I was sixteen years old when my dad found the unmarked envelope in our mailbox. It was Easter Sunday when it came to us, a chilly day in late March, the sky a vast slab of cold granite, the air a hazy blur of icy mist.
We had just come home from mass when Dad trudged to the end of the driveway to pick up the paper. As I watched him bend over to grab the plastic-wrapped newspaper, he noticed that the door of the mailbox was hanging open. Seeing this, he walked over, peered inside, and removed an unmarked white envelope that had been placed there while we had been out.
Minutes later the three of us—me, my dad, and my little brother Dave—were sitting at the kitchen table, staring down at the unmarked envelope. It had a little lumpy bulge in it, as if someone had stuck a rotten sausage in there as a prank, and the back was all sealed up with a thick strip of clear packing tape.
Before he opened the envelope, Dad crossed himself and whispered a little prayer. I guess I wasn’t the only one who sensed that something was off about it.
For as long as I could remember, Mom had always been the bible thumper of the family. While I was growing up, neither me nor my dad had ever really believed in any of that stuff, but we pretended we did because it made her happy. Then, shortly after she left us two years ago for her new husband Scott Carter, the rich televangelist out on Long Island, Dad suddenly took up the mantle of religion in our house. I guess maybe he thought that if he finally joined her in the Jesus camp like she’d always wanted him to, she’d somehow sense it on her end and come running back to us. As for me, I joined the drama club and started acting in school plays. Since I’d been honing my acting skills my entire life, I figured I might as well do something fun with them.
Back in the kitchen, Dad opened the envelope. After a quick peek inside, he glanced up and gave me and Dave a stern look.
“Don’t touch anything that comes out of this envelope,” he said, his gray eyes hard and unblinking, his flinty stare scanning our faces. “You hear me?”
To this I nodded silently, but Dave didn’t respond. He just stared at the envelope.
“David?” Dad’s voice boomed, sharp and wrathful. “Did you hear what I just told you?”
At this Dave’s eyes snapped up to Dad’s face and then down to the table in front of him. Following this he nodded meekly, but it wasn’t long until the magnetic pull of the envelope drew his gaze up once again.
Now it started to rain. A faint drumbeat of raindrops pattered against the roof overhead, the kitchen window at my back. After a long stare at my brother, Dad finally turned the envelope over. Out came a ragged scrap of lined notebook paper and a three-inch cylinder sheathed in supermarket plastic wrap.
The moment the plastic-wrapped cylinder hit the table, Dave’s hand flicked out to grab it. Just before he got there, Dad snatched it up and smacked Dave in the back of the head.
“What did I just tell you?” he said, leaning across the table with his head cocked to the side. “Did I not just tell you to keep your hands to yourself? Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Silent, face flushed, eyes leaking, Dave nodded his head and sat on his hands.
From here Dad leaned back and fired a quick look in my direction. I returned it with a nod, and then sat on my own hands for good measure.
Dave had ADHD. All his life he’d struggled in school, and now he was the only fourteen-year-old in the district still in seventh grade. Despite this, Mom had never allowed him to take any medication for his condition. Instead, she used to wake him up early each morning and take him to the seven a.m. mass to try to pray away his troubles. Out of all of us, Dad was the one who had opposed this practice the most, and this often led to him and Mom arguing with each other long after me and Dave had been sent to bed. But once Mom left, Dad changed his mind. Suddenly, medication was the last thing my brother needed.
Outside, the rain thickened to a downpour. Angry droplets hammered the house. A roar of thunder split the sky and rattled the glasses in the cabinet.
Hearing this, Dad looked over at Dave and pointed up at the ceiling.
“See what you did now, with that impulsiveness of yours? You pissed off the landlord.”
Dave didn’t answer or look up. He just sat on his hands and sniffled to himself.
“Five Our Fathers. Go. And no video games for the rest of the day.”
“But that’s not fair! I didn’t—” Dave screeched, his eyes wild, his face a neon cherry.
“That doesn’t sound like any Our Father I know.”
To my surprise, Dave didn’t protest again. Instead, he stared down at his lap and mumbled the prayers to himself.
Now Dad looked at the scrap of paper that had been in the envelope. Seconds later he scoffed, shook his head in disgust, and muttered to himself.
“Unbelievable, people these days. No respect for anything.”
Following this he crushed the paper in his fist and tossed it on the table. Then, very carefully, he started to unravel the plastic-wrapped cylinder. Halfway through this task he suddenly stopped. As if on cue, a crash of thunder blasted outside, an explosion of sound right above our heads. From here Dad walked across the kitchen and grabbed a brown paper lunchbag from the cabinet. With his lips pinched tight into a revolted wince, he dropped the envelope, half-unwrapped cylinder, and crumpled scrap of paper into the bag.
“Both of you, stay where you are and don’t move,” Dad said, picking up the house phone hanging from the wall. The curled mouth of the paper bag was clutched in his free fist, and the knuckles on that hand had gone white.
While Dad dialed 911 on the phone, I rested a hand on Dave’s warm back. He had finished reciting his punishment prayers and was now looking around the room, searching for new stimuli. To take his mind off things, I held my hand out in front of me, pointed my thumb to the ceiling, and curled my fingers into a loose hook.
“How about a thumb war?” I said, with a dancing lilt of playful competitiveness in my voice.
Upon hearing these words he instantly whipped his head in my direction and grabbed my hand with his sweaty fist.
“You’re on,” Dave said, staring intently at our linked hands, his thumb jabbing frantically at my own, the tip of his shiny pink tongue darting between his lips.
“Is this a preemptive strike? We haven’t even declared war yet,” I said with a laugh, holding my thumb aloft and safely out of his range. It took him a while, but soon he relaxed long enough for us to start.
Seconds later we recited the chant to start the game:
“One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war.”
Ever since I taught him how to play, thumb wars had been a great way to calm Dave down. But for whatever reason, it only seemed to work when it was the two of us. If Mom or Dad ever tried to do it with him, it seemed to have the opposite effect. We first learned this when Dave was in the hospital a few years ago with a broken leg. Because of his condition he’d been injured pretty badly a number of times in the past, and this had been one of the worst. It had been so bad that even Mom admitted he needed help more immediate and potent than just prayer. In this case he’d been at a friend’s house climbing trees when a contractor’s truck drove by on the nearby road. Seeing the contractor’s contact info stamped on the side of the truck, Dave scrabbled out onto a weak branch in order to read the words; moments later the branch snapped and Dave fell from the tree. Later that day at the hospital, when a nurse tried to check his blood pressure, Dave refused to stay still. From here both Mom and Dad tried to distract him with a thumb war, but it didn’t work. It just made him more upset. It wasn’t until I got out of school later that day and tried a thumb war with him myself that we figured out it had to be me. Ever since then, it’d been a kind of bond between the two of us, something no one else could ever replace.
A few seconds into our thumb war I heard a knock at the door. Even though I knew how stupid and childish it was to hope that the person at the door was Mom, I couldn’t help myself. Despite all she’d done to us, I still wanted her back, if only to restore us all to the way we should’ve been, to the way our family had been when I was a kid. Then, when I glanced over at Dad a moment later, the surprised, hopeful look on his face told me that he was thinking the same thing. After all, it did seem like something she’d do: show up unannounced on Easter Sunday, thank the Lord for bringing us back together, ignore the fact that she was the one who had ripped us apart in the first place.
Now Dad held the phone with his shoulder and smoothed his silver hair over his bald spot. Following this he frantically waved at me to come over to him. At this I broke off the thumb war with Dave, but I didn’t leave him hanging. Before walking over to Dad, I lowered my chin, fixed a mock serious war-stare at him, and did my best impression of Scorpion from Mortal Kombat:
“You and me. Rematch. Tonight.”
In response Dave screeched, “Get over here!” in his own imitation Scorpion voice, but one look from Dad quieted him down pretty quick.
Now Dad smacked me in the back of the head for making him wait so long.
“Pay attention, James. I’m over here calling and calling, and you’re screwing around with your brother,” he said, blowing a heavy sigh into my face. “Now listen. Take this and tell them we need the police over here for a—” he started to say, but then the knock at the door rang out again, this time more urgent. “Dammnit, just answer their questions and wait for me to come back.” From here he shoved both the phone and the bag into my hands and started walking toward the front door.
Moments later, before I could even raise the phone to my ear, Dave was up and buzzing at my side, his sweaty fingers trying to pry the paper bag from my hand.
“Get out of here,” I said, pulling the wrinkled bag away from him. “Do you want to get yelled at again?”
Dave didn’t seem to hear me. He just kept reaching for the bag. To get him off my back, I handed him the phone and told him to tell the 911 people that we needed the police to come to our house because of something we found in the mailbox.
Finally free from Dave’s attacks, I went into the living room and crouched behind Dad’s recliner. This was a nice little hiding spot where neither Dave nor Dad would be able to see what I was doing. And since I wasn’t yet ready to deal with the disappointment of the person at the front door being someone other than Mom, I turned my attention to the bag in my hands.
The wrinkled brown paper unrolled without a sound. Reaching inside, my fingers found the plastic-wrapped cylinder first. Through the bunched wrapping I couldn’t really see what the thing was, but it still made me feel uneasy. It felt disgustingly soft in my hands, and my earlier thought of a rotten sausage came back in an instant. At least it didn’t smell like a rotten sausage.
Seconds later the plastic wrap was gone and the thing sat naked on the carpeted floor before me. It was a finger. The skin was leathery and cold and as white as heavy cream, and the nail, neatly trimmed, had been painted a tarry black. The severed end was covered with a cotton ball half-soaked in shiny red fluid, presumably blood. The whole thing looked real enough to me, but I wasn’t about to check very closely.
Without the context of a hand, it was surprisingly difficult to tell which finger it was. But that question was answered for me seconds later when I reached into the bag a second time and read the scrap of notebook paper that had been slipped in the envelope with the finger.
Seeing this, I felt a cool wash of relief. With a note like that and a fingernail that looked like it had been painted by one of the goth kids at school, it had to be a prank. Diskin or Connors or one of my other dumbass friends from the drama club must’ve raided the prop closet just before spring break in order to put this together.
From here I gathered everything back into the bag and started walking to the front door to tell Dad that the envelope was just a prank. Two steps into the hallway, a forked branch of lightning flashed outside and knocked out the power in the house. Following this a blast of thunder exploded through the gray gloom, shaking the pictures on the walls. Then, before I could even grab my cell phone from my pocket to turn on the flashlight, I heard a familiar sound from down the hall: it was my mom’s voice. At this I quickly ducked into the open bathroom on my left, crouched down on the cool tile, and held the door open a crack so I could hear what she was saying.
Mom was still the same. After less than a minute of listening to her, it was clear that she truly believed she hadn’t done anything wrong by leaving us behind for a rich man. Each question Dad asked her was answered with some bullshit self-justification: it had been God’s plan for her to leave us for Scott Carter, the man’s wife had just died after all, and all those wonderful people in his flock needed someone to help heal their shepherd; Scott Carter’s indictment for wire fraud was nothing more than God’s way of telling her that there was nothing more she could do for the poor man, that he was a lost soul and that she had done God’s work by trying to help him. The more I listened, the more foolish I felt for ever wanting her back.
But as ridiculous as she sounded, Dad was even worse. Instead of getting mad, instead of telling her how hard things had been for us since she left, he just agreed with everything she said. Now that he’d experienced God’s love for himself, he told her, he felt closer to her than ever before. And when he thought about things from her perspective, from the perspective of a lowly servant of God’s will, what she had done to us made perfect sense. So in less than fifteen minutes, he had forgiven her for everything and was looking forward to putting the past behind them.
Once I heard this, I’d had enough. I didn’t want to deal with either of them anytime soon, so I went back to the kitchen to check on Dave. The poor guy was probably bouncing off the walls by now.
Just before I stepped into the kitchen, I heard the howl of an ambulance siren coming up the street. In an instant I knew it was coming to our house. I had no idea what Dave had actually said to the 911 people before the power had cut out, but I just hoped it wasn’t anything too far off base. He’d be in serious trouble if they thought the call was a prank.
In the kitchen I found Dave sprawled face down on the floor. A little trickle of blood leaked from his right ear, and the smell of burnt plastic hung heavy in the air. The phone was laying on the floor next to the wall, and from where I stood I could see that the ear piece had been charred black and partially melted, as if he’d held the phone over one of the stove’s burners or something. Moments later Mom and Dad rushed down the hall and came into the living room, followed closely by two EMTs wearing light blue gloves on their hands. Now the EMTs pushed past me and ordered all of us to stand back and stay quiet. Following this Dad looked at me, then at Dave, then at the paper bag in my hand. Without a word he walked up beside me and took the wrinkled bag. Since I was so overwhelmed and confused from what was happening, I didn’t even think to tell him that the finger was just a prank. After finding Dave like that, it just didn’t matter anymore.
The EMTs did all they could, but they weren’t able to revive Dave. A few minutes after we got to the hospital he was pronounced dead from cardiac arrest. The official explanation was that he had been struck by lightning while standing in our kitchen, and the electrical shock of this strike disrupted the rhythm of his heart, sending him into cardiac arrest. It sounded ridiculous and impossible at first, but the more I researched the doctor’s explanation online, the more it made sense. Based on an article from the National Weather Service, I learned that a handful of people each year get struck by lightning while indoors. This usually happens when someone is talking on a house phone during a thunderstorm, like Dave was, or when they’re talking on a cell phone plugged into a charger during similar weather conditions. One unlucky guy from Kentucky even got struck while taking a shower.
This phenomenon occurs when the bolt strikes a power line and the discharge follows the path of the wires all the way to the phone pressed to the victim’s ear. When this happened in Dave’s case, his 911 call was abruptly cut off; hearing the sudden hang up, the dispatcher sent an ambulance to the address he’d given earlier in the call. That’s how the EMTs arrived before we even knew anything had happened.
Once I discovered this information, I explained it all to my parents. I hoped it would help them cope with our tragedy like it had helped me, but in the weeks following Dave’s death, they’d leaned so hard into their religion that they refused to accept any explanation for the accident other than divine will. Even after I showed them all my research so they could see it for themselves, they still refused to believe me. So I let it go. It was such a difficult time for all of us. I couldn’t put too much pressure on them.
A few months later, just before the start of my senior year of high school, a friend of mine sent me a link to a Youtube video my parents had posted the week before. Until then I didn’t think my parents even knew what Youtube was, let alone how to post a video to it, but I decided to watch it anyway. I figured I owed it to them to make sure it wasn’t anything they’d later regret.
The video began with a static shot of Dad sitting alone at the head of the kitchen table. He was dressed all in black and his hands, folded on the table before him, looked shriveled and arthritic and harmlessly tiny. Seeing them there it was hard to believe that they had once been the iron-palmed objects he had used to discipline me and my brother over the years. Moments later he glanced up into the camera, but for some reason he looked different than the man I saw around the house every day. His formerly fierce falcon’s stare had been replaced with the milky, distant gaze of an exhausted grandfather struggling to stay awake after Thanksgiving dinner. I guess I hadn’t noticed this change because of everything that had happened to us, but now that I was really looking at him for the first time in a while, it seemed like he’d aged twenty years in only a few months.
Now he began to speak.
“Hello friends. My name is Lawrence Briggs. You can call me Larry. Earlier this year, at 12:22 p.m. on Easter Sunday, my son David was touched by God.”
From here he went on to talk about what had happened to us and Dave on that day back in March, but not long into his story, I noticed something was wrong.
“And then, once we arrived home from mass, my beautiful wife and I waited at the front door and watched my son David jog to the end of the driveway to fetch the newspaper for me. He had always been such a kind, thoughtful child, never hesitating to put others before himself. As he reached the end of the driveway, he noticed that the door of our mailbox was open. Conscientious boy that he was, he walked over to close the box. But inside he found something very special. Something our Lord had sent straight to him and him alone.”
As I listened to the rest of his story, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He wasn’t just stretching the truth, he was outright lying. In his version of events, Dave was the only one out of the three of us who had touched the finger. And then, at the end of his story, Dad said he had been the one who had found Dave on the floor in the kitchen, and that the finger had been clutched tightly in his son’s hand. At first I didn’t understand why he would go and lie like that, but then I reached the end of the video. Here Mom joined him in the frame and the two of them sat down at the table together. After a short prayer, Dad walked off camera and then returned a minute later holding a fist-sized cube of clear plastic. Entombed inside was the finger, and the scrap of notebook paper that identified it as God’s thumb. Then, without missing a beat, Mom took the lead.
“And this is it ladies and gentlemen,” she said, grinning into the camera and gesturing down at the block sitting on the table between them. Her face was flushed and gleaming with a thin layer of shiny sweat. “This is the piece of Himself that the Lord sent to our son, David, or, as all of you probably know him much better, Jesus Christ, our savior.”
Following this Mom spent the rest of the video talking about how the finger, the freak lightning strike, and Dave’s ADHD proved that my brother had been the second coming of Jesus Christ.
At that point I turned the video off. I couldn’t watch them delude themselves, and the 24,000 other people who had already watched the video. The whole thing was disturbing and sad and very wrong.
The next morning I confronted them at breakfast. It was a rainy Saturday morning, the house gray and quiet and chilly, and Dad had cooked scrambled eggs for the three of us. With the smell of melted cheese and fried onions filling my nose, I sat at the table with them and listened to the clink of silverware against plates. But after a few minutes of this, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer.
“So I saw your video,” I said, staring down at the craggy mountain range of scrambled eggs before me. Yellow juice leaked from the base of the egg-mountains and slowly flooded my plate.
At this Dad stopped chewing and looked across the table at me.
“Yeah? And what did you think?”
“If I’m being honest,” I said, pausing for a moment, suddenly keenly aware of how harsh my rehearsed words were going to sound. “I just—why did you have to lie like that? That’s not how things happened and you know it.”
“James, your father didn’t—” Mom started to say, but I cut her off in a sudden burst of anger.
“You weren’t even there,” I said, nearly shouting. The moment these words left my mouth I was surprised at the hatred in my voice, but I didn’t take them back.
We all went quiet for a long time after this, maybe a full minute, and then Dad put down his utensils, lowered his chin, and fixed his old falcon’s stare on me. It was the first time since Dave’s accident that I’d seen him look like his old self.
“Now you listen to me right now. First thing. No child of mine will speak to his mother like that as long as he lives in this house. Understand?”
Mouth dry, throat clenched tight, I stared down at my plate and nodded.
“Good. Second, I will not be called a liar by my own son, no matter what ridiculous science fiction nonsense he may have read about on the computer. Is that clear?”
Hearing these words, all my memorized research and rehearsed arguments dissolved from my head in an instant. Then, moments later, when he cleared his throat to demand an answer, all I could do was nod.
And that was the last time we spoke about the matter.
Over the next year, my parents continued to make more videos. Soon they became a viral sensation, garnering over 100,000 views on each new video. Not long after that, they officially founded their own religion. They called it God’s Touch. It was focused around their delusion that the finger was a sacred piece of God’s physical form, that Dave had been the second coming of Jesus Christ, and that his fourteen years of life had been spent judging humanity in preparation for the coming rapture.
As for me, I spent most of my last year of high school trying to find out who had put the fake finger in our mailbox. During that time I talked to nearly every remaining member of the drama club, but no one would admit to the prank. As for the ten or twelve members who had graduated the year before, I used social media to get a concrete denial from all but three of them. Out of the last three, one was an economics major at Cornell and the former treasurer of the student counsel at our school, so I ruled her out pretty easily. The other two were solid suspects, though. Both were druggy slackers enrolled in party schools upstate. For weeks I tried to get an answer from those last two guys, but for whatever reason, I never did.
In spite of all this, I knew the prank didn’t have to be limited to kids from the drama club at my school. Anyone could’ve ordered the materials off the internet and made it. All it would’ve taken was one weirdo who liked to mess with people for no reason. But as I ran into dead end after dead end, I started to question my memories from that Easter Sunday. Thinking back to that day, I realized I’d only looked at the finger for a few seconds at most, and even then I hadn’t examined it closely. On top of that, I had no idea how intensely my parents had studied the thing, or if they had found something I hadn’t. But even with these doubts, I still couldn’t come up with any plausible explanation other than a prank. It just couldn’t have been anything else. And I truly believed that, even if I couldn’t prove it.
Months later, when it came time for me to choose a college, I refused my parents’ money, took out a loan, and enrolled in the North Pacific Institute of the Performing Arts, a Seattle-based school located 2,000 miles away from my home and my parents’ new religion back in Topine, New York. After everything that had happened, I just had to get out of Topine. Too many bad memories had been formed in that place.
Then, a few weeks into my first semester at North Pacific, Dave started appearing in my dreams. Though the dreams were almost always different, there was one that kept reappearing every now and then. In it me and Dave were back home at our house in Topine, sitting in the living room and watching TV together. Soon the power cut out and the house went black. For some reason I could still see perfectly fine in the dark, so when I looked around the living room, I saw that Dave was suddenly gone. But I wasn’t scared. Because I knew that if I stood up and walked into the kitchen, my brother would be waiting for me there, ready for the rematch to our last thumb war.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in A-Minor, After the Pause, Barren Magazine, Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music.
© 2019, by Steve Gergley