Monday, March 30, 2009
Remember, if you have a story that you'd like to contribute to Right Behind you can use the email link in the sidebar to request access.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Here's an index post for the first part of Does God Have Plans for Verna?
Does God Have Plans for Verna? Part 1
Does God Have Plans for Verna? Part 2
Does God Have Plans for Verna? Part 3
Does God Have Plans for Verna? Part 4
Does God Have Plans for Verna? Part 5
Does God Have Plans for Verna? Part 6
Does God Have Plans for Verna? Part 7
Steve looked at the barrel of the gun he had stolen from the crime scene after the investigations had abruptly concluded. He had tried to call Buck, but the calls hadn’t been answered, hadn’t even gotten through. He wanted to apologize, say that it wasn’t him who had sold him out so callously, that he knew the whole thing was rigged all along, but he couldn’t reach. He couldn’t reach anyone outside of New York anymore.
He never wanted to feel as hideous as he had these last few weeks. The force had come off and on, at first subtly, but once the strange Romanian Robert Redford with the mountain name had come along, it was more forceful. It toyed with his brain, angrily picking it over, disgusted and hateful of those beautiful memories he and Buck had shared once upon a time, even recently, when he had helped him so lovingly for his big date with the handsome foreigner. It had been unconventional sure, with even other queers appalled at the openness of the format and the intense closet of their public life.
But then, they had never been at the head of one of the top news organization. There were considerations. Stanton Bailey was an insane John Bircher. Steve had to pretend to be a crazed anti-semite just to be employed there, though Steve always suspected it was a cruel joke as he was about the most obvious Jew he knew. Such a person would have been hardly willing to employ an out gay man as well.
Plus, it helped revive the image of the paper. Under Bailey’s management, the reputation built on global investigative journalism had devolved mostly into insane conspiracy theories and seminars on how to present oneself as the Liberal Media that were mostly retreads of far-right insanity. Steve had been able to reign in that ultra-stupid construction and retain the image of impeccable journalism.
When Stanton brought in Buck to be the new wunderkid, he had some early promise and a blind luck to stumble into at least the bare bones of a story that could be knocked into shape by more competent writers. More importantly, he had the most beautiful blue eyes that Steve had ever seen. Steve could fall deeply into those eyes and had indeed done so snuggling him close in bed after a hard day in the office.
So the promise never amounted to much and Steve found himself usually massively rewriting the “ace reporter’s” crap work or slapping his name on some other better journalist’s investigation to keep his reputation good and strong enough to justify taking him on all those press junkets around the world.
And when Mr. Mountains had offered him the press secretary gig with way more pay and a chance to be witness to some really impressive history, not to mention an unlimited spending account and access to any Presidential Suite in the world, he had been too ready in hindsight to jump at the opportunity. Hadn’t he paid his price in blood? And it wasn’t like he was getting any younger. If it meant a chance to finally be out with his primary and be able to walk the streets hand-in-hand, any amount of political “fishiness” could be assuaged. Especially if he helped cover on Buck’s role as head reporter contact.
It had been a perfect plan, really. But then there was the bombing and Buck refused his role right after we pitched the offer so perfectly. It wasn’t at all like Nicolae wasn’t a seductive man. After that, it got worse. He could feel the force in his mind more often. More and more of his statements came from somewhere else. Whenever, he tried to explain the situation to Buck he felt stopped and trapped.
And then the incident at the UN happened. Steve tried to warn him in advance, but his body had moved of its own accord. Every time he had tried to explain or shout a warning or something, the voice in his head at hissed with pure hatred.
It said, “Shut up, faggot or I’ll erase another one of your precious memories doing…ugh.”
Though frankly, he should have been aware even before that when Buck first started asking those random questions about the End of Days. Weird hints fell out of his mouth, strange panics that weren’t his own and when he tried to include his own warnings of the UN trap, it merely mixed altogether with the rest of the crap.
In the end he lost his primary forever and even his position high atop this empty hotel, the voice and force wouldn’t even permit him to lose himself in base comforts.
To borrow from the mythology, he felt like he had sold his soul to the devil and for nothing.
So, Steve settled in with a bottle of Jack Daniels and once he reached bottom he picked up the gun and started at it. He checked the bullets and then set the simple pistol. Staring directly into that deep black opening with a weaving eye.
“Oh, my dear Mr. Plank, don’t do that,” a voice intoned lovingly before repeating himself in German and Swahili.
“Screw you, demon. You’re not going to get my mind,” Steve drunkenly slurred waving the gun at the blonde figure approaching him.
“Oh my dear Steve, what would I do with your mind? Such things are far above me. Now Steve, my dear Steve, why would you betray my trust like this? Not only would you deprive me of a Press Secretary on this momentous occasion, but you’d leave me with a large cleaning bill as well. Tsk tsk, poor form,” it intoned as it came close enough to grab the gun out of his hand while repeating himself in Portuguese and Korean.
“My dear drunken friend. What you need is a bedtime story. Let me tell you my favorite one. It’s about a small-time Romanian politician who late one night found God.”
Nicolae repeated himself in the voice of The Deity.
“How’d I miss that, Alice,” she said, mentally kicking herself that she hadn’t at all connected the Chloe that had started her whole frantic investigation into the San Francisco situation to begin with to the current case.
“Well, you did keep putting off reading the list,” Alice chided mockingly. Her good humor seemed to be slowly fading back into her. More likely, Verna thought, she was using the same energy and focus she was to try and put out of mind Mel’s hopeless situation.
“Still, it’s unprofessional.” Weak sauce, Verna thought
Alice rather agreed. “I will keep that in mind,” she responded letting the terms drip with sarcasm.
“Hello?” A young woman opened the door and straightened what looked like an apron. “I was just making dinner for my father.”
Verna balked at the statement, but forced herself on. “Are you Chloe Steele?”
“I am. I’m sorry, but how do you know my name?”
Verna shook her head. “Sorry, we’re from The Center, you called us about a week ago in a bit of distress.”
“I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t fully remember that. But it might be true, I’ve been most upset about my mom and brother. They were lucky enough to be taken by Jesus, you know. Are you from New Hope Church?”
Verna tried to unpack and parse the sentence, but was unable to. She flipped over the sheet and just began writing as much of it down as she could in pure journalistic fervor.
Alice again took over the reins Verna had once again let falter. “Forgive her, she was just worried about her. Yes, we’re definitely related to this New Hope. If you’d be a doll and tell me more about it and your father Captain Steele, that’d be great.”
Chloe’s eyes tilted, but if she suspected the brazen lie, she didn’t let on. “Oh New Hope is brilliant, it really opened my eyes. Or rather, my father’s eyes first. I’m sorry, my roast is burning, would you join me in the Kitchen?”
Verna watched as Alice followed into the kitchen as she began to investigate around the hideous suburban house. Verna was not much for judging decorations. She had always lived pretty spartan, so she never really felt like she couldn’t judge anyone else’s idea of a good home to have, but this house looked like something out of her worst nightmares. Covered in nothing but desperate kitsch and lace, it looked like what a maniacal grandma would put up to line her own prison cell. There were entire walls with more and more complex embroideries as if the creator was desperately trying to stitch back to tendrils of Cthulhu himself.
There were photos everywhere, showing off an older nervous wreck of a woman nervously twisting an ancient pearl necklace while occasionally holding a baby boy or proudly clutching a young boy with that exact type of haircut you only see on a person when they cannot choose their haircut. There was also an older man as well festooned in an airline pilot’s uniform. No wonder the military leads hadn’t panned out. There was also the woman who had opened the door. The photos of her, seemed normal for the most part, but she noticed that teenage Chloe had been a little loud, as it were.
The voice she had heard had been the same one weeping to her on the Crisis Hotline. But why then, did she not have any idea what she meant by the Center? Even worse, how did Chloe not know or respond to the rainbow pin on Verna’s baseball cap? She shuffled around more and more, looking for some form of clue. Moving upstairs she looked around first the parent’s bedroom. It was oddly septic, like a sleeping pod and there was some weird aura surrounding it. She entered briefly and looked around but she was feeling overwhelming energy to leave. She began to turn around, but caught a glimpse of something on the floor.
It was an old straight edge razor, covered in old blood. She pocketed it and then fled.
Dinosaur mobiles hung from the ceiling with little people riding them. Books like The Good Christian Science Book were strewn on the floor while posters proclaiming, “I like Jesus” were hung on all the walls. Verna scoured through the room for any additional clues, but there was little accept a small bundle of perfectly draped clothes that had recently been what looks like forcibly hugged. Verna felt the need again to immediately leave.
The final room seemed to be the right one. There were pictures of female musicians on every wall and what looked like a duffel bag. She dug through briefly, looking over the artifacts within, but they were mostly clothes. She had apparently packed light. Shrugging her shoulders, she tore around the room, but most of it was innocuous, but oddly, that creepy sort of innocuous that comes from someone desperately trying to present an innocuous room. She began feeling around wallboards and ceiling tiles and drawer bottoms, before finding Chloe’s secret stash. Magazines of Curve and old playboys likely stolen from her father.
She felt around some more, finding a discarded pair of jeans with a wallet inside, containing photos of a rather beautiful girl in a halter-top signed From Maggie with Love.
She remembered that name. The panicked girl who had called her had been frantic for any help reaching San Francisco, worried sick that she had to tell Maggie something before it was too late. Slipping the photo into her pocket, she went back downstairs, where Alice was helping sautee some potatoes.
“We were just talking all about Captain Steele. Did you know he lost a wife and son and helped bring our Chloe here to Jesus?” Alice said, voice dripping with sarcasm.
Verna just nodded and grabbed Chloe by the shoulders.
“What are you doing,” Chloe responded angrily.
“I know you called us Chloe. Tell us about Maggie.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just cooking dinner. My father will be home soon. Supper must be ready. A dutiful daughter,” Chloe’s eyes darted frantically to the pot roast as Verna shook her.
“Bullshit,” Verna cursed bitterly before pulling the photo out of her pocket. This Maggie, your girlfriend in the San Francisco area.”
“Liar. I’m a good Christian woman. I am pledged eternally to Buck Williams.”
Verna heard a spoon drop behind her and a voice speak up.
“What was that, dear?”
“Buck Williams. God chose him to be my lord and master as it says in the Bible. I prayed for him and then he God got him seats directly next to mine the day after I met him and I knew then I’d be with him forever and ever because I am a woman and he is a man and he bought me a cookie at an airport.”
Verna blinked trying not to let the creepy overwhelm her moral outrage. If she was going to get to the bottom of this she needed answers from those most afflicted.
“You mentioned you were scared of something. Something inside of your father made him change. Is it related to something called The Deity?”
“Jesus Christ is the way, you heathens! My father corrected me onto the path from a life hell bound for my sins. Now I can be with my mother in Heaven. She’s the greatest person of all, better than us left behind.”
Verna felt like she was close to it. Now she had to gamble.
“You tried to meet with your mother didn’t you. Tried to kill your self with this,” she pulled out the bloodstained straight edge and held it up. “But then this Jesus or maybe Captain Steele did something to you.”
“Oh, god, what is that. I never tried to kill myself. Help, help! The robbers have returned for more of Raymie’s things.”
Verna grabbed Chloe’s wrist harder and wrestled down her sleeves. “I’m afraid you can’t hide it any longer, the evidence is right…here.”
Verna looked down on perfectly unscarred wrists.
“But that doesn’t make sense.” Verna felt the aching gap fill once again, a filling of deep and abiding chaos delicately straddled as the world crumbled down inside of her. “I was onto the answer. Eliminate the impossibilities and whatever’s left no matter how improbable must be true…”
“We got to get out of here,” Alice tugged frantically at Verna’s plain sleeves with absolute terror. “I have a really bad feeling.”
“We need to get out of here now.” Alice wasn’t usually inclined to throw weight around, but Verna wasn’t the most butch of dykes to begin with. Without much commotion she found herself dragged along hopping on one foot before gaining a running speed as Alice frantically searched around for an empty house to throw them into and lock the door.
“I think we’re safe now,” Alice muttered, keeping low from the windows and still trembling all over.
“Why did you-“ Verna began, the chaos still shattering her careful faith in order and control.
“I felt it Verna. Again. I think it might have been The Deity,” Alice collapsed against the floor and began to cry. “God, it’s not really over. It’s not actually going to let things become normal again.”
“Alice, what’s going on?” Verna tried to rally desperately.
“The Event, I think I know what caused it and I think it’s somehow fixated on Buck and Captain Steele and maybe that weirdly popular Carpathia guy.”
“So…” Verna violently shook her mind for the core of her essence. Once found, she grasped it tight and fell.
“What do we do, Verna?” Alice continued sobbing into her pretty dress.
“We’re reporters, Alice,” Verna said quietly. “We investigate.”
“It’s probably watching the house now.”
“Then we find another source,” Verna said, pulling up her distraught friend. Now let’s get back to civilization.”
Back at the Steele residence, Chloe Steele cried and prayed as The Deity circled around gazing her this way and that.
“What is it my puppet?” It hissed into the air.
“There were heathens here and they were saying the most horrible things,” Chloe responded, weeping openly. “And then you came and made them stop.”
The Deity chuckled. The new Chloe was so much better than that old insolent whelp. It smiled deeply and then replied in a voice full of what it considered love.
“Well sound the alarm if they come back, the Godless must be punished.”
Verna felt the all-familiar ache that it didn’t hurt as much as it should. It was practically reflex at this point, perhaps some distant Jewish trait that always made her extra hard on herself no matter what.
“Why don’t you add highlights to your hair,” Alice asked adjusting her far more lacy and impractical home outfit covered in an odd mixture of zippers, chains, and black lace. Verna stopped in wonderment at the question and turned.
“Well, I mean you’ve got the whole sport dyke thing going on with the cap and ponytail, but I mean, it’s awfully subtle. I mean, no wonder, you haven’t had a date in five-“
“Years, so yeah.”
“I’ve been busy…”
Verna paused in mid-awkward stance and grabbed herself by the mind and focused away the weakness. “Why are we even talking about this?”
Alice seemed taken-aback for a second and then rallied. “The silence was getting to me. It’s kind of triggering. The apartment next to mine had a loud baby you know and…”
Verna nodded along. “In that case, I like the natural look, now if you don’t have any-“
“How are you two doing?”
With a startled movement, she looked back nervously towards the door which remained imposingly shut.
“Over here, darling.”
Verna turned to the neighboring yard where there stood what would have been a young blonde throwback from the 50s wearing high-heeled shoes and stockings if not for the single orange and green bracer around her left arm, stepping her way gingerly through the toys in the yard.
“Ah, hello, miss. Are you er....” Verna glanced down at the sheet of paper before continuing, “Mel?”
“Oh dear me gracious no, I don’t know anyone named Mel. I just came out here to do a little shopping for my husband, he’s so needy, sometimes.”
“So are you some sort of charitable group or something?”
“Yes, actually…I’m sorry, but are you ok?”
“Why of course I am, why ever would you ask?”
“Well you didn’t seem…er…your lawn is…er…Aren’t those a little problematic,” Verna finally spit out pointing to the scattered children’s toys and expecting the worst.
She wasn’t prepared.
“Oh lord, we got lucky there, Captain Steele had all of his son’s toys stolen, bless his heart. He lost his wife and son you know, terrible tragedy.”
“I…bah…gah.” Verna babbled, unable to even muster any response to her self. She had been kicking herself for three weeks for not feeling enough and here was a woman, seemingly unaware of what had happened.
“Wait, didn’t you also lose kids,” Alice stepped in and finished.
The woman’s face went completely blank.
“Captain Steele lost his son and wife. I need to make my husband dinner and there’s only so much time. By the way, have you accepted Jesus Christ?” The woman continued with no apparent recognition of the conversation before. With that, she walked to her car and began driving away, while Verna stared dumbfounded and shaken.
After the car had disappeared a meek voice sounded behind her.
“Can I help you?”
Verna turned around slowly to see a meek teenager with pigtails and a long shirt. Their face and legs clean-shaven, but their chest overly flat.
“Er, are you Mel Cooper?” Verna enquired. “Did you call into The Center for help?”
“I did…” The teenager seemed to be clinging to the half-closed door as a protecting barrier or dear friend.
“Well I’m Verna Zee and this is my friend Alice and we wanted to follow up with you and make sure you were doing alright.” Verna said, moving her expressions into ones of professional empathy.
“I’m fine, really. I don’t hear the voice when I stay in the house and I’ve learned how to run to the store when it’s not looking.”
“Wait, when what’s not looking?”
“Wait, what?” Verna was taken aback slightly. If what she was saying was true, then that meant the Rapture theory did have the most validity, but then again, that just raised many more questions.
“The Deity. If I go out when it’s looking, it goes into my head and it starts yelling at me, calling me a freak, trying to change things. But if I’m quick then it’s okay. I’m more worried about my girlfriend and boyfriend.”
“I haven’t seen them in a week and I’m worried that the Deity may have gotten them.”
“Well what did they look like?” Alice asked kindly cutting in.
“Don’t press her Alice, can’t you see she’s scared?”
“I’m not a she.”
Verna kicked herself. How inappropriate she’d been. “I’m terribly sorry, young man.”
Verna froze. “Alice, pronoun help.”
Alice shook her head and leaned in. “What pronoun do you use?”
“Well I’m a transwoman myself, so bisexual?”
“Asexual, but my boyfriend and girlfriend are cool with it.” The teen clutched the door less and seemed to let it swing. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude.”
“That’s ok, from your call, you sounded like you were having some real troubles. Can you describe your boyfriend and girlfriend to me?”
“Well he’s kind of gangly with bright pink hair and she’s got long blonde hair and looks kind of plain, but they’ve both got these orange and green bracers I made for them. Or rather one each…”
Verna felt a sinking feeling in her stomach, but tried to rally herself. “We’ll go looking for them immediately. On another note, your neighbor was acting rather odd a minute ago-“
“I don’t have any neighbors.”
“They disappeared with my parents.”
“But what about the woman who just drove away?”
“I didn’t see it…er…you are going to help me, right?”
“Of course, sweetie,” Alice chimed in and stepping forward. “Now, I’m going to stay here and you can tell me some more about what they look like. And my partner will-“
“Be right with you. I just want to look into something real quick. You won’t mind will you?” Verna finished.
“I’m not five, you both do realize that, right? I’m just nervous.”
“Right,” Verna said distractedly before heading back down the path.
“Ignore her,” Alice said behind her while entering the house. “Now do you have any photos or any other clues that can help us know where to start looking…”
The conversation continued, but Verna was already out of earshot. She looked back to make sure the door was closed and then ran over to the neighboring house, briefly tripping over the discarded reminders of Earth that was. She knocked on the door hoping desperately to be wrong about her hunch, but even before the door opened, she knew it was a vain hope.
The “husband” opened the door. A young teenager in an older man’s suit with short pink hair whose blonde roots were already growing briefly up to replace them and around his right wrist, the same orange and green bracer she had seen on the other girl. And at that point, the makeup had preventing her from noticing that she seemed teenish in body as well.
“Do you know a Mel Cooper?”
The man answered in a chirpy happy voice. “No, I’ve never heard that name before.”
“Do you know a Captain Steele?”
“He lost his wife and son you know, it was very tragic.”
“Did you lose any parents?”
“Captain Steele lost his wife and son.”
“I see. Do you know where he lives?”
“Captain Steele lost his-“
“I’m sorry to have bothered you.
“Have you seen my wife? She needs to make me dinner.”
“I’m sure she’ll be home soon.”
The walk back around to Mel’s was achingly slow and painful and the deep gulf in Verna’s heart was once again threatening to swamp all the progress she had made earlier. She tried the doorknob of Mel’s place entering in and closing the door and breathing a deep painful sigh.
“Did you find anything,” Mel muttered apologetically, trying to hide a pan he had briefly before prepared to swing at the seeming intruder.
“Is that your parents’?” Verna asked, her heart too hardened to really mind the assault she narrowly avoided.
“It’s Marc’s. Your friend is up in Marc and Erin’s sex room. Well, my parent’s bedroom really, but they’re dead and gone now. Bastards.”
“Right.” Verna said before heading up the stairs. Up at the top, she found Alice sitting in the door-frame. “Did you find anything,” Verna asked.
“There was this in the bed sheets, I don’t think Mel found it.” Alice held up a handful of what looked like some form of prescription drug. “There was also a letter that had fallen under the dresser. It was a suicide note.”
“But they’re both playing Stepford Couple next door.”
“What do we do, Verna,” Alice curled up tighter, clutching the note to her leg so that it crumpled. Verna knew enough of Alice’s history to guess. When she had been a young boy, her first boyfriend had dispatched himself in a similar way. Verna knew she needed to get them out of here.
“Let’s go.” Verna said, wrenching her to her feet and taking the letter from Alice’s hand and shoving it in her own pocket.
“Mel, we’re both going to put out some queries to some friends of ours and they’ll keep an eye out. If you need anything or are scared that the Deity is coming after you, this is my personal cell phone number and I will answer it any time, day or night. Got it?”
“I don’t feel right-“ Alice began before Verna dragged her out of the house.
“She’s very helpful minded. But we have a few more places we need to hit. Have you heard of a Captain Steele?”
“No. I’m sorry. I’m not really that helpful, I guess.”
“Quite all right.” Verna stated, the careful practiced calm face, approaching a level of cracking. She shook Mel’s hand and prepared to move away, before Mel immediately hugged her.
“Thank you so much,” ze stated, while Verna nervously twitched. “You be careful of the Deity now. If you feel Him at all, you need to pretend to be as normal as possible and find shelter. You need to do that.”
“Ok, I will kid. Listen, anytime, really.”
The hug tightened and then released. Verna was outside the door that was now closing.
“Thank you” was the only reply as the door closed firmly shut on the outside world.
“Was that a good idea, V-“ Alice began.
“We still don’t know what happened. But we don’t want hir to repeat anything of the sort.”
“I guess,” Alice replied tentatively.
“I just wish I could have gotten a lead on this Captain Steele fellow. Sigh, what’s the next name.”
Verna stopped and looked behind her where Alice was staring shaking into a sheet of paper. Verna sighed. It had been a bad idea to involve her at that level. She was a great shoulder to lean on, but the scene had obviously triggered some bad memories amidst the confusion.
“Verna,” she spoke softly.
Verna reached an arm around her back and held her awkwardly to herself. “It’s going to be ok, you’ll-“
“No, Verna, look.” And with that Alice pointed down to the next name on the list, one Chloe Steele.
Alice leaned against the door struggling to hear the conversation between Verna and Buck. There wasn’t much to make out. There was a banter about names and then a lot of silence. Suddenly, she heard marching and quickly ran back to her seat at her desk and pretended to shuffle papers.
Buck came out self-consciously. Looking out over the crowd of workers very clearly staring and smiling at him as a few suppressed a brief urge to laugh. Alice herself smiled to see it as it meant that however briefly it was almost ok to laugh again. And then she leaned back in her chair to check out Buck’s well-toned butt in his tight business pants. Alice raised an eyebrow in approval and then recomposed herself. It was rude to stare, but sometimes, how could one resist?
She glanced up at his face and grew momentarily worried. There seemed to be a storm brewing on his face. Alice wondered whether or not Verna was too harsh on him or called him to the carpet about the last story. Verna tried to put on a brave face, but Alice knew that she hadn’t yet let out any of the anger over how that went down. Well, she could always try to cheer him up a little.
Buck’s facial features seemed to shift into something less obviously angry or hurt as he turned and winked at her. Alice felt herself giggle at the attention and felt her hand nervously go to her choker, before rerouting it to her short spiked hair. The ruffles on her shirt would hopefully distract him enough to have hidden the faux pas.
“Your boss says I need an appointment to get settled in. Can you take care of that for me?”
Alice felt herself blushing as she looked at his dapper, nerdy charm, and completely to die for earlobes. Not nearly as butch as her normal type, but still, enough to make her blush for sure.
“Sure Mr. Williams, one second.”
He leaned closer letting her get a whiff of his cologne. It was overly strong, the sort of mistake a casual beginner or teenager would make, but the cuteness of the attempt and his awkward attempt to flirt were making her flashback to her days as a little boy watching Xander on Buffy.
“You can call me Buck,” he whispered into her ear. There was something odd about the statement, but she couldn’t quite place it. Something just seemed slightly off, seemingly demanding maybe. She wasn’t quite sure, but still the experience was still rather pleasurable and besides she could see down his shirt slightly to see that it was well shaven and had that definite metrosexual quality.
“Thanks,” she muttered back nervously, before indicating the empty chair beside her desk.
Buck sat in the chair oddly, a sort of parody of masculinity and there was a quality of her eyes that seemed to make her laugh nervously. She worried that the laughter might offend him, but as much as she waited, he didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he began to flirt back with her, seemingly well adjusted to the post-Event world.
Alice’s immense attraction to that fact was a great relaxant and she felt more eased into the conversation, though she did find herself occasionally troubled by the forcefulness of the flirtation. It wasn’t the casual fun or even highly suggestive flirting that she greatly enjoyed, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what exactly seemed off. She couldn’t stop nervously giggling after most lines, even if they were intensely cheesy and ludicrous.
“So how do you like working with the greatest investigative reporter of all time? Think I can shape these mmm, heh heh, boys into something fitting this place.” Buck stated while his sexily gangly arms betrayed his own immaturity.
Again, it was a rather pathetic self-indictment in its seriousness, but worse, it seemed overly off, seemingly fighting in its own structure. She looked up into his eyes again after long avoiding it and was struck dumb and dry by what she saw.
A shake and it returned, an angrier predatory core that seemed to bore into her mind. Alice became mute, laughing incredibly nervously as she saw the eyes bore deep and something else creep along absent-mindedly alongside.
“Yup, good. Young whore. Slut.”
“What did you say?” Alice jerked up abruptly finalizing the conversation.
“I didn’t say anything,” his eyes while still with the previous sheen, seemed genuinely puzzled and hurt, so much so, that she balked at the outburst.
“I thought I-“ Alice began, nervously clutching her choker with both hands before composing herself.
“I’m sorry, I must be going. My new apartment has already installed phones, you see, and I’ve hardly had time to make good use of them. It was a pleasure meeting you my dear.”
With that he walked out, blithely whistling to himself as his colleagues continued to stare.
“What a mess, eh?” Verna responded from behind her, causing her to spin around in a panic.
“Don’t do that,” Alice hissed back.
“I would say the same thing. Again, also gay.”
“He could be bi,” Alice said briefly clinging to the most unlikely rumor about Buck’s orientation, though she already knew that one of the aspects most troubling about his recent behavior was how badly it was attempting to compensate or prove something. Alice cursed her aching sex drive that she wasn’t able to note it sooner.
“Besides, there’s something off about him, something dangerous that reminds me of something.”
“Latresha the bodybuilder,” Alice asked, unable to resist the opening to tease Verna about one of her more amusing and as usual completely un-acted upon crushes. Already in response, she could see Verna’s ears glow red.
“N-no. Not exactly, but make sure you put on your sensible shoes tonight. We’re going to-“
With that Tiny entered in with a sorely bruised Chen Yao in his arms and a police officer’s badge in his teeth.
“I, er, we, uh, help?” Tiny garbled as he set Yao down gently. “I wasn’t her able to stop the guy bringing him, but I did, er, get his badge.”
Verna turned to Alice and continued, “Or rather back to work.”
With that she ran on to the trials of the rest of the day while Alice pre-checked off another two likely DBs.
“I, er…don’t know if.”
One down. Efficiency makes a good secretary.
Verna hung up the phone and began to stretch her arms. As far as she could tell, this story hadn’t even fully broken locally and taking the long term had finally traced most of it out. Communications from Atlanta and D.C. have confirmed similar structural stories, so with some polishing, Chen could be seeing his first cover story for the next Global Weekly. Well assuming Carpathia didn’t really try and follow through with his Global Czar idea. Well, they could sell the story to the local papers as well. Front-page credit was always a reward unto itself. Even these days. Maybe especially these days, as anything that could knock the ever-present Event stories below the fold was a prize unto itself as well as a welcome distraction.
She let herself dwell on the scene. The normalcy and the feeling of peace that seemed less fought against. Perhaps, Alice was right and even after all this, some uneasy normal could be regained and strength would breed more strength. Solving the little problems, the small fry, seemed to make the Big Things less scary. They were bigger, The Event was still a mystery, but all mysteries could be solved and all it takes is finding the right source.
For the first time in three weeks, she was allowing herself to feel good and the novelty of it alone was exhilarating.
Then the door swung open.
“Alice, what is it?”
“Who-“ Verna began but knew who she was talking about. “But it’s not Monday,” she protested feebly hating herself once again for that seeming slip of weakness and then again for caring. So much for the good mood, she thought bitterly.
“Yeah,” Alice began to shift to leave quickly again.
“Wait. Close the door first.”
“I should be getting back.”
“That’s fresh makeup. All of it. What happened?”
Alice tried a smile, “I just wanted a new look.”
“The doctor called back didn’t he?”
“They’re overbooked in the hospitals. ‘Elective’ surgeries are on hold. It’s ok, I’ll just keep looking. Besides, what’s a few more years’ wait, really?”
“I’m so sorry.”
Alice laughed. “That’s a silly thing to say. You’re not responsible.”
Verna stood stock still for a second as Alice began to laugh more and more out loud.
Alice continued. “Oh, I needed that. I’ll send in Cameron. Oh, also on the Agenda, Tiny is getting stitches from a Broken who tried to attack him with a broken bottle for apparently stealing his kids for the Government. That and The Center wants us to try and look into some of the people on the list after we finish up here.”
“Right,” Verna responded, re-entering her stoicism. Hmm, perhaps there would be an excuse to look into a few other things. Hadn’t some of the names been in the suburb where people were talking about Captain Steele? Her journalistic sense became piqued as she began to return to her desk and wrote herself a handful of notes.
“I said, good morning.”
Verna shook herself and looked at the clock, which read 2:35. She nodded carefully. “Cameron, I didn’t expect you till Monday.” It was a true statement. Cameron “Buck” Williams was a “maverick” and his favorite way of demonstrating that was to constantly procrastinate and never put forth more than the set amount of hours. If he wasn’t Steve’s personal escort as it were, he would probably have been demoted or fired long ago.
“Just checking in,” Buck said smoothing his hair and…striking a minor pose, a rather metrosexual pose at that. Verna found herself literally stunned into silence for a moment. “You can call me Buck”.
Verna looked down onto her desk where the last issue of Global Weekly sat still seemingly hot off the presses as Distribution was yesterday. In it, the cover article she had written going into the global issues and fallout that would occur if Carpathia’s UN plans were actually implemented as well as a brief coverage of the shooting incident itself. It had been a joint project between her and a number of the International Branches that she had to put together and finish once it became clear that Cameron hadn’t even bothered to show up for his scheduled interview with the newest wanna-be dictator. She had finished about 12 minutes before final printing after literally three full days not leaving the office or sleeping and in which one of her other story’s main leads ended up shooting himself, setting her back probably a month on that hook. For all that work, she could see it as cover story, what would have been her first under the byline: Cameron Williams, Senior Writer.
“I’ll call you Cameron, if you don’t mind, and-“
“I do mind,” Buck responded, his voice quivering in full pout. He puffed up his chest and tried to look important or threatening, but Verna was looking at the headline and felt herself struggle once more.
It was a stupid thing, meaningless, trivial crap that she had long become accustomed too. It wasn’t even like that was the first make-up story she had written for him. His famous “Disappearance” story had been written a week earlier by herself as well as his follow up working off his source material of “God did it” in full. She had been the one again pulling his slack and actually interviewing the subjects and figuring out what all the theories were and which had already been debunked. In short, she had been running three jobs for the dim-minded queen in front of her.
In light of everything, it shouldn’t have bothered her. Who cared? What were three jobs at work, when she had volunteered for even more off duty. Her life had more or less had always been devoted to covering slackers for the good of the craft. It’s more or less how she scrabbled each slow step up the ladder, how she kept her lovely eye of the hurricane from giving into the chaos that surrounded them.
But at the same time, here he was, chastised, found out, a source of enormous scandal at Head Office, free from his previous protection with the flight of Steve Plank to greener pastures. And directly believing that she of all the people in the world would show him deference at this point. It was petty, but it was hard to resist the control over the pettiness and the shame it spawned. How dare he try to force his stupid self-given nickname on her, one entirely based on his lazy disregard for the good of the craft? If the center was to hold, if the Chicago Branch was going to keep afloat Head Office, then this shit would not stand on her watch.
Buck continued obliviously. “Please call-“
“Then I’ll call you Cameron, even if you do mind.”
There was a moment of regret. She saw his face begin to tear up with this blow. Oh god, she thought, he was using his ego to keep from floating under the weight of the times. That was what was keeping him afloat. She wondered whether she should apologize, then kicked herself for the weakness in thinking that. Even if it was true, she needed to shake him up. A deliberately deluded person was not only a bad worker, but more likely to trigger DBs. Heck, a DB was practically a rite of passage for the brave remainder. One proved their mettle by returning. Paralyzed, she did nothing, while Buck recovered with the oddest of shakes.
“Help me,” he whispered, before shaking again.
Verna was struck by his eyes, first and foremost. Had they always been like that, or was it new? She couldn’t quite access enough of her memory, but she knew that they stuck out greatly from the terrified pleading eyes of only a moment before as well as the sick quiver that preceded the change.
The eyes were that of a predator, or rather more, the cool calm focus of intense blind hate, seething almost preternaturally from some outside force. She quietly moved her heavier desk objects closer to herself and stood up to her full rather unimpressive stature.
“I’m afraid I’m rather busy at the moment, but if you would be so kind as to make an appointment with my secretary for a time we can settle you in, that would be great. Now, I have to check up on one of the other reporters, so if you’ll excuse me…” She motioned her arms for Buck to leave, but he seemed unwilling. He almost seemed motionless as if stuck in some form of static point, but for the quiver and the eyes of hate, she would have assumed it so. “And do give my regards to Steve when you next see him.”
There seemed to be a twinge of self-disgust on his face and then a different veneer, similarly predatory, but now once again filled with the rampant ego of earlier on.
“Jealous, you’re all jealous, whore,” Buck muttered before marching himself out. “You’re all whores.”
With a sigh of relief she closed the door afterwards and felt a shake of fear she hadn’t felt since…a memory she didn’t want to face right now. Verna shook herself violently before breathing heavily back into her professional headspace.
There was a moment of full personality change there. If the reports and the rumors of Buck’s greater than normal ego behaviors were true, then there was something, alien or otherwise, going on.
She returned back to work, picking up the phone and redialing the last number, trying desperately to ignore what Buck had said during the shudders.
She had enough jobs after all. Including his.
As much as she still reeled sometimes from her studied detachment, she was amazed at the ability of any corporate office to be equally blind and deaf to tragedy. No word yet on survivor benefits, grief counseling, but there was a long-belated memo acknowledging her new position and chiding employees for “taking too many frivolous absences.” She would have been surprised, but she had been in the staff meeting where Lucinda explained the memo asking all employees to help make the post 9/11 issue a “collectible one.”
What worried her the most about the memo was the footnote, though. Her branch had won the Loser Pool to baby-sit the newly disgraced head writer after it was discovered he had done no actual work in his three-week “investigations.” The paper had covered for him by changing the headline on a couple of some of the stories she wrote, adding some special touches that were so “Buck” like describing all male interview subjects as towers of virile potency and referring to who daring he was to work the beat in the first place. Verna didn’t know why they bothered, but then, the whole thing was too stupid to really get that bothered by it. Incompetent Old Boy’s Club favorite gets ass covered, not exactly headline material in any organization. Given the rumors of Steve Plank and Cameron Williams, well, all she could really do was laugh.
It wasn’t exactly like Cameron “Buck” Williams was at all subtle about it.
She shook her head and turned to Alice. “Where are the fires,” Verna asked.
Alice looked up, her face in a self-conscious smile that Alice had been forcibly wearing for the last three weeks.
“Well, Chen Yao was detained by the martial law faction of the Chicago Police for his investigation of them, though he was able to confirm that they are an offshoot of the Narcotics squads apparently in revolt to the City’s handling of the food delivery arrests. Four people have had a DB and had to stop work for the day. Twelve people tried to force entry to either reveal the truth or punish us for hiding the truth and I think one may have tried to plant a bomb. Oh and Marsha had her daily visit. I made her a bottle of milk for her ‘kid’ and that seemed to calm her down, but someone still needs to escort her home before she causes any additional DBs.”
“We’ve had a good day,” Alice chirped in what was now a hauntingly happy manner.
“Ok, send Bruno to sniff around and check on the bomb threat and let’s have Phil-“
“FUCK YOU, YOU STUPID BITCH!”
The scream stopped Verna in her tracks as she looked over to where Phil had confronted a shabby-clothed woman in the corner, cradling her daughter’s Cabbage Patch doll in her arms and cooing.
“They’re dead, you cunt! They’re all fucking dead and they’re never coming back and you need to get that! Your daughter is fucking gone! My Tabitha is gone! She’s dead! Oh God!” With a final scream, the veins popping even above the dark hues of his neck, and a poorly thrown punch at the wall, Phil ran out of the office and down the stairs as a worrying silence descended through the place.
“Make that five DBs,” Alice quipped.
“Alright everyone, that’s enough. Back to work. We’ve got a mystery to solve and a backlog of cases to look into. If anyone else needs to call in a Daily Breakdown, we’re good, but unless that’s the case;” Verna clapped her hands noisily. “Back to work!”
With that the stirring heads seemed to go back to pointedly pretending to work furiously. With luck they’d be able to slip into whatever rationalization or strength they needed to keep going and there wouldn’t be any more DBs. There was too much to do.
Looking out from the corner of her eye, she saw “Tiny” Minervuson, a former bike messenger who had become the de facto errand runner since The Event, coming back with the staff lunches. The stereotypical Icelandic build combined with the runic tattoos had earned a fierce and unearned reputation despite the momma’s boy interior he really had.
“Tiny,” Verna shouted as she ran over. “Glad I caught you. Marsha needs an escort home and we need someone to watch the doors for a while and keep out the usual type for a couple of hours. Phil had a loud DB and I can sense morale is shaky.”
“Uh, right, I guess so ma’am. Sure,” Tiny said trying to maneuver the overfull bag of lunches off his shoulder and gently onto the front desk.
“Ooh, what’s the menu, big guy,” Alice suddenly interrupted as she appeared from behind.
“Er…uh…sandwich stuff, really, the food shipments have re-entered the small grocery stores. And er…”
“Is there any meat, yet?”
“Well, yes, actually.”
“How much? How much meat?”
“Alice!” Verna turned and shouted at her secretary, before turning back to the tall Icelander immigrant. “I’m sorry, Tiny, if you could handle things...”
“Right,” Tiny immediately turned and grabbed Marsha as she loudly chided the doll for spilling her drink. “C’mon, I’ll protect you from the mob.”
“They’re after her, you know. She’s special. Only child left, my Megan, only child safe. She’s going to save the world, my Megan. She’s the Chosen One, she is. They want to steal her you know,” Marsha stammered as she walked.
“Uh, right. We’ll help you home, though,” Tiny responded taking her hand and leading her out the door.
“How does she even get here,” Alice wondered.
“She’s lonely. I think that’s the point,” Verna muttered and then turned around and quietly hissed. “And you, what the hell were you doing?”
Alice began fidgeting with her choker nervously “Well, I-“
“He’s gay, Alice, and-“
“He’s bi. And-“
“He’s still mourning for Ilya, more importantly.”
“So I want to comfort him when he does, is that so wrong? Damnitt.”
Verna could see the tears beginning to well and a large number of staff surreptitiously concentrating on their work.
“Lunch break everyone!” Verna shouted and then grabbed Alice by the shoulder before hissing in her ear, “let’s continue this in my office.”
This wasn’t the best showing and already, she could feel the discipline breaking down. There would be the usual rumors as well, but she could see one or two sneers of disgust form in the far desks. They could see the frivolity in her actions, were making judgments. But at the same time, they were composing themselves, getting back to work, a step away from the despondence of Phil’s DB. The chaos had been held at bay for one more day. Verna sighed with relief and closed the door to her office.
“Alice, I’m-“ Verna began passing a box of tissues over to Alice.
“It’s ok, forget about it. You were right anyway,” Alice responded contritely drying her eyes and composing her self. “It’s just, everyone is letting The Event choke them, drag them down. Prevent them from being human. I see it in everyone. I see it in you.”
“I don’t know…I-“
“Oh, please Verna, I’ve heard you. We’re not to blame for this. And we’re not to blame if we want to live real lives. It’s what happens after tragedies. Lord, I know that well enough. I’ve gone to enough Days of Remembrance to know that. I’m not going to apologize for moving on. We all get a second chance to live.”
Verna paused. “We’re no longer talking about The Event, are we?”
“I’ve found a new doctor after…you know…I’ll finally be rid of the last part that’s not me. And I’ve still got my savings from before…Life continues Verna.”
Verna stayed still. The echoes of guilt amassing again strongly against the walls of her resolve and she struggled to say anything in response.
“And you know that too, don’t you?”
“I…do.” The words finally tumbling out as the shame seemed to consume her cheeks a fiery red. She turned away, seeking solitude to recompose the presentation, reform the barriers that had served her well. That had been so important for survival. That would stop any inconvenient memory from returning. But before she could, she could feel Alice pressing against her chest.
The warm embrace seemed to soothe her and she felt the shame begin to subside allowing her once again assert control over her mind. And immediately battle a brief second non-professional emotion.
“We will all be ok, with time,” Alice said and pulled back, grinning her impish grin, while Verna subsumed desperately any improper thoughts still swimming from a long-ago fought crush on the cute Lolita-punk secretary. There was a brief battle of control as she tried not to focus on her choker or ankh earrings both dangling around a bitable neck and then it was gone, a distant memory again of a pathway that had long been shut.
Verna sighed with relief and an odd rush of comfort as she looked back up at Alice and caught her blushing back.
“I’m so sorry. I should have rethought that. I knew you used to have a…I didn’t know it was still around. Oh god. I’m-“
“It’s ok. It’s not a problem,” Verna quickly intervened. “I know you’re straight, it’s…”
Alice smiled. “It’s not a problem.”
Verna paused. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“I’m always, right, life continues and as long as we’re us, that’s all that matters. Now, as you would say-“
“Back to work.”
Verna allowed herself a first brief smile and pushed Alice out the door before returning to her desk. The Event wasn’t the end of the world, unless they let it be. No one could say otherwise. Verna picked up the phone and began calling the fractionated police.
It was time to rescue a colleague.
Verna stared deep into her coffee cup.
Already she could feel the tears well up against her will, that all too familiar loss of control. She hated that feeling, the admission of weakness. But these days, she hated herself even more, that she could only cry at moments like these for such small and petty reasons.
Outside the door there were good people who had lost everything, no less strong than her, no less brave, whose eyes clearly registered the trauma of The Event, who had suffered genuine visceral loss, who had lost entire families. Who had lost everything.
And here she was shedding a mere handful of tears for the loss of a friend, a shared friend even and only then because the coffee reminded her of her warm gentle face. And to make it worse, it wasn’t even like Lucinda was a close friend, or even all that much more than a familiar presence.
But then, that’s why she was really crying, wasn’t it? That’s what made Verna glow red with self-hatred. The entire world collapsed and the only connection she had with it was superficial and lacking, of absolutely no impact. She could walk through the streets and see it all as surrealistic farce. She could disconnect, compartmentalize, and process. She could do that so easily by now, a trait well earned through a long cultivated stoicism. And yet now, it seemed to burn.
How dare she be the only one so unaffected, so callous inside, the only one able to pull together the shattered news team to try and get to the bottom of who exactly did this, and what stories were going unheeded in the meantime? How dare she be swept in self-pity that this was the only pain she felt? Verna drank the coffee, its bitter force rebooting her brain and allowing her to sink back into full control of her emotions, deliberately ignoring the dead feeling inside, the survivor’s guilt.
If it was nothing, it was pointless to succumb. If she was lucky, if she was a monster, if she was strong, if she was weak, no matter what, there were roles to fill. She looked over some of the submitted notes and preliminary stories from those who had been seeking any form of intensive work to prevent them from thinking overmuch about the tragedy. They were universally grim, but far less so than it had been the previous weeks, and often far more coherent.
The banks had tried to take over all their mortgages and foreclose on homes, but had been stopped by a new group calling themselves the CC&R Militia. The coalition of Chicago street gangs had been cleared of all charges for stealing a suite of bulldozers and flat bed trucks and reopening the highways and restarting food delivery from the farmlands thus quelling fears of hunger riots. The Grant Park Cult had pretty much taken over the whole park and there were instances of Hasidic Jews being assaulted by the group for “vaporizing all the children with their Jew death ray”. A hunch had turned out to be correct in that Americans for Truth headquarters was filled with empty clothes. The Christian hate groups had been way too silent about The Event when usually they’d be the first to blame it on gays and atheists.
The investigations into the children had produced no leads, but there were actually confirmed reports of women being pregnant from Planned Parenthood now that they could use to ease fears and speculation that the human race would become extinct. Radiologists, nuclear physicists, and biologists had investigated new UN security chief Carpathia’s theory and had found it ill-supported by evidence. Worse still, they couldn’t find anything wrong at all, there weren’t even any signs of vacuum stress that would occur if the missing people had simply vaporized or disappeared. Worse yet was the discovery of organs in some of the clothing. Whoever had caused The Event had been a sick bastard.
Verna rubbed her eyes together. It was hard to piece together. If it was a death ray or some new weapon, where were the demands or statements by the terrorists responsible? If it was aliens, would they strike again and if so when? If it was the Rapture, where were the parting of the Heavens and the people floating up, would it be related to the Russia-Ethiopia Incident and worst of all, what would it mean?
What was such a deity planning, why would it slaughter its own followers and children and what else would it do to the world? There were some particularly frightening follow-ups that had come in. A suburb in the Tri-County area had been completely unaffected by The Event. It still suffered the effects, but no other part of life had changed. Food delivery had stopped but grocery stores had full stocks, accidents had been cleared with no evidence they had occurred, some of the residents seemed unaware and uncaring that their children were gone and furthermore, seemed mostly worried about a Captain Steele and how he was faring. A friend in the military had found no matching records for the name, which was even more worrying.
Plus there was the whole Carpathia business. He was obviously at least partially insane, but the TV news seemed unable to broadcast anything other than how wonderful he was. There were even worries that the sovereign governments of the world’s nations were actually considering and debating the merits of his political takeover.
More than one public figure and even city had changed overnight and there was still no news from San Francisco. It was entirely possible it had merely been wiped out. Taken alone none of these things were too weird, but altogether and in light of events, it was seemingly likely that something more powerful was fucking with shit.
So now as a reporter, the goal was to find out the who, how, and why, as well as the make it stop.
She stopped in horror at the thought and gulped down the rest of the coffee, and if it is the God of the fundies, what did that mean for her and her community. She had already been busy volunteering at the Center, running the phones at the Crisis Center, trying to run follow up for gay kids who were panicking. There was already a huge list of names she wanted to visit personally after work. Panicking kids, closeted Christians with no support networks left and all the people who had already been on Suicide Watch.
She stared at the paperwork and closed her eyes. It was her job now, finally officially to get to the bottom of all this, to make this branch deliver the right news to a starved public and if that meant she was stone hearted, so be it. Too much was at stake not to be.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Chris Green, like half the parish, had lost his job, and had no idea how to keep up the mortgage payments. "The sensible thing would be to move somewhere smaller," he told Paul, "but I just can't do it. The kids' playroom is just how they left it, and their swings and things are in the garden. Besides," he finished defiantly, "if they come back, we need to be where they can find us."
Sally Lansbury was nursing her dying mother, who wasn't lucid enough to take in the news of the Event. "It's hardest on my sister," she said. "Whenever she comes round, Mum wants to know why she hasn't brought Ned with her, and every time, she has to explain that he's gone."
Janice Sutton's body still lay in a drawer somewhere, while medical examiners worked through the deaths the Event had indirectly caused. Gary fretted, impatient for the funeral that was all he could now offer his wife or his unborn child.
Paul, feeling like he was held together by nothing but his nerves, listened and answered as best he could. He was sleeping badly, and waking every morning with dread in the pit of his stomach. During the day, surrounded by other people's suffering, he managed to ignore his own worries; in the last hour before sleep, they came back with double the force.
He couldn't keep running away from it. Sooner or later, it would have to be faced, and putting it off wouldn't make it any easier. He told himself his parishoners needed him, but what use would he be to them if he didn't find a few minutes to take care of himself?
The church was empty, for the moment. Paul walked up to the altar and knelt at the rail, as if he was going to receive communion. It was time to say the prayer he'd been putting off for days.
"God, I don't know what to think," he said, not softly enough to keep his voice from echoing. "I believed in You, but it seems like You're not really there at all. Or not really who I thought You were. Have I been praying all my life to someone who doesn't even exist?"
He took a deep and shuddering breath. "I want to believe in a good and merciful God, but a good and merciful God wouldn't have done something like this. It's shattered everyone's lives, taken so much away from them, and why? Just to prove how powerful you are? That's no way for a God to behave."
For a moment, he half expected the Rapture cult's God to strike him down for blasphemy, but nothing happened. "I can't do this by myself," he said. "If You really don't exist, what am I supposed to do? Everyone in the parish is hurting, and there's nothing I can do for them. If You don't care what happens to us, what comfort can I give them?"
It was as if Someone was standing beside him, lifting the worst of the burden from his shoulders. Someone reassured him gently that he was doing all he could, and that what seemed like nothing to him could mean the world to his parishoners.
"Yes," he said, forcing the word past an obstruction in his throat. "But I don't know how long I can go on doing that. Not if there's no-one out there."
Someone said, "I'm as real now as I ever was."
"Do you mean you're still real, or you never were?"
Someone just repeated, "I'm as real now as I ever was." Then, as quickly as it had arrived, it was gone.
Paul blinked away tears and looked up at the huge image of Christ on the cross that hung behind the altar. It was the essence of what he had believed in: someone who loved humanity so much that He would suffer on the cross in order to redeem them. Someone who would suffer, and be almost overwhelmed with pain, and still keep going out of love.
Whatever else he had lost, he could still believe in that love. A love that he saw reflected every day, in the parishoners' struggles to hold everything together, and even in the ache of their loss. A love that he tried to live up to himself, when people came to him in pain. That love was still there, within him, as real now as it ever had been.
"I believe," he whispered. And the tears flowed freely.
Friday, March 13, 2009
To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn, echoed through Libby’s head as she twisted the can opener. Turn turn turn. Ecclesiastes, she remembered, from the Bible, from the Christian Bible, and it’s a world of laughter, a world of tears, it’s a world of hopes and a world of fears, but that only reminded her of taking Carmen to Disney World. Carmen with Maria’s bright black eyes and with blue and bronze beads braided into her dark hair, stargazing with Libby in the last hours Before. Bronze and blue beads scattered in the grass.
Eight years old was too young to die.
A time to kill, a time to heal, a time to laugh, a time to weep; to everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn. Anger hurt less than grief.
Drain the full can onto the dirt. Dump the tomatoes into the mixing bowl. Toss the empty can on the heap on the carefully cleared ground. Prometheus tricking Zeus into taking the inedible parts of the sacrifice with some of the best bits on top, leaving the meat for those who had done the sacrificing. Another can, turn, turn, turn.
“It occurs to me,” said Maria, “that this might as easily attract Satan.” Said Rosa; it would be some time yet before the shape of Libby’s partner’s new non-Christian-derived name became familiar. Before Libby’s own new non-Christian-derived name became familiar, too, but ‘Liberty’ shortened to ‘Libby’ as readily as did ‘Elizabeth’, which was part of why she’d chosen it. “More easily, maybe—we know he exists in premillennial theology and we can’t be sure about Ixchel or Athena.”
“This was your idea,” Libby reminded her. “You pays your money, you takes your chances.” In any event, if Plan A failed, Libby would far rather ask the help of Satan, whose only sins were pride and disobedience, than of God, who ‘took your daughter to heaven’, as an unhelpful and newly Christian neighbor had explained. (“Mom told me twenty years ago that Grandma went to heaven,” Libby had retorted; “Grandma’s dead and so is Carmen and don’t you fucking dare say otherwise!”)
“And better Satan than God—ow!”
From the expression on Ma—Rosa’s face, Libby suspected that Rosa had tugged a bit too hard on the cord that was being threaded through Rosa’s ear and coming out bloody. That was all right; Mayan-style blood sacrifice would mean little if it inflicted little pain. “It’s hard to shake the upbringing, that’s all.”
Libby made an agreeing sound, added the corn to the bowl, wiped away tears before they could drip off her nose, and started on a can of beans.
Soon enough, a two-person two-day supply of food taken from the Lopez–de Luca pantry was mixed and rolled into tortillas and divided into four portions, two for Libby and Mari—Rosa and two on the pyramid of tin cans. Libby carefully unwrapped three bars of Godiva chocolate, broke the first in half for herself and Rosa, and placed the second and third with the rest of the food. Rosa wound her red cord around the pyramid and stepped back, and Libby poured gasoline over the entire pile.
The point of animal sacrifice, Libby found herself thinking as she poured water to rinse Rosa’s hands and then held still so Rosa could rinse Libby’s, had always been that it was a sacrifice, a giving up of something one values highly, or, better, something that would provide more value in the future than it had now. An ox had been an excellent choice of sacrifice for an ancient Greek farmer, because he needed one to plow his fields to grow his food, and because it was a substantial food supply in itself. It might be an excellent sacrifice now, given how hard it had become to import food from even the next county, but that didn’t matter much because the farm Libby and Rosa had staked their claim on didn’t have any animals at all.
Food and fuel: the two most valuable things in this world of After.
Rosa lit a match.
Libby tilted her face heavenward, holding her arms out and her palms up, standing as Carmen’s mythology books said Greeks had stood to pray. “Oh Great Athena,” she whispered, swallowed, and continued in a stronger voice, “Athena Eleutheros, Athena Atrytone, Athena Promachos—” Athena of freedom, Athena the unwearying, Athena who fights in front. “—may this sacrifice find favor in your eyes.” It would be inappropriate to ask for anything now, that would sound too much as if Libby expected a quid pro quo from the goddess, but Libby couldn’t keep her mind from going over why she hoped for some positive response: the chaos of the world After, the many needs of everyone who had lost a child or a friend to what was (to someone who had grown up with Rapture-obsessed parents, and who knew from her brother that those parents were dead, vanished just like the children) beyond all doubt the Rapture, the desperate need to keep many of those people from joining the followers of the premillennial Christian God—the need to show those people that there was someone else to believe in, someone who neither rewarded followers with death nor punished unbelievers with the deaths of their children, someone who valued peace as God clearly did not. Athena might be a warrior, but she was also a weaver and scholar and tender of olive trees, and what warrior could have time for any of those tasks if there was a war on?
And maybe, hopefully, if Yahweh the judge and thunder god was similar enough to Zeus the judge and thunder god (to Zeus had he lost his fucking mind), if it was true that Athena was Metis’s daughter born after Zeus had swallowed Metis for fear of Metis’s child who would overthrow him—tradition said Metis’s second child by Zeus, Metis’s son, but ancient Greece hadn’t had feminists—
I’ll do anything you need me to do, Libby thought desperately, anything that’s within my power and that won’t hurt anyone who hasn’t first hurt me or mine—please be there, please help us! (And so much for not asking for a quid pro quo.)
Peace, child. The voice was female, amused, and utterly unfamiliar—Libby glanced around and saw only M—Rosa, who had stopped chanting and was staring into nothing. I hear you. Yes, my father and brother have gone insane; yes, they need to be stopped; yes, my people need help. No, I do not have the power to do anything about it. I have too few followers and too few priests, and they too many. You, Liberty, must be my hands and my voice, if you are willing—
Of course, Libby answered, dazed.It will be difficult, the goddess warned. My father and brother have other weapons they intend to use. Many of those you would help would not be helped. You may find your name slandered; you may find yourself with far greater responsibility than you wish to bear.
So, what, I get to be the Roman-born peace-loving Antichrist? Libby asked. As long as it’s anti-baby-killer-Christ, bring it on.
The goddess laughed. Perhaps it will be you. Perhaps your bedmate, perhaps another; we have many candidates. But for now, your task is to be a priestess of Athena. Go and tell my people that the gods grieve with them, but they must lay aside sorrow lest anyone grieve for them; show them that they need not kneel before the murderer of their children; win me believers so that I have the strength to take up arms to win us a world in which I may lay those arms down again.
Wind swirled around Libby and was gone.
She blinked, once, twice, and lowered her arms. “Rosa?” she asked unsteadily.
“She came.” Rosa sucked in a breath. “She’s busy in Latin America, so many people praying that they can still have more children, but she came—I’m to be a priestess of Demeter, more people know Greek gods here than Mayan—I might be the Antichrist—you?”
“She came,” Libby echoed. “I might be the Antichrist instead—she can beat him, but she isn’t strong enough, she doesn’t have enough believers—I need to fix that—I almost don’t believe this happened—”
“Praise the gods and pass the ammunition and the seed corn,” Rosa said, and Libby broke down laughing, the first time she could remember laughing since Carmen died.
A time to be born and to die, to plant and to reap, to kill and to heal, to laugh and to weep, Libby thought when she could think again. “Time to eat,” she said, reaching for her half of the sacrificial meal.
“And then,” Rosa said, watching the fire, “time to go.”
Saturday, March 7, 2009
The person who had watched him from the window had walked next to the older woman, a frightened looking woman who looked to be between the ages of the other two. Buck did not want to press the issue, "I'm not a relative, I'm just looking at a list New Hope gave me." The frightened looking woman winced as if she'd been struck at the mention of that name, the older woman laid her hand on her arm in reassurance. Buck saw the clean living room beyond the armed girl, an altar had been assembled in the corner by the new occupants, pictures surrounded candles and bowls of flowers.
Buck stepped back to go, "thank you and if you need anything I'm sure New-," the girl at the door held up her hand. "Your God is strong but he is young, cruel child," Buck swallowed hard but she continued, "but he is not the only God, there are other Gods and Goddesses, some are more cruel but some are much more kind. They have passed into myth but they're as real as your God. They just need to be remembered and spoken to, and be loved."
Buck didn't know what to say, didn't know if he wanted to say anything. Her words had woven a spell of peace over the women, and himself. She looked at him, not unkindly, "We will see the Earth's children again, we'll see children again. What The Gods mend will be made whole for always. Goodbye and Good Luck."
Buck was at a complete loss, these women needed to be saved, they had rejected Christ, he caught himself, no they had rejected the God of the Rapture. Buck tried to calmly say goodbye but rushed to his car and drove several blocks before pulling into a driveway to rest his head on the steering wheel. They were Pagans, or they had embraced Paganism, or hell, they were like everybody else trying find a thread to hold onto. He knew they would welcome Christ, a sick feeling knotted in his stomach as he guessed they would see no relation between Jesus Christ and the God of the Rapture. Buck's hands tightened on the wheel as he thought of the trouble he was having finding a connection between the two as well.
“Dear God, keep me sane,” he whispered, and realized with a start that he had just prayed. It was still a new sensation, that missive to the Great Unknown. But I do know it now. God is love. And that love will be the only true shield against what’s coming. “God is love,” Buck repeated out loud. Then he laughed. “And I still need to find a car.”
As he stepped out onto the streets of this now quiet North Chicago suburb, he saw almost nothing but cars. Some parked neatly, as if waiting for their owners to return. Some were still blocking driveways and intersections, the crumpled metal glinting in the pale sunlight. The city had managed, by now, to remove most of the bodies. But Buck could see that some of the cars had been empty at the time of the crash. He turned his head, resolutely avoiding the sight.
A block, then another. Buck didn’t know what he was looking for. Nothing flashy, and nothing too big. Maybe a Camry. Something that would blend in. He didn’t want to set anybody off.
The smell of smoke stung his nostrils, causing him to make a sharp left at the intersection. A woman was burning something in the front yard of her house. She’d built up a huge pile of fabric – bright stripes stacked on some frothy lace, then a peek of denim. Children’s clothes. As Buck got closer, he inhaled lighter fluid. The woman was very serious about this fire catching.
She heard him coming, and her eyes flicked toward him. “Had to do it,” she said, defensively. “Had them in the dryer when It Happened. What was I supposed to do? Fold them?” The anger tightened her voice into a mutter. “Carrie, Carrie. Little girl. My baby girl.” She began to croon tonelessly as she grabbed another tiny shirt to throw on the pile.
Buck turned away without speaking. He’d seen a few like her in the last week. She knew her child wasn’t coming back. By the look of her, she hadn’t eaten much in the After. She’d be one of the ones to give up, to forget how to live. She only wanted to see her child again. Principalities and powers meant nothing to her.
Then, through the smoke, across the street, Buck saw it. A Mazda 3 in black. Without thinking about where the owner was, Buck walked up the path to the door and turned the knob. It opened easily – it hadn’t been locked. Inside the front hall, he saw everything he needed to see: a set of keys on the side table and a worn little book tucked into the shelf below. He grabbed the keys and turned to the door. Then, he paused. He reached back for the Bible. “No one else is using it, after all.”
The car ran like a dream.
Friday, March 6, 2009
He noticed a young man sitting on top of one the cars a gun tucked into a shoulder holster, Buck nodded at him and turned his attention to the girl. She was to the point, "100 dollars, no less, cash only, and it's yours, you can keep whatever you find in the car." Buck guessed that the pair had nabbed any jewelry or cash left in the vehicles but nodded. Another figure sitting in one of the cars caught his eye. She was an older woman who looked like she hadn't slept in days, she was staring out in front of her oblivious to anyone or anything. He noticed a basketball jersey knotted twisted in her hands like a rosary. Buck looked at the girl, he was surprised to see her expression soften, "That was her daughter's car, I thought she'd take the car away but she's been coming everyday and just sits there for hours and then goes home."
The girl cleared her throat "So you interested or not? Better act quickly people are starting to jack up the prices now that everybody's trying to get the hell out of dodge, they think it's safe in the country."
"I'm trying to get the hell into dodge," Buck cracked.
He was curious about this girl, she looked to still be in her teens, her partner not much older. He wondered about the woman in the car, he realized for a journalist he had been lacking an essential curiosity. He had been building a strong case of just how much he was lacking over the past two weeks. He looked at the cars, very few had broken windows, the pair had lucked out with a slate of cars unlocked or easy to break into. His eyes settled on a red Mustang.
He had always wanted that car, he remembered tearing up the back roads of Indiana in his cousin Gerry's model, a beauty in solid black. The roar of the engine competing with the hair metal screaming from he stereo, fry containers on the floor, and on rare occasions when the gang would park to watch the stars in a lonely field a smoldering joint in the ashtray. Buck smiled remembering how Tom wore his Slayer shirt until it dissolved in the wash.
It seemed long ago, it was long ago. The girl interrupted his reverie "All the cars have gas in them." That settled it, he could still have found a "freebie" but finding one with a drop of gas in the tank was another matter as people had begun to hoard anything valuable. "The red one," he said, handing her a crisp 100. The youth on top of the car rooted around a bag at his side and tossed the keys to Buck.
She smiled "excellent choice, good luck and take care." He was oddly touched, she seemed to mean it, "You too, the both of you, stay safe." "We will," she said resting her shotgun against her shoulder. Buck opened the car door, "What's your name?" The girl debated answering him, "Sylvie," she said, almost embarrassed, she tilted her head towards the young man, "he's Joe." "Thank you Sylvie and Joe," Buck closed the car door and turned the key in the ignition.
It turned over without a complaint and Buck saw it had over half a tank of gas. Good enough for now, he could find a gas station that was still open later. He looked once more at the older woman, she had not moved. He pulled out of the lot, the younger two watched him go. He looked around the interior of the car, the owner had been a boy, a pile of clothes where crumpled in the passenger seat, Buck guessed these were the clothes of the owner tossed aside when the two had done their sweep of their find. He couldn't bear listening to the news right now, and doubted the youth had anything than the sanitary over processed sounds of Christian pop. He was surprised to find a Beatles mix CD when he looked at a handful of discs tucked into a case on the dashboard. He popped it in and drove into the Chicago darkness.
"Blackbird" wound its melancholy way through the whole of the car and twined itself into Buck's thoughts and he realized he was singing along. The imposing brick heap of the high school faded into blur in the rear view mirror and disappeared.
Without looking up from his newspaper, the man mumbled in a weary voice, "Sorry, the lot's full. Can't take anything else. Try the junkyard down on East Central Road."
"I'm not here to sell, I'm here to buy," Buck replied, stooping to fit under the cabinets that jutted from the ceiling.
The dealer looked up from the fine print obituaries that flooded the back pages of the Chicago Tribune and beamed at him, without making even the slightest attempt to disguise his glee. He stretched out a leathery hand - Buck noticed a conspicuous tan line around his ring finger.
"Cameron Williams. But please, call me Buck."
"Please, come this way!"
He folded up the table quickly, letting the papers that were on it slide onto the floor, and led Buck back out onto the sun-drenched lot.
"What you looking for? We just got a great bunch in today from that parking lot down on Dempster - they've finally got round to clearing that out. Some a' them got a bit dented when they winched them out, but they're in good shape otherwise. Should still have a full tank a' gas, most a' them. Some of them I've already siphoned."
"Yeah. Gas is running pretty short these days. I can get a hundred, hundred and fifty bucks for one tank of fuel - that's more than half these cars are worth."
"How about that one?" asked Buck, pointing to a sky blue Camaro. The rear fender was covered liberally with faded bumper stickers that politely but firmly asked tailgaters to get saved, protest abortion and vote Dole.
"Ah, not that one. Not yet anyway. The driver was one of the... Disappeared," said Michael, still not quite used to the new, horrifying meaning of the word. "She was in the mall when it happened. Five hundred people Disappeared in the mall that day - a hundred of them were adults. Still haven't matched all the keys to the cars yet. Cops say they're trying, but frankly, they've got bigger fish to fry."
He hurried Buck past a bank of people carriers and station wagons, still morbidly carrying child seats and fluorescent yellow 'Baby on Board' signs.
"So," asked Buck, running his finger along the dusty hood of a Plymouth Voyager, "how'd you get into the car selling business? I mean, judging by your accommodation, this wasn't your regular job."
Michael chuckled, his laugh empty and hollow.
"Very perceptive. It was my wife. She died in the Event."
"No. She was crossing an intersection. Oncoming truck lost its driver at the worst possible moment." His bloodshot, sleep-deprived eyes began to fill with tears. "I was a face-painter for parties - even before the Event, I barely made enough to scrape by. She was the breadwinner. So I was left with no savings and a useless fucking car - I can't even drive! Then my neighbours - they lost three good kids that day - they saw I was selling my car and asked me to deal with their RV. Too many memories, I suppose. Then it just sort of went from there."
Michael stopped suddenly and sat on the hood of a badly bashed Ford Focus. Buck joined him, jotting down notes on the pad he always carried with him.
"At first, business was great. Everyone wanted to trade in their SUVs and minivans for compacts, or replace vehicles written off in the pile-ups. But I was stupid to think it would last. I spent every last penny on old models - I even pawned off my wedding ring to do it! Now I make maybe two, three sales a day. And most of those are on old junkers - I only just make back their scrap value."
Buck toyed with placing his hand on Michael's shoulder, but decided against it.
"Still, every cloud has a silver lining. Have you heard? The Wilkes's across town say they're pregnant again. Not just them either; I reckon there's at least half a dozen like 'em in Mount Prospect alone. If I can just sit on these cars for eight, nine months, I'll be back in the black."
They sat in silence for a moment. Suddenly, Michael leapt to his feet.
"Come on then, let's get you a car," he yelled excitedly, half-leading, half-dragging Buck through the rows and rows of old autos.
They rounded a heavy chainlink fence and Buck saw in front of him, gleaming in the midday sun, a brand new Hummer H1.
"Wow, is that for sale?" asked Buck, jogging over to the gargantuan vehicle.
"To be honest, I just have it out for show. It does less than 15 miles to the gallon - the old owners traded it in for a smaller model when gas prices hit $20 a gallon. I'd probably pay you just to take the thing off my lot."
"Well, what features has it got?"
"Airbags, air-con, a carphone..."
"I'll take it!"
Monday, March 2, 2009
"Robert might have mentioned it. I don't really remember."
"It's nonsense," said Paul. "I mean, it always seemed like nonsense. You can read the Bible from cover to cover, and you won't find anything about the Rapture unless someone explained the code to you first. They've taken a handful of verses out of context and stitched them together to make this pseudo-prophecy about the faithful getting into Heaven without dying."
"Religious nutcases," said Patrick.
"Yes," said Paul. "But religious nutcases who predicted the Event years before it happened."
Patrick shuddered. "That's impossible."
"I wish it was," said Paul. "They've always been there, saying it was going to happen, and no-one's ever taken any notice. Well, it looks like they were right after all."
"But that would mean God's ... well ... playing games with us."
Paul nodded. "You can see why Kate took it so badly." The Event, terrible as it was, could still be a part of God's incomprehensible plan. But the God he had loved and trusted could never be the God of the Rapture cult.
"And you didn't manage to convince her it's not true?"
"They've got all the evidence on their side," said Paul. "All I could try to do was-"
Before he got any further, the door burst open. Gary staggered into the room, white-faced and breathless. "Reverend," he said. "Thank Go- I mean, you're safe."
"More disappearances," Gary said. "On the TV. Had to make sure you were still here."
Patrick looked from Paul to Gary. "Kate," he said, and dashed out.
Paul poured Gary a cup of water. "More people have disappeared?"
"That's what they were saying on the news. I didn't wait for the details - I was afraid you were one of the ones..."
Paul switched on the TV in the corner. One of the civil servants from the Event Commission was speaking to the camera. "...no theory at this time, but we would urge the public to remain calm and let the emergency services do their jobs." Across the bottom of the screen ran a ticker saying Breaking News: Further disappearances?
The civil servant finished talking, and the newsreader appeared on-screen. "Footage from Jerusalem this morning suggests that last week's Event was not an isolated occurrance. Potentially the start of a second wave of vanishings, this incident has sparked widespread panic."
The newsreader was replaced by a grainy video of a jostling crowd. "Here in Jerusalem," a reporter said, "everyone has their own explanation of what caused the Event. Tensions are higher than usual as different splinter groups blame each other for bringing down what they call 'God's punishment'. The security forces are at full-" A flash of light blotted everything out for a second. "Jesus, what was that?"
The video played again, this time in slow motion and with part of the image circled. Two men rushed at one pair of preachers, obviously incensed at something they'd just heard. After the flash, they were nowhere to be seen. The preachers, chillingly, were still speaking as if nothing had happened.
"We're not sure at this time whether this new incident is connected to the Event or completely unrelated," said the newsreader. "Dr James Tobin, professor of-"
Paul switched the TV off.
"It doesn't sound that similar," said Gary. "There was no blinding flash when ... with the Event. And it was everyone at once, not just two people."
The Rapture cult leaflet was still lying where Patrick had let it fall. Paul picked it up and turned to the explanation of what the prophecy claimed would happen next. The second paragraph described two preachers in Jerusalem, with anyone who attacked them struck dead by fire. Would that explain the flash?
"It's not the same thing," said Paul. "But it's connected."