Criminals

He lay his head against the back of the seat, his hat on his knee, and lightly scraped the texture of the armrest with his fingers. Though he was relaxed, the extent to which he had to stretch to hold that position made him look a little awkward, his wiry frame trying desperately to take up more space than it physically could.

Figures in minimal clothing slid silently by.

“May I roll down the window?”

“The air conditioner is on.”

“Okay.”

He scratched the plastic texture some more, rubbing it with his fingertips.

“You know what, go ahead. It’s not like I’m trying to conserve fuel in this thing.”

Warm, salty air tossed the boy’s hair about.

“Me too! Me too, Dad!”

The girl met her father’s gaze in the rearview mirror.

“Sure thing, beautiful.” Both of the back windows came down. She clapped her hands. The cotton gloves she wore muffled the sound.

“How long are we staying here?” He looked over at his father.

“Two days. Why, got a date this weekend?”

“Just curious.”

“Yeah, I thought we’d chill out around here for a couple of days and then head down to Disneyworld for the rest of the time.”

“Sounds great.”

“Good.”

The pelicans hovered, dipped suddenly, and climbed again into the sky.

“So you’re an atheist, right, Dad?”

He laughed.

“I suppose so. The exact term might be agnostic.”

“Mom believes in God, you know.”

“Oh, do I know.”

“She wants me and Ella to join her church.”

“Well, I’m not going to stop you, but I would rather you didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I know they teach you to do good and be good, but don’t you already know all of that?”

“I guess.”

“Well, I guess all I have to say about that is that you shouldn’t do it unless you really believe in it.”

“But you think it’s all fake, right?”

He adjusted his sunglasses. “Yeah, I think it’s fake. Just a way to control people and take their money for nothing. But if you’re going to waste your time and money, I suppose most people do that anyway, and there are worse ways of doing it.”

He regarded his son. “Do you believe in God?”

“Sometimes I think so.”

“Well, I suppose I wonder about it sometimes too. Just don’t let it interfere with your real life, though, I guess.”

He looked back at his daughter again.

“Ella, are you ready to make castles?”

“Yes, Daddy! I love castles!”

“Well, good! We’re almost to the resort.”

*

Riley liked going out with the kids regardless of the situation, but he especially liked taking them to the beach. Thin beauties were always curious about this dark, chiseled man with two cute kids and no woman to speak of. He got a few looks while he laid out the towels and set up the umbrella.

Ella ran out to the water and almost lost her balance when the waves swept up around her knees. She laughed and kicked water into the air.

“Do you like the beach, Ella?”

“I love the beach!”

“What are you now?”

“I’m a mermaid!”

“What kind of mermaid?”

“A princess mermaid!”

Riley laughed as he opened the green canvas sack and pulled out various buckets, shovels, molds, and other implements vital to a master sandcastle builder. He sat down by his son under the umbrella and lay back on his elbows.

“Your sister has quite the imagination. I love it.”

“Yeah, she tells me all sorts of stories.”

Adam lifted a handful of sand and let it fall as if it were in an hourglass.

“So what if God does exist?”

“Are we still on that?”

“Yeah. What if God exists? I mean, when it comes to believing in God, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, right?”

“I believe that line of reasoning is called Pascal’s Wager, and it has two flaws. First, people have a lot to lose by wasting their lives believing in God. Second, God doesn’t exist. So the whole discussion is pointless anyway.”

“Studies show that people who believe in God are happier.”

“Or they say they’re happier than they truly are because religion programs them to do so out of guilt.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s a possibility.”

Ella skipped back up toward them and started cheerfully rattling through the buckets, molds, and shovels. She immediately started filling the buckets with sand and packing it tightly. The wind pushed down on the brim of the hat that protected her face and neck from the painful rays of the sun. The skin there was red and tight, with splotches of white.

“Look, Adam, I’ve never been one to shove my worldview down other people’s throats, but if you really want to know how I feel, I’m going to tell you. Everyone knows what it means to be a decent human being. If a man needs some belief in an Eternal Master of Warm Apple Pie to motivate himself into doing what he already knows he should do, that just shows he’s weak. And on top of that, he opens himself to all sorts of ways in which he can be manipulated.”

Riley watched as his daughter began to place parapets, keeps, and walls for her castle. She worked quickly, humming all the time. He could already see the sand getting stuck in her gloves and sleeves. They had brought extras, but he generally tried to avoid changing her clothes as much as possible, as it was always painful for her.

“What kind of castle are you building, gorgeous?”

“A princess castle. I’m the princess.”

“What are you princess of?”

“Um…Florida!”

“Well, good! It’s a good place to be princess of.”

Laughing, Riley raised his eyes toward the shore. Among the bathers and sunbathers, a dark figure walked down the water’s edge, his eyes cast listlessly upon the ground. He was a black man with a haggard and graying beard, and he carried three plastic bags, one filled with soda cans, another with plastic bottles, and a third with glass bottles. His T-shirt and jeans had holes in them, and his archaic Reeboks slid awkwardly over the water-packed sand. He was muttering to himself, and he carried a metal cane that he did not seem to need.

“Now how did he get here?” Riley looked around. “I thought the resort kept this beach secluded.”

The old man raised his eyes to meet Riley’s gaze, and his lips stopped moving for a moment. Riley looked at his daughter again. The sandcastle was looking amazing now: three levels of pressed sand now towered over the beach, with a little plastic flag sticking out of the top and crenellations cut into the top edge of everything.

“Be smart, Adam.” He looked over at his son, who had now reclined and closed his eyes. “That’s the bottom line. I’m a prime example of how people don’t need to believe in God to be happy. Everything you need for happiness is right in front of you. You just have to be willing to seize it, and you can’t do that unless you see the world for what it is. Don’t believe in things that don’t exist. Believing in something untrue never helped anyone do anything.”

“Daddy…!”

Ella had run back toward him and taken hold of his arm. Riley looked over to see the muttering man bearing down on them purposefully, his cane swinging above him in the air. On his feet in an instant, Riley pulled his daughter around behind him, and his mind flashed back to the krav maga classes he had taken a year before.

The muttering man stopped at the sandcastle and pummeled it with his cane. He shuffled his feet angrily and brought down the rest.

“No castles! No fairytales! No kings and queens! Just sand! Just silicon and dirt! Just nothing!” After spitting on the razed structure, he turned and walked away just as quickly as he had come.

“What the hell?” shouted Riley. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing! Nothing at all! Just sand and dirt and dust and water! It’s all nothing!”

Riley shook his head. “Crazy old man.”

Penance

Who’s there?

I heard you. I think I can see you. Who’s there? I have a gun. Come into the light. Let me have a look at you.

Are you serious? Beard, sandals, and robes? Red robes, no less! Been treading the winepress, have we? Do you really expect me to believe this rubbish?

Nothing to say? You come into my bedroom in the middle of the night and wake me up and you have nothing to say? How long have you been standing there and watching me? Who are you?

Do you really expect me to believe? I never believed before. Oh, I know I said that I did. Maybe I even believed myself when I said it – for a moment – but I have been getting out of bed and facing the world every morning with the knowledge that there is no God. Yes, I said it: there is no God! And even if there were, He would have to be either corrupt or powerless.

Do you think that makes me a hypocrite? A charlatan? Well, even if it does, I’m no worse than you are. Savior of the world? Whom did you ever save? Certainly not me, and I am your biggest supporter. You’ve fooled billions.

I know you are no Savior. And yet, here you are in my bedroom in the middle of the night. Did you come to apologize? I would like to think so. But no, any apology would acknowledge imperfection, so a perfect being cannot apologize. Very well. But don’t try to condemn me for using the same argument as you.

Have you come to condemn me? Then get to the condemning already! Why do you stand there? Your silence was always insufferable, and it’s even more so now with you staring me down like that.

Very well then. If you aren’t going to do it, I’ll do it for you. Let’s see here. Perhaps you would condemn me for adultery, but that would be unconscionable. I have tens of thousands of women hanging on my every word twice a week. Do you expect me not to indulge? Do you expect me to think that you didn’t? I only tell my people that I’m God’s servant, but you told yours that you were God in the flesh! Do you expect me to assume that the women you “saved” never wanted to show you gratitude?

Anyway, I don’t see why you should condemn me when my wife doesn’t. And there’s always sola fide, right?

Yes, sola fide. And sola gratia too, of course. The two most wonderful gifts that Latin has ever bestowed upon the English language. My entire career has been built on those two terms. Your grace absolves all men everywhere of all sin, just as long as they profess their faith in you. Such a lovely idea. The unwashed masses eat it right up. It’s amazing what people are willing to give you once you’ve declared them free of all accountability. The price they are willing to pay for such salvation goes far beyond monetary measurement.

And what if I don’t teach your message? Who does, anyway? If you hadn’t filled the Bible with so many contradictions and ambiguities, we wouldn’t have so many people teaching so many different things, now, would we? Most people in this world would be willing to do what you want if you would just tell them. But no, you prefer to leave us to our own devices. Oh, we do have scripture, but you and I both know how useless that is. It’s not exactly a standard message on belief if everything can be interpreted twenty different ways. The only way to fix that would be to send prophets again to straighten everything out, but we both know those times are gone.

I thought about becoming a prophet instead of just a minister. I considered it for a long time, as you may know. But it just isn’t worth it: making that claim gets you increased adulation from a small number of people and increased scrutiny from everyone else. It’s better to just be a minister. Everyone knows ministers aren’t called by God like prophets, but they suspend their disbelief and generally follow us as if we were prophets anyway. I’ve met a few apostles in my day as well. I thought about adopting that title, but doing so implies that you are part of a quorum or a group, and I’ve always been a one-man show.

Still nothing to say? Did you not expect this? I thought you were supposed to be a lion now, and not a lamb anymore. Where is your fire? Where is your condemnation? You aren’t on trial now: I am no Pharisee bent on crucifying you. So speak.

Speak! Why was that always so hard for you? I did believe at one point, you know. When I was young. Your image was everywhere in our house, and my mother always made sure that I prayed at least five times a day. I talked to you, but you never talked back. And now that I don’t believe in you anymore, you appear! But you still won’t talk, so hardly anything has changed, I guess.

What do you want from me? If you didn’t come to preach to me, why did you come?

Ah, that’s it then. My time is out. I’m moving on, am I?

Well, I refuse. If ever you wanted to prove you were not a tyrant, now would be the time. I refuse to die. I’m healthy and young, and I’m at the top of the world. Don’t make me leave now, not after everything I’ve built.

And if I don’t really believe, what’s that to you? If this message really saves, look at how many people I’ve saved! I have one of the largest congregations in the world! Doesn’t that please you at all?

Maybe it doesn’t. But that’s just because you are impossible to please. Even if the message I preach isn’t really your message, you should take into account the fact that your standards are too high. No one could ever live up to your expectations: that’s why you need people like me to make the message more realistic. If the purpose of your message is to make people happy, I’ve done that. Anyone attending one of my services can see that those people are truly happy – at least for a little while. I let them forget the grim reality that constantly surrounds them. Unlike you, I give them acceptance, love, and peace. You give them judgment, guilt, and conflict. You even said that you would bring a sword into the world and turn family members against each other. And you certainly did that. No wonder the atheists hate us.

I suppose I am an atheist. But then again, maybe not. After all, here you are. So I suppose I do believe in you: I just don’t like you very much.

Still nothing to say? Well, what if I were to put this gun in your face? Would you talk then?

I just told you that I didn’t want to die. Well, do you? I guess you already did it once. Did you like it so much that you wanted to do it again? I can help you with that. One bullet right between the eyes.

What am I saying? This isn’t real. You aren’t real. I must be dreaming. And yet, there you are, as real as anything. And what I feel is as real as anything. So let’s perform an experiment. I’m going to pull this trigger, and we’re going to see what happens. If I’m just dreaming, then everything will go back to being exactly as it was. If you’re really there…well, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it? Certainly more interesting than all of your silence. Are you ready? Here goes nothing.