It’s the year 3194, and Earth is awaiting a new savior.
Televangelist Jeremiah Lovett is the spiritual leader of Astley Ministries, a religious institution that wants to spread its message across the world: the “second coming” of 2o th-century pop star Rick Astley has been prophesized.
But Jeremiah’s secret, sick obsession that Astley Ministries’ Board of Directors helps keep hidden is about to be unveiled by a troubled janitor and a statue of St. Rick Astley.
Please enjoy the first three chapters of my upcoming book, The Gospel According to Astley.
The longest lasting relationship Neal Trimble ever had was about to end as he shuffled in the bathroom to flush his anti-psychotics down the toilet.
A hot August sweat had woken him up at 2 a.m. with a lower back ache and the pillow stuck to his face, while the ceiling fan whirred the stale air around the room in useless puffs.
There hadn’t been any delusions for weeks now. Lately his insomnia had been caused by the late summer temperature and not the usual meds-related side effects.
The fluorescent lighting zombified his face in the bathroom mirror. Blue eyes, thick, dark hair sticking up in wild tufts, two days’ worth of scruff. He didn’t bother shaving during the weekends. Nobody was around to see the final result. Women he met either had an innate sense of the “weirdos” and kept their distance, despite his gentle nature and boyish good looks, or worse, they wanted to save him.
His last girlfriend, a woman he met at a public human resource kiosk while updating his address on his personal identification chipcard, had given up trying to fix him after six weeks of below-average sex (in her opinion) and failing to get him to talk about his childhood.
No delusions for weeks now.
The dawning realization prickled at his skin.
“They’re gone; no voices,” he muttered. The porcelain sink felt cool on the exposed skin of his shirtless belly as he leaned against it, listening just to make sure, but no voices answered him.
He smiled into the mirror.
They’re gone, the voices, the compulsions, everything. I’m schizophrenia-free.
Of course, that was the biggest delusion of them all. You were never schizophrenia-free. The meds only kept the hallucinations at bay so you could function, while the disease still percolated in the background of your brain somewhere.
The pills rattled around inside their amber bottles as he picked at one of the pharmacy labels with his fingernail. Neal Trimble, Dr. Robert Hoffman, Healthy Savings Pharmacy, Risperidone 2mg, take one tab orally every 12 hours, it said. On the other, Lorazepam 1mg, take 1 to 2 tabs orally 2 to 3 times a day.
Dr. Hoffman. That guy.
He wouldn’t be happy if he knew what Neal was about to do.
“Neal, don’t you understand? No delusions is how you know the medication is working. If you want to keep being a part of the 28%, then you need to keep taking your meds,” he’d say, referring to the percentage of people with schizophrenia who went on to live independently after receiving help.
His older sister, Lauren, would be even more condescending: “Those meds are the only reason you’ve been able to keep your shit together, so keep taking them so you won’t have to move in with me.”
But Dr. Hoffman wasn’t here. He was probably at home with his realtor wife with the fake tits and bleached hair. And Neal hadn’t seen Lauren since she moved to the Southwest Zone nine years ago, after their mother had passed.
The pills suck. Taking them is a pain in the ass. I don’t need them anymore. And neither of you is here to stop me, so fuck you both.
He tipped the bottle and watched the small yellow and white tablets plop into the toilet, swirl down and disappear.
Neal was free.
The elevator glided up to the 33rd floor and dinged its arrival. Jeremiah Lovett, spiritual leader of Astley Ministries, caught his reflection in the box’s glossy paneled wood.
“You are one good looking motherfucker,” Jeremiah told himself. His $10,000 whitening system smile agreed with him. He straightened his jacket and stepped through the doors to survey his kingdom.
In the three years since its inception, Astley Ministries had grown from traveling tent revival meetings to a national organization employing eighty-one people, raking in over fifty-five million tax-free dollars a year in donations and ad revenue, with a weekly, hour-long flagship television program called Music in My Soul that featured his sermons and interviews.
The whole floor echoed with greetings of “Good afternoon, Mr. Lovett!” as staff members went about their duties to make Astley Ministries bigger and richer.
Jeremiah greeted everyone in turn and headed into his office. He locked the door behind him and sank into his overstuffed leather chair.
He clicked open his briefcase and took out a leather folder and a twelve-inch tall resin statue of St. Rick Astley. The statue was dressed in a black suit, with one hand over his heart and the other raised in a blessing. He placed the statue on his desk and bowed his head.
“St. Rick, it is with your guidance that I choose one of your devotees to participate in our most blessed of sacraments, the most holy of rites. I am the instrument that you use to test our faith as surely as you chose me to be your mouthpiece.”
He flipped open the leather folder. It was time to choose one person, a candidate, to receive not just the body and blood of Astley, but a personal blessing from St. Rick himself.
The ritual of choosing someone was always the same. Jeremiah would shut himself in his office, read through the list of petitions and select one that was, in his words, the most deserving.
The ceremony was always private. The candidate was brought backstage to a special room Jeremiah called “The Alcove” behind the auditorium at the church where they did the TV tapings. His bodyguard, Burke, watched from a one-way window.
The candidate knelt on a bench and began with an opening prayer to St. Rick. When they finished the invocation, they received the Communion of St. Rick, which was a flat, round wafer embossed with the likeness of St. Rick, and a sip of red wine.
Wearing his most pious expression, Jeremiah would listen to the candidate read their petition. He’d have them put their hands on the statue, close their eyes, and ask St. Rick to intercede on their behalf. Then the candidate kissed the statue for a blessing, where they would never see the next part coming.
As soon as the candidate touched their forehead to the feet of the statue, Jeremiah would press a tiny button underneath the statue’s base to release a neurotoxin hidden in a tiny chamber. The candidate immediately dropped dead, but to any onlooker, it appeared that the person had merely fainted. Burke helped him dispose of the bodies by rolling them inside tarps and trucking them away to another location.
And in this way, Jeremiah Lovett had been satisfying his urge to kill and giving carefully selected members of Astley Ministries a one-way ticket to the Afterlife.
He shuffled through the pile of forms, pausing to read over portions of and laughing to himself. There were pleas for help with legal issues, marriage difficulties, health problems, financial troubles, substance abuse, and a variety of other woes.
Here was one asking for St. Rick to intercede on their behalf because they were lonely.
“Lonely?” Jeremiah said. “Well, that’s your own fault. St. Rick helps those who help themselves. Go out and find some friends.”
Another one gave the sordid details of her husband’s infidelities, and another whose son had stolen money from his parents.
He leafed through the rest of the pile, crumpling them into tight, compressed balls before tossing them into the trash. More of the same. Pathetic cries for help from the distressed, ridiculous or otherwise afflicted, all sorry excuses for human beings.
Near the bottom of the pile, he found one worthy of St. Rick: a pale-yellow sheet folded into thirds, penned in the jittery scrawl of arthritic hands.
Dear Blessed St. Rick,
I’m 82 years old. I’ve been a member of your ministry for two years and donated when I could. Maybe I have not been as devout as some of your other followers or given as much money, but I am writing to you now to ask you to answer my prayer.
I live alone. My wife died sixteen years ago. I have a daughter who doesn’t speak to me. Her name is Erin. We haven’t spoken since her mother passed.
I’m asking you to bring my daughter and I together again. It would make me the happiest man alive.
Your very humble follower,
Reginald “Reggie” McCann
“Sure,” grinned Jeremiah, as predatory thoughts began forming in his head. “St. Rick will bring the two of you together again.”
What Neal liked best about cleaning his boss’s office at Astley Ministries was that nobody came around to bother him. He performed his custodial duties in the early morning hours when everyone else was still in bed.
A flat screen TV bolted to the wall played a constant loop of Jeremiah’s sermons live from Calton City’s megachurch. Jeremiah was onstage, clean cut under bright lights with his megawatt smile and hair coiffed into a side-parted, brushed back imitation of Rick Astley’s style from his iconic debut album, Whenever You Need Somebody. He was even dressed like Rick: smart black suit, khaki trench coat, and shiny black leather loafers.
“My beautiful congregants, thanks again for joining us from our commercial break. Let us all sing the praises of Our Lord and Savior, Rick Astley,” Jeremiah was saying.
Neal reached into his pants pocket for his mini music player. At least Jeremiah’s office had free Tebler-waves access. It was restricted in most other parts of the building unless you had a government-issued Tebler chip in your music or viewing device. Neal had one until his former roommate’s cat mistook it for a toy.
He popped the wireless headphones into his ears and clicked on the device. But instead of hearing the local radio station’s sports scores report, there was silence. A tiny green swirl circled on the device’s square glass interface as it searched for a signal.
SIGNAL BLOCKED, it said in red letters.
“Shit! Blocked since when?” He switched the device off and on a few times but the signal stayed blocked. “Dammit, now I’m going to have to listen to this garbage.” The TV was always on and running a constant loop of Music in My Soul, and only Jeremiah had the device key that controlled the settings. Neal threw both middle fingers at the enormous portrait of Jeremiah in its gold leaf frame that hung above his desk.
“Today, we’re going to talk about faith, what faith means to me, and what it should mean to you. We all have a friend or a loved one that doesn’t have faith,” Jeremiah said. “Or someone who lost their faith. A friend or a family member, or maybe even you yourself.”
Neal rolled his eyes and slid the plastic trash liner bag out of the gold-plated wastebasket next to Jeremiah’s desk. He flipped the bag around and tied it shut as Jeremiah droned on from the wall.
Jeremiah swaggered along the stage. “I remember my own moment of crisis, before the glorious divinity of St. Rick’s presence showed me my true calling. Many of you have heard my story before, but I’ll gladly tell it again and again, and I’ll shout it from the rooftops until I’m blue in the face, to illustrate the power of faith, and because it might help those who have wandered off the path of righteousness.”
The televised crowed whooped and AMEN’ed. They ate it up like people coming off a fast at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Neal flapped open a new trash liner and glanced up at the T.V. It seemed that Jeremiah never got tired of hearing his own voice or telling the story of how Rick Astley, a 20th-century pop star, had (allegedly) come to him in a vision and (allegedly) instructed him to start a religion in his name.
“Now let me start off by saying that losing your faith is an awful thing. It’s just about one of the most terrible things that can happen to a person, am I right?” Jeremiah said.
The audience nodded their assent. Absolutely, that was truth.
“But there’s something out there that’s worse,” Jeremiah said, with the tone of a jury about to deliver a death sentence. He stood bathed in a circle of spotlight, shaking his head.
Everybody shifted uncomfortably in their plush stadium seats, gripping the chair arms. Hearing about loss of faith was bad enough, but the idea that there was an even greater threat out there was worse, even if they’d heard this story a million times. And they had.
“Worse? Worse than losing your faith? I know you’re wondering, ‘Jeremiah, what could possibly be worse than that?’ And I’ll tell you, because I know better than any one of you, because I lived it each and every moment of my life before I was saved.” He punctuated the each and every part by slapping his knees.
Jeremiah gestured to the ceiling, as if petitioning the heavens above for an answer. “What could possibly be a worse set of circumstances than not having any faith?”
He waved for the television camera to zoom in closer. It followed him like an obedient dog to the edge of the stage. “Is it being poor?”
“No!” said a middle-aged man in the third row in a giant voice, as if daring the camera to disagree with him.
Jeremiah pointed to an elderly woman in the front. “Is it being sick?”
The television camera swung down for a close-up on her wrinkled face.
“No!” she said, shaking her head so that her jowls quivered.
He pointed to a kid in the fourth row. “Is it being lonely?”
“NO!” the kid shouted, to the glee of his parents seated on either side of him.
Where do they find these people? Neal thought.
“No, it’s not, and I’d gladly take all three of those wicked things put together than to have the one thing that’s worse than losing my faith,” Jeremiah chuckled. Everyone laughed right along with him. “So, what is this worse thing?”
“What?” the audience asked, though they already knew the answer.
“I’ll tell you, and I’m gonna invite you to say it with me,” Jeremiah said. “The thing that’s worse than losing your faith—”
“Is not having any faith to begin with,” Neal said to himself, spraying furniture polish onto a cloth.
“Is not having any faith to begin with!” finished the crowd.
Neal smirked. Jeremiah was so predictable.
“That’s right! Friends, I promised I’d tell you my own personal story of faith and salvation. Like I said, I know you’ve heard it before, but it’s such a strong story, I want to use it to show you the beauty and glory of a higher power. Once upon a time, I was a very lost young man. I was vain. I was arrogant. And I thought I had the answers to everything,” Jeremiah said.
“You mean you don’t?” said Neal. Artificial lemon-scent drifted from the cloth as he rubbed it in vigorous circles along the top of Jeremiah’s claw-foot mahogany executive desk. He was still annoyed about the blocked Tebler signal.
Jeremiah closed his eyes and gripped the microphone. “I had an excess of pride, but I was lacking something.”
The audience held their breath waiting for him to continue.
Jeremiah heaved a dramatic sigh. “But pride goeth before the fall, as they say. And my pride led me down a dark road. It was a road filled with temptation, and the sin of my own ego.”
Sympathetic murmurs flowed from the TV.
“I had nothing that would truly bring me goodness, or joy, or peace. And I trudged down this darkened road of desolation, and my feet were as heavy as lead weights in my shoes, so much did my despair weigh down on me. My soul cried out for release from the pain and emptiness. So, I did something I’d never done before. I got down on my hands and knees and prayed for redemption!”
The crowd’s eyes shone with tears at their beloved preacher’s moving display of humility. Neal re-sprayed the dusting cloth and aggressively polished Jeremiah’s platinum plated ballpoint pen set, muttering to himself about the idiots in the stadium seats.
“Yes, I prayed! I’d never prayed before but I did that day. And as I asked for forgiveness and waited for the light of salvation to shine down upon me, I received a divine urge, a message if you will. And it sounds crazy and unbelievable but sometimes these things work in mysterious ways. Something was telling me stop feeling sorry for myself and visit the Museum of Archaic Technology.”
“And I know what you’re thinking. What does the Museum of Archaic Technology have to do with this? But just remember that St. Rick works in mysterious ways. So, in a state of complete bewilderment, I went to the museum. And it was there that I received His divine word.”
The ecstatic congregants squeezed each other’s hands and blinked back tears. They may not have personally received St. Rick’s blessing but hearing Jeremiah’s story was the next best thing.
“I recalled that I had an ancient relic of our nation’s cultural history in my jacket. It was given to me by my cousin Robie, St. Rick bless her, who found it on an archaeological dig in the Northeastern Zone of our country, while she and her team were scouting the Wastes, because the biochemical warfare levels had come down and it became safer to travel there.”
A buzz of excitement moved through the crowd. The most stirring part of the story was coming.
“That ancient, most holy relic was tucked away in my pocket, but I did not yet realize its sacredness, or the power it holds.”
A message imploring viewers to Donate to Astley Ministries Now, Operators are Standing By! scrolled across the bottom of the screen. Neal rummaged through his cart for the window cleaner and squeegee.
“I walked up and down the hallways at the museum, asking ‘Why am I here, and what is my purpose? What can a person such as myself give to this world?’” Jeremiah said.
“And then I came to an exhibit. It was a radio with a cassette player, what they used to call a “boom box”. It didn’t look like much, just a thousand-and-something-year-old machine that’d been unearthed from some settlement from the Time Before.”
Neal sprayed the windows with blue glass cleaner as Jeremiah continued regaling the enthralled audience. It ran down the panes in streaky drips.
“And to this very day I cannot properly explain what happened next except that I was guided by a divine presence to put the cassette into the tape deck. I wasn’t expecting anything to happen but imagine my shock and surprise when I pressed play, and a most blessed voice flowed forth from the dusty speaker.”
Close-ups of the worshippers’ enraptured, tear-streaked faces filled the TV screen. “Never Gonna Give You Up” began to swell in the background. His story was interrupted by the shrill squeak of Neal’s window squeegee.
Jeremiah’s toothy smile almost split his face in half as he remembered his mystical experience. “And He appeared to me, just as plain as day!”
He went on to describe how Rick Astley had floated down through the ceiling “as though on a cloud, surrounded by a golden light”, and instructed Jeremiah to found the ministry in His image, and spread the Good Word of His music to the masses.
And Jeremiah had done just that.
“St. Rick will never give you up. He will never let you down, my people! That’s not His style. You’ll never be deserted. Not by Him, and not by me!”
The audience rose to their feet, swaying and singing as the music transported them to a profound state of spiritual bliss.
Neal rolled his eyes again and tossed the squeegee onto his cart. He unwrapped his industrial vacuum cleaner’s cord and shoved it into an outlet as though it were responsible for his sour mood. The vacuum roared to life and swallowed the noise of the TV.
Behind him, on Jeremiah’s desk, the twelve-inch-tall resin statue of St. Rick Astley vibrated in the hum of the vac’s powerful motor.
Neal whipped the cord around and pushed it across the gray flecked Berber carpet. The vac bumped into one of the desk’s legs, knocking the statue off the desk. He didn’t hear the statue clatter to the floor, so he also didn’t hear it yell when it tumbled off.
Time for break. He turned the vac off, came back from the vending machines five minutes later, and saw the statue on the floor.
“Excuse me,” said a voice with a British accent, “but could you kindly put me right? I almost fell in the trash. Please be careful when you do.”
Neal turned to see where the voice was coming from. He was the only one in the room. There were no other noises besides the TV, now showing an interview with Jeremiah discussing a possible future run for President of the New United States, and the hum of the AC.
He poked his head out the doorway and glanced up and down the hall. “Hello?” he called.
No-one was there.
“That’s weird. Maybe it was coming from outside.” He checked out the windows but the parking lot was deserted except for his car.
“Hey!” the statue said again. “Down here!”
Neal peeked under the desk, the chair, in the closet, behind the filing cabinets, and out in the hallway again.
“Hello?” he called again, slightly alarmed. He was supposed to be alone in the building. He especially hoped it wasn’t coming from inside his own head. That was over and done with, wasn’t it?
“Neal, down here,” said St. Rick, with more patience than Neal ever would have given him credit for.
He peered down at the statue. “Is that voice coming from where I think it’s coming from? Because I’m going to freak out if it is.”
“Yes,” said St. Rick. “It is, and please don’t freak out.”
Gently, he poked the statue with his foot.
“Please don’t kick me, it could be dangerous!” said St. Rick. “I’m fragile!”
Neal sighed and buried his face in his hands. “I thought I was better.”
“You are, for now,” said St. Rick, “but you won’t be for long.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That was a very dumb thing to do, Mr. Trimble,” St. Rick said, “to stop taking your medication like that, without even consulting your doctor. You’re one psychotic episode away from—”
“Who are you to judge what I do?” said Neal. “That was weeks ago, and I feel fine.”
“You will be for a little while. But sooner or later those intrusive thoughts are going to come back,” said St. Rick.
“How do you even know that? You’re a plastic statue.”
“Never mind that,” said St. Rick. “We have more pressing things right now.”
“This can’t be happening,” said Neal. His head swam. Everything had been normal when he left for work.
“But it is,” St. Rick said.
“Wait,” Neal said. “How are you doing this? Talking—you’re an inanimate object!”
St. Rick sighed. It was a strange enough situation, but even stranger to see his painted-on mouth not moving. “It’s me. Saint Rick Astley. I’m speaking to you through this hunk of plastic molded into the shape of me. It was the only way to get to you.”
“Why me?” asked Neal.
“Because you’re in a position to help me. You’re one of the only ones I trust. And you can get close enough to Jeremiah Lovett to stop him.”