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The Coward Who Stole God’s Name

Who is the most beloved person alive? Is it one of those actors who plays superheroes? Is it a political leader? Maybe you’re a galaxy brain and say Beyoncé? No matter who you pick, you know you’re wrong. There’s always that better person who we love so unquestioningly that we forget they’re there. Sometimes, we forget why.

“Gavin Davenport?” I repeat into my phone. “You’re kidding me. He wants me?”

On the other end of the line, my editor York is practically squealing. “Apparently he reads your stuff. He mentioned The Redacted Man by name.”

I grab at my ribcage. Gavin Davenport read The Redacted Man? I’ve been reporting for twenty years but this is a chilling shock. I feel like I’m a teenager and my parents just found my browser history. The Redacted Man was so negative. I regret every phrase in it that could’ve been sharper.

I ask, “Is this a prank?”

York says, “I’ve checked with everyone. Davenport wants you to write about him. Sam, this is titanic. We’ve never done anything this big.”

My brain flails trying to contextualize the invitation. Years of absence broken—and by me? This is like being asked to write an extra chapter for the Bible. Nobody talks to Gavin Davenport. He’s barely let himself be photographed since the shootings.

I ask, “When do I go?”

“Today. You’ve got three hours.”

I grab for my keys. “Three hours?”

“Don’t be late. Remember the last person who disappointed him?”

One thing that strikes you about Davenport’s estate is that it has no walls. It’s a vast lawn with a few tiger lily gardens between the street and his many houses. Anyone could stray onto his property, though nobody ever has. Nobody would. It’s difficult to imagine trespassing against Davenport’s property.

That impression looms as I approach along the polished quartz walkway. Am I violating some unwritten law by entering his domain? I’ve been invited and still I feel unworthy.

There’s no security. No one buzzes me in. I expect his front door to be a checkpoint, but when I ring the bell, Gavin Davenport himself opens it. He wears brown pajama pants and a green Polo. He’s a peculiar height, and his gaze at once makes me feel the same size as him and makes me feel like we are both giants.

He says, “Samuel? Welcome.”

In one hand he holds an old Smith & Wesson Model 500. For my whole life I’ve detested firearms, but this one, in his hand, changes my mind. It’s a romantic object in his grip. How does he do that to everything he touches?

He laughs when I look at the weapon. “Don’t worry, man. I won’t make you shoot yourself until tomorrow.”

I say, “It’s a pleasure, Mr. Davenport.”

He says, “For the next hour, call me Gavin.”

I ask, “What should I call you after?”

He laughs at me. I think I should smile.

We take a quick jog through his labyrinths. The halls that connect everything under Washington D.C. are less complicated, each of them possessing a certain warmth as Gavin passes through them. There are few adornments. The original Starry Night, hanging askew. A framed photo of him and the president, after Gavin turned down the nomination. The painting Banksy did celebrating him.

“I loved your piece about the tech asshole,” he says. “The Redacted Guy? You really nailed him.”

I fall back on the typical icebreaker about that story, “I was surprised how much ugliness he showed given how deep he let me inside the company. It was all on the record. Even what he was doing to his staff.”

“I’m glad you got him pushed out. He was a typical narcissist. You should’ve seen what he was like to secretaries before I had a word with him.”

I should be surprised. I’m not. For the story, I ask, “You met him?”

“I wanted people to stop posting photos of me on his site. Too much idolatry and people ruin your image curation, you know?”

Did you know it’s against the policy of every social media company to share images of Gavin Davenport? It feels like being reminded it’s illegal to drive headlong into oncoming cars. You’d never do that.

We come upon what I can best describe as a small indoor zoo. It’s all one contained concrete and steel room, larger than a high school gymnasium. Five glass cages house independent environments, each with trees and wood chip floors. The smallest is bigger than my apartment. Briefly, I fantasize he’ll ask me to live in one.

Long, shaggy arms slam into the glass of the nearest cage. It’s a ginger orangutan, with a flattened gray face. Her lips shrink from rotting teeth as she howls and slaps her cage’s walls. The walls must be soundproof, as I don’t hear a thing. I step in front of Gavin, shielding him from the idea of harm.

Gavin waves at the orangutan with his pistol. “I’m heinously allergic to these. You know it’s not their hair? It’s their proteins. The saliva and flakes of skin that coat their hair. I can barely breathe if I get a whiff of these things. Terrible creatures, don’t you think?”

I want to agree, but he wants me to interview him. “Why do you keep them?”

“We’ll get to that,” he says, balancing the pistol between two pinkies. One pinkie is on the hammer, the other plugging the barrel. There’s a radiance in his expression as he surveys the old weapon. It makes me wish I was a gun. “I think it’s best we start with this.”

I fumble for the appropriate question. “How is the weapon important to you?”

“I was six years old and something big happened near my driveway. A riot or something, that doesn’t matter. So many harsh voices in one place. There was this one cop on the sidewalk, clearly itching to hurt somebody. He was waiting for the opportunity.”

I think of all Gavin’s philanthropy and community activism. This must be where it started. “Did you talk him out of it? Make the cops stand down?”

“Nah. I thought his desire looked so, I don’t know, interesting? I pushed through the crowd to get to him. I asked for his gun. He handed it over, obviously. He offered to show me how to use it. I told him to get lost.” He hums to himself. “I don’t think he was ever found.”

I ask, “The gun is a memento of when someone was kind to you?”

Gavin takes a long look into the orangutan cage, like a pull from a cigarette. There’s something in his gaze. The orangutan runs behind a tree to hide. “People have always been kind to me. They don’t have a choice.”

I wasn’t prepared for this level of modesty. Of course people could be unkind to Gavin Davenport; they just never think to do so. Why would you choose to be unkind to such an impressive human being? He does such good in the world, like…like…

He turns away from myself and the cage. “I don’t blame you for not following. When I was born, the entire hospital turned out. Nurses and patients filled my room to see me. To get near me. A pair of cardiac surgeons left a patient to die on the operating table to come see me cry. It was in the local paper. You can look it up.”

As though I could doubt him? His words are impossible, but there’s no greater impossibility than that he would lie.

I say, “You can’t blame yourself for that.”

“Who said anything about blame?” He goes to an open bar stationed at the edge of the colossal zoo installation. He drops the pistol on a stool and pours us two cobra whiskeys. “I was a teenager before I realized this was unusual. You grow up thinking however it is for you, it must be for everyone.”

I didn’t grow up that way. Marginalized people around the world know it’s unfair early. Gavin is wrong in an elegant way that I can’t articulate. It crystallizes the rest of existence, such that I love his untruth better than truth. Isn’t it things like that which keep us alive?

He says, “Take you. Nobody likes you just because you’re who you are. You worked your way through Northwestern with little support from anyone. It took you an unusually long time to go from a freelancer to a staff writer. You still haven’t won the awards you deserve—deserved before The Redacted Man. You get shit-talked for every article you publish, about your liberal biases, your typos, and your anonymous sources. Tell me I’m wrong.”

The tips of my ears blaze. “You know all that? You care about me?”

“That’s the way life is. From strangers pushing for a parking space to heads of state drone striking weddings, everybody has bullshit. It’s unfair that I’ve never gotten to experience that unkindness.”

It’s a new kind of profound. This poor man cannot experience life like us. The common is uncommon here. I wonder how I can help.

He says, “I’ve had MIT on it for years. What’s funny is this trait of mine? It doesn’t work on many other primates.”

I ask, “They’re immune?”

The orangutan is back, biting at the glass in our direction. Her black teeth crack. Gavin watches a moment, then splashes his drink at the glass.

“Worse,” he says. “They seem to hate me.”

Reflexively, I throw my drink too. I pity most caged animals, but my sympathy for Gavin is far stronger. No creature should be crass to this poor man.

Gavin says, “As far as research has taken us, it seems whatever causes my allergy to them also causes them to be extremely intolerant of my effects. Primitive limbic systems and all that. But humans are elevated above other species. Your thoughts are more evolved. Richer.”

Those words will haunt me for the rest of my days. That one word in particular: “Your.”

Your thoughts are more evolved.

As though this planet is the seven billion of us, and him.

Gavin takes my glass and says, “Sam. You’re going to help me.”

I don’t argue. Who would argue with helping him? My heart beats like I’m walking into Prom with the high school quarterback. It takes me a moment to ask, “How?”

“I’m going to lift it from you. That thing that I’ve felt all my life—that everyone alive has felt. I’m giving you a taste of freedom. Just to see how it feels.”

“Why wouldn’t I want to love you?”

“How it feels for me, dipshit. I’ve never had the privilege of someone’s indifference. I deserve this much.”

This is the last article I should ever write. If I lack the basic empathy Gavin deserves, I don’t deserve my career. Of course I’ll help him.

His fingernails scrape my hairline as he places his hands on my forehead.

Gavin asks, “Are you ready?”

Despite myself I whisper, “No.”

“Here we go.”

It’s the worst work of my life. I spend the entire trip home banging out empty paragraphs. I splice anecdotes and research into pauses in our conversation. No sentence of it has energy. There’s no revelry about the great man, and there are so many revelations that they crowd each other. The verve is missing. Every time I reach for feeling, I find emptiness. Have you ever tried to feel, and failed?

I can’t think about Gavin Davenport correctly. It doesn’t make sense. You don’t walk out of your house one day and suddenly no longer love your mother. You don’t just sneeze and lose a religion.

Gavin Davenport is a man who was born to a family of metal workers in Idaho, and I don’t care.

Gavin Davenport is a philanthropist who has raised barely any money for any causes and I don’t see why we think he’s generous.

Gavin Davenport is a man with a history of friendships ending in others self-harming, often using the Smith & Wesson 500 he showed me today. There are videos of him laughing at the funerals. How has nobody ever said anything about the pattern?

It’s like someone turned off gravity inside my heart.

I don’t write an article. I write a betrayal that doesn’t feel wrong.

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

York never swears. He didn’t swear when the Twin Towers fell. He didn’t swear when he had a stroke in an elevator that one New Year’s Eve. I rode in the ambulance with him and he was even-tempered the whole time.

“Slow down,” I say. “What is the problem with the story?”

“What isn’t the problem? I sent you for an interview and you gave me a conspiracy theory.”

“It’s a lot to take in. But it makes sense when you think about it.”

It had made weird sense before Gavin switched me off. Now the logic festers. I need Gavin to see this article published so he’ll switch me back on. I haven’t eaten in a day. I need my mind back. I don’t want to know what I’ll be like tomorrow.

York says, “You think Gavin Davenport is telepathically manipulating the entire planet?”

I tried to think like I had when I felt right. “If he said it to you, wouldn’t you believe him?”

“We have climate change. We have pandemics. The world is begging for hope. There is maybe one person, one person in the world, that brings light to everybody. You’re deciding to try to take him away?”

I shake my head at my phone. “I’m not taking him from anyone. I’m giving him to you.”

“Bringing down chemical companies wasn’t big enough for you? The Redacted Man wasn’t big enough for you?”

“Hold on. You loved The Redacted Man.”

York is so loud it makes the connection crackle. “What does your ego need to be fucking satisfied?”

“He told me to write this,” I say, letting myself yell back. “What you read is what he wanted.”

“He invited you into his home. He invited you to a conversation, not an assassination. I’m not publishing this.”

“Come on, York. This is the biggest story of the century.”

“Not in this magazine it isn’t. And if you try to sell it somewhere else, you will never write again. This is over.”

Every drink I take tastes like that cobra whiskey should have. I’ve never had it. I wasted my first shot of it to demean an ape in the cage of a god. I know the whiskey wouldn’t taste like a snake’s actual venom. Part of me feels it would taste like an approval I don’t have.

As I drink, I send out feelers. Editors nibble when they don’t know more than that it’s an interview with our generation’s icon. After they read a sample, multiple decade-long contacts block me.

I need to get this out there. Gavin wanted this. The only way to get back in his good graces—the only way to stop feeling like I can’t feel the right thing—is to write his story.

The last draft is angrier than I expected. There are so many details about his life—the favors from the powerful, the inhumanities he could’ve stopped with a phone call—that prick into my flesh. I pose them as questions readers should consider.

What if nobody will publish this?

Well, I have a blog. I can do this and get the apathy over with overnight. Tomorrow morning I’ll earn my sanity back.

It’s like a landslide falls out of my laptop.

The article is down. My entire web domain is missing—the hosting service has either crashed or pulled support. I open my email to find out, but my inbox has never been such a disaster. There is a deluge of outraged subject lines, calling me every name I know and worse. The spam filter has given up.

Twitter is worse. Every time I try to scroll, it hiccups under the onslaught of new outraged comments that want to load. I am a backstabber. I have dishonored my country. People now believe I made up the worst of The Redacted Man and demand that guy be reinstated.

No logic unifies this. I am a liar, and an exposer of people’s privacies, and I want attention, and I am a coward to hide, and I want to destroy great people. Photoshopping my face to look like the Joker becomes a meme. There’s no way to argue. It’s like putting your hands against a tide; more pissed off randos spill around wherever you hold up a defense.

My voicemail is full of bile. The phone keeps buzzing with calls from numbers I don’t recognize. I’m still processing the social media barrages when I realize that somebody doxxed me.

My number is out there. My age, dating history, and apartment history is out there.

A voice from my phone’s tinny speaker says, “Wild, isn’t it?”

It’s Gavin Davenport’s voice. I didn’t pick up any call.

He says, “You’re awake, right?”

I lift my phone. A speaker icon takes up the screen.

I say, “What? Did you call me?”

“No,” he laughs. “I hung out with some devs a few years ago. Really sharp people. They built me a universal backdoor. They insisted I have it.”

Briefly, I consider dropping my phone in the trash bin. There’s something about dropping the source of Gavin’s words into garbage that appeals.

Gavin goes on, “Decent article, by the way. Not as punchy as your best work. Lacked focus, but it covered a lot. And you were right about my exes. I was a little mean to them. I have to do better. I’m going to work on it.”

I imagine him reading what I wrote, over whiskeys, overlooking furious apes. The pain I felt last night drips through my thoughts. I’ve written about some of the most corrupt people in the world and did it fairly. I’ve never hated a subject. Now, I wonder: do I want to hurt this person I barely know?

Gavin says, “Fascinating feedback to the article, yeah?”

I say, “You have to call these people off.”

This time he laughs like he’s heard a child’s knock-knock joke. “I already released a statement saying it’s all true and I consented. What more do you want me to do? You wrote this thing.”

I rest my head against the cool glass of my window. I say, “Turn it off. I did what you wanted. Let me feel it again.”

He says, “We can’t stop now. I want to see where this goes.”

On the sidewalk below my window, three people are yelling into each other’s faces. Two of them gesticulate up at my building. I wonder if they’re talking about me. I wonder if I’ve locked my door.

I need to call my family, or my ex-boyfriend, or my ex-editor. Somebody who can center me here.

I swipe on my screen. It doesn’t respond; Gavin’s speaker icon remains, immovable.

Gavin asks, “Sam. Sam, have you seen what they’re saying about you on Insta?”

I ask, “How do I hang up?”

“You can’t. That’s the point.”

I’ve never looked into the eye of a drone before. It’s like a crow’s eye, but full of plastic darkness. First one drone hovers in front of my window; soon, two more join it. Strangers are filming my laundry hamper.

In lowering the blinds, I discover many more people on the streets below my apartment. Traffic can’t get through. They wield signs about my evils, most of them misspelling my last name. Everyone is yelling—chanting things I can’t make out. I’ve become a cause worthy of protest.

A bang rings from the street, like a firework. More follow, and glass crashes downstairs. I don’t dare look outside.

Gavin is in my phone again. He says, “You better move it.”

I want to slap his voice—to reach through the phone and grab hold of his bottom lip.

He asks, “You there, Sam? Because if you saw what I’m seeing on TV, you’d be gone.”

I think just enough to get my keys. I head to the hall, and to the main stairs. Opening the staircase door reveals several men walking up it. One carries a length of PVC pipe.

I take the other stairs, the ones that go to the rear exit of the apartment building. I hear my neighbors yelling that I’m fleeing the scene, and below their voices, Gavin’s voice on my phone. “Go, man! I’m rooting for you!”

The last time I was here, I thought Gavin’s estate didn’t have walls. Seeing the vacant sidewalk and streets, I recognize there is a wall. All his privacy, all the lawn care and tree maintenance and pest control he gets for free, and the eighteen houses connected by tunnels he didn’t dig himself, are all part of a wall of privilege.

The thing about privilege is it’s simultaneously harder than diamond and softer than air. Last week, I would’ve had an easier time chewing through a brick wall than trespassing on his lawn.

Today, I walk right in.

That walk becomes a run as the street buzzes behind me. Trucks and sedans are on my tail—an army afraid for the safety of the world’s harmless friend. Bullets whizz up the street. Getting near Gavin’s houses is the only way I’m not shot. They can’t risk a bullet passing through a wall and harming him.

I break a window and they swarm behind me with crowbars and misspelled signs. I head for the underground tunnels, hoping they’ll get lost.

He’s not in the living room. Not near his dusty art collections. I can’t find Gavin anywhere. With his hubris, he might be in one spot.

The air in the zoo is clammy. In one cage, two rhesus monkeys sit idly in a tire swing, grooming each other. The orangutan I once threw a drink at crouches near her wall-mounted water bottle, smelling her feet. These primates are the only people in the world indifferent to me.

“I’m sorry about yesterday,” I say to the orangutan as I scavenge behind the open bar. There are bottles of good stuff, and mixing equipment. Nothing too heavy or helpful.

On a stool, atop the green pleather cushion, rests that Smith & Wesson 500.

The mob is coming, so I pick it up. Stomping feet and furious faces take up the entire tunnel leading to the zoo. All of humanity is here in the estate, ready to hold me accountable for Gavin’s actions.

At their head is Gavin Davenport himself. They won’t walk faster than him—won’t bump into him. The masses obey their loved one. Gavin raises his arms to slow them further, and so they won’t tear me apart yet. With his arms splayed, he probably thinks he looks Christ-like.

He’s forgetting that Christ wasn’t popular in his own time.

I raise the pistol, and feel.

It’s atrocious to raise it in his direction. The guilt makes me turn it inward, instantly. I look at the orangutan and point the muzzle at my own heart. What are we doing? Why are we so horrible to Gavin? Abruptly, I love him more than anything.

“Don’t be hasty,” Gavin says, into his phone, and it comes out of my phone. He’s still on his hijacking app. That brilliant tool hackers gave him so he could speak to anyone anywhere. How I wish he’d called me sooner. “The experiment’s not over, Sam. I’ve got plans for you.”

Goosebumps race up my legs. He wants me again. Isn’t being wanted all that I’ve wanted? I was delusional. I was drunk and deserved a hangover. Gavin’s kindly smile convinces me, a smile that would be a sneer on any other face.

I wipe at my blurry eyes and say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“Of course you are. How couldn’t you be? That’s why you’re going to make up for what you’ve done.”

There’s nothing I want more than to bask in his graciousness. I can’t bring myself to look at him. My insides are freezing solid from the guilt.

Instead I look at the pistol, and at the orangutan. She’s being ugly again, raking her nails against the glass and howling mutely at the best person in our world. Why can’t she see what’s wrong with what she’s doing?

Gavin says, “Whoa, man. That gun’s for you.”

It’s a gift. It’s redemption with a trigger. I’ll shoot myself if he wants, but is that enough?

It’s not close to enough.

I need to show him I care. That we despise the same things. I remember how we threw our drinks at this awful primate, and I raise the pistol. The orangutan’s glass walls won’t protect her.

Gavin yells, “Sam!”

The gunshots cut off the rest of his words—the zoo is too small and the noise is too great to be contained. My ears ring from the reports. I don’t hear the glass fall. It shatters, though, tumbling inward, towards the fleeing orangutan. I’ve never fired a gun before. I missed her.

The crowd tackles me before I can fire again. The impact against the ground jars my body, and I rise up needing that weapon. I need it for Gavin Davenport. That son of a bitch is doing this to all of us. The love fell with the glass, and I know this is my last chance to turn and get him.

Gavin sits on his knees, clutching at his throat and lips. He looks like a dumpy fish in a polo. He’s breathing the orangutan’s air. The stench is real—and so is all that dander. An allergy to hatred that makes Gavin shrink away, into a crowded tunnel.

The mob can beat me to death now and feed me to the monkeys. I don’t care because I’m full of feeling. I brim with a good anger. If only the others felt it.

The mob drops me like they forget I’m here. They stand up and look at their hands as though remembering everything those hands have ever touched. Those strangers waver on their feet like they are trees helpless in a storm breeze. So many eyes that are abruptly frantic and empty, unsure of what was supposed to fill them.

The only reply is the shrill howl of the orangutan, now audible to us all.

As one, the world turns to look at Gavin Davenport.

For the first time, they see him.

 

(Editors’ Note: “The Coward Who Stole God’s Name” is read by Matt Peters on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 46B.)

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John Wiswell

John (@Wiswell) is a queer author who lives where New York keeps all of its trees. His fiction has appeared in Uncanny Magazine. Tor.com, Diabolical Plots, Nature Futures, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, among other venues. He previously won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story for “Open House on Haunted Hill.”

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