Kings and Popes and Saints12 min read

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Ageism, Conspiracy/Paranoia, Death or dying

Patricia could hear them gathered on her front porch, the kings and popes and saints, gossiping and chattering and generally having a good time. She turned. King Solomon lay sprawled across the bed like it was his golden throne. He raised his head to regard Patricia. “It’s time,” he said. “Ready for battle?”

“I am,” she said. Solomon nodded.

Patricia picked up her late husband’s floppy fisherman’s hat and put it on. She looked at herself in the mirror over her dresser. What her daughter Ana would say if she could see her? Nothing good.

She lifted her chin. As if Patricia was now Ana’s child, trying to tell her what she could do. She knew Ana spoke from a place of love, but Ana was wrong and she would prove it. Still, Patricia would need all the help she could get. She headed to the kitchen.

She took out the aluminum foil and ripped off a piece. With great care, she lined the hat with it. Then another piece, and another.

The phone rang, but Patricia ignored it. Only Ana ever called now. The last time they spoke had not been pleasant. Mama, this is too big a place for you to keep up now since Daddy died. Mama, we’re all worried about you. Mama, if you can’t keep this place up, the state’ll put you in a home.

“We’ll see about that,” she said and slammed the drawer shut.

Out on the porch, Emperor Constantine perched on the railing with St. Nicholas and St. Augustine, all three chattering away “like a house afire,” as her mother would’ve said. St. Gregory arm wrestled Pope Benedict XI, cheered on by Innocent III and Charlemagne. Muscles strained as the two grunted with effort. It was a wonder the neighbors didn’t complain. But they never did, perhaps deferring to her guests’ exalted rank.

“I’m here,” said Patricia. There was a chorus of greetings, interrupted by Gregory’s triumphant cry as he forced down Benedict’s arm.

With a broad smile on his bearded face, Charlemagne bowed to Patricia, the movement filling the air with a hint of cinnamon. “A great pleasure to see you, dear lady,” he said in a voice deep as night. She curtsied, then began to remove her hat. Charlemagne raised his hand. “No, no, dear lady. Such courtesy would only expose you to great peril.”

“Indeed,” cried St. Augustine, robes rustling in the light breeze. “Besides, if she greets you so, she’ll have to greet us all, and who has the time?”

Everyone laughed, except Pope Innocent, who only smiled. “Is this the day, dear Patricia, when you face the foe?” he said.

“Of course,” said Charlemagne, stroking his beard. “Why else would she have asked us all here?”

Patricia nodded. “It is indeed, Your Eminence.” As one they all turned to look out into the yard to where the strange weed-things poked through the grass.

They had appeared overnight a few weeks before. Ugly and purplish, reaching up through the Bermuda grass like fingers grasping for prey. Patricia had been wary at the start and watched them from the window as a deer considers the wolf. Soon they grew tall with fat stalks. Birds no longer landed in the yard, and the few that did disappeared as soon as Patricia looked away. Now the weed-things grew strong and brazen. At night they whispered to Patricia in her mind in their queer vegetable language.

“Orchid grass is all,” George had said. George was Ana’s husband and had stopped by last week, claiming Ana had told him she’d left a sweater there. Patricia wasn’t fooled by this transparent lie: Ana hadn’t visited in so long.

George pointed a thumb at the weed-things. “Mom, I could put down a little weed killer for you. Take care of those fellows toot sweet.” She was tempted but refused. Ana would take it as a sign of her frailty. She gave him an old cardigan from the back of the closet to get him to leave.

Her friends had much advice. Augustine and Innocent thought them mandrakes looking for mischief, and counseled her to plug her ears with wax, “to block their deadly shrieks.” The others weren’t so sure but had no better ideas. In the end, it was King Solomon who’d suggested tinfoil. She’d made a foil cap and slept peacefully that night.

Now she would get rid of them once and for all. With the foil she would be a phantom to them, invisible and unstoppable. If she worked hard, she could be rid of them by nightfall, and prove to Ana she was safe and strong.

“Wish me luck, my lords,” she said and bent to pick up her bucket and trowel. As she straightened, she heard a whistling sound. A young man came walking up.

He wore a backward-turned baseball cap on his head and was dressed in the strange styles all young men wore these days. In one hand he carried a heavy clipboard. She couldn’t fault him for the hat in this heat, but he reminded Patricia of the young men Ana had dated back in the day: slick.

When he saw Patricia looking at him, he gave a big toothy smile and waved. “Good morning.”

All the popes and saints and kings fell silent. St. Augustine narrowed his eyes, considering. “Too young for a tax collector,” he said. “Say hello.”

Patricia smiled. “Good morning,” she said. A nervous prickle whispered along the nape of her neck, but she ignored it. Her friends were with her. They would keep her from harm.

“Hi there, ma’am. My name is Justin,” said the young man as he held out his hand. Patricia took it, a little reluctant, and he pumped it twice.

Charlemagne looked at the others in disgust. “Impudence.” He snorted. “Greeting her as an equal. Youth today!”

Patricia shot them a distracted glance, then turned back to catch the rest of what Justin said: “—earn points for a trip to Rome. So do you think you could help me out?”

At the word ‘Rome,’ her friends began talking with excitement. Only Augustine said nothing. “I’m sorry, dear,” said Patricia. “I’m, ah, a little hard of hearing. What was that first part?”

“Magazine subscriptions,” said Justin. His smile was easy, confident. “Each one I sell gets me closer to my goal. Do you think you’d be interested?”

“Magazines?” said Charlemagne. “Nothing but fripperies.”

“Shh!” hissed Patricia before she could stop herself. She looked back at Justin to see his grin had slipped a little. Out in the yard, the weed-things began muttering among themselves in a rustling chorus. “I don’t know, dear—” she began, but he held up a hand.

“Please, call me Justin. Ma’am, I understand if you don’t really need any magazines. But I do need to sell them for my trip, so I’d like to offer you something extra.” He leaned forward. “My dad thought I’d have better luck if I offered some free labor to go along with it.”

Innocent and Charlemagne huffed in disapproval. Justin did not seem to hear them, as he pointed up the street. “I live on just a couple blocks over—”

Augustine shook his head, causing his beard to wag. “His face is unfamiliar,” he said.

“A knavish liar,” muttered one of the others.

“Perhaps not,” said Innocent. “Perhaps we’ve only never seen him before.”

Now they all began to argue. Patricia tried to concentrate on Justin, but it was hard. He had turned back, still talking: “—wash your car, or mow your lawn. What do you say?”

“That’s all right,” said Patricia. “I mean, there’s not really that much to do.”

“Quite right,” shouted one of the popes, and the others all cheered. Frustration combined with anxiety began to churn inside Patricia. Her stomach clenched, and out came the words:

“Please stop talking when I’m trying to speak. It’s very rude.”

Silence fell. Justin cocked his head. “Ma’am, I didn’t say anything.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

Justin looked left and right before turning back to her. His eyes held curiosity, and something else. “Then who were you talking to?”

Too late, Patricia realized what she’d said. She saw her friends’ faces, pale and wide-eyed. “To myself.” Heat filled her face in a rush.

Justin said nothing, just looked at her. Patricia stood frozen. His gaze held her in place. The prickling on the back of her neck shot down to her legs, making them want to jump, to run, to escape this young man and his stare. Out in the yard, the weed-things grew louder.

St. Augustine leaned close. “It’s all right.” His voice was light and easy, soothing her like a nervous stallion in battle. “This boy is no one to be concerned about. Remain calm, just breathe. He’ll leave. He won’t come back. You’ll be fine.” As the saint spoke, Patricia felt her embarrassment begin to fade.

Justin looked down at his clipboard for a moment, then back up at her. “Ma’am, I really think you should buy some magazines,” he said.

Patricia took a deep breath. “Why?”

“They’ll be able to help you.” He lowered his voice. “Some issues contain messages. Coded messages, of great importance.”

Patricia blinked. The others began talking amongst themselves, quick and low: “Messages?” “From who?” “Does he know?” She let it fade, only staring at Justin to get some hint of his meaning. She saw nothing, no twitching of the lips or crinkling of the eyes to indicate suppressed laughter.

After endless seconds, she could wait no longer. “Messages from who?” she said.

“Louis XIV. Aristotle, Abraham Lincoln. And, of course, Elvis.”

Innocent’s eyes narrowed. “A secular lot,” he said.

“Indeed,” said Charlemagne, beard wagging. “Still, they might prove useful.”

“Charlemagne, isn’t Louis a countryman of yours?” said St. Augustine.

Charlemagne gave a crooked smile. “I would not trust him.” “Still, all that we can learn might help us.”

Patricia sensed the excitement rumbling in her friends and caught a little of it herself. “What are the messages about?” she said.

“Aliens,” said Justin. His eyes stayed wide and sincere, but they shifted from side to side, as though looking for eavesdroppers. “The messages detail their plans for world domination, and how the government covers it up. They’re in cahoots with the Lizard People and the Grays.”

Charlemagne sucked air through his teeth. “That might explain the appearance of these unholy things,” he said, gesturing out at the yard.

“What are the Grays?” said Innocent.

“The aliens, methinks,” said one of the saints.

Charlemagne scowled. “But those infernal plant people are not gray at all! As any fool can see, they’re purple!”

While her friends argued, Justin pulled out a glossy order form. “They hide messages in the table of contents of these magazines. What you have to do is read the titles together, and that reveals the meaning.” He began checking the list, quick slashes of ink. “Now, if you don’t get all these, the messages won’t make any sense.”

He handed the list to her. Over a dozen titles had marks, all at the three-year rate. At the bottom was the total. Her stomach twisted again. “There’s almost seven hundred dollars here,” she said. “I don’t think I can afford that.”

Justin spoke before the others could answer. “Ma’am, you can’t afford not to.” He sounded solemn as a choirboy.

The kings and popes and saints started arguing again: “The price is too high—“ “Good information always costs—“ “Good? We have no proof—“ “Can we take that chance?” Patricia tried to follow the debate, but it grew more and more frenzied.

Justin pressed the order form and pen into her unresisting hands. “Just fill that out,” he said in a soft tone, but his voice cut through the others. Obediently she scrawled her name and address into the blanks. “Now—Patricia,” he said with a glance at the form, “go get your checkbook.”

Patricia hesitated, hoping for some consensus among her friends. The argument still raged, with no end in sight. “Patricia,” said Justin in firmer tones, “get your checkbook.”

Numb, Patricia looked back to the house. Through the window, she could see King Solomon sitting, watching the scene.

“Patricia,” said Justin. Unresisting, she went inside. Her thoughts raced, but her stomach squeezed like a giant’s fist and the prickling on her scalp had turned to white hot needles.

She found the checkbook in her purse. As she pulled it out, for the first time, Patricia worried Ana might be right. It was a lot of money, she knew. Most of her emergency fund. Ana would be so mad. But she needed to know.

Her hand trembled as she wrote the check. Only after she tore it from the checkbook did the strange compulsion over her break. Her eyes filled with tears.

She looked at a picture on the mantle, taken a few years before at some party. It was her favorite one of her and Mark. The old ache of loss flooded back into her. How she needed him here, and nothing could relieve the loneliness and fear of not knowing what to do.

King Solomon rubbed up against her legs. The contact made Patricia realize how badly she needed a hug. She scooped up Solomon, holding his purring body against her. “Oh, Your Majesty, what am I going to do?” she whispered.

Behind her the front door squeaked on its hinges, followed by a footstep. Her heart pounded and she turned to see Justin’s charming grin. “Is that check ready for me, Patricia?”

At the word check, Patricia’s arm extended itself, holding it out. Justin took it. “Thank you,” he said.

Patricia opened her mouth to speak but stopped when King Solomon pricked her with his claws. “Test him,” whispered Solomon. Patricia looked at him, and the king winked.

“Justin,” she began. Her mind raced to come up with an excuse. “Would you mind doing me a favor? There are some bottles out in the yard. Maybe you saw them coming up the sidewalk? They’re out among the weed”—she managed to choke off things—“weeds, and I’d appreciate it if you could pick them up for me. After all,” she said with a fake little laugh, sounding like Ana, “you did say you’d do that sort of thing.”

Justin’s grin never faded. “Be a pleasure.”

Patricia thought about the cold brain whispers of the weed-things, and guilt poked at her. “In the kitchen, you can find”—Solomon’s claws cut into her again–“trash bags. Next to the aluminum foil.”

Justin disappeared into the kitchen. King Solomon looked disapproving, and she shook her head. “He has to have a chance,” she said in a whisper.

A minute later Justin reappeared, a black hefty bag in hand. She stared at his cap, but couldn’t tell if foil was underneath it or not. As Justin passed, he nodded at King Solomon. “Nice looking fellow you’ve got there,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Patricia. She watched as he walked out with that check. The door shut with a sharp click. “Now what?” she said.

“Wait,” said Solomon.

Patricia sat on the sofa, back square to the window. She would not look. Instead, she listened to the hall clock ticking and stroked King Solomon’s fur. King Solomon began talking about his days as king, but Patricia only half-listened. The rest of her attention remained focused outside, trying to decipher distant sounds. Was that a scream? Finally, she couldn’t stand it anymore and put down Solomon.

Outside Charlemagne sat on the step talking with Augustine, while overhead the others soared, chasing each other in big looping circles. Patricia looked around. There was no sign of Justin. Where did he go?” she said.

St. Augustine pointed out into the yard. “Out there.”

Patricia covered her mouth.

“Aye,” said Charlemagne. “He must not have been reading those messages after all.” He shook his head.

Patricia shuddered.

She picked up her trowel and bucket, then slowly proceeded out into the lawn. The sooner she finished, the better.

Thoughts secure under the tinfoil-lined hat, the weed-things paid her no mind. She knelt by the first one, knees pressing against the damp earth. With a quick movement, she stabbed down with the trowel. Before the weed-thing could react, she had it uprooted and in the bucket. Helpless, it lay still. Patricia smiled.

In less than an hour, she had covered half the yard. The remaining weed-things whispered to each other, trying to understand what was happening to them.

In the middle of a crowd of them, Patricia found a few crumpled pieces of paper wedged in the roots of a particularly large weed-thing. She pulled it free. They were stained and shriveled, but in one corner she could make out her name and address. She tossed it in the bucket and went back to work. Finally, she finished. Back on the porch, her friends applauded as she walked around to the garage. Wouldn’t Ana be surprised!

She poured the bucket into the garbage can and went inside. On the sofa, King Solomon lay curled up like a furry pillow. “Your Majesty,” she said, “Would you like some tuna?”

King Solomon purred.

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