Word Count 1,846

The Angel stood at the corner of Main and Nowhere. Feet planted at shoulder’s width, rifle at eye level, butt in the hollow of her shoulder, face a grim countenance.

She was about to shoot the man at the wagon.

The man’s face mirrored hers. He was determined to move forward, even if it meant trampling the Heavenly Host before him. The horse hadn’t moved at much more than a slow shamble since the drought, so it would be slow and likely very painful.

The dust had barely settled from the herd of early morning tumbleweeds blowing through town, and it hung in the air like a painful memory.

It was an occasional amusement to the remaining townsfolk to watch a standoff. Today a few of them, with eyes as dried as raisins, had braved the rising heat of Caliente to watch the showdown.

The Angel Michaela stood in her mended gingham dress, held together with patches and bits of salvaged ribbons. It was faded brown, so far from the vibrant color it once was, she could barely remember the demure mauve and yellow roses. The petticoat, once a complimentary patchwork of green and orange, now bound her left wing, which dipped a lopsided hello to anyone behind her.

There was no one behind her, however, just the hardpan of the desert and certain death to anyone foolish enough to brave it, the very same death she was trying to prevent now, with the stare and the rifle.

“I can’t let you leave, Joshua,” she said. “It breaks my heart to say it, but I’d rather you died right here in front of Lucky’s than out there.”

She broke a nod to her left towards the empty shell of what was Lucky’s General Store, before the supplies stopped coming and the people stopped shopping, and Lucky turned to ash in the desert.

The Man Joshua did not look towards Lucky’s. He’d had credit there, and with that and everything else worth buying gone, there was nothing left to keep him in Caliente. Why remind the eyes of that?

“Can’t stay, you know that. I have a family, a boy, a wife. We can’t eat dirt. We can’t drink air. We need to move on.”

His wife shifted on her box on the wagon. She was as gaunt as her husband, her clothes as dusty as the Angel’s. She looked tired and worn out and beaten. She looked like Death had paid her a visit in the night and stole everything that made her a wife and mother and lover, and left a bag of bones to tend a husband and child.

It was cruel, this drought, and it was perpetual. Those that stuck it out over the last seven months were dying. Those that left were turned to ash in the desert. The Angel Michaela was determined to keep as many bodies on this side of the border as she could.

“You don’t have faith in the rain,” she asked, and looked up at a sky barren of clouds.

“I have faith that the rain takes its own time,” the Man Joshua said. “But I cannot wait for it.” They stood in silence a few more moments. “I’d like to leave now.”

The Angel raised her rifle once more, leveling it at the man she knew, at the sun-burnt space between his eyes. One shot for him, and if the woman’s maternal instinct didn’t kick in and she begged to stay, shells for her and the child. The child would be the hardest, but she wouldn’t let that hesitation show. She wavered once to show mercy and was rewarded with a sucker punch and a trample beneath large heavy wheels. Her wing never would heal and when it set wrong, she’d bear that mark of her misstep for Eternity.

Another man stepped from behind the wagon just then, or perhaps not a man, but also not like the Angel. He was impossibly tall and he straightened as if folded to fit with the belongings under the canvas. His grin was as welcoming as a fire pit at noon on a day in midsummer and he smoothed the wrinkles from his long, black jacket. The Solicitor, as he was called in Caliente, wore a crisp, clean shirt, and his string tie lay neat upon his chest. Compared to the townsfolk, he looked fresh and bathed, and were it not for his skin color, he could almost be called in good health. Crawling from the neck of his shirt and past the cuffs at his wrists, the skin was dull and gray, and his hat with its spray of orange flowers tucked into the brim sat crooked on his head.

When he smiled, as he did to the Angel with the leveled rifle, his teeth showed yellow and broken with red, bleeding gums. If it was meant as comforting and conciliatory, it failed.

“Now my dear,” he spoke slowly as if to a child, “Mr. Oskram has made clear his intention to leave. If there had been prior arrangements why that cannot be allowed, I’m afraid we may have missed that appointment. Mr. Oskram has decided to relocate to a more hospitable clime, best suited for raising his family and making a living. Surely there can be no harm in wanting what’s beeeeeest.”

He let the last word hiss upon his tongue, and the forked tip slipped between his lips in a rude flick.

“Joshua has no place in mind,” said the Angel Michaela.

It was rude to refer to someone as if they weren’t standing right there, but she needed to make a point. “There is nothing for clicks in any direction. How can the unknown of out there be better than right here?” The Angel stomped her foot in frustration and a dust cloud drifted to her knees. It settled and the silence wrung itself out. 

“It is better because it is not here,” said Joshua in his quiet voice, but the Solicitor raised his hand for silence.

“What Mr. Oskram is trying to say is that he would like to have a chance in starting over. This place has a … taint to it.”  The Solicitor lowered his eyes in an uneasy frown but when he raised them again, there was a flicker of delight in his hollow, flaming eyes. “Surely even you can see that?”

“What I see is people giving up at the first sign of trouble. We have potential in our town and we’re tossing it to the slop.” She was tired of having this conversation every Blessed time, but here she was again, on the losing side of an Exodus.

“This isn’t potential, ma’am. This is a death sentence.” Joshua Oskram had made up his mind.

From the back of the wagon, beneath the heavy canvas, a frail voice spoke. It could have been mistaken for the wind, it was so high and so weak. “Papa? Papa, are we leaving?”

“In a bit, son. Go back to sleep.” To the Angel Michaela, the Man Joshua’s voice now carried the determination his face would not drop, “My boy cannot thrive here.  I need to do what’s best for him.”  He nodded with finality to the Solicitor.

“You heard the gentleman. Mr. Oskram’s intentions are clear, his mind is made up. He is leaving.”

The Solicitor nodded to the Angel, slipped behind the wagon, and once again was out of sight.

“Why won’t you let me save you?”

“That’s not your place,” said the Solicitor from beneath the canvas. “You are not here to save. Now stand aside”

Defeated, the Angel lowered her rifle and shuffled a few steps out of the path of the wagon and its cargo. Joshua Oskram pulled the reigns of the broken animal and the wagon was moving.  He stared straight ahead as he passed her, with not so much as a nod in farewell.

Joshua and his wagon, holding the contents of his family and their lives, trudged towards the boundary of Caliente. His wife wore tracks of tears on her dusty face, resigned and broken. The Angel watched and her broken wing dipped closer to the ground.

The Man Joshua, the wagon and its occupants reached the sign, “Now Leaving Caliente, May God have Mercy On Your Soul” and without hesitating, crossed the border.

The horse caught fire first, its screams loud and immediate as a rifle shot. The sound was cut off as the animal was reduced to ash.

The man was next, stiffening only for an instant as the flames devoured him, flesh and fabric.

Then the wagon, the wife, and the child inside, all ash on the other side of the border, joining other piles against the picturesque backdrop of what could be any desert, in any country, on any world.

The townspeople in their dwindling number shambled back inside to their depleted existences. A few returned to put pots or glass bottles in the streets with a weary eye to the sky. Doors were closed and the curtains were drawn. The dusty town of Caliente waited.

The Solicitor stood next to the angel on her rifle side, the threat now over. He smoothed the wrinkles from his long coat. “You can’t save them all. It’s not your place.”

“Why can’t they just wait like the rest of us?”

“It’s been 300 years since the Great Rapture and they are tired of waiting.”

“He won’t have anything to reign over if they keep leaving.”

“He will have Us, you and I. And the Others wherever they may be, and in the end, I think that would be best.” He removed his hat and scratched around the horns on top of his bald head. “Seven months, that one took. They just don’t leave like they used to.” He replaced his hat, still crooked around on his head. “What’s the score?”

”You are winning by a handful of souls, but it isn’t as if we had much to begin with.” The skies darkened overhead and the first drops of rain began to fall. “I don’t see how they do it, just walk through the Veil like that, knowing it’ll hurt beyond hurt.”

“Because it’s what’s on the other side–they trust in a better life–and Salvation. That’s why I am winning. Faith in what comes next, slow faith even, will triumph over lazy complacency any day. Wait for a better day, or try and suffer towards Redemption.” In his brim, the spray of orange flowers with its green leaves grew brighter with each drop of rain.

“Keeps it lively here, anyway.” The Angel Michaela rested the rifle against her good shoulder and looked to her colleague, her opponent, her Eternal Kin.

“Drink, Gabriel?”

“Thank you. You accept defeat with Grace. It is admirable. Maybe you’re learning something from them after all.”

The two angels walked towards the center of a town whose population was recently decreased by three. They talked as the rain fell and the pots began to fill, and the wait began again.

# # #

Erie Tales: Tales of the Apocalypse, GLAHW, 2012, Print
© 2012 MontiLee Stormer
All Rights Reserved

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