Jackson Culpepper “Judgment House”

The pines by the house are one shadow and our van’s headlights push the darkness far back into the woods. It rushes back when they cut off. I know hell is not in that house.

The sun was setting when we left Delia. Waves of heavy cloud hung over us, so bright it looked like if they dropped they would incinerate us. I pointed them out to Ashley and she looked into the small glaring sun with me and said “Yeah, it’s beautiful.”
I tried to sit next to her in the van but she sat in the back with the other girls. I listened to my music and watched the lit-up parking lots of Albany pass by.
Tommy, our youth director, acted like we all already knew what the house was and didn’t explain it. The others said it was about heaven and hell and people dying. Then you get Dairy Queen after.

In class we read that the woods are lovely, dark, and deep. The woods behind the house would be quiet—I can tell by looking. Besides, there wouldn’t be a hundred laughing youth like there are here, and no blaring music. Maybe Ashley would go back there with me, just to hear the quiet. How do you ask a girl to do that?
Tommy gives us bright yellow wristbands and says, “Once you get your wristband, go on in and wait in the lobby.” He adds, “Don’t get Cokes or anything, you can’t carry them through.” Jim comes over to me. We’ve known each other since preschool. Jim spent the night at my house last weekend and we talked about girls. It took a long time for me to admit that I like Ashley. He likes Brittany. Neither of us have ever asked a girl out.
Ashley wears sweaters with just her fingers poking out of the sleeves. She never sits at our lunch table and we never sit at hers because it’s full of girls. Tommy talks sometimes about how lust is a sin and so is masturbation and the two go together because you’re not thinking of like a tree when you do it. But with Ashely, I just wish her niceness was mine—or that she’d point it at me.

The house is old. Its paint peels in strips and its windows are the old kind with thick glass. I get the feeling like it’s tired of having all these kids run through it. The windows upstairs are blacked out so you can’t see in, but we hear people screaming up there.

Ashley told me she saw a ghost once at the church campground. The counselors took her group straight through this creepy ruined house, past the fallen staircase and out the back door. Ashley knew there were people waiting to jump out at them. Once they got outside, sure enough, a counselor in a black robe ran after them. Ashley knew it was coming so she didn’t run. Instead she stayed and looked up at the window in the top floor, where she saw a white face disappear behind a curtain.

I like ghost stories but I can’t get them out of my head. Like when I’m in that sleep where I’m awake but I can’t move or scream, I see things in the corners of my room.

Inside the house, kids and their parents drink Cokes. There aren’t enough seats for everyone so we camp out on the floor, which is warped like crazy. I sit by Jim. Ashley is in her group of girls. Jim says, “I went through one of these last year but it wasn’t this big.”
“Is it scary?”
“The hell part kind of is. It depends on how they do it.”

I read the Bible and try to do the things Jesus says to do but a lot of it is about divorce and money and I’m not married. I don’t have any money either. Tommy never talks about the parts I have marked with pencil—Jesus drinking wine or the demon-possessed guy they chained up. That’s the stuff I’d like to hear about.

We’re going in. The hall is dark and tall. There are those little windows above all the doors. Our whispers echo.
The first scene has people standing in front of school lockers, talking. They aren’t really talking, just moving their heads and looking around like they were talking. Two people in front are actually talking. One wants to go to a party and the other doesn’t. The first guy gets louder, he really wants to go to this party, and the second one backs down, says okay. The second guy carries a Bible, so I guess he’s not supposed to be going to parties.
We move to the next scene. I hear Ashley’s voice behind me. She talks too quickly for me to understand. The cluster of girls giggle. I wish I knew what they were talking about.

Once Dad and I went to a crazy lady’s house. Dad told me she was our cousin and she went through phases of being really depressed and then really happy and now she was in the happy phase. She lived by herself and had piles of things everywhere: columns of magazines, stacks of kitchen utensils, rows of empty pots. Upstairs we came to her son’s bedroom. She told us he shot himself in that room and what was weirder was how calmly she said it. Just like the rest of the house, that bedroom had neat piles of things everywhere. In fact there were Playboy magazines stacked on his bed. The top magazine’s cover showed a big-haired woman with her arm across her boobs. The picture was faded it had sat there so long. I thought about taking it. I didn’t, not because of lust or whatever, but because there was something sad and gross about it. By then the crazy lady and Dad had gone back downstairs and I was alone there where he’d shot himself.
I thought, later, when I was in bed almost asleep, that the boy’s ghost might have come after me if I took the magazine.

The next scene is two girls at their school lunchroom. More people are in the back fake-talking. The girl tells her friend about being depressed. The depressed girl wears a lot of black, but you can tell it’s not her usual thing. Her nails aren’t painted black, either. The depressed girl’s friend talks about how much God loves the depressed girl and has her Bible out. Shaking her head, the depressed girl leaves. There is no God, she says. Her friend stays and says a prayer, Help Jenny dear Lord, help Jenny find her way Lord.
She should have said There is no love.

Once Ashley wrote me a note. I don’t understand how girls have such perfect handwriting when guys’ handwriting looks like we’re still in first grade. The note just said hi, asked about my classes and said how bored she was in hers. She drew a turtle beside where she put Your friend, Ashley. I wrote her one back and tried to fold it like she did hers.
That night I had a dream that my house was floating on the ocean and I was in the attic looking out through the windows.

I have nightmares many nights. When I was little, they were of something big and evil chasing me through the house. I tried to scream but couldn’t. It chased me but I never saw what it was—I only knew it was big and it stank like when you find a dead thing in the woods and it wanted to kill me. Later I had the same dream but the big evil thing was different. Instead of being in once place, it buzzed the air in the attic and all through the house. I couldn’t run or scream because it was in the house and there wasn’t any getting away from it. I woke up those mornings, always Saturday mornings, and didn’t move until I finally forgot the smell.

I have nightmares, too, where I see the shadows of demons coming down the hallway toward my bedroom. These nightmares, I know, are of my parents somehow. The demons scream and cackle and it is so, so loud.

Party scene. People dance and there’s loud music. Everyone drinks from red plastic cups. It’s kind of weird because they have all the lights on. Bible guy from earlier sips. He doesn’t have his Bible anymore but he looks really uncomfortable. Why doesn’t he just drink? Keri, one of our group, dances too and the girls giggle all over again. Bible guy wants to go home, he says. Other guy, who’s pretending to be drunk, says fine, he’ll drive, he’s only had a few. Jim looks at all the people dancing in the back, particularly at one hot girl.

The first time I drank out of the bottles in the dining room it gave me a coughing fit. My stomach felt empty in a weird way but I didn’t puke. I felt lighter and kind of happy. My parents keep other bottles in the desk, in the kitchen, all over the place. I found out the more you drink the less weird it gets. If you drink enough, you drift off past the spins to a place nightmares can’t seem to get to.
Tommy tells us not to drink.

The depressed girl is in her bedroom. There’s a poster of a band with wild hair on the wall and her bed isn’t made up. She has a bottle of pills, the red round type of bottle, not the white, square kind. She cries and says There is no God no one can help me and she takes the pills. In like a second she slumps over and dies. I didn’t see how many pills she took but you don’t just keel over like that. She looked way too calm, too.

I’ve heard people at church say that suicide is the one unforgivable sin.

Maybe the whole thing about God is made up but I’m scared to think that.
Sometimes I feel something when I pray. Like God’s presence with me.
Why is it so easy to feel like that thing from my nightmare is after me, but so hard to feel God?
Mawmaw says to pray for my angels to protect me. Tommy says God loves me and Jesus died for me and I am saved. Satan can’t get me. I don’t think Tommy knows much about the devil.

How can a short prayer save anybody, when every night is so hard?

Mom’s room is next to mine. I heard her crying in there with the door locked. I kept my eyes closed and prayed. Dad was out there so I couldn’t go get a bottle.

We are quiet while the depressed girl dies. On the way to the next scene, the girls talk and I can tell Jim wants to talk about computer games or something but he won’t right now.
The party guys have wrecked their car. Fake fire made from lights and streamers shoots up from the busted hood. Paramedics check their pulses and the drunk one is alive but Bible guy is dead. The paramedics don’t yell or cry. They just check the pulse and lower their heads.
Ashley and the other girls’ faces flash in the yellow ambulance lights. I have never seen them silent before. Ashley chews on her nails.
At the end of the hall Saint Peter is a fat man with a beard and a white acolyte robe. Ambulance lights flash on him and the dead girl and the dead guy, who stand before him. Saint Peter opens a big book and says Yes, you knew Jesus, go on to your reward and Bible guy walks through a door on the right. You, however, never knew Jesus, and cannot go to heaven, he tells the girl. Someone in black, hunched over and wiry, runs through us. This thing runs and grabs her and pulls her through the door on the left. The door stands open, gaping into the dark.
We go in. Tommy says Put your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you, and I put my hands on Jim’s shoulders. Keri’s hands are on mine. The way Tommy talks about it, God and Satan can look into your brain. They have seen what I’ve done, what I’ve thought.
We’re in the room in the house. Heat burns my eyes. They’ve got it turned up so hot you can’t breathe right. That depressed girl wails. We walk in a line in the dark and I hear her wailing. Is that what happens if you kill yourself? The girl screams, Why didn’t I accept Jesus, and they’re torturing her somehow. Other people scream too, but we can’t see anything in the darkness.
Buzzing in the air, in the heat. It’s the same feeling.
If I say I won’t drink anymore, I won’t think about girls, I’ll read my Bible more and pray more—then will it stop hurting? Will God make it stop hurting?

Can you die from losing track of yourself? Like, wandering so far off in your mind you stay gone, separated?

It was the time I drank all the liquor I could and drank my old expired cough syrup too and I lay there for a long time wanting to sleep without nightmares and be done. I kept drinking liquor because I knew I hadn’t drank enough. I woke up the next day and thought I still might die. By Monday I went to school and spent lunch in the bathroom wanting to die.
Mom and Dad didn’t notice because they were drunk too that night.

A new room. Light. Jesus is tall, bearded, and he smiles. Bible guy gets a hug and joins the angels. The angels are girls in bedsheets but lots of bedsheets. Jesus tells us that if we pray that same short prayer we will go to Heaven and be in Glory with Him. He says if we need to pray, there are ministers in the back.
There is silence. The room feels cool and empty.
I go to the back after a few others do and a minister with buzzed hair whose breath smells a little takes me to a corner and asks if I want to be in Heaven with Jesus when I die.
Yes, I tell him. He prays with me and I repeat what he says. The minister smiles and says angels are partying big time because in the Bible it says that the hosts of Heaven rejoice over one sinner that is saved. I tell him, I’m not saved. He smiles. You are if you say the prayer, he says. You can be sure of it.
But I need more saving. He asks what I mean.
My parents, they tell me we can’t let it out around town. Dad is respected. At Mom’s job, they couldn’t have it. So when I break down without saying anything, the minister puts a hand on my shoulder and prays for everything except what it feels like I need.
The minister hugs me and his shirt is sweated through.

One of the retired preachers at church is short and stooped. He has to tilt his head up to look directly into my eyes, but when he does, I know he’s really looking. I can’t think of another adult who has that much kindness in them—it’s like a cloud of kindness around this man. During Wednesday Night Supper one week, he put his hand on my shoulder, tilted his head to see me, and smiled. I’m praying for you, he said.
I hope he keeps praying for me. Maybe his prayers will work.

There’s no face in the window when I look back at the house. We go to Dairy Queen and I sit away from everybody. My face hurts from trying not to cry. Jim sits with me but I don’t talk and he doesn’t either. The others talk and laugh and giggle.

I look out of the window on the van ride home. Once we leave the city the woods turn dark. Turning up my music is like going away inside myself, only the nightmares are there, waiting. Every shadow I see looks like one. And where I’m going it’s only more darkness, more heat, and being alone.
Who will save me?