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If The Father Calls

She knows something bad happened when I was young. But I love her too much to tell her. Maybe it’s for the best that I return to the memory of that night, though. Maybe then the dreams will stop...

By Talbot FinchPublished 2 years ago 22 min read
photo credit: Javy Luzania / edited by: Talbot Finch

Susan told me, “If you won’t talk to anybody about it, then write about it.” She knows something bad happened when I was young. She knows it’s the reason I have nightmares all these years later but doesn’t know more than that. And I won’t tell her. I love her too much to tell her. But maybe she’s right. Maybe it’s for the best that I return to the memory of that night. Maybe then the dreams will stop. I’ll try anything.


I first met him when I was about eight or nine on a weekend trip to my grandparents’ house.

In those days, Dad and I visited them at least once every month or two. Mom never went with us because she and Grandpa didn’t get along. Grandpa apparently didn’t go to their wedding because Mom wasn’t baptized. She wasn’t impressed and dismissed him as a Bible-thumper from then on. It put Dad in a tense spot, but he never complained. He just did his part to keep the peace, like always, and never mentioned Mom around Grandpa.

I enjoyed visiting their home. Only a two-hour trip from our apartment in the city, they lived in the country on a couple acres of land, miles away from any major road or streetlights. I didn’t care much for spending time with Grandpa—in all the years I’d known him, I never once saw him smile—but I did enjoy spending time outdoors exploring their property.

On the day I met him, Dad told me that Grandpa had recently sold part of their land to some man and his wife, so I had to be mindful not to bother the neighbors when playing outside. When we arrived at the house, Grandpa introduced us.

“Cecil Claiborne.” The man smiled and shook Dad’s hand. “And this is my wife, Annette.”

“Good to meet you both,” Dad said.

Cecil shook my hand and gave me a wink. He was an older man, somewhere between Dad’s age and Grandpa’s. He was tall and lean with a full head of wiry gray hair. There were a lot of smile lines around his eyes, and he had a deep tan like Dean Martin. But he wasn’t nearly as dapper. Cecil dressed more like a cowboy—a button down shirt tucked into jeans, well-worn leather boots, and a khaki drawstring hat. Around his neck, he wore a heavy-looking crucifix.

Annette stood behind him. She didn’t say much, just smiled and nodded from time to time. She wore a cardigan even though it was summer, and her snow-white hair was pulled back in a low bun that covered the back of her neck. It was easy to forget she was there.

“Cecil and Annette are joining us for supper tonight,” Grandpa said.

Over dinner, I learned that my grandparents had met them at church. They were new to the area and looking for a place to set up their homestead.

When Dad asked what brought them to this part of Alabama, Cecil said with an easy smile, “I go where the Lord tells me to. He hasn’t led me astray yet.”

As the evening went on, I found that I really liked Cecil. He was fascinating to watch. There was something almost theatrical about his facial expressions, and he told stories with so much energy that even mundane things sounded exciting. The thing I liked most about him, though, was that he never forgot me. No matter what he and the other grownups were talking about, he would always make it a point to ask what my thoughts were on the subject, too.

At one point in the conversation Cecil mentioned that they had a small chicken coop.

“You have chickens? Can I see them?”

“Isaac, it’s not polite to invite yourself,” Dad told me.

“Oh, that’s quite alright,” Cecil smiled. He looked at me, “Your grandmother told me all about how you like to go exploring around here. And I think it’s only right that a boy your age should. You’re welcome to roam around our property as you please. In fact, you should stop by in the morning, and I’ll let you feed the chickens with me. How’s that sound?”


The following day, Cecil showed me the chickens as promised and gave me a tour of his workshop, too. I recognized it as the large, old shed that sat in a far corner of my grandparents’ property for as long as I could remember. Cecil had apparently reclaimed it from nature and had gone through the trouble of relocating it near their tired-looking mobile home. He’d given the shed a fresh coat of paint, patched up the holes in the roof with metal sheets, and hung a hand-painted sign on the front that said “Santa’s Workshop.”

“That’s a joke,” he told me.

Inside, there were tools everywhere, spilling out of lidless toolboxes, piled on old foldout tables, and littering the dirt floor. There were dozens of empty jam jars with faded labels filled to the brim with screws and nuts and bolts, big spools of different types of wires, dozens of cans of motor oil, and pieces of machines I didn’t recognize. In the center of the chaos was what looked like the backend of a van and the front half of a motorcycle arranged together like some strange, motor-powered rickshaw.

“I call her The Whiplash,” Cecil said. “She ain’t done yet, but I reckon I’ll have her up and running in another couple weeks.”

“What is it?”

“A cross between a motorcycle and a car, of course. See, I love nothing more than getting into the saddle of a hog, but Annette prefers seatbelts.”

“You cut a whole van in half?” I walked around the machine looking at his handiwork.

“Sure did. Didn’t cost me a dime, either. You’d be amazed what sorts of things people just throw away. Perfectly good cars and bikes sit in junkyards cause folks today don’t know how to get their hands dirty and fix things.”

“I don’t know how to fix things,” I admitted. “My dad does, but I don’t. Could you teach me?”

Cecil grinned. “If you’re willing to listen, I’m willing to yak.”

I spent the rest of the day with Cecil. He turned out to be a surprisingly good teacher. Patient and thoroughly informative.

“But how do you know that it’s going to work out?” I asked at one point. “I mean, what if you work on something for a long time but it still isn’t fixed?”

“Jesus said ‘If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.’ Do you know that parable?”

I nodded.

“Good, a boy your age should know his Bible stories. Anyway, the point of that story is to have faith, son. You may not know if it’s gonna take two hours or two months to fix something, but it’s about having the faith to keep at it.”

After that day, I spent most of my visits with Cecil. He welcomed me in his workshop and taught me new things about cars and motorcycle parts. He always had a way of tying in some Bible story into whatever we were working on, which I liked. It made it easy to remember the things he taught me.

Dad didn’t seem bothered that I spent so much time with Cecil. In fact, I’m not sure he noticed I was gone. He was too busy helping Grandma and Grandpa around the house with the things they were getting too old to do themselves.

By our third visit, Cecil had officially finished The Whiplash and took me on a ride around the neighborhood. I had the backseat to myself and loved every second of it.

Two visits after that, Cecil was excited to show me that he’d put up a tire swing on the big oak in his yard, just for me. He’d filled the inside of the tire with expanding foam.

“Keeps the critters out,” he explained. “And makes for a more comfortable seat.”

My favorite was swinging on my stomach and pretending I was Superman.

Later that year, Cecil got me a pocketknife as an early birthday present. “I think it’s only right that a boy your age should have a pocketknife,” he said. “My daddy got me one just like this. I’ll show you how to use it safely just like he showed me, and I’ll teach you how to sharpen it, too.” I gave him a hug and carried that knife everywhere I went.

At some point during their second year as neighbors, Cecil and Grandpa had a falling out. Dad had been vague about it, saying that Cecil had some kind of disagreement with the priest at Grandma and Grandpa’s parish. Grandpa sided with the priest. Cecil and Annette left the church.

When I saw Grandpa, he pointed a stern finger at me and said, “You stay away from Cecil, you hear me?”

I knew better than to argue so I promised him I would, but later that day I wandered over to the Claiborne’s property anyway. I found Cecil tinkering away in his workshop as always. He stood when he saw me and looked uncharacteristically sad.

“Oh,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I was gonna see you this time around.”

I shrugged. “What are you working on?”

He gave me a big smile, and I was relieved to see it. “You’re gonna love this. Come look out back.”

We walked behind his workshop and there was a tiny, old houseboat sitting on its pontoons. Its yellow paint had faded to a pale, unappealing color that made it look seasick.

I didn’t know what to make of it. We weren’t anywhere near a body of water large enough for a boat like that.

“She needs a lot of work, but I’ll get her there. She may not be as grand as Noah’s, but I think she’ll do when the time comes.”

“Do for what?”

Cecil seemed to debate how to answer the question. “You know, I talk to God often,” he said after a moment. “And every once in a while He talks back. The last thing He told me was this: Be ready. And I intend to be.”

I asked him what that meant, but he wouldn’t tell me.

“You don’t need to worry yourself about it right now,” he told me. “But if it makes you feel any better, there’s plenty of room on this boat for you, me, and Annette when the time comes.” Then he added, “God willing.”

That left me with even more questions, but Cecil redirected the conversation to the boat itself and gave me a tour of the interior. It reeked of mildew. The floor was covered in matted brown carpet and the laminate countertops were moldy and badly warped, but Cecil assured me these were merely cosmetic issues. Then, we went back to his workshop and spent a few hours working together on the boat’s motor. Not once did he mention Grandpa or the parish priest. Things went on as normal, and I was grateful for it.

Seven months later Grandpa had a stroke. Dad and I went to their house almost every weekend after that. Grandpa didn’t talk anymore. He just laid in bed and looked around the room like a newborn, wide-eyed and vacant. Grandma had to do everything for him—feed him, wash him, change him. Dad spent every moment he could helping her. Mom had objections at first about me visiting Grandpa.

“I don’t want Isaac seeing him like that,” she said. But Dad argued that time was short now and I should see Grandpa as much as possible.

I tried to sit with him every time I visited. Dad encouraged me to talk to him and said that he could still hear us even if he didn’t talk back. But I had nothing to say. I would just sit beside his bed in Grandma’s armchair and pick at my nails. His eyes would wander aimlessly, sometimes drifting over to me but usually not.

In truth, Grandpa was more pleasant now than he had ever been but being around him still made me uneasy. So, I would escape to Cecil’s as often as I could.

Cecil had put the houseboat on hold and moved on to another project. He’d built an addition to the back of his mobile home and called it The Claiborne Chapel. There were five or six old church pews setup in the room, facing a small podium. Every day at seven in the morning, Cecil held a sermon for anyone interested in attending. He told me it was usually just him and Annette, but he had attracted the attention of one or two locals in the neighborhood who showed up from time to time.

I never went to any of his services, and he never asked me to. I think we both knew that my family wouldn’t be happy if I did. They might’ve gotten angry and told me I couldn’t visit him anymore. That was a risk I wasn’t willing to take; I still cherished the time we spent together in his workshop. Though, ever since he had built the chapel, he’d been a bit different. He didn’t smile as much. There was something nervous about him that I’d never seen in him before. He started closing the workshop doors when we were in there working together. His excuse was that there was a family of stray cats around that would sometimes get in his way. I’d never seen cats around the property before but didn’t question him.

Sometimes he’d stare at me while I was doing something. A hard, tense stare that I pretended not to notice. More than once, after staring, he said to me, “Remember, son, if the Heavenly Father calls you to do something, you do it. Do you understand?”

I always told him that I did, and the moment would pass. He’d ruffle my hair with a dirty hand, and we’d get back to tinkering.

Then, one weekend while we were visiting, Grandpa had another stroke. Grandma rode with the paramedics on the long drive to the nearest hospital, and I walked with Dad to Cecil’s home. It was the first time they had spoken in nearly a year. Dad asked him if he and Annette could watch me while he and Grandma were at the hospital. He said it wasn’t looking good for Grandpa, and he thought it was best that I stay behind.

“It’s just for the evening. I’ll be back later, and my wife will be by in the morning to take him home,” Dad explained.

“We’d be happy to have him,” Cecil smiled. “We always make more than what we need for dinner anyway, so it’s really no trouble.”

Dad thanked him, gave me a hug, and left.

In their mobile home, Cecil announced that he would make dinner tonight in honor of me, their special guest. Annette’s eyebrows arched in surprise but she said nothing.

While Cecil worked away in the kitchen, Annette sat with me at her dusty standing piano in The Claiborne Chapel. Cecil told me that she was a good pianist and would sometimes play for his daily sermons when they had attendees. Now, she patiently taught me one half of a duet. She played the other half and expertly adjusted her speed as I fumbled along. It was the most time we had ever spent together. For as often as I spent time with Cecil, I rarely ever saw Annette. She stayed inside mostly, out of sight.

“I hate to interrupt such beautiful music,” Cecil stepped into the room. Annette flinched. “But supper’s ready.”

The dinner table was neatly set. In the center, there was a plate of fried fish, a dish of what looked like canned corn, and a plate with a small stack of white bread slices. Three place settings had been laid out, each with a glass of red wine.

“Alright,” Cecil said, taking off his apron. “Let’s say grace. Annette, you can take your usual spot, and Isaac, you sit there.”

I took the seat opposite to his; Annette sat to our side. We took each other’s hands and bowed our heads.

“Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your many blessings. Grant us the faith to trust in the mystery of Your will and to accept the role You have chosen for us with dignity and without hesitation. We thank You for bringing us together tonight. And we thank You, Lord, for this meal You have provided. May it serve our bodies in accordance with Your will. In Your name we pray. Amen.” Cecil picked up his wine glass, “And now, how about a toast?”

I held my glass and looked into it. I could tell from the smell that it wasn’t grape juice.

“To unyielding faith in our Lord,” he said, and lifted his glass.

They both drank, while I only stared down at my wine. When I looked up, Cecil was watching me, his eyes wide and angry. I started.

“What’s the matter?” he snapped.

“I— I’m not allowed to have wine,” I said.

His eyes shifted anxiously to Annette and then back to me. “Yes, you are,” he said, trying to smile. “It’s alright to have a sip, son. Your father told me so. After all, don’t you have a sip every Sunday at mass?”

“No, not every Sunday. I don’t really like the taste of it,” I said, nervously. “I only have the wine on special occasions, like Easter.”

“Well, isn’t this a special occasion? Or are you saying my cooking isn’t good enough to be a special occasion?” He glanced at Annette again and then back to me. Sweat glistened on his forehead. “Are you trying to hurt my feelings, Isaac? After I went through all the trouble of making you this meal?”

“No!” I was confused and felt like crying. “I’m sorry, Cecil. I’m not trying to hurt your feelings. It’s just—”

“Yes, you are!” he shouted. “That’s why you’re being so difficult. You’re trying to upset me! I expected better of you, Isaac. I’m so disappointed in—”

Annette screamed. She pressed her forearms against her stomach; her face twisted in pain. She looked at Cecil with bewildered, scared eyes and vomited all over the table.

Shit,” Cecil hissed.

I jumped out of my chair and backed up to the wall. Annette vomited again and again unable to stop, each wretch sounding more excruciating than the last. The sick was a deep red color, so dark it looked almost black. It stained the yellowed tablecloth and soaked the pristine slices of white bread.

Cecil was standing now, too, watching me over the table. His body looked tense, like a coil ready to spring forward.

Annette gave a final wretch of blood and collapsed forward onto her plate. She was facing my direction. Her eyes were open and empty; pinkish foam bubbled out of her mouth and nose. The room was overwhelmingly quiet.

She was dead. I knew she was, but some part of me still expected her to sit up and apologize for the mess. It happened so fast. There was no dramatic music or tearful last words like I always thought when someone died. Just sudden, indifferent silence.

I looked down at the glass of wine in my hand. Some had spilled when I moved away from the table and now dripped from my fingers like blood. A small cry escaped from the back of my throat.

“I didn’t want to have to do it myself,” Cecil said finally. “It would be over by now, if you had just—” he took a breath, “You’ve left me with no choice, now.”

He stepped to the side of the table, and I matched his movement, taking a step in the same direction and keeping the table between us. He walked slowly, watching me, unblinking.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, circling the table. “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t put a finger on you. But it’s not up to me. You understand that, don’t you? It’s like I’ve been telling you: If the Father calls you to do something, you do it.”

I didn’t say anything, just kept pace with his slow steps, watching him watch me.

“Months ago, the Lord said to me ‘Build a chapel and disciples will come.’ Well, I built a chapel like He asked, but hardly anybody came. I asked God why? I asked Him everyday, why why why? And finally, He told me it was because I lacked true faith. Because I doubted Him. He said that I needed to prove my faith to Him as Abraham did. By sacrificing that which I love most. I knew he meant Annette. And, of course, you, Isaac. After all, it’s your namesake. And God said to me that when the time was right, I would know. And here we are.”

He stopped walking. We had moved around the table completely and were back where we started.

“I know you’re scared, Isaac.” For a moment, he sounded remarkably like the old Cecil. “And, believe me, this isn’t easy for me either. But you were born for this, to serve this greater purpose. And if the Father wants something done, then it must be done.”

With surprising quickness, Cecil jumped onto the table using his chair as a step, trampling over dishes and fried fish and puddles of vomit. He lunged towards me. His eyes were wide and filled with rage, his lips were drawn back over his teeth like a rabid animal, his bony fingers reached for me like claws.

I did the only thing I could think to do at that moment and thrust the glass of wine into his face. He jerked backwards and began frantically wiping at his eyes and feeling blindly on the table for a napkin.

You son of a bitch!

I ran through the small house, down the short hallway and to the front room. I tried the door, but it wouldn’t open. Cecil had secured the door with a padlock.

At the bottom of the door was an old pet flap that likely belonged to the house long before Cecil and Annette had purchased it. I put my fingers under the lip of the metal covering and pulled, but it was badly rusted and only slid up by an inch.

I heard footsteps thundering elsewhere in the house. Heart pounding in my ears, I jerked on the covering with every bit of strength I had in my arms, and it slid free, screeching shrilly in protest. The rumble of heavy steps on the mobile home’s hollow floor grew stronger behind me. I threw the metal sheet to the side and forced my shoulders into the gap. The door’s vinyl flap, made brittle and dry over the years, crumbled as I pushed my head through. I was a small child, but it was still a tight squeeze. I wriggled and kicked until my arms were free, then I used them to crawl forward and pull the rest of myself out. No sooner did I pull my hips through than I felt strong hands on my legs.

“Get off me!” I screamed. I kicked and thrashed violently until one of my legs broke free. I swung my sneakered foot hard into where I hoped Cecil was and felt it make contact with something. There was a grunt and the grip on my other leg loosened. I was able to twist around to a sitting position, but before I could scoot away, his hands fell firmly on my ankles. He tugged on them hard and I slid back toward the house.

The Lord asked this of me, Isaac.

With clumsy, shaking hands, I reached into my jeans and grabbed my pocketknife. He yanked on my legs again and pulled me further inside. Then, when there was enough of me to grab, he wrapped his arms around my legs, hugging them tightly to his chest, and pulled back with tremendous force. I was yanked all the way back into the house through the door. My shirt had ridden up and my bare sides and back scraped along the edges of the narrow opening. But I didn’t feel any pain; only panic. A voice in my head began screaming, You’re going to die! You’re going to die!

Sprawled on the floor, Cecil quickly climbed on top of me and put his hands around my neck. His eyes were wide and wild, the right one deeply bloodshot and watering. He squeezed down on my throat. I tried to inhale without success. A terrible pressure built in my face.

I gripped my knife tightly and stabbed it into the soft flesh of his side, just beneath his ribs. I pulled it out quickly and plunged it in again. He howled in pain and doubled forward, leaning over me. Now that he was close enough, I pulled out my knife again and thrusted it toward his face. The recently sharpened blade punctured his cheek, just to the left of his mouth, sliding in easily and scraping along the sides of his teeth.

With the knife still buried in his cheek, Cecil whipped his head back and crumpled to the floor, reaching for his face. His hands found the handle of the knife and gracelessly ripped it out. He then let out a scream unlike anything I’d ever heard, something that sounded beyond human or animal.

I scrambled to my hands and knees and crawled back to the hole in the door, coughing and sputtering. I saw stars at the edges of my vision.

I’M GONNA FUCKING KILL YOU! YOU LITTLE FUCK, DO YOU HEAR ME? I’M GONNA KILL YOU!” The words came out of his torn mouth, sounding strange and muffled.

I forced my way through the pet door again, and this time Cecil didn’t follow. He just continued cursing and moaning on the floor. I hurdled down the steps and into the night, running as fast as my feet would carry me.

Even in the dark I knew the land well enough to avoid obstacles and uneven patches. I eventually found my way to the small creek that cut through the back of my grandparents’ property. I slid down the shallow dirt embankment and crawled on my hands and knees until I finally reached a small shelter of thick, overhanging roots. Dad and I found this place years ago and I still visited it from time to time.

Tucked out of sight with my knees drawn to my chest, I sat in the dark, too frightened to pray. I just held my breath and listened for any sounds of Cecil.


After a while, the drumming of my pulse began to mellow and my breath found its natural rhythm again. The scrapes on my body stung and I felt sick to my stomach, but more than anything else I felt tired. At some point, I’m not sure when, I fell asleep listening to the gentle murmur of the creek.

I don’t remember much after that. I recall being awoken by a stranger with a flashlight calling out that he’d found me. I remember blue and red police lights and Dad hugging me and crying. Then, I remember waking in a hospital bed. Mom’s voice was a furious whisper somewhere in the room, and Dad was with her, crying again. I pretended to be asleep and listened. I heard them mention that Cecil had not been found and that Annette’s head was missing from her body.

I remember talking with a nice man who worked with the police. He asked me questions about what happened that night at Cecil and Annette’s home. We met several times; he called them “sessions.” During the first session I threw up on my lap and cried. By our last session though, I had told him most of what I remembered.

Eight days after his second stroke, Grandpa died. I don’t remember the funeral. Grandma lived with us after that night I spent at Cecil’s, and it was clear that nobody felt safe. There was constant tension. Mom stayed angry at Dad, and a month later we left him to live with her parents in New Mexico. I saw Dad only a few times a year after that.

I don’t remember being bitter during that time, not at Mom or Dad—that came later. I just remember being scared. Every night as I laid in bed, I would wonder if Cecil knew where I was and if he was out there somewhere, in the dark with Annette’s rotting head, waiting to finish what he started.

I would think about what he had said to me. The Lord asked this of me, Isaac. I didn’t pray anymore, because for a long time I worried that God had really wanted me dead.

For years, I had frequent nightmares and constantly looked over my shoulder. Mom had given me a small canister of mace to carry with me, and I kept it in my pocket.

When I was seventeen, I decided I never wanted to think about Cecil or Annette again. I also decided I never wanted to think about Grandpa or Dad anymore either. I started going by my middle name, Christopher, and left the name Isaac behind. During my last semester of college, I met Susan. She told me early on that she didn’t want children, and that was when I knew I loved her. We married two years later, adopted a dog, and the three of us were happy together.

I’d moved on. Or, at least, I’d convinced myself I had.

I’m sure Cecil is dead. Decades have passed. I’m older now than my dad was back then. But for some reason, after all these years, I’m having nightmares again. Nightmares about that night. But they’re different from the ones I had as a child.

In these dreams, I’m standing in Cecil and Annette’s mobile home as a grown man. My arms are covered in blood, and I’m leaning over a body slumped forward on the dining table. I’m wielding the small pocketknife Cecil had given me for my birthday, hacking into the neck of the corpse, trying to separate the vertebrae.

The body is Susan’s.

I’m sobbing while I work with the knife, but I’m unable to stop. Cecil stands beside me and places a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Very good, son,” he says. “If the Father calls you to do something, you do it.


About the Creator

Talbot Finch

Hello. My name is Talbot Finch, and I write fiction.

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