Lorne didn’t give one fuck about religion, or spirituality, or anything relating to the supernatural. He did care for his daughter, though, and she was crazy about going to church. He didn’t think he’d ever met a kid who hadn’t been forced into going, or who hadn’t fallen asleep in a pew on Sundays. But his little Beth was the one who nagged him into dressing up and going to the big cathedral downtown every weekend, and sometimes on Wednesdays.
The big cathedral had used to be dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi, but over the years it had changed hands and it was now owned by the Order of the Hidden Hand. Lorne wasn’t entirely certain what they believed in, because he couldn’t be bothered to read any of the holy literature that they handed out on sidewalks all over the city. Beth had tried to explain it to him—“It’s about keeping your promises and your secrets, daddy!”—but he’d grown up with the tired rituals of Catholicism and didn’t have room for any more occult knowledge in his brain.
It was Wednesday night, and he sighed as Beth zoomed around the house wearing her frilly, ostentatious church dress—“Dress up to avoid being dressed down!” Beth would say. It was another of the many phrases she’d learned at church. He allowed her to pick out an outfit for him, then put back the showy purple dress shirt she’d selected in favor of a more sedate black Motley Crüe t-shirt. He did put on the pants, which had a lot of unnecessary zippers, and the black Oxfords she’d put at the foot of his bed. He rarely liked to wear shoes that covered his toes, but for Beth he’d do just about anything.
“Tonight is the guest speaker, daddy!” Beth called enthusiastically. “She is famous all over Europe and Asia. Can we go to Europe and Asia someday?”
He left the bedroom to find her. She was in the living room dancing with no one, a waltz so full of energy she might as well have been just spinning in a circle. She had her arms positioned as though she were with a partner much taller than her. “Who are you dancing with?” he asked.
“Mommy!” she shrieked, and laughed breathlessly as she spun around the room.
“May I cut in?”
She tilted her head back, as though listening. “Mommy says she has to go anyway, so sure.”
He approached the little girl and put a hand on her left shoulder, taking her right in his, swallowing it up with his large fingers. She stood on his feet, as he’d taught her, and they began to circle the room much more sedately.
“Can we, though?” Beth asked, looking up at him with her best doe-eyes.
“Of course we can,” he answered. “What are we talking about?”
She jumped up and down on his feet without losing her position. He winced. She was getting bigger and heavier every day, though she still looked like a little wisp of a girl. “Asia and Europe, can we go?”
“Someday,” he said. He was not a wealthy man, just a self-made motorcycle mechanic, but he did alright. In fact he had a big job coming up customizing a fleet of Harleys for a national motorcycle riding association. What used to be called a “gang” in less politically correct times. They were going to pay him more than he’d ever made before, and he was going to have a lot of creative freedom. He really looked forward to getting started. “Maybe I’ll take you to Paris after I finish my new job.”
“Paris,” she said with disgust. “That place is a shithole.”
He stopped dancing, looking down at her in shock. “Language, Beth! Where did you pick that up?”
She had the good grace to look sheepish. “Sorry, daddy. Kelly said it about the store where she works.”
Kelly was her babysitter, and she was the one that had introduced Beth to the Order. She was also fourteen, which was twice his daughter’s age. He wasn’t sure how that worked, but they adored each other. “Tell her I said you’re too young to hear language like that, okay? If I hear you cussing I’m going to get you a new babysitter.”
Beth looked stricken. “I’ll be good! Promise!”
“And what does the church say about promises?”
Beth formally recited, “A promise is the greatest gift. Only a person with no hands hidden breaks a promise.”
Lorne wasn’t sure what was so bad about having no hands hidden, but he knew Beth believed in it. “That’s right.” He started dancing again. “So what’s wrong with Paris? Your mother and I had a very good time there.”
“I know, daddy. But Kelly showed me pictures of Dowager’s Cavern in Turkey, that’s where I want to go! Kelly says the Knowing Ones live there; I want to meet them.”
The Knowing Ones were elders of the church; beyond that, he knew nothing about them. “Sure, let’s go to a damp Turkish cave instead of Paris in the Spring.”
His daughter beamed at him. She wasn’t good at reading sarcasm yet.
Abruptly Beth jumped off his feet, her mouth a round O, eyes wide. “We’re going to be late! Let’s go!!”
Sighing, Lorne grabbed his keys off the end table by the sofa and walked to the door, where Beth was already struggling with the lock. He let her get the door open herself, and she raced to the car. He drove a gently used 2020 Dodge Charger, black with blue racing stripes. Nothing like his old 1971 charger, which he had fixed up and sold five years ago, but he still loved it. He opened the passenger door for Beth and helped her put her seat belt on, then closed her door and got in himself.
The drive was unpleasant as usual; the sermon started at 6pm so he had to drive in rush hour. They made decent time, though, and managed to pull into the parking lot at a reasonable five past six. Beth had undone her seatbelt and jumped out of the car almost before he had come to a full stop.
“Come on, daddy, hurry!” he heard her calling as he exited the car at a more reasonable pace. “They’ve started the hymns already!” she cried, stamping her feet with impatience. He took her hand and allowed her to drag him to the arched double-doors of the cathedral. He could hear the atonal singing within and groaned inwardly. Many of the hymns of the Hidden Hand were a lot like noise. He appreciated a good noisician, but he couldn’t find anything to appreciate about the rambling chaos of a hymn that lasted a good twenty minutes.
Beth added her voice to the chorus as they walked through the doors, and into the midst of the congregation. In lieu of pews, they sat in rows of wingback chairs and loveseats that looked like they had seen the better part of 200 years.
There was a teen with lots of face jewelry sitting in their usual seat. He hoped Beth wasn’t going to want a nose ring anytime soon, but she was so impressionable. “Scram,” Lorne growled, flexing his considerable biceps. The teen looked very unimpressed, but moved anyway. They sat down and he winced as Beth worked her way up to a screech that was almost painful in its intensity.
The singing went on. Lorne looked up at the ceiling, to see the Hidden Hand’s pantheon, The Four, on the ceiling. There was Ash the Fallen, who looked like a regular man except that he had a crow’s head on his fleshy neck; Isept the Unknowable, who looked like a pillar of eyes in a roiling shadow; Tharon the Vocal, who had seven arms and three necks that joined up under one head, and Alsoth the Inevitable, who looked similar to the grim reaper except that his lower body was a bunch of tentacles. Each one had their own hymnal, which varied in degrees of awfulness. Today’s racket was for Isept, of course.
The two normalish ones with hands had one in a pocket of their robe, and one outstretched. Tharon had three hands in his robe and four outstretched. Isept just blinked unknowably.
He shook his head to clear it. It was just a painting; it couldn’t blink, knowably or not.
The interminable hymn finally came to a close, and the censers above began to smoke with incense. He didn’t know where you could buy incense that smelled like a used bookstore on the docks, but that seemed to be the favored fragrance. He was pretty sure there was pot burning in there as well, but couldn’t be completely sure.
There wasn’t an altar, just a podium among some abstract statues on a dais. A woman stepped up to the podium. “My fellow Hands,” she said, “I am Debbie of Minneapolis. I know you’re all waiting for our guest speaker, so without further ado, here is a lady with all hands hidden, praise Isept!”
“Praise Isept,” murmured the congregation.
Debbie continued. “A woman who has spread the good word throughout Asia, Western Europe and South America, praise Tharon!”
“A woman who has come through many challenges, including the death of her entire family, praise Ash, praise Alsoth!”
“Praise Ash, praise Alsoth.”
“May I introduce to you, fresh from the fertile crescent, Connie Huang, Sentinel of Isept!”
The congregation got to its feet and whooped, as though she had announced Iron Maiden was coming to the stage. He sighed, getting to his feet and clapping slowly. Beth was jumping up and down like she had last Christmas morning. He smiled down at her, and she grabbed his hand and jumped with it.
A figure dressed in sand-colored robes approached the podium. Everyone began to settle down. Lorne strained to see the woman’s face under her hood, but all he could see was shadow. Her hands were nowhere in sight.
She waited until silence had fallen. Then she put up an ancient, clawed hand and adjusted the microphone, making a sound like an old, beat-up muffler as she did. Then she began to speak, not in any language that Lorne had ever heard before. Granted, he probably wouldn’t have been able to identify French or Vietnamese if he heard it, but this sounded like a language that stones might speak to each other, or the jagged peaks of mountains.
Beth sat raptly, as though she could understand what was being said. Upon looking around, he saw similar expressions on the people around them, including the bejeweled teen who’d been sitting in their seat. He settled in for what would probably be a good four or five hours of gobbledegook, letting his gaze rise up to the ceiling again. The representations of The Four were quite detailed, and well rendered. As the Sentinel droned on, he thought he saw the eyes of Isept blinking and winking again. He figured it was just the “incense” smoke making him a little high. The Order was not against using substances to make the mass more enjoyable. He’d seen a High Priest doing cocaine in the bathroom on more than one occasion.
“High” priests, indeed.
Alsoth waved a couple of tentacles at him. They were covered in small bony protrusions like thorns.
He chuckled to himself.
Next to him, Beth had clambered up so that she was standing on the loveseat next to him.
“Take your shoes off if you’re going to climb on the furniture,” he whispered.
Her eyes were wide and rapturous, her hands waving slowly in the air like reeds. She paid him no heed. He reached over and grabbed her foot, slowly lifting it and sliding her shoe off. She was pliant and passive, which he might have been worried about in other circumstances. He took her other shoe off as well.
A tentacle caressed his cheek, and he nuzzled it a little. He was getting sleepy. Time for a nap, at least until they sang the next hymn for Isept.
The Sentinel droned on in a dark, forgotten language as he fell asleep, a tentacle sliding around his neck, keeping him upright. He pawed at it drowsily, then just settled in and let it do its tentacle thing. Besides, it was just a drug fugue he was in. No need to worry.
Ash the Fallen stood before him, on a barren landscape, cracked like a salt flat. He screamed a crow’s scream.
Alsoth the Inevitable circled him, tentacles wrapping around his neck, his arms, his legs, but he could still move.
In the inky sky above, Isept the Unknowable’s eyes twinkled like stars from horizon to horizon.
Tharon the Vocal said, “Sleep, child,” with three voices.
The sermon ended at midnight, and Beth woke him up as everyone was getting ready to go. “Did you sleep well, daddy?” she asked brightly. “It was a great sermon! I hope Connie comes back soon!”
He took her hand. “I slept great,” he admitted, glad she wasn’t upset with him. She had pouted for three days the first time he fell asleep in church, but by now she was used to it. “You like Connie, huh? Did you understand what she said?”
Beth looked at him like he’d grown a third eye. “Of course,” she said, “didn’t you?”
“Sure,” he agreed, yawning. Kids and their imaginations.
“She called on me, and promised me that I’m very important! Promised! Isn’t that great, daddy?”
“I promise you that you’re very important too.”
She let go of his hand and stood in front of him, hiding one hand behind her back and stretching out the other. “Promise for real?”
He put his left hand in his pocket and shook hers firmly with his right. “May I always hide the Hand that lies.”
“Amen,” she said as she let go, smiling. “Amen!”
Lorne shook his head. He was never going to know what she saw in religion, but anything that made his Beth that happy was worth it.