A Pagan's Nightmare

A Novel


By Ray Blackston

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Ray Blackston presents a tongue-in-cheek look at contemporary culture as seen through the eyes of an unwary pagan screenwriter who writes a hit about the last unbeliever on Earth navigating in a thoroughly Christian world.



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

This book is a parody, and any similarity in names to real titles, corporations, or products is intended solely for the purpose of spoofing and is not intended to be taken literally or to imply any sort of endorsement, authorization, or sponsorship.

Warner Books, Inc.

Hachette Book Group

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First eBook Edition: November 2009

Warner Faith and the "W" logo are trademarks of Time Warner Inc. or an affiliated company. Used under license by Hachette Book Group USA, which is not affiliated with Time Warner Inc.

ISBN: 978-0-446-56997-2


SUFFICE IT TO SAY that a certain people—some would call them the fortunate ones—took over.

Well, took over is too strong a phrase. Actually it was more like an inheritance. No, actually it was more like they were sitting at a very long table with many strangers, and in mid-course all the strangers left without finishing their strawberry cheesecake, so the fortunate ones just helped themselves.

How shameless—helping oneself to the early departeds' dessert. The gall!

Lanny Hooch will be our hero, or anti-hero—or perhaps an innocent bystander—depending on your perspective. You see, Lanny was in the right place at the right time: in a church, in northwest Atlanta, on a Monday morning, on his knees, atop hardwood floors, facing a baptismal.

He'd been here once before—the previous Friday—and on that morning he'd assumed a similar posture.

And you think Lanny was repentant?

Repentant? Hah!

Lanny owned Hooch Contracting, and on this day he was on his knees with his trusty Craftsman cordless drill, removing rusty wood screws from a ruined baseboard. The baptismal had sprung a leak, and the Baptists had summoned Lanny. He was a good worker. Punctual, with reasonable rates. Sometimes he cursed loudly if he hit his thumb with his hammer, and by 10:00 a.m. he had done this twice. He was alone in the sanctuary however, so no one heard him.

Or did they? During his break he visited the men's room. He washed his hands at the sink, reached for a paper towel, and spotted a sign next to the dispenser. SOMEONE ALWAYS HEARS, it read. The blue lettering was still wet, and Lanny returned to his work, wondering who had painted the sign.

Perhaps it was because Lanny was on his knees, down front in an empty sanctuary on a Monday morning in August, that he was picked. Though at this point he was thinking only about lunch, and of course the forty-mile drive to his next work site, an elementary school on the south side of Atlanta.

After he finished the repairs to the Baptist baseboard, Lanny climbed into his sage green Nissan Xterra and headed for the school, where he was to install a kiddie commode, the kind that force adults to sit all squished, with their knees up to their chins. But first Lanny had to stop for gas, so he took exit 57 and turned into a BP station. He stopped at this BP often; they usually had the lowest price.

In a hurry, he paid no attention to the price as he filled his twenty-gallon tank. For several minutes he stood staring out at the traffic, thinking about Miranda and sniffing the fumes. Miranda was his girlfriend. She was twenty-nine, and her flight back from Orlando was due in at 1:30. She had gone to visit her parents and had taken Monday as a vacation day. Lanny could not wait to see her again.

After he replaced his fuel cap, Lanny blinked his confusion as he finally read the sign above the pumps:


"No way!" Lanny shouted to the pump. He looked around to see if someone were holding a camera, filming him as part of a joke.

He saw no one. At that moment, he was the only one pumping gas.

Surely someone is messing with my head. But what if they're not?

To Lanny, such price gouging seemed positively satanic, not to mention awfully unfair. This pit stop was also his first warning that something—he thought the air smelled funny, never mind the fumes—might be different about this particular Monday. But what could he do? He chalked it up to a practical joke and kept his composure. And composure was a trait he needed, since he had to hurry to south Atlanta to install the kiddie commode.

Lanny had only thirty-two dollars in his wallet, so he walked inside and asked the clerk in the Nike hat what the real price of gas was today.

"For you it's $6.66 per gallon," said the clerk, blank-faced.

"But that's outrageous." Lanny pushed away from the counter. "I won't pay it."

The clerk shrugged and pointed to the hidden camera mounted in the corner. "We have you on tape, and the gas is already in your truck. Don't make us call the authorities."

"Then I'll siphon the gas back out into your storage tank."

"We cannot take it back, sir. The gas is now tainted."

In no mood to deal with the police, a frustrated Lanny wrote out a check for $126.54.

Intelligent persons might pause here and say, "Wait, that does not compute! Twenty gallons times $6.66 equals $133.20."

Intelligent persons would be mistaken. Even blue collars like Lanny know not to drive till their tank is empty. He still had one gallon left in his Xterra.

Hungry and feeling ripped off, he drove across the street to a McDonald's. Everyone behind the counter was smiling the pasted-on smiles of those who have endured fast-food training but are still uncomfortable greeting the customers. Yet Lanny was confused by the uniforms, which, though still the basic red and yellow, possessed no golden arches but instead golden crosses—one on each sleeve.

Perhaps this was Lanny's second warning. But he was hungry and still mad over the satanic gas gouging, so he ordered a cheeseburger, a fish sandwich, large fries, and a Coke.

He hoped that the smiling blonde cashier girl would not tell him that his total was $6.66, and he felt relieved when she said, "That'll be seven dollars and thirteen cents."

Lanny was superstitious about the number thirteen—and normally he would have ordered something else just to change the total—but he was flustered by all the golden crosses and quickly forked over the money.

The cashier girl handed Lanny his change. "Enjoy your meal, Mr. P." she said.

Lanny looked at her with his head cocked funny. "My name is not Mr. P. My last name starts with an H."

Counter Girl smiled politely. "Today we're referring to you as Mr. P."

Even more confused, Lanny shook his head, picked up his tray, and sat in the far left corner, next to the window. He felt like he was being watched, so he munched his fish sandwich and avoided eye contact with the fast-food workers. He was still eating, staring out the window at the traffic on 1-285, when he noticed the billboard:

How Does It Feel to Be the Last One?

Nervously glancing around the restaurant, Lanny gobbled his cheeseburger before starting on his fries. Imagine his shock when he withdrew the first fry from the pouch and saw that it was curled into one long word, Pharisee. He frowned at the wordy potato and stuffed the entire thing into his mouth. Then he read the slogan on the cardboard pouch: "McScriptures—a new kind of french fry, pure as gospel."

Lanny tucked his fries into the bag, grabbed his Coke, and left his trash on the table for the smiling blonde to clean up. "I'm outta here," he mumbled to himself as he pushed open the glass door.

Lanny was a self-professed pagan. Mannerly, sure, and usually a patient fellow, but he had wanted nothing to do with religion ever since eighth grade, ever since he'd found out that his neighbor, an associate pastor, had been convicted of trafficking drugs and adult magazines. That summer Lanny had made up his mind to use Sundays for golf. He would be a low-handicap pagan.

Perhaps that's why Counter Girl referred to me as Mr. P., he thought as he climbed into his truck. How ironic. But I'm still ticked about the gas thing.

Traffic was horrible, and Lanny grew frustrated at the congestion, even more so when he reached the on-ramp to 1-285 to south Atlanta. No one would let him merge. Here traffic was worse than bumper to bumper; it was religious bumper sticker to religious bumper sticker. They were all reading each other's spiritual platitudes and giving each other the thumbs up.

In contrast, Lanny's only bumper sticker read "Sometimes I wake up grumpy; other times I let him sleep."

.Miranda put it there. She read novels on Sundays while Lanny played his golf.

Annoyed at what the day had wrought, Lanny waited for someone, anyone, to let him merge onto crowded 1-285. But everyone ignored him, so he called Miranda's cell, hoping to reach her before she boarded her flight from Orlando. He wondered if she, too, was experiencing the religious weirdness in the South today. There was no answer, so he tried her work number. That number went unanswered, so he called her cell again and left a message for her to call him as soon as possible.

The temperature was already near one hundred degrees, and Lanny turned his AC on high. Still no one would let him merge. Not the SUVs, not the minivans, not even the redhead in the silver Audi. Her bumper sticker read "Traffic Is My Mission Field."

But the redhead would not look his way, even though Lanny was motioning for her to lower her window so that he could ask her what was going on today in Hotlanta. He hoped the religious weirdness was a regional thing. In fact, he almost prayed that it was a regional thing, but then he remembered that he never prayed to anything but his golf clubs, which he tended to slice.

So Lanny sat waiting to merge, fiddling with the radio and eating his McScripture fries. He thought they tasted very much like regular fries, only with less salt.

Lanny had installed satellite radio in his vehicle and figured his best move now was to tune in to a station out of L.A. It was his favorite, as their mix of oldies and modern rock suited his worldview just fine. So he tuned to the station and increased the volume, only to hear the Beatles singing their greatest hit, "I Wanna Hold Your Tithe."

Lanny slammed his fist into his seat. Someone is even changing the song lyrics, he thought to himself. That's sacred territory.

Minutes later a little old lady in a Volkswagen Bus honked, waved a brochure that read "Repent of Bingo," and allowed Lanny to merge.

He waved with no sincerity at all, then tried Miranda again on the cell phone.

But again he got no answer. Maybe she's already on the plane.

He tried her parents in Cocoa Beach—where they'd retired and where she'd been visiting.

Again, no answer.

He tried Miranda's sister, Carla, in Augusta.

No luck there, either.

His father and mother had passed away two and four years earlier, respectively, so the next closest persons he thought about were his golf and poker buddies.

He tried all five of them.


Rolling along on congested 1-285, sandwiched between zealots, Lanny felt very alone. In fact, he was beginning to feel like the lone yellow M&M in a bag full of reds. But not quite like that, since feeling alone in the world is much worse than being a solitary piece of chocolate, which has no feelings at all, even when it melts in your mouth instead of your hand.

The smaller shock to Lanny was that religious people seemed to be the only ones inhabiting the state of Georgia. The real shocker to him—it was more like a revolving question—was, where had everyone else gone? Who had taken these people? And how did he—or she? it?—manage this?

Lanny's thoughts ran wild. They ran in circles. They even ran all the way back to his childhood, when he had sat in the back during Sunday school.

Surely there's no such thing as a reverse rapture? Is there? Did I miss that part?

Surprise, surprise.


IMAGINE A SATELLITE VIEW of Florida, especially the sun-drenched peninsula that divides the Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico. To the far left side of the screen, in swirling bands of white cloud, a hurricane spins four hundred miles away, heading due east from the Gulf, on a beeline for Tampa and Orlando. For all we know, this zephyr may or may not turn out to sea.

Now picture a broadcast booth, and inside, a radio talk-show host. This man is bearded and pudgy and usually jovial. Behind him on the wall sits a plaque on which is centered a set of scales, golden in color, the two cups aligned at a perfect horizontal. For fifteen years this man's hospitable manner has fed America's quest to voice its every opinion, and his show has grown into a meeting place for those with extremist views, stupid views, boring views, and no views at all.

Known affectionately to listeners as DJ Ned Neutral, he leaned into his mic, glanced through Plexiglass at his producer, and cleared his throat.

The producer readied himself behind a soundboard and counted down the seconds on his fingers:

Three… two… one.

"Hurricane Gretchen is still a category three, traveling east with winds at one-hundred-twenty miles per hour. At its current pace it will make landfall along our coast in approximately four days." Ned's voice boomed friendly and deep, an intelligent voice that he'd parlayed into one of the nation's most popular call-in shows. "Welcome to Fence-Straddler AM radio, where I, DJ Ned Neutral, serve not only as arbiter of American argument, but this week go far beyond the call of duty…. I'm doubling as your weather man."

Ned paused, checked the time, rubbed his beard. He glanced at the row of red lights on his phone, lights that signaled incoming calls. All five were lit. Before taking a call, however, he addressed his audience again.

"Good morning to the fruited plain. This is DJ Ned coming at you live from wind-whipped Orlando. Tropical Storm Felix missed us by forty miles, and still I have limbs down all over my yard. And now, now we've got a bigger storm on the way. So before we get into which special-interest group hates which and for what reasons, does anyone care to share how they're preparing for a third August hurricane?" Ned pressed line 1.

"Yo, Nute. This is Crackhead."

Ned smiled above his mic. "Yo, Crackhead. Didn't you call in last week?"

"Yeah. I'm the guy who—"

"I remember. You got your name from cracking your head after falling off your skateboard."

"You got it, Nute. I never done no drugs."


"I swear, Nute. I'm a health guy."

"Right. So, what do you have to say to America today, Crackhead?"

"First I want to say that all these hurricanes could be God's judgment on Florida."

"No kidding?"

"Some pastor said so."

Neutral rubbed his chin and winked through the glass at his producer. "Okay, Crackhead, and just what denomination are you a part of?"

"Some kind of Redeemer Fellowship thing…. I've only been twice."

"And you're absolutely sure about this judgment from God?"

"That pastor said so. Said too much drinking and fornication goin' on in Florida."

Ned struggled for words. "Okay, Crackhead, since you've got the Sunshine State covered, now tell us what kind of natural disaster is going to crush the drunks and fornicators in land-locked states like Kansas and Iowa."

"Um… I dunno, man. . . Maybe all their peas and corn will shrivel and die."

Ned hit the red End Call button on his desk. "Thanks for the call, Crackhead."

He restrained a grin and leaned once more into the microphone. "One warning from last week, folks. Although we give voice to most anyone, I'll not tolerate any more Nazi Skinhead versus Lutheran Senior Ladies Book Club. You all wore me out last week. Now, who's my next caller?"

Ned pressed line 2.


"Welcome to Fence-Straddler AM."

"Hi, Neutral, this is Nancy from Wichita. That last caller was right about the judgment, but wrong about the reasons. It's the materialism that will cause our destruction. Everyone wants the big house on the golf course."

"Well, Nancy, I happen to live in a big house on a golf course. And I bought it by working hard for fifteen years to give America an outlet to speak their mind."

"Is your house over six-thousand square feet?"

Ned rolled his eyes and gripped the mic. "Is six thousand the cutoff size for God's wrath?"

"I think so. How big is your house, Ned?"

"Five-thousand, two-hundred square feet."

"You see, Ned… those limbs that fell in your yard were a warning not to expand."

Neutral hit the red button. "Alrighty, Florida. Who else has limbs down in their yard? Welcome to Fence-Straddler AM."

"Neuuuutral! You rock, man."

"Thank you. What's on your mind?"

"My name's John, and I called in to say that I have it worse than just limbs down in my yard."

"And how big is your house, John?"

"I live in a trailer, man. Just a single-wide. And now it's turned on its side and leaning up against my neighbor's place."

"And is your neighbor okay?"

"Yeah, my neighbor is Crackhead, who called in earlier. We're about to hitch his four-wheel drive truck to my trailer and tump it back over."

"Tump it back over? Where're you from, John? Or should I call you John-boy?"

"South Georgia, originally."

"And do you think your trailer getting tumped over by Tropical Storm Felix is a judgment from God?"

"Definitely, and it ain't got nothing to do with house size."

"I see. Then to what do you attribute the cause?"

"Online gambling, Nute. I slipped up and clicked on a Web site that I shouldn't have."

"And does Crackhead know about this?"

"Crackhead told me to click on it…. It's how he makes his living."

Ned considered his audience, saw that all five red lights on his phone bank were lit, and cut John off. "Next caller," he said.

"Neutral, this is H. Bernard Randolph."

"Welcome to the show, H. Bernard."

"Thanks, Neutral. I'm on my lunch break up here on Wall Street, and I just have to say that I disagree vehemently with both Crackhead and his neighbor John."

"That so?"

"According to the blonde on the Weather Channel, the percentage of storms hitting Florida is no different today than it was back in the fifties… back when America still had its innocence."

Ned paused and considered H. Bernard's factual tidbit. "So Fonzie and Ralph Malph were never in any danger of getting walloped by a tornado for lusting after Richie's sister?"

"No, never. But Joanie was a babe."

DJ Ned hesitated, wanting the caller to continue. "Is that all you had to say, H. Bernard?"

"That's it."

Just as Ned cut the call, all five red lights went dim.

DJ Ned stared at the row of vacancies and shook his head. "That's never happened before," he muttered to himself. "Sorry, folks. All the lines just went dead. This show never has empty lines."

After ten minutes of waiting for the lines to light up again, Ned raised both hands, palms up, and shrugged the big shrug, a silent signal of give-up to his producer.

But his producer was no longer in sight.

Ned looked out through the glass surrounding his booth and tried to spot him. But only Ned himself was in the room.

He figured his producer had run to the men's room. But while broadcasting? He glanced back at his phone bank and saw that all five lights were still dim.

By the time his show ended at 2:00, DJ Ned Neutral had not received a single call since H. Bernard phoned in from Wall Street. Ned rose slowly from his radio booth and peeked down the hall of Fence-Straddler AM.

No one else was in sight.

He looked into all the offices, but all were empty.

He called out, "Hey, anyone want to join me for lunch?"

No one answered. Just the clock, ticking off the seconds. He'd never noticed the ticks before.

Next he retrieved his cell phone from his jacket and tried to call his own show, but the call would not go through. "Please check with your phone company," it said.

Confused and a bit freaked out, Ned rushed from the building and into bright sunlight. He tried to calm himself, took deep breaths. He even walked a block down the sidewalk of the business district. In seconds Orlando seemed normal again—humidity high, shade low. The only thing he noticed that looked odd was that fewer people were on the streets. Maybe everyone went to the beach today.

Food always helped Ned relax and clear his mind, o he entered The Streetside Café, one of several local eateries he frequented.

Ned was a big eater—and had a habit of ordering dessert along with his entrée—so when a middle-aged waitress arrived to take his order, he pointed first to the dessert menu. "Got any more of that Devil's Food Cake?" he asked her.

She promptly pulled out a Sharpie pen, leaned down to the plastic menu, and marked out the word Devil's. Then she wrote a new word in its place. "Management just changed the name to David's Food Cake," she said. "One slice could fill Goliath."

At first Ned could only blink at her.

The waitress smiled politely, pointed to the menu. "Would you like a piece of David's Food Cake, sir? It's already quite popular in Tucson, Dallas, and Chattanooga."

Blank-faced, DJ Ned stared at the waitress, hoping that she was kidding.

But she just waited patiently with pad in hand, ready to take his order.

Ned had yet to connect his lack of callers with the renaming of Devil's Food Cake, but it seemed to him that a strange form of religiosity was sweeping across America from west to east, just like the latest fad from L.A.


WHEN LANNY ARRIVED at Southside Elen entary on the south side of Atlanta, he parked his Xterra in ; visitor's spot and unhitched his seatbelt. By now he had convince I himself that he was simply the victim of a huge practical joke, anc over the past half hour he had given little thought to the odd happ snings at McDonald's and the BP station. The billboard, however still troubled him.

Skies were sunny and winds were mild as he got out and grabbed his toolbox from the rear hatch. Whiffs of honeysuckle drifted past, and for a moment Lanny stood and sniffed. The sweet scent restored a sense of normalcy to his day, and around h m everything looked in place: grass freshly mown, windows adornec with Crayola drawings, tricycles in the playground, bicycles lined t p and parked beyond the sidewalk.

"I remember my little purple bike, back when I was as seven," he said to himself. He shut the hatch to his truck and toted his toolbox toward the front entrance.

On his way toward the school, Lanny heard an intercom blaring some kind of announcement from inside the building. He could not make out the words.

As soon as he pushed open the lobby door, he smelled Pine-Sol. But he found no one at the front desk to greet him, so he continued down the hall to room 12B, where he had been instructed to knock before entering. He knocked twice, but there was no answer, no sound at all from inside the room.

The intercom system crackled to life, and from down the hall an emotionless male voice said, "Go to 12D. You're at 12B."

Lanny wondered why no one was talking to him in person, and how they even knew he was in the building. He loped down the hallway, his toolbox heavy in his hand, his mind suspicious once again.

This is Monday. Surely there are kids here on Monday.

The door to 12D was also closed. Instead of knocking, Lanny almost left to find the school principal. But he went ahead and tried the door, and it opened to an empty classroom. Desks were pushed to the sides, and masking tape was arranged on the floor in the form of a big boat. Drawn skillfully on the chalkboard to his right were colorful fish and a huge octopus.

In the rear, just outside the restroom, he saw the shiny porcelain. An uninstalled kiddie commode sat against the back wall, its lid up, as if inviting him to get to work. Lanny toted his toolbox to the back and read a note taped to the commode handle:

Please try to have this installed by 2:15. The kids
have their juice and cookies at 2:30, and we will


On Sale
Nov 29, 2009
Page Count
256 pages

Ray Blackston

About the Author

Ray Blackston of Greenville, South Carolina, worked as a buyer and a broker for eleven years before cashing in his modest 401k and leaving his corporate cubicle to write full time. He serves on the missions committee of his church, has traveled to rural Ecuador on a summer missions program, and coaches his seven-year-old nephew, Action Jackson, in T-Ball. You can visit Ray on the Web at http://www.rayblackston.com.

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