FIREPROOF • by Jack Spies

The Reverend Max Walker and his wife, Elizabeth, live a happy, contented life in Pleasant Junction, New Hampshire. Every Sunday, Reverend Max, as his parishioners affectionately call him, delivers a modest sermon in a small white church. Max is an ordinary man. He is a good man. He likes people. He likes fishing. He enjoys a home-cooked meal and a hearty laugh after a good joke. He adores his wife, and he loves ministering to the spiritual needs of his dedicated congregation.

In Pleasant Junction, time saunters and events unfold without surprise. Then, one sunny morning, returning from visiting a troubled parishioner, Max finds a parcel from the Scratch Pen Company, East Salem, Texas at his door. Max is unaccountably suspicious of the unexpected package, and the fleeting notion of a terrorist mail bomb flirts with his subconscious, but almost immediately, that inkling surrenders to Faith. So then, after a deep breath, Max carries the package into his home.

Inside he goes directly to his study and unwraps the package. Inside is a red velvet case inscribed with the words, “The Scratch Pen Company.” Inside the case, a beautiful ruby fountain pen trimmed in gold takes his breath away. Engraved on the gold pocket clip is the word “Fireproof.” Tucked under the pen is a small card with the words “Terms of Service” followed by a bit of fine print and a bold message inviting Reverend Walker to participate in a marketing trial and to use Fireproof, without obligation, for thirty days.

“Humm. Must be a scam,” he thinks. But he takes Fireproof out of the case and finds it is weighted just right and feels good in his hand. He removes the cap. Fireproof feels solid and perfectly balanced. Making a few tentative passes over a notepad, the nib touches down, and spontaneously, Max writes out his full name, “Reverend Victor Maxwell Walker, D.D.” He is surprised by the beauty of the script and by the ease with which he produced it. He writes out the Lord’s Prayer and finds his handwriting has been transformed into a powerful calligraphic script. It is beautiful and bewildering. It simultaneously is and yet transcends his handwriting. It is magic, but Max thinks technology. There must be a computer – somewhere. Nevertheless, it is a fine pen, and it’s already filled with ink, so Max decides to keep Fireproof – just for a couple of days. A test drive – for fun.

Max enjoys the look of Fireproof in his hand. He enjoys the beautiful, effortless writing of its calligraphic script. So much does he enjoy using Fireproof that, without noticing, he begins to write much more, and Fireproof becomes his constant companion. The quality of his writing improves. It is playful and light. It conveys great beauty and significance. His sermons are extraordinary. Everyone tells him how pleased they are. Some thank him for the wonderful things happening in their lives. Everyone wants to be added to his home visitations. Invitations to entertain the Reverend and Elizabeth at dinner become so frequent they must be scheduled weeks in advance. Each Sunday Max stands taller in the pulpit. Elizabeth glows.

Fireproof forms a bond with Max, and it strengthens with every word Max writes. He doesn’t notice Fireproof needs no refills, or that he becomes aware of what has been written only after Fireproof writes it. Slowly the writing begins to change, and it changes Max. Soon he is unable to recognize the error that leaks from Fireproof like lava trickling from a volcano.

As Fireproof’s leaks multiply, they gain in strength and become bolder, and Max’s sermons change. At first, there are small, nearly imperceptible shifts: a change in emphasis, a slightly skewed word choice, a small alteration in the interpretation of sacred texts. Eventually, Max’s sermons turn from extolling positive, worthwhile values to promoting lesser, meaner ones. Max complains about Elizabeth’s cooking. He is disagreeable when they dine with their parishioners. Elizabeth smolders.

Max installs a crystal pen holder in his pulpit to keep Fireproof within his view throughout his sermons. He has a special pocket sewn into his pajamas, so he can keep Fireproof with him in bed. Elizabeth takes to the guest room. Parishioners cancel dinner invitations.

People now leave his sermons shaken. They are concerned. Their crops are failing. Their animals are sickening. Their children raise hands against them. Max is unconcerned, and talks of building a new and grander church.

The elders of the little church call a meeting. Elizabeth explains how Fireproof has taken over her husband’s life. She shows the elders Fireproof’s case with the little card containing the Terms of Service. “Use of Fireproof for thirty days incurs no obligation. Use beyond thirty days instantly and irrevocably conveys title to the user’s soul to the devil for eternity.” It has been precisely thirty days since Reverend Max began using Fireproof, and Elizabeth tells the elders that so great is the hold that Fireproof has on her husband that no amount of persuasion will part him from it.

In spite of his recent lapses, the elders believe Reverend Max is a good and blameless man. His failure to read Fireproof’s Terms of Service is hardly justification for forfeiture of his soul. But the hard fact is that he has been drawn into a legal and unbreakable contract, and unless the elders can stop his continued use of Fireproof, his soul will be lost.

The elders agree on a plan to save, perhaps not the Reverend Max, himself, but to save that which is perhaps more important – his soul. They will keep Max from using Fireproof ever again.

The next morning, before Reverend Max has had the opportunity to use Fireproof, he is taken to the back of the churchyard. Sobbing, Elizabeth watches as the elders bind her husband to his manuscripts, and tenderly she strikes a match.

And Fireproof vanishes – recalled by Scratch.

Jack Spies and his wife, Victoria, live in the Midwestern United States, where they spend an inordinate amount of time observing crows. Jack has also published a few stories at 101 Word Stories.

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