home.

Parker burst through the front door and slammed it shut behind him. He leaned the rifle against a small table where they left the mail and keys.

“Sorry I’m late!” he yelled.

“I fell asleep during service…again. I know what you’re gonna say, okay? So just don’t say it.”

“I love you guys.” he added for good measure before rushing upstairs to change.

He shouldered through the door to his room, dropped his pack and pulled off his coat, hat, and shoes, tossing them in whichever direction seemed convenient. His room was the same as it was before everything happened. A poster of Karen-O hung on the wall over his desk. On the desk, a small light revealed a stack of his favorite Stephen King novels and an American History textbook he’d stolen from school, but never opened. Christopher Columbus was on the cover, leaning over the side of a wooden boat.

His nightstand held an alarm clock and a picture of the whole family: the four of them were squinting in the sun during a fishing trip in Key West. His sister was holding up a bull dolphin as long as she was tall. Parker just wanted to keep all those memories alive. He was lost in thought, searching his closet for a clean shirt when he heard the bells.

He stopped and stood perfectly still so he could be sure. He heard it again. Faint, but clear.

After the last incident, Parker had strewn up sets of small brass bells on fishing line at the end of every block. The only people who didn’t know about them were strangers, the unwanted. He stumbled over his boots on his way to the boarded window looking over the street. His eyes darted back and forth through the planks. This was exactly what he’d been afraid of. Not only had they found the community, but they’d followed him back to his home.

“No, no, no, no.” Parker repeated over and over.

He wouldn’t stand by and let it happen again. He ripped off one of the wood planks to get a better look at the street. On the corner, there was a figure stumbling towards him and his family. His home! How did they see him? He was careful. He was always careful for the community.

Parker ran down the stairs to where his family was seated around the table. He blew past them without a word and made sure the back door was secure. Running back, he accidentally bumped into his father’s chair at the head of the table, knocking him out of his seat and sending most of dinner crashing to the tile floor.

“Sorry, dad!” Parker yelled as he grabbed the rifle from the front and headed back upstairs.

He used the barrel of the gun to bust out the window. The figure was getting closer, stumbling through the wind and cold. Thankfully, the weather had muffled the sound of breaking glass, giving him time to line up a shot.

Parker was trying desperately to slow his breathing. He knew he only had one chance. In the quiet, he heard the figure trying to say something. The words were too muffled. Parker took it as a threat, probably against his family, his community.

Back at the dinner table, Parker’s father laid helpless on the floor. A blue, plastic eye had dislodged itself from his head and rolled along the tile before settling in a puddle of spilt tea. The glue from his mustache had given out, revealing more of his impossibly beige face. His left arm had detached and laid next to this head. The paint was chipped in places, revealing the chalky caulking inside. The watch on his wrist was still ticking. The rest of the family sat motionless, their coatings glistened in the florescent light.

He took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger as hard as he could. The sound was deafening in his small room, the rest of the window shattered. He threw down the rifle and looked for his target. He watched the figure take a small step before stumbling and falling face first into the snow. Parker stared at the body, sprawled out in the center of the street. He’d done it. He’d saved them.

The gunshot continued to echo through the streets. Eventually, the world quieted again. The figure began to sink deeper into the snow on Covert-Joy Street, until it was barely visible. Back in young Leila’s window, the motor that controlled the wires attached to her arm was on the fritz again. Parker would have to wait until the next day to make repairs.