Saint George

By Chris Picone, 2019

‘Dad, I want to go to church.’

George nearly spat out his dinner. ‘What?’

‘Yeah. The church that Mum goes to.’ Braden twirled a long strand of pasta around his fork, flicking sauce over the table.

George tossed him a tea-towel. ‘Is your mum pushing you to go?’

‘No.’

‘Then why the sudden interest?’

‘My friend at school, Brett, he said he went there on the weekend and watched movies and had a picnic lunch.’

George stabbed at his steak in disgust. Braden probably wasn’t even interested in church at all; he just wanted to go and have a picnic and watch movies with his friends. George believed the Sunday socials were a despicable ploy to lure unwitting and innocent children like his eight-year-old son into the septic clutches of the Trinity.

‘So, can I go?’

George stuck the piece of steak in his mouth and chewed as he deliberated. He didn’t have a reason—not a good one, anyway—to decline Braden’s request. He proposed the only reasonable condition he could think of. ‘Can’t your mum take you?

*

George was in a foul mood when he pulled into work the following morning. Braden’s request had irritated him enough that he’d had trouble sleeping and now he was tired. He mumbled politely to the receptionist and went straight out back to the kitchenette where he poured himself a black coffee.

One of the lab technicians strolled in, whistling a cheerful tune. He stopped when he noticed George, whose mood was even darker than his coffee. ‘Everything okay?’

George opened his mouth, but all that came out was a grunt. James, the lab tech, made a bowl of cereal and took a seat across from him. He didn’t seem upset about George’s gruffness. George sipped his coffee while he stewed.

‘More nerve pain?’ James asked.

George pondered. His leg ached, but that was normal these days. Otherwise, he felt pretty good. In any case, the question shook him out of his funk. ‘Did you have any luck yesterday?’

‘Not yet, but you know as well as I do that that doesn’t mean anything. Are the tablets helping?’

‘Most days, but I don’t really want to be on them for the rest of my life if I can avoid it.’

‘Speaking of avoiding things, you didn’t answer me.’

‘What? Oh. No. I feel pretty good today, actually.’

‘Okay. What’s eating you?’

None of your business. ‘It’s nothing, really. Last night, my son asked me to take him to church.’

‘That’s it? I thought it must have been something really bad, like maybe you got a call from the clinic telling you that the nerve pain in your leg is actually some kind of irreversible bone cancer and you’ll be dead within the week.’

George scrunched up a napkin, the only ammunition in range, and tossed it at him. It plopped in his cereal. ‘Religion is a disease. I already lost my wife to it.’

Sofia had been George’s lab technician before James, back when she was still studying for her degree. That was how they had met.

‘She was religious before you met her. You lost her because you were an arsehole who thought your job was more important than she was.’

James picked the soggy napkin out of his bowl and chewed another spoonful, clearly regretting his words. He sighed. ‘A disease, George? I can understand why you wouldn’t believe in anything science can’t prove, but surely that’s a bit much.’

‘No, you think about it. Compare religion to any infectious disease.’ George had brooded over this for months, but he’d never had an audience before. He pulled a notebook out of his breast pocket and started drawing little cartoon viruses: influenza, HIV, hepatitis B, Ebola, and adenovirus. He pointed at each of them in turn. ‘This is Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Paganism.’

‘Wow, you’re right. How could I have never seen it before? I feel like I have been blind all my life but now the scales have fallen from my eyes—’

‘Shut up or I’ll throw more paper in your cereal. I assume you know more about Christianity than the others, so I’ll talk about that. There are three major species of influenza, which we creatively call Type A, B, and C. Christianity calls them Catholicism, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant.’ He drew circles coming off the influenza symbol, and more lines splintering off the Catholic circle. ‘And each species contains a number of strains. The Marists, the Jesuits, the Roman Catholics, the Apostolic, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the—’

‘I get it. Well. I mean I get that there are lots of denominations. I don’t get where you’re going with this conversation.’

George glared at him. ‘How are viruses transmitted?’

‘Seriously? Coughing, sneezing, touching, and, my personal favourite, swapping body fluids. Did I miss any? You’re right, I can see the similarities now.’

‘Right. Well, the religious equivalent is preaching. And, my personal favourite, the Bible—the first printed and best-selling book in European history. Transmission has of course been accelerated through conquest, colonisation, and missionary work, but my point remains: if you remove the context, there isn’t much difference between the loss of human life during a religious war compared to an epidemic. Ever seen a map or video showing the spread of Christianity? It looks exactly like the spread of a virus during a pandemic.’ James was about to interrupt again, but George hushed him. ‘Humanity responds as it always does, by developing immunities to protect itself. Education is vaccination. So, the virus evolves. That’s why modern churches have witty signs out front instead of stained glass, and rock bands instead of organ music. Remember P.O.D.?’

‘That band from the nineties?’

‘And now my own son’s at risk of infection. He wants me to take him to one of those Sunday socials.’

‘So, he just wants to go eat fairy bread and watch movies with other kids his age?’

‘That’s how they get them, James. While they’re young and haven’t developed their immunities yet. That’s how it spreads.’

‘George, it’s a picnic. He’ll be fine. Come on, we should probably start work.’

George and James washed their dishes and sanitised themselves, then headed for the laboratory where they donned their coats and went to work.

Michelle, another pathologist, held a sample jar up to the light, squinting to read the label, and waved with her free hand. ‘How was date night?’

‘Aah, it was alright.’ James shrugged. ‘The Italian joint was fantastic, and the weather was perfect, so afterwards I took her down to the marina for a moonlight stroll. She was gorgeous—legs all the way up to her neck, decent rack, pretty face. Nice Catholic girl. And smart, too. That’s important, isn’t it, George?’

George looked up from his microscope, scowling.

‘Sounds like a perfect night with the perfect girl,’ Michelle said. ‘When do you see her next?’

‘Oh, I won’t be seeing her again.’

‘What? Why not?’ Michelle tilted her head, regarding James as if he were a bacillus refusing to yield to antibiotics.

‘Well, because she’s a nice Catholic girl.’ James winked at George.

‘And you’re a pig.’

‘Oy vey! Settle down, children.’ George shook his head and returned to his work.

‘I’m thirty-two!’

‘Still a spring chicken.’

Michelle handed James the sample jar. ‘Make yourself useful, will you? Damned if I can read that scribble.’

*

That weekend, Braden visited his mother. George pulled up in front of her house, a nice little residential block surrounded by flowering trees, and waited. Within moments, Sofia emerged and stood at the bottom of the stairs with her arms outstretched as if she was so happy to see her son that she was trying to give the whole world a hug. As Braden busied himself collecting his books and toys from the car floor, George took a moment to study the boy’s mother, once more lamenting his loss. She was one of those lucky women who always looked fit even though they never exercised. He took no shame in admiring the firmness of her breasts, which maintained their perkiness even as she dropped her arms to embrace their son. She looked as fresh-faced and youthful as always, thanks to a healthy diet, a glorious olive complexion, and the fact that she was almost twenty years younger than George. She was a head-turner, alright. But, while he admired that about her, it wasn’t why he’d fallen in love with her.

Sighing, George pushed his door open. It was a cold morning and his leg ached more than usual. Sofia was watching him carefully from the doorway and he didn’t want her to see him limping.

‘Everything okay, George?’

George forced a smile. ‘Everything’s fine. Do you have time for a coffee?’

‘Of course,’ Sofia said with the slightest of frowns. She turned to go inside, but George touched her arm.

She sighed. ‘Braden, did you want to make the coffees?’

Braden beamed up at them and ran inside.

‘Sorry,’ George said, releasing Sofia’s arm. ‘There’s something I need to tell you, but I don’t want Braden to know yet.’

Sofia’s frown deepened.

‘It’s about my leg. I got the x-rays back a few weeks ago and there was some—’ he considered how to continue, ‘—cause for concern. Still waiting on results, but it’s not looking good.’

‘Can’t you just do your own test?’ Sofia’s accent intensified, as it always did when she was emotional about something.

‘I did, but there’s nothing in the database that matches. Which, I’m guessing, is why the results are taking so long. I sent a fresh sample up to the head office yesterday, but—’ George shrugged. ‘Anyway, I think I’m going to be in and out of doctors’ offices for a little while, so I wanted to ask if you could keep Braden for an extra week? If you can’t, it’s okay. I’ll manage. I know you have your own life.’

‘Coffee’s ready!’ Braden called from the kitchen.

Sofia gave his wrist a squeeze. ‘Of course it’s okay, George.’

‘Thanks.’

A month later, George was standing on Sofia’s steps again, having a similar conversation. ‘Are you familiar with Paget’s disease?’ he asked.

Sofia, still in her work clothes, wrinkled her brow. ‘The skin thing?’

‘No, the uh … bone thing.’

‘My goodness, George, is that what you have?’

‘No, but it’s similar. My femur’s deformed, which is why it’s been aching. Looks like it’s thickened in places, and the extra bone is pushing on a nerve. There was no dysplasia, so they sent my blood off to check the alkaline phosphatase, which is the—’

‘The growth enzyme. I’m a pathologist too, remember?’ Sofia’s response would have come across as snarky, except that her thick accent revealed her underlying concern.

‘Right. Sorry. Anyway, the ALP was higher than normal, so—’

‘So, you’re worried the deformation might not be limited to your leg? Not good, George.’

‘No. Anyway, I’d better get Braden home for some dinner. He has school tomorrow.’

‘Braden, honey,’ Sofia called.

Braden ran out dragging his backpack behind him. ‘Bye, Mum,’ he said, and hugged her legs. She tousled his hair but didn’t take her eyes off George.

‘If there is anything I can do—’

‘Thanks, Sofia, but I’ll be alright. Come along, Braden.’

Moments later, George had pulled out of Sofia’s drive. He wasn’t looking forward to the long drive home. Damn Sofia for moving to the other side of town.

‘Dad, it’s freezing.’ Braden pulled his knees up inside his jumper. ‘Can we turn the heater up?’

‘Get your legs out of there, you’ll stretch it.’ George slapped his leg playfully. ‘And I think the gas might have run out; the heater hasn’t worked properly all day. Maybe we can pull into a drive-through and I’ll buy you a hot chocolate.’

‘Yeah!’

George turned the next corner and pulled into the coffee shop. It really was cold; his leg was letting him know all about it. His left arm was starting to ache too, but he wasn’t convinced that wasn’t just psychosomatic. Unfortunately, since he’d left his painkillers at home, he did the next best thing and bought himself a hot chocolate. At least it gave him something else to think about.

‘So, how was it?’ George asked.

‘I think I’ll ask for more milk next time, but at least it’s warm.’ Braden smacked his lips and grinned.

‘What? No, I meant—did your mum end up taking you to church?’

‘Oh, yeah!’ Braden’s eyes lit up. ‘It was the best! They gave us pikelets with jam and cream, and they put a movie on. But I’d seen it before, so I played soccer instead.’

George sipped his hot chocolate as he considered his next question. He wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed that Braden wanted to keep going to church or relieved that, for the moment at least, his boy did not appear to have caught the infection that was organised religion.

Weeks later, George woke to Braden opening and slamming doors throughout the house. Was he looking for something? By all rights he should still be asleep. The television blared out in the lounge room. Then George remembered.

‘Alright, alright, I get it,’ George shouted, and threw the blankets off. He sat up, yawning.

Braden pushed the door open, beaming.

‘Come and give your dad a hug,’ George stopped rubbing his eyes so he could open his arms as Braden sprinted into his embrace. ‘Happy birthday, Braden. Come on, I suppose you want to open some presents now.’

George poked his feet into his slippers and strode over to his mother’s old glory box. It was full of old photos and other knick-knacks Braden wasn’t allowed to touch, which made it the perfect hiding spot for presents.

Braden ripped his presents open with glee; a soccer ball, two Star Wars figurines, the latest Diablo computer game, a remote-control helicopter and, of course, Lego. George normally didn’t want to spoil Braden, but maybe new toys would distract him from church for a while. Braden was over the moon. The ritual over, they drove out to Sofia’s, picking up some hash browns and hot cakes for breakfast along the way.

George honked twice to announce his arrival, but Braden had already leaped out and followed a trail of balloons around to the back of the house. George trailed behind, nursing his aching leg.

Later, they sat around the backyard, enjoying mocktails and canapes while the kids played on an inflatable jumping castle. These events were always uncomfortable since many of the guests had known and worked with both George and Sofia before the break-up. Braden and Brett, his friend from school, eventually grew tired of jumping and wandered over to the snacks table for a drink, happily pushing and shoving each other and chatting as they went. George glanced over but didn’t pay them much mind, more interested in his conversation with Sofia.

‘Yeah, it’s really fun. You should come!’ George’s ears twigged. That was Braden’s voice and he sounded suspiciously like he was trying to recruit one of his newer friends, Lena, to the church socials. Spreading the infection. Lena seemed far more concerned with the immediate pleasures of her orange juice. George said nothing.

Sofia touched his leg. ‘You know, after all the hell you gave me for believing in God, I’m surprised you’re letting Braden go to church,’ Sofia said. ‘Do you remember that cross I bought him when he was born?’

‘I remember we fought about it. It was the first night on the couch of my—our marriage.’

She regarded him sideways. ‘Well, I thought this might be a good time to give it to him?’

George bristled.

Braden and Lena brought some snacks and drinks and sat on the ground between George and Sofia. Braden persisted, ‘There’s another one this weekend. I was thinking I might not go. A couple weeks ago the ball went flat and we couldn’t play soccer. We watched movies, but they’re always movies I’ve seen before so they’re boring. But Dad bought me a new ball, which means we can play soccer again!’

Braden’s words cut through George like knives. He stood up in disgust. ‘I’m going to stretch my leg, I’ll be back.’

No sooner had George reached the front yard when his phone rang. He didn’t recognise the number.

‘Hello?’ George answered tentatively. ‘Yes, it is, who’s this? Oh, yes. Now’s a good time. Okay. You can’t just tell me now? No, I get that. Okay. Thursday, that will be fine. Okay, thank you. Bye.’

‘Was that the doctor?’ Sofia asked.

George turned to face her, angry that she’d followed him, then became even angrier when he realised she must have been standing there listening to the whole conversation. Her face showed nothing but concern, however, and the annoyance dissipated.

‘Yes,’ he answered. ‘They found a deformity on my skull.’

‘Is it serious?’

‘Anything to do with the head is serious, but the doctor doesn’t seem too worried. I mean, if the deformity was to put pressure on the brain it could cause all sorts of problems, but—’

Sofia looked like she was about to cry out, but George interrupted her. ‘But I’m not experiencing any symptoms, so it sounds like we’ve caught it early. He said the deformity appeared very minor at this stage. He’s going to put me on some medication that should stop the growth and I shouldn’t have any problems at all.’

‘Oh, thank God,’ Sofia breathed.

‘No, thank science.’

Months passed. George never was able to come up with a decent reason why Braden couldn’t go—at least, not one that would pass any kind of scrutiny—and so he found himself on his fortnightly trip to the church to collect Braden when his phone rang. He recognised the number and pulled over to answer the call, but by the time he brought the phone to his ear, he had missed it. Frustrated, he dialled his voicemail.

‘Hi, George, my name’s Doctor Milton. I’m the chief orthopaedic surgeon from the hospital. Doctor Terry referred you to me due to an unidentified pathogen in your lab results. I have your bone scans and I’d like to discuss them with you. When can you come into the office?’

Shaking, George called Doctor Milton back and booked an appointment, then pulled back onto the road.

Despite the delay, George arrived early. Braden was still out in the garden kicking a ball around with his friends. He was all smiles, possibly the happiest George had seen him since the divorce. George held his hands to his temples, rubbing in a vain effort to release the tension. There was no hurry, so George popped his tablets and waited. He was still on the painkillers, but now he was also taking calcium supplements and bisphosphonates, which were supposed to help the body control the bone-building process and stimulate more normal bone growth. It was a staple treatment of Paget’s disease, and might also help slow the progression of whatever it was that he had, which was now severely worse than it was even a few days ago. Aside from chronic leg pain, his face ached, his hearing came and went, and he had a permanent headache.

‘Are you okay, Dad?’ Braden stood at his door, concern etched onto his face. George had concealed his pain from his son so far, but it was becoming more difficult.

‘I’m okay. Just a headache.’

‘Is that what all those tablets are for?’

‘Yes.’

‘They don’t seem to help much.’

‘No.’

‘Why won’t you tell me what’s wrong?’

‘I’m okay, Braden, really. It’s just a headache. Come on, let’s get you some ice cream on the way to Mum’s.’

Braden didn’t look convinced, but he nodded his head obediently and climbed into the back seat, pulling his bag in after him.

‘I’ll pray for you,’ Braden said earnestly.

‘What?’

‘I said I’ll pray for you. To get better. Your medicine isn’t helping, but maybe God can.’

George stared at him. ‘Go ahead, for all the bloody good it’ll do. You do know God isn’t real, right?’

Braden’s eyes opened wide, more in shock at his father’s reaction than from any kind of revelation.

George continued, ‘Why do you think he’s real? Have you seen him? Do you talk to him?’

‘Sometimes,’ Braden ventured.

‘And does he talk back?’ Braden glowered in the back. ‘Damn it all, Braden, use your head! If God could cure my headaches, why did he give them to me in the first place? And don’t give me that crap about Him working in mysterious ways. Your mum won’t tell you this, so I will. God’s about as real as Santa, or the tooth fairy, or the Easter bunny. Do you know where my name comes from?’

Braden shook his head. He bit his lip to keep from crying.

‘I’m named after my great-grandfather, who was named after Saint George, patron saint of England. Remember that marble statue at Abuela’s that you used to like? The one in the bookshelf in the lounge room with the knight on the horse stabbing the dragon? That’s Saint George, and he never existed either. He’s stabbing a dragon, for heaven’s sake. You at least know they aren’t real, right?’

Braden nodded.

‘Then why in blazes would you think God was real? Damn it, Braden, I thought I raised you smarter than that!’

Braden’s face changed from terrified to sullen to angry in an instant. He kicked the door open, threw his bag out of the car, and stormed off to sit in the gutter a few metres away and sulk.

George slapped the steering wheel, angry at himself for his outburst, and felt guilty for dragging Braden’s mother and Abuela into it. He was still seething, but he forced his voice to come out as calm as possible. ‘Come on, mate, get in the car. I’ll take you to Mum’s.’

Braden glared back and opened his mouth like he was about to shout, then apparently thought better of it and trudged back to the car. George kept his promise and bought the ice cream, but it was clear that Braden was too upset to enjoy it. The rest of the trip passed in silence. Braden stared out the window for the entire trip, turned in his seat with his back to his father. When George pulled up out the front of Sofia’s, Braden grabbed his bag and ran inside, without so much as a goodbye. He’d left half his toys on the car floor. Sofia’s head appeared from the doorway, a concerned look on her face as Braden pushed past her into the house. George slapped the steering wheel again, twice, then reversed onto the road without looking and sped off, his tyres squealing as his car jolted from reverse to first without warning.

The appointment with Doctor Milton was one of those moments that would be etched into George’s memory for the rest of his days. The growths on his skull were progressing faster than anyone had suspected. He was already experiencing severe headaches and facial pain, but it sounded like things were going to get considerably worse. Doctor Milton went into great detail to stress the seriousness of his condition. Depending on which areas of his skull the deformities presented, some of the expected complications included vertigo, blurred vision, hearing loss, misalignment of his teeth, or osteomyelitis. More seriously, internal growth also meant increasing intracranial pressure, which could lead to loss of memory and motor function and personality changes. It would eventually prove fatal. There was no cure, and none of the growth inhibitors appeared to be having any effect. The bone growth itself was erratic. It might take weeks, months, or even years before he experienced any new symptoms, but ultimately, he was dying.

‘Okay, goodbye,’ George said. James and Michelle were going home for the day and he was standing by the door, ready to close it behind them. Since the samples had returned from head office two weeks ago with no clear diagnosis, he’d taken to spending his nights at work conducting his own research.

‘See you tomorrow, George,’ James called back, already halfway to his car.

‘Don’t stay too late, George.’

Michelle and James knew his condition was deteriorating. He could hardly hide his sick leave from them. She touched his arm and flashed him an encouraging smile. ‘Go home, get some rest.’

‘I will, I promise.’

‘Liar.’

George shut the door and returned to the lunch room where he sat brooding over his phone, which sat on the table in front of him, daring it to ring. He hadn’t seen Braden since that afternoon at church and he was long overdue to hear back from his doctor. This routine had gone on for nearly three weeks when, finally, it rang. George stared at it in shock, anticipation quickly making way for dread. Who would it be? Sofia, berating him for the church incident? Or the doctors, calling to inform him just how much his condition had degraded since his last scans.

‘Hello?’

‘It’s Sofia. I smoothed things over with Braden, but he was pretty upset.’

‘Yeah. I was out of line.’

‘You have to make it up to him.’

He put the phone on speaker and put it on the table, then grabbed a napkin and started mopping up spilled coffee. ‘What did you have in mind?’

‘Not me. Braden. He wants you to take him to one of the church socials. He thinks you got angry because you don’t understand what they do there, and that if you go you might even like it.’

‘And I don’t suppose you put him up to it?’

‘No, George, I swear. It was Braden’s idea.’

George frowned and bit his lip. Every time he tried to fight the church’s influence, the Trinity only closed its grip on Braden even tighter. It was a strong virus, this one. A super virus, one of those new breeds that were resistant to antibodies.

‘Will you do it?’

‘What choice do I have?’

‘Thanks. It really means a lot to him. Have you heard any more news?’

‘Not really,’ George lied. ‘Every couple of weeks I go in for a scan and a week later they call back to tell me the disease is slowly spreading, new osteoblasts are forming, my leg’s getting thinner, and my skull’s getting thicker. But they can’t tell me why, and none of the medication is working.’

‘I’ll pray for you.’

‘Don’t you start. Goodbye, Sofia.’

‘Goodbye, George.’

It took George a full two months to gather the courage to go into church with Braden. Braden would have been upset if he simply refused, of course, so he had to keep coming up with excuses why he couldn’t stay. Doctors’ appointments, some unexpected overtime, even a friend’s birthday, it didn’t matter. Eventually, he ran out of excuses and had to face the music.

‘Hi, George, we’ve heard all about you,’ the pastor said, greeting him with an outstretched hand and a beatific smile. ‘My name’s Reverend Hickey, but you may call me Peter.’

Of course they’d heard all about him, the angry father who had caused a scene blaspheming and cursing out in the carpark. George frowned but shook his hand all the same.

‘Young Braden tells me you’ve been very sick lately.’

‘Braden,’ George admonished, ‘that’s not the sort of thing you go telling people.’

‘Nonsense, George. He’s just worried about you,’ Hickey said calmly, smiling down at Braden. ‘And we’re only here to help. Come in, sit down. The service is just about to start.’

George sat in the first pew he came to, right at the back. Happily, the service itself was very short, just a couple of hymns, a prayer reading, and communion. Afterwards, everyone moved outside to the gardens where George sat through what he grudgingly conceded was a pleasant sort of an afternoon. The weather was perfect, the gardens were as pretty as they were aromatic, and the company was surprisingly agreeable. Half the adults held a degree of some description and there was even another doctor, to whom George quickly introduced himself. Braden clung to him, at first, though it was unclear whether he was worried he would make another scene or just wanted to enjoy their time together. Before long, Braden grew bored and ran off with his friends to kick a ball around.

Eventually, the day drew to a close. The families with small children and most of the older parishioners were already long gone. Those still present busied themselves stacking chairs, folding tables, and packing up leftover food and rubbish. Oblivious, George stood immersed in a conversation with the doctor about his mysterious disease. Interested bystanders gathered around them, rapt as George explained the similarities between his disease and Paget’s and lamented the fact that none of the treatments for the latter appeared to be working on the former.

Someone asked, ‘There’s nothing they can do?’

The doctor replied, ‘They can’t do anything yet. Science doesn’t know how to fix George’s disease, but it will eventually. George is a pathologist so perhaps he will discover the cure himself and it will be named after him. As it is said, “Hardship often prepares an ordinary person for an extraordinary destiny.”’

‘I suppose your bible has a line for every occasion,’ George replied grumpily. The parishioners had been very good about not preaching to him; as such, he was annoyed that it was the doctor who finally pushed the boundary.

‘Actually,’ the doctor replied with a disarming smile, ‘that was C.S. Lewis. Still, something to think about, eh?’

The pastor interrupted then. ‘I’m sorry to say, gentlemen, but I must be on my way. My dear mother has been ill, and I need to pick up some medicine for her.’ George almost smiled at the irony in that, but caught himself and said nothing. ‘George, it’s been a pleasure to meet you. I do hope you’ll join us again some time.’

George shook his hand. ‘Nice to meet you too, Peter.’

The pastor turned back as he was leaving. ‘Oh, George, I nearly forgot. I’d like you to have this.’ The pastor pulled a small bible from his pocket and held it out for him. ‘Science may not have the answers, but maybe God knows something we don’t.’

George hesitated. He was face to face with the virus’s most powerful evolutionary weapon. Pascal’s Wager, the great and terrible bacteriophage itself. The concept was that God either existed or he didn’t. If he did exist, you would either go to heaven if you believed or hell if you didn’t. If he didn’t exist, there was no risk, but neither was there any gain. It was the reason so many men turned to God on their deathbeds.

He looked the pastor dead in the eye. ‘If God had any power to heal me, I wouldn’t have the damn virus in the first place.’ George slapped the book out of the pastor’s hands and stormed away.

‘Okay, George. Well, it was nice to meet you all the same. Good day.’

Too, too quickly, it was Braden’s birthday again. The big one-oh. Balloons were strung up all around Sofia’s house and everyone was there: Brett and Lena, of course, but this time Braden had also invited all his friends from church. George sat at the back, trying his best to look cheerful, but he was in immense pain. He had been looking forward to catching up with the doctor from the church again and introducing him to his work colleagues, but his ears were ringing sharply with severe tinnitus and conversation proved to be too difficult. He hadn’t been able to drive as he was so heavily medicated. James had given him a lift and sat with him now, as did Sofia, who wouldn’t leave George’s side.

‘Dad! Look what Reverend Hickey bought me!’

George looked over lethargically, expecting to see Braden proudly holding up his first bible. To his surprise, it was a remote-control car. Braden set it down and began building a little jump out of the left-over cardboard boxes.

‘Dad! Come and watch!’

‘Honey, Dad’s not feeling well. I’ll come and watch, okay?’ Sofia rose.

‘No.’ George placed his hand on Sofia’s arm. ‘Please, I want to watch. Can you help me up?’

Sofia pulled him to his feet and walked him across the yard. James held his other shoulder to steady him. Suddenly, George’s vision blurred. Vicious nausea doubled him over. His world spun out from underneath him before everything turned black.

‘“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”’ Braden read the words from the Bible that would have been his father’s. James 1:12, a verse the pastor had selected for him.

‘Oh, Braden.’ Sofia squeezed him tight. It was Braden’s eleventh birthday, but what was once a day for celebration was now a day of mourning.

‘Your father was a good man,’ Reverend Hickey told him and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.

Braden stared at the Bible in his hand and clutched the cross on his necklace. Angry tears streamed down his face. ‘Of course my father was a good man. So why didn’t God save him?’ Angry tears streamed down his face.

‘Braden, sometimes God—’ his mother began.

‘No!’ Braden screamed. His father’s words came flooding back to him. ‘No! Don’t give me that crap about God working in mysterious ways. If God was real, why can’t I see him? Why doesn’t he talk to me? Why did he let my dad die?’

‘Braden …’

Braden ripped the cross off his neck and threw the Bible to the ground.