by Paul Luikart

Brother Rex wasn’t afraid of the devil. He wasn’t afraid of Hell. He wasn’t afraid of the rulers and the powers of this world, nor the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenlies. Only thing in all the world that scared Brother Rex is if one soul, even just only one, should miss the chance to hear the Word of God preached.

This tormented him so, and he prayed about it every night. Prayed so hard and long that sometimes the sun came up before he was finished. You’d just as likely find him passed out asleep on his living room floor as you would in his bed, tuckered out from intercession. And one night, deep in prayer, Brother Rex heard a call. A call from God to walk the length of every street in every part of Ohio, door to door, countryside and cities and everywhere in between, preaching to all who’d hear.

So, this is what he done to prepare, for a wise man will count the cost. He sectioned off Ohio into quarters—Northwest up by Toledo, Northeast by Cleveland, Southeast all backed up against the river, and Southwest, Cincinnati and surrounding environs. Then he sectioned off the quarters into counties and the counties into cities and towns and villages, even down to the no-stop-light hamlets that dot the hills and valleys and flat farmland the breadth of the entire state. At FedEx, he had them blow up an Ohio map as big as a quilt and he tacked it to his living room wall and every night, he spoke to the Lord and listened. Finally, he called me up.

‘Cockamamie, I know it must sound that way,’ he said, ‘Sure sounds like that to me sometimes.’

‘No sir, Brother Rex,’ I told him, ‘Think of Noah and the ark. Manna. The Red Sea split in two.’

‘Well, you’re right,’ he said, ‘Only thing is, I need a traveling partner. Part time, at least. What about you, Hank?’

I said I would. Of course I would. But I sure don’t mind admitting I felt like a lowly Barnabas to his Apostle Paul.

We started not far from here. The very first place. Brother Rex knew about a trailer, he told me, a banged up little singlewide, out past Darrtown by Tucky Run, set way back in the woods. He didn’t think they had no running water, nor electric, nor no vehicle with which to drive themselves back and forth to church nor anyplace else. ‘For I been appointed for such a time and place as this,’ he said.

We found a little lane we thought must be theirs, not hardly more than a cut through the trees, all grown up with mayapples and jewelweed and filled with ruts deep as a wheel well on any car that ain’t been modified. Brother Rex took one look and said, ‘My little beater won’t make it up through there.’

So, we grabbed our weapons from the back seat—Bibles and tracts—and, dressed in the full armor of God, left his Corolla at the head of the little lane and kept on, allowing no obstacle, natural nor unnatural, manmade nor otherwise, to hinder the progress of the Word. We trooped forward, swishing through the undergrowth and taking turns lifting our voices in prayer for whoever it was we might meet back in there.

After a half mile or thereabouts, the woods opened up just a little and the sunshine came down through the fluttering leaves and put a bright shine on the old trailer. Even though the rust was like a skirt all around, high as the windows in some places.

‘Praise God,’ Brother Rex said, and I said the same, and we approached the trailer and knocked—a whack, whack, whack on the warped screen door. A mongrel dog, a cur with half its fur gone, jumped up and growled and would’ve busted through the screen if it had had the strength. As it was, we seen it didn’t. Each raggedy bark sent the animal reeling and its scrawny body wouldn’t quit shaking. The animal backed me up a pace or two, a God-given instinct for survival, but Brother Rex stood solid as a Lebanon cedar and only said, ‘Hello, old pooch. Your master around?’

The question was answered immediately, as a man came around the corner of the trailer.

‘What you want?’ he said.

He was stooped and skinny, wearing ripped sweatpants and a white sweatshirt stained yellow and, in some places, green. His face was gaunt, cheeks under his half-grown beard drawn up under his cheekbones, and his eyes were set so far back, you’d not be surprised if they tipped backward and slid down through his skull. His skin above and below the scraggly whiskers bloomed with little red sores. And we smelt the man from where we stood, the reek of urine and unwashed skin. He wasn’t old, but he hobbled our direction like an octogenarian.

‘Hello, friend.’ Brother Rex’s voice boomed. He tucked his Bible under his left arm and marched toward the man, his arm and hand stretched out straight like a spear, for the handshake.

I said already that Brother Rex wasn’t afraid of anything. Nor anybody. He’d shake the hand of kings and paupers just the same, for he saw not the man nor his deeds, whether good or bad or halfway between, but as objects of the love of their Creator and perfectly equal in His eyes. It pained Brother Rex to the core to think that anyone the world over didn’t or wouldn’t understand that easy truth. The world would call it a weakness. But I’d call it a golden roadway to the love of God, a roadway which ran directly through Brother Rex’s heart.

The man grabbed Brother Rex’s right hand. But then, a quick silver flash in the man’s left hand. A hunting knife, and he stuck Brother Rex with it, below the ribs, up into the liver. When he yanked the knife out, a dark fan of blood followed. Brother Rex, stunned, dropped to his knees, still gripping in friendship the hand of the man who stabbed him. But the man shook it free with a flick of his wrist, the way you might flick something sticky off your fingertips.

‘That’ll teach you,’ the man cackled, ‘That’ll teach you.’

I grabbed Brother Rex under the arms and stood him up, but he doubled over and down he went again.

‘Look what you done,’ I screamed, but the man was gone. The dog, inside yet, started up barking again till it went hoarse and the barks became airy hacks.

‘Mercy,’ Brother Rex said. His face had gone gray.

I stripped off my suit coat and crammed it against his side and tried to get my belt around him to hold the coat against the wound, but it wouldn’t fit. Blood, dark and red, already soaked everything, his dress shirt and pants down past the pocket on his right side.

‘This’ll be a rough ride, Brother Rex.’ I squatted and lifted him up and slung him over my shoulder. Fast as I could, I tottered back the way we came, ripping through the weeds and grass, and stumbling now and then on protruding roots or rocks buried in that foliage. Every so often, he’d whisper, ‘Mercy,’ and I’d say, calm as I could, ‘Peace be with you, Brother Rex. We’re nearly to the car.’ And when we got to it, I cradled his head and tipped him into the passenger seat. My arm was numb down to my fingers, my back tricked, and now I was drenched in blood too. With the hand that could feel, I rummaged through his pockets to find the car key.

But it wasn’t any use. Brother Rex was all over white as a piece of paper, his lips too, eyes rolled back. I wondered if he had any blood left in him. His chest wasn’t rising nor falling no more, and I could see—anybody could see—that he’d gone up to be with the Lord.

But we don’t find no closure there, though they caught the man and justice will be served. Brother Rex was called to preach to every soul in Ohio—twelve million people, very nearly—and never got to one. What a foolishness, what a shame. A vexation of spirit. But the beautiful feet of them that bear the Word tread upon the devil’s byways. It cannot be further explained.

Paul Luikart is the author of the short story collections Animal Heart (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016) and Brief Instructions (Ghostbird Press, 2017.) His work is included in the 2019 Best Microfiction anthology from Pelekinesis Press and his story “Barclay Station” won the Nassau Review’s 2019 Writer Award for Fiction. Currently, he serves as an adjunct professor of fiction writing at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He and his family live in Chattanooga, Tennessee.