I am on the spectrum, somewhere between Mozart and being unable to tie my shoes. Conversations don’t come easy. You could say I’m slow. The answer to the question; the empathetic reassurance; the witty quip – all enter my head ten seconds delayed. So I’ll nod, or say “okay”, and smile – anything to get through a conversation. But being boring doesn’t help you make friends.
It’s different on the internet. The late 90s was the heyday of chatrooms. Remember IRC? I met my best friends there, because I could take time to respond. I could think of that witty quip to reflect my personality or express something heartfelt. It liberated me from my shell and shyness. And that’s where I met the love of my life too.
Look, I won’t bore you with the story of an internet romance. I still get nervous when I remember the day Lyn drove 200 miles to see me. I was sure that when she met me, my boring personality would extinguish her fondness. But by some miracle, that’s not what happened.
When we married, there were three people at our wedding. All from IRC chatrooms. My parents, who had been ashamed of me and kicked me out when I turned eighteen, didn’t show up. My best man was my friend Hwan, who I’d bonded with after hundreds of hours on IRC. Having all the people who I cared about, and who cared about me, in one place made it the best day of my life. I’d never felt so appreciated, loved, and connected.
Today, I’m alone again. And I come to you with a warning. Don’t do what I did. Don’t pray to gods you have no business praying to.
I was raised Pentecostal, a Protestant movement that emphasizes “speaking in tongues.” Now, as someone with Asperger’s who had enough trouble speaking with one tongue, I couldn’t comprehend what it meant to be “possessed by the Holy Spirit”. I couldn’t explain it to you if I tried. Imagine a church filled with people bopping as if possessed and fake-speaking Swahili.
I affirmed my atheism the day my parents tossed me onto the streets. I was not unsure if God existed; I was certain God didn’t exist. In school one day, I’d watched a documentary on the after-effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. These people, called Hibakusha, suffered something uniquely inhuman, destructive, and evil. Many of them had burns and sicknesses from the nuclear radiation that had literally corrupted their DNA – their humanity. Many died in ways far worse than being eviscerated in the explosion. Imagine the cells of your skin dividing with altered DNA that turns your flesh into a translucent mush. To die because the fabric of your being has been corrupted to my strange mind seemed so unholy, so ungodly that in a world where such things happen, God couldn’t exist.
So why did I pray each night to a different god, until things got so out of control I wish I’d never met my wife or used IRC?
It started the day she left me. We’d loved each other for two decades and been married for one. I won’t get into how a long marriage takes its toll. The passion dried out years ago and decayed into an assumed comfort. Now I thought that was how it was supposed to be. But as I often realized, I thought differently from others. Because one day, she left without warning. Gone, leaving only a note laid on a stack of divorce papers.
The note mentioned that she had met someone else. Online, of course. They’d been chatting for a while, she’d met him once already, and now she was going to be with him. Great.
Though our marriage wasn’t all sparks and heat, I thought we were content. I felt peace in my heart and connected to her. We didn’t have kids, but we were enough for each other. Or at least, she was enough for me.
The day she left, I poured myself a glass of chocolate milk and waited on the living room sofa for her to come home. I couldn’t believe she was gone. I waited for the door to open, and for her to burst through, with a shopping bag and talking about how bad traffic was or how the neighbors had remodeled their porch. I waited until 1 AM before I built up enough despair to call her phone. But it was off.
I sent her emails, but she never replied. The next day, I stayed home from work, because the despair and loneliness pounding through my body paralyzed and sickened me. I couldn’t eat or even sip water. I curled up into a ball on the living room floor and shivered until I passed out.
It was Hwan who found me, unresponsive and called an ambulance. I woke up in the hospital. Apparently, on top of my heartbreak, I had a Vitamin D deficiency that had contributed to my ill state. The doctor prescribed tablets told me to go outside more and sent me home.
Hwan let me stay with him and his wife for a few days. He’d married a Muslim girl and had converted to be with her. That made him the only Muslim Korean I knew of. While staying at his home, I found a copy of the Holy Qur’an in English. I spent a few hours reading, hoping that it would enlighten me, that some truth would burst forth and save me from the base despair that crippled me. Instead, I read a verse that made me angry.
“And whosoever believeth in God, He guideth his heart. And God is knower of all things.”
Why wasn’t I a believer? Why didn’t God guide me? Was I not good enough for him to guide? I then read another verse that made me even angrier.
“He is who sent down peace of reassurance into the hearts of the believers that they might add faith unto their faith.”
Something in me snapped when I read that verse. It seemed that God was choosing people to believe, and not the other way around. That was unfair. If this world was a test, as Christians also claim, then surely God should allow us to choose whether to believe. Later that day, I went home and read about Islam. I learned that to become a Muslim, all I had to do was recite some words. So I recited them to prove to God that it was my choice, not his, to believe.
I now realize that this was a distraction from the pain and that the real pain was coming.
I learned how to pray like a Muslim. Before each prayer, I would do the cleansing ritual by washing my face, hands, and feet. I’d then follow the steps for the prayer, from standing to bowing to prostration. I even learned the recitals in Arabic. I truly felt “reborn” and with this fresh way of life seemed to be turning a new page. I met people at the mosque who were kind and didn’t seem to judge me for being slow.
But at the end of the day, I still came home to an empty house. And, I still didn’t really believe in God. Soon, the prayers became a burden. And without faith in my heart, I felt awkward going to the mosque and being among true believers.
God really hadn’t chosen me. And the hole that ached in my heart when Lyn left only grew, despite how much I covered it. It was a gaping chasm, and I felt its emptiness in every cell of my body. It affirmed to me how meaningless the world was, and how there was no God. The Hibakusha, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, must have felt the same evisceration of spirit when faced with their doom.
They say religion is like a drug. Well, I was in withdrawal. So I moved on to other religions. I bought dozens of holy texts. I even went to the local community college and sat in on some religion classes. It filled the void, temporarily.
One day, I went to the mall. I saw a couple my age, holding hands and smiling while window shopping. I remembered when Lyn and I walked through this mall, doing the same thing. I knew with my social skills, I’d never meet someone who loved me like her again. If miracles were proof of God, then the greatest miracle I’d ever witnessed was her accepting and loving me. At that moment, I prayed to God: “If you’re there, bring Lyn back to me.”
This is where things get strange. And you may not believe me, because when I recount it, I don’t believe myself.
I opened the mailbox one chilly autumn morning before heading to work. Beneath a pile of junk mail was a brown hardcover book. It was not in an envelope, so someone had dropped it there. The cover was devoid of any text or images. I didn’t think much of it and left it on the kitchen table, where it got buried under junk mail and bills.
When I came home from work that day, Lyn was sitting on my couch.
“You didn’t even change the locks,” she said.
I stared at her. I’m slow, so it takes me a while to respond with something other than “yeah” or “okay.”
“Look, I only came to get the divorce papers. Remember? Did you ever sign them?”
In my mind, it was as if Lyn was dead. To see her again, was a miracle akin to Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. It was as if my prayer had been answered with a sign of God.
“I’ll need those papers within the week. My lawyer will pick them up. This may be the last time you will see me.”
Lyn was about to walk out the door when I finally thought of what to say.
“Did I not make you happy?”
“You did once, but that all changed the day I met him.”
“Come back to me, Lyn. I can’t go on without you.”
“As much as you deserve happiness, I do too.” She headed for the door.
“Lyn, don’t go.” I stood in front of the door to block her from leaving. “Please talk to me.”
“I’m done talking. There’s no way you will ever make me happy. You’re not normal, John. You’re all bottled up. When we first met, you were different. You had a side to you that was so aware, so alive. Who do you show that side to now, if not me?”
I couldn’t figure out how to answer that. In my view, I hadn’t changed, and it was her who had become withdrawn in the months before she left.
Upon realizing I wasn’t going to say anything, Lyn left. Now that I think back on that moment, it was my first true spiritual experience. While I was stuck in my usual Asperger’s haze, I was also in awe that she had come back. That the only woman who had accepted me and made me whole was still real, standing in my house, and that maybe it was possible for her to be with me again.
I began praying every night. Not in any particular way, but privately to God. Sometimes I’d get on my knees like a Pentecostal, or hold my hands up the way Muslims do. Whatever seemed right. And I’d always ask, repeatedly, for God to bring her back to me.
A few days later, her lawyer visited. I knew he was coming, and I had prepared a few things to say.
“I’d like to meet with Lyn.”
“That’s not going to happen. She doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“Then why did she come to my house?”
“To remind you to sign the papers.”
I tried to find her phone number. It took some cajoling of mutual friends, something I didn’t know I was capable of, but I did get her number. Calling it was useless. As soon as she realized it was me, she blocked my number. When I called her with a new number, she threatened to file a restraining order.
I even found out her new address. An ideal neighborhood, on an affluent street with cherry trees. The house was twice the size of mine, so whoever she had found must have been twice as rich. Sometimes after work, I’d drive by, but I wasn’t going to knock on the door. It was not our house. I didn’t belong there, and in my mind, our relationship could not be saved there.
My attempts to reach her were fruitless, and I was in despair. Maybe she was never coming back. That hole in my heart that whispered I was utterly alone drained me of hope.
I curled up in our bathtub and turned on the shower. When I was a child, I’d do this on shitty days, like when other kids would torment me for being dull. The water hitting your face is like welcoming the rain after a blistering day. But now, it just reminded me of all the times I felt safe and comfortable, reassured that no matter what shitty thing happened, I always had Lyn to come home to. She made me feel accepted and gave me a place to belong. Then she ripped that from me.
“God, let us be together again.” I repeated it again and again, until my skin became clammy with wetness and cold.
Days passed quickly. Her lawyer would come by, and I’d insist that I wouldn’t sign the divorce papers without seeing my wife. I was told that if I didn’t sign, the court would just divorce us anyway. At the time, I didn’t care about the terms of the divorce. I just wanted to talk to Lyn and win her back, so it made no difference what the court did if I could delay the divorce as long as possible.
It was at this time that, in my downward spiral, I began to pray to different gods. If the one god, the Abrahamic god or monotheist god or whatever you want to call him, didn’t exist enough to help me, then maybe others did.
Buddha seemed different enough from the Abrahamic god, though he wasn’t exactly god-like. I drove to the nearest Buddhist temple. I lit some incense and stuck it in a mound before a gleaming golden statue of Buddha and prayed.
“O’ Buddha, bring Lyn and I back together again.”
The next night, I went to a Hindu temple. They have so many gods in their religion and each temple is devoted to a different god. This one had an almost cartoonish statue of the goddess Shakhti, who they call the “Great Divine Mother.” I put some sandalwood paste on my face and placed nine flowers before her statue in a circle. I then held two incense sticks and prayed.
“O’ Shakhti, bring Lyn back to me.”
As the weeks went by, I ran out of organized religions. I started with the cults. But in America, most cults are Christian-based, so I’d end up praying to Abraham’s God again. And the ones which don’t worship God, worship his nemesis. Praying to Satan felt wrong, but I said my prayer just in case.
“Satan, if you’re there, let Lyn and I be one again.”
I then moved to obscure gods. I read books and articles to make sure I got the prayer rituals right. But Ahura Mazda, god of light for the Zoroastrians, didn’t answer my prayer. Neither did Akal Purakh nor Amaterasu Omikami.
I went from the obscure to the dead. Jupiter, Odin, Ra. None of them cared for my desperate call.
I was running out of gods, and with each failed prayer, out of hope.
I woke up one morning at 4 AM. The bare light of false dawn glowed in the sky. Birds hadn’t started chirping – the world was peaceful and silent. At that moment, I realized how crazy I’d been acting. I thought about the Hibakusha, who lost their loved ones in nuclear annihilation. In this life, people suffer and die alone. God and gods don’t exist. These are facts, and you either face them or escape into fantasy.
I decided to read the divorce papers and hire a lawyer. While looking for the papers under a pile on the kitchen table, I found the brown book I’d received in the mail many days ago. It had a heft to it, but the leathery cover felt premium and inviting.
I opened it and read the title: “Prayer Book”.
I flipped through the pages. All empty, without word or image, except for one page at the end.
This page was also without word or image, but it wasn’t empty. Taped to it was an SD card, the kind used in cameras. I brought my laptop down from the bedroom and slotted it in.
The SD card had one file. It contained a link to an IRC server.
I had to download an IRC client, as I hadn’t used the program in years. The IRC server was called “Rapture_2018” and there was one channel: #PrayerRoom. I entered it.
The only one there was a user named “Brother”.
Brother: What do you seek?
Me: What is this?
B: Is there something your heart desires?
Me: Who are you?
B: I can teach you how to pray.
Me: Pray to who?
B: To X.
Now before I continue, I must mention that X is not his actual name. I’ve changed it for your safety because I don’t want you discovering this god or repeating what I was about to do.
B: The only one real enough to give you what you want.
Me: What do I have to do?
B: I will guide you. But before you proceed, know that there is a price.
B: X will take you.
Me: Take me where?
B: To be one with him forever. To the rapture.
Rapture – another crazy teaching I remember from Pentecostal sermons. I don’t mean to offend anyone who believes in it, but the thought that God would whisk us into the sky seemed more to terrify than reassuring.
Me: What if I don’t want to go?
B: Then X can take what he gives. It’s your choice entirely.
Me: Okay, teach me how to pray to X.
Brother detailed the steps. Since you don’t know X’s name, they won’t work for you. Still, I advise you not to try.
Begin a fast at sunrise from eating, drinking, and talking. During this period, do not let your mind dwell on anything, so that you are clear headed.
After sunset, travel to a secluded area, such as a desert, forest, or mountain, where you can clearly see the night sky. You must arrive before midnight.
Lie down on your back and face the sky. Locate the constellation Perseus. Find the star Algol and concentrate on it. Repeat the name of X until you fall asleep.
X will visit you in a dream. He will appear as someone you know and trust. Tell him exactly what you want.
Within six days, you will see the result of your prayer.
I waited for Saturday. The fasting part wasn’t hard because I didn’t have an appetite. My father used to take my big brother and me to this forest camping spot, one of the few happy memories I have of my childhood. I drove there a few hours before midnight.
Now I must explain something. When I was twelve, my big brother was killed in a car accident. Unlike me, he was a social butterfly and high achiever at school and pretty much everything he did. I think losing him was too much for my parents, because it meant I was the only legacy they would ever have, and they never forgave me for that. Anyway, I thought I was going to see Hwan in the dream. But X took the form of my big brother.
I didn’t even realize it was a dream. As I lay down in the forest in my sleeping bag, a man approached. It was my big brother, still seventeen years old and rocking a leather jacket, looking just like on the day he died. At first, I didn’t want to talk to him, afraid that it would break my fast. The hunger, thirst, and autumn cold made it hard for me to process what was going on. But when he asked me what I desired, I didn’t even have to think of a response.
“Brother, I wish I was like you.”
That’s what came out of my mouth because that’s how I’d felt my entire life. Jealous of him, of his abilities, and of the love my parents showered on him.
My brother smiled at me, unnaturally wide. I’d never seen him smile like that, as if his cheek muscles were being pulled by a string. That’s when, in my slow brain, I realized what was going on.
I’d said the wrong prayer.
And then he was gone.
Chirping birds and howling forest animals woke me. I wiggled out of my sleeping bag and drove home. The first thing I did after chugging a pitcher of water and slurping a can of tuna was to log onto that IRC server, but I kept getting the “server could not be found” error. I searched for the server but got no relevant results.
Nothing happened or changed in the following days. Until six days later, which coincidentally, was the court date set for Lyn and me to divorce.
Dressed in my best suit, I arrived at the courtroom. Something had changed. I felt a power deep in my being that had always been there as a shadow, but never fully realized. I felt confident. On top of that, I had a clarity of mind that made the words in my brain roll off my tongue. But I did not have Lyn.
That day, Lyn never showed, and since she was the initiating party, the judge couldn’t proceed with the divorce. Our marriage stood. Her lawyer was just as puzzled as me but suggested that it was cold feet.
I drove to her house. The trees in her yard were laden with cherries. As usual, curtains covered the windows. Did she ever get any sunlight?
It took five minutes of waiting by the door before I mustered the courage to knock. Would her lover answer — this witty, rich, and handsome man who’d stolen her from me — the person Lyn deserved, who would make her happy the rest of her life?
I knocked. Despite the newfound confidence, my nerves had me shivering during the wait. It was Lyn who answered the door.
How beautiful she was. In my mind, as youthful and exuberant as the day we met. She smiled. “I missed you so much, my dear John.”
Her hug was like the rain hitting your face after a hot day. A prayer answered.
“Lyn, let’s go home.”
“Come inside first, I want you to meet him.”
“I don’t want to meet him, Lyn. But I promise I’ll love you more than he ever could. I’ve changed. I can be the man you want me to be, the man you deserve. So please, come home.”
“John, you must meet him. He’s the reason we can be together again.”
I didn’t know what she meant. Lyn grabbed my hand and dragged me inside. Once the door shut, I found out.
This was not a house. It was a temple. A temple to X.
The place was filled with people, all on their knees, as still as statues. They stared at the ceiling and recited the name of X. Something odd on their faces sent a shudder through me. Their eyes had no pupils.
“What the hell is happening here, Lyn?”
“The rapture, my love.”
As if in slow motion, the worshippers rose to their feet and turned to look at us with their blank white eyes.
“Lyn! We have to go!”
I grabbed her and tried to open the front door. But it was stuck.
“We made a promise, didn’t we, John? That when the time came, we would go with X.”
“No, I don’t want to. I just want to be with you. I want to go back to the way things were. When we were happy.”
“But that’s not what you want, John. You were never truly happy with me because you were never happy with yourself. Isn’t that why you prayed too?”
The worshippers pointed at me and opened their mouths, unnaturally wide as if pulled by strings. They approached. I kicked the front door. I kicked and kicked until it flung open.
But Lyn was no longer next to me.
Without taking their eyes off me, the worshippers pointed at an open door. It led to a dim basement. I rushed down to look for my wife. As I entered, the door slammed shut, leaving me in darkness.
The stench of rotting flesh and blood filled my nose. I turned on my cellphone flashlight. Bodies, all over the floor. Worms crawling through eye sockets. Rats digging through intestines. I tried to hold back the vomit, but it spewed out of me and onto the wall.
“He’s here, John!”
I walked toward her voice, careful not to step on the bodies. At the end of the room, there was a raised surface with a stone slab in the middle. Upon that slab, was another body. This was a sacrificial altar.
“Turn off the light, John. He doesn’t like light.”
The body shook. Someone bit it. Flesh was chomped on and blood gushed. Whatever was eating the body, slowly stood, until it was so tall, its head hit the ceiling.
Its eyes were too big for its head. It had no nose, only a wide mouth with fangs. Flesh and blood dripped off its mouth as it smiled at me.
“Lyn, if you still love me, let’s go now.”
I couldn’t see Lyn. I had to run. I burst through the basement door and ran outside. Once in the car, I mashed the accelerator. In that panic, I must have crashed into another car, because I woke up in a hospital bed with a concussion and broken bones.
Hwan, my emergency contact since my wife left, sat next to me.
Maybe it was the concussion from the airbag smashing my head, but I felt slow again. Unclear and uncertain about what to say and what was even in my mind.
Hwan explained what happened.
A few hours after I was taken to the hospital, the police responded to a call about that house. When they arrived, everyone in the house was dead. They had killed themselves as part of some ritual. Even worse, each body had been partially eaten, as if by an animal.
I stayed in the hospital for several weeks, relying on Hwan for updates on the investigation. The police would never find the IRC server, despite the information I gave them. The SD card and the Prayer Book didn’t lead them anywhere. But the strangest part was how everyone in the house died. Their hearts just stopped, without any trace of substances that could cause it. As if their souls had been whisked away, into rapture.
But their bodies had stayed, to be consumed by rats and worms and wild animals, as the police claimed. Only I knew the truth, though I didn’t tell anyone, because I barely believed it myself.
The most painful moment of my life was being wheeled to the hospital morgue to identify my wife’s dead body. A dozen bodies lay on tables, missing half a face, or a thigh, or some stomach. Lyn lay there with a hole in her chest that had been sewed up. Her heart and lungs had been eaten. I squeezed her hand and cried. I said out loud: “Whoever is listening, I’ll do anything, just bring her back to me.”
I had a dream the night before I left the hospital. I was camping with my big brother and father in the forest. We were laughing and eating smores by a fire. Then my father started talking about the constellation Perseus. He showed us how to find the star Algol. If you think of Perseus as holding a severed head, Algol is always the brightest star on it. While my father got on his knees and recited the name of X, my brother whispered to me, “She tasted like cherries. One day I’ll taste you too.” His eyes had no pupils and his face twitched into an unnatural smile.
I don’t know why Lyn prayed to X or what she prayed for, but her desperation must have led her to him. Maybe she was unhappy; maybe it was my fault; maybe at some point, I stopped being true with her and pushed her away, and she turned to X for an answer. Anyway, I live alone now, and I’m still slow and uncertain of the future. But like the Hibakusha, I survived. And whether that’s worse than death, only life will tell. In the end, I think my faithlessness saved me. I don’t believe in God, but maybe there are beings that hear our desperate prayers, and maybe it’s better if they don’t answer us at all.