It all started pretty innocently. The quick chat with a Casual Acquaintance about web design held no indication of the eldritch horrors to come. All Denys did was mention that he was learning how to produce web pages. If he'd known the terror in store he would have kept his mouth bloody well shut.
The Casual Acquaintance considered himself to be quite into computers, despite knowing next to nothing about them, and always tried to swing the conversation in their general direction. This particular day the talk turned to HTML. Denys had just learnt the basics, and was both surprised and shocked at the simplicity of it all. He boasted that he could put almost anything online using just notepad. This pride was to prove his downfall.
The Casual Acquaintance perked up his ears. "Anything?" he asked.
"Practically anything" answered Denys "I'm trying to find some work, ya know, get some experience".
The Casual Acquaintance pondered for a second. "My friend's involved in a group that wants a web page" he said after scratching his chin.
"Excellent!" though Denys, Mr Burns style. "He should give me a call" he nonchalantly suggested.
The call arrived the following Wednesday evening, neatly interrupting a new episode of The Simpsons. Denys picked up the phone. "Hi Denys!" said the voice on the other end "I hear you're going to make us a web page!".
The speaker was Ear-Boy. Ear-Boy had been in the year above Denys back at primary school. His chief claims to fame were shaking the Pope's hand on his 1986 Australian tour, and throwing a screaming fit in a video library over their stocking The Last Temptation of Christ. Denys (who collapsed in severe abdominal distress on seeing the Pope back in '86) should have realised something was up immediately. He didn't.
The conversation turned to the content of the web page. They wanted to start simple, some text, a few photo's and a graphic of a dove holding an olive branch breaking free from chains. "Who are these people?" Denys wondered "Amnesty International?". His thoughts screeched to a halt when Ear-Boy dropped the words Prayer Group into the conversation.
"Pardon?" interjected Denys, with a sudden sense of impending doom. "The Prayer Group meets on Friday nights" repeated Ear-Boy "I'll come and pick you up around 7:30, we usually finish at about 10:00. That OK?"
"Um, Yeah, OK" muttered Denys, mentally stunned. A Prayer Group? "We want something to interest the young people" continued Ear Boy "I think it's really important that we get the young people back to Jesus, so many of them have lost the way, don't you think?"
"Um, Yeah" muttered Denys, still in shock.
"OK I'll see you at 7:30 then" finished Ear-Boy. "See ya!" He hung up. Denys wondered exactly what he'd got himself into.
He found out the next Friday.
The atmosphere in the loungeroom was oppressive. Denys sat with fingers twiddling in apprehension, hoping for a phone call saying the whole thing had been cancelled. An absolutely dire episode of Sliders, a pathetic attempt to cash in on Marlon Brando's The island of Dr Moreau, did nothing to ease his mind, so he turned down the sound and went back to finger twiddling. Suddenly there was the sound of a motor outside, and the dogs, previously hypnotised by the pained acting of Jerry O'Connel, started howling as if Satan himself were approaching. They were right in everything but name, for on opening the door, Denys was confronted with Ear-Boy clutching a Bible in a home-made tartan carrying case. "Are you ready?" he asked with far too much enthusiasm. Denys was forced to admit that he was, and followed Ear-Boy out to the car.
The first true indication of the horrors to come was Denys's introduction to the girl in the car. She had a strange vacant look in her eyes, as if on some kind of narcotic, and didn't even seem to notice he was there. She mumbled something vaguely akin to a greeting, then continued with her distracted humming, which seemed to the confused Denys to be slightly country and western in origin. Denys was ensconced in the back seat, and the journey began.
As soon as the engine started, Denys knew he was in trouble. The tape deck sprang to life, and from it emerged the same tune the mysterious zombie in the front seat had been humming. What's more there were lyrics. "What a beautiful name is Jesus!" crooned the vocalist to a backing worthy of Dolly Parton, "Oh what a wonderful name!". Adrenaline surged through his veins as his body went into immediate fight or flight mode. Then as if to add to the terror, both Zombie-Girl and Ear-Boy joined in. The car reverberated to the strains of Christian C&W, the weedy carolling of the Cultists, and the panicked wheezing of Denys, as he seriously considered throwing himself out the door.
After an eternity of this diabolic torture, the car pulled into a school. A demountable hall was lit up from within, surrounded by a herd of suspiciously normal looking people. Ear-Boy lept from the vehicle and into the midst of the crowd, and was instantly embraced by at least six of them. He bounded back to the car like a demented rabbit, and grabbed the reluctant Denys, propelling him into the throng. A series of introductions were made, not one of them mentioning that Denys was only here to do a web page, and had no interest whatsoever in joining their degenerate cult. Obviously suspicious of the newcomer, they refrained from hugging, and just grinned in an extremely unnerving manner.
A sudden disturbance occurred at the back of the group, and there emerged a tall, cadaverous individual, looking not unlike a weasel on crack cocaine. His pasty skin and chaotic white hair gave the impression of albinism, but it was impossible to check, as his eyes were concealed by a pair of the thickest black rimmed cataract glasses Denys had ever seen. He was wearing a black T-shirt that appeared to feature an Iron Maiden album cover (it turned out to be the Dali's St John of Christ of the Cross), and walked as if his balance was impaired by an acute inner ear infection. This apparition stalked up to Denys and was promptly introduced, although Denys completely forgot his name when the creature clasped him in an organ crushing embrace. After almost squeezing him to death, Weasel-Boy released Denys, feverishly grabbing his hands and intoning "Welcome! Welcome!".
As if this was a signal of some kind, the troupe marched into the hall, which was decked with religious icons and small red candles. Remembering that the villains in "Monkey Magic" always burned red candles, Denys was on the alert. Ear-Boy led him to the front row, mere meters away from a lectern and circa 1988 electronic keyboard on a stand. To his left was an overhead projector and screen. Feeling more apprehensive by the minute, Denys almost collapsed in shock when the entire group bellowed "JESUS OUR BROTHER!" at the top of their lungs, and a small sprightly figure carrying a guitar vaulted up to the lectern. The overhead started up with a diseased clutter and a serious looking woman materialised at the keyboard. "The ooopening hymn!" cried Guitar-Guy, and started thrashing away. The keyboard chimed in with a tormented chord, and the congregation lept to their feet singing. "Jesus! Jesus! What a beautiful name! What a beautiful name is Jeeeeee-sus!! Jesus! Jesus! What a beautiful name! What a beautiful name is Jeeeeee-sus!!"
Denys was totally disorientated, and began glancing around frantically for threats. The song ended with a particularly nasty chord from the ancient synthesiser, and they instantly launched into another. With horror Denys recognised it as one he had been taught at his Catholic high school. Waves of nausea poured over him as he recalled a horde of uninterested teenagers sitting in serried rows on a hard carpeted floor with a demented nun armed with an acoustic guitar yelling at them. He was woken from this reverie by the Guitar-Guy letting out a whoop, and welcoming everyone to their weekly meeting. Spontaneous shouts of "Jesus our brother!" echoed around the room.
"Weeelcome! Weeelcome!" shouted Guitar-Guy "Thank you for cooooming!" He had the sleazy manner of a public television game show host, and the drawl to match. "JEEEESUS OUR BROOOOTHER!" he suddenly screamed into the microphone, causing the congregation to jump up and down, clapping their hands and whooping. Denys checked to make sure he hadn't wet himself in fright. Guitar-Guy launched into another hymn.
This was a lively affair, and some of the younger cultists started dancing around as if they were in a mosh pit. Denys wondered if they had mosh pits at Christian rock festivals. Maybe the dancers were reformed Blink 182 fans or something. The song came to a sudden end with a pathetic attempt at an electric guitar solo by the girl on the synth. The crowd calmed down.
"Nooooow I want you to greeeet each other!" ordered Guitar-Guy, who was obviously the cult leader. Everyone slapped their hands together in front of their faces, and started bowing to one another, saying "I worship the Lord Jesus in you" in a reverent tone. It was like being in some kind of fundamentalist dojo. Denys toyed with the idea of saying "I worship the Lord Buddha in you" but decided it would be in very poor taste and they'd probably throw him out. Instead he just self-consciously mimicked the others.
There was a disturbance at the end of the row and Denys looked over to see a tall, white haired figure bowing and hugging everyone as he walked along. Denys prayed that Weasel-Boy (for it was he) would restrain himself and only bow when it came to his turn. His prayers went unanswered, and once again he was engulfed in the foetid embrace of the cadaverous albino. "Why oh why didn't I invoke Buddha?" he mumbled under his breath.
The next hymn started. Weasel-Boy released Denys from his grasp, and returned to his seat. The song was a lively piece with a refrain along the lines of "Angels bow down before him, Heaven and earth adore him, Come and see the Glory of the Lord!" Much to Denys's horror, the cultists began doing actions. On "Angels bow down before him" they bowed down. On "Heaven and earth adore him" they raised their arms into the air and waggled their fingers. Seeing that Denys wasn't taking part, Ear-Boy nudged him. Denys half heartedly joined in.
The hymn finished, and the group immediately launched into a slow dirge. Before long most of them were swaying from side to side, with their hands in the air. Although refusing to go this far, Denys did his best to fit in and sing along. He was hampered by the fact that the girl on the overhead also had her hands in the air, and kept forgetting to change the lyric sheets.
Then behind him Denys heard a strange noise. It sounded like someone babbling incoherently. "Oh God, No!" he thought, and with a terrible sense of foreboding peered over his shoulder. There stood Weasel-Boy, his hands raised in the air, his eyes screwed shut, and a look of extreme pain on his face.
"Imamumabulumdadeebabanamadabalanunimobulabadabada" he said. Sure enough, he was speaking in tongues. Denys shuddered and went back to staring straight ahead.
The song eventually came to an end. Weasel-Boy snapped out of whatever self-hypnotic state he'd dragged himself into and shut up. Guitar-Guy motioned for everyone to sit down, and Denys collapsed into his chair, the nerves in his feet and back screaming. "I'm a goddamed computer programmer!" he thought "I'm not built to stand up that long!" He arranged his legs in such a way that there was no pressure on his aching feet, and gritted his teeth for the next assault on his sanity. He didn't have long to wait.
The woman at the synthesiser started playing some soft chords that sounded like the intro to a worse than usual Celine Dione track. Guitar-Guy turned all serious and started mumbling into the speaker. "Weee have some prophecieeees" he drawled. Denys started out of his seat. Prophecies!?! The group was becoming more like Heaven's Gate by the minute! He surreptitiously glanced around for triangular purple cloths and apple sauce.
Two frumpish women wandered hesitantly up to the microphone. "Um" mumbled one in an almost inaudible voice. "We received these prophecies just today". An awed hush fell over the crowd. Denys stopped looking for apple sauce and started looking for an exit instead. The woman continued speaking, now in a slightly more confident voice.
"I love you my children with all my heart and want you to come back to me. I sent you my only son...."
The entire "prophecy" was nothing but pseudoreligious feelgood sap strung together from old hymns and some of the soppier books of the Bible. It went on for a good five minutes without actually predicting a single thing, and by the end the woman, and much of the congregation were in tears. Denys managed to remained composed. Then the second woman stepped up to the mike, and between sobs read out her "prophesy".
"Because I love you my children I sent you my only son. I want with all my heart for you to come back to me...."
It was exactly the same stuff, just slightly reworded. Denys had a hard time not laughing until he realised these people actually believed this stuff. Then he started to get scared.
Guitar-Guy returned to the lectern. "Weeee have a veeeeeery special guest toniiiiiiight!" he announced like the host of a cheap variety show. He stepped aside and a young Vietnamese priest approached the lectern. He looked extremely unnerved and seriously out of his depth. "Uh....Hello" he said. Various muffled greetings emerged from the crowd. The priest gave a small cough and began talking.
He talked about growing up under the Vietcong, and the hardships his family had to endure before coming to Australia as boat people. It was actually quite interesting, although what relevance it had to the prayer group was never actually explained. He spoke for about half an hour then he nervously asked if anyone in the audience was considering becoming a priest. Ear-Boy put his hand up.
"I am!" he announced. The priest jumped as if he'd been bitten by a stoat. "Oh! OK" he said. "You .... study hard". He bolted for the door with a look of relief on his face. "Lucky bastard" thought Denys wistfully.
"I'm not really thinking of becoming a priest" whispered Ear-Boy as the next hymn started. "It's just that someone had to say something or he'd have been disappointed". Denys nodded understandingly. "What a fucking loony" he though.