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Engines of the broken wo.., p.15

Engines of the Broken World, page 15

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  But I opened my eyes and pushed myself up and realized it was warm, or warmer, at least. The fire in the stove was burning bright, there was the bread loaf sliced and toasted up, and there was a steaming kettle set on the counter beside it, and two cups that steamed as well, as if someone had just been there setting things out for tea. The Minister was perched on the edge of the counter, by the cups, looking down at me with its little black eyes, nose twitching.

  “You rested for a time,” it said. “Not a long time.”

  “It’s warm,” I said. It was the first thing that came into my head. “Did you make it warm?”

  “In a way, yes. The Good Lord works through me to preserve you.”

  The thing I had been lying on was Gospel’s shoulder, my brother’s face turned away as he lay on his belly on the floor. I rolled him over and almost started to cry. He looked dead, his nose and cheeks blackened and dry, his face other than that pale and ghostly. But I could tell he was breathing, feel his chest swelling and sinking, and then I did start to cry. “You’re alive,” I whispered.

  “He is, though it was a near thing,” the Minister said. “I was able to help him, and you. I don’t expect you’ll even have frostbite, but it was as good as I could do for him to make it less than it was.”

  “Thank you.”

  “No gratitude to me is needed. The work is the Good Lord’s, and it is Him you should thank. And pray to Him, because we have very little time.”

  I stared at my brother for a moment longer and then rolled over to look at the Minister. “Is it over?”

  A tiny shrug. “The two abominations are almost done with their parley. Soon they will either fight again or unite. Either way, I expect we’ll all be in trouble.” I didn’t like to hear the Minister sounding so concerned about things. Sickness, death, the end of the world—in fact, nothing had ever in my life made it bothered much. But these two tall women and the things that were in them had it bothered. I couldn’t hardly think of how bad they must be.

  “They fought already?” The smashed table, the tossed chairs. They had to have.

  “They fought, yes. Like demons, like mad dogs. But at the same time … I can’t say for certain that their bodies fought at all. Their souls fought, that much I could feel.” It bent low over its paws and shivered. “A grim battle to perceive, wicked and bitter. They struggled that way, and maybe their bodies did as well. Something broke the table. After a time, a minute and no more probably, they withdrew into the bedroom and have been talking, if you can call it that, since.”

  “What are they talking about?”

  “I can only faintly hear them,” it said, another surprise. The Minister’s ears were sharp. “They speak in a way that doesn’t really involve their mouths. Only a little, and that little I can hear. They know each other, these things: know each other well, it seems. They spoke of past offenses that the first one had made against the second, but then they stopped, and started to speak of me. The first one, it wants me to be destroyed. But you know that,” it said with a faint air of accusation, and I looked down for a moment. “The second one wants instead to capture me. It wants to use me for … for things that you wouldn’t understand. Things worse than you can imagine, gentle child that you are.”

  “I don’t think there’s anything worse than the world ending,” I said.

  “There is so much worse than that,” the Minister said, and its voice was softer even than normal, like when Gospel and I would talk during prayer time years ago, quiet and soft and trying not be heard. “The end of the world is meant to be, Merciful. It’s part of the plan. Everything ends. But what that second thing wants … such a horror hasn’t been conceived in a very long time. For the moment, the first thing opposes it, but this may not last.”

  “Then we have to get away,” I said, though I dreaded returning to the snow. Whatever the Minister had done, to Gospel or Miz Cally or anyone, it hadn’t killed them. And I could tell that the second thing, it wouldn’t stop for an instant at killing someone. It was evil through and through.

  “I can’t go out again. It’s too close to the end, the fog is too near. I mustn’t come into contact with it. And as for you, the cold is getting even worse, the storm more fierce. You and your brother wouldn’t survive even as long as you did last time. No, we have to stay. And you have to decide what you’ll do.”

  “Me? What do I matter?”

  “You and Gospel, you’re the only human beings left in all of God’s creation. You matter more than you can know. The fate of the world could turn on what you decide.” It shivered my spine when the Minister said that.

  “Decide about what?”

  “About me. Whether you try to save me or kill me or help capture me. Whether you oppose those things or split their partnership or hide from them or help them. Whether you stand aside or take action. Everything you do from now on is a decision, and every decision will matter. Even now, God’s will might not be unbending, His choices not undeniable.” It hopped back a foot or so to put itself behind one of the cups, and setting its tiny paws on one, pushed it almost right to the edge of the counter. “Drink your tea—it’s the last in the world, and there won’t be any more. It will warm you better and longer than I have.”

  I reached for the mug and took it in my hands, one still in a mitten that was damp but not soaked like it should have been from all the snow. The Minister had done a lot more than it let on. The cup was almost too hot, even through the wool, but I loved the warm on my fingers, which still felt a little chilled, and the way the steam curled up in my face. Gospel gave a little sigh beside me and smacked his lips, and I could tell he was starting to wake up. I blew on the tea and wondered how the little Minister had gotten down the cups, heated up the water, poured: all that it had done. And I remembered the tall, strong figure in the door, the one I couldn’t make out. The Minister was a changing machine, I knew that now even if I half forgot it when I didn’t think on it, and I wondered if it could be more than a squirrel, better than a dog or a cat.

  “Do you ever look different?” I asked, with the steam around my face because the cup was right under my chin.

  The Minister twitched and then became absolutely still. The dark eyes were fixed on me. I thought it was nervous, but not scared like it had been so many times in the last two days. Finally, the tiny head bobbed once, real fast, and then went still again.

  “Did you open the door for us?” I already knew the answer, but I wanted it to tell me.

  “I must care for you, spiritually and physically,” the little creature said, and scrunched down into itself, back arched, paws forward, much of its little face hidden.

  “Why can’t I tell? Why don’t I notice? Why do I only sort of remember, even after I know it’s happened?”

  “You aren’t meant to. You shouldn’t even be able to ask me that question, but … the end of days is coming. Everything is breaking down. I have few secrets left, and fewer will remain before the end.”

  Gospel drew in breath real sudden like, and jerked up with his eyes wide and his hands clenching in their gloves. “I’m cold,” he said.

  “You’re fine. The Minister helped you.” I passed him my cup, which I hadn’t even drunk from yet. He looked at me out of tired eyes, with those scabby black patches on his nose and chin, and his lips chapped and dry, and I wished I had never let him go out. He held to that cup like a treasure, and I reached up for the other mug, and we sat there a moment in the closest thing to quiet for a while.

  “I’m sorry,” I said after a minute. “Sorry you had to go outside because I’m a stupid, willful child.”

  Gospel glugged down some tea and then shook his head. “Nah, you ain’t stupid, and no more willful than I am. I’m the one as should be sorry, making you deal with all this deviltry.”

  I set down the cup, and I leaned over and wrapped one arm around him. It felt weird, hugging my brother, and I guessed it must have felt really strange for him, too. He patted my back twice with his free
hand, and then gently he pushed me away and took up my cup and put it back in my hand.

  A long, quiet moment passed as we sipped our tea. Too quiet. The rocking had stopped.

  “Minister? Are they still talking?”

  “They who?” Gospel said.

  “Auntie, and somebody worse than her. I’ll tell you in a minute. Minister?”

  “No. They’ve stopped.”

  We heard the creaking of the floor, one set of steps and then another coming toward us from the far end of the house. Gospel pushed up from the floor and then slumped back down, his cup spilling brown tea all over the floor. The Minister sprang away, into shadows and darkness, and left us behind.

  From the darkness of the sitting room came a thick and bubbly voice. “Hush, my babies, don’t you cry.” And then a deeper chuckle.

  I could stand, I knew it. I could stand and be ready for them. But instead I just pressed back against Gospel, who took my hand, and we waited.

  TWENTY-ONE

  “Where is the Minister?” the deep voice said. The tall black woman stepped into the room, her neck bent all the way to the side so that her head sat heavily on her shoulder, and I screamed a tight little scream that cut off because my voice froze up. Gospel moaned behind me. There were still rings on the fingers, those long, dark fingers that were bent a little with age but otherwise had been so clever. Auntie followed a few steps behind, Mama going bad right in front of us. Her face was soft and doughy, sagging down and splitting like a badly baked cake.

  “Lord God Almighty, what the Hell are you?” Gospel yelped, his voice shaking a little.

  “An old … friend of Rebekkah’s who’s come to call. Now where is our little Minister?”

  “It went away,” Gospel said, soft now behind my ear.

  “Where did it go?” The lips on that sideways head moved as the devil spoke, which was awful, just awful, to see. The eyes were open and didn’t ever blink, and the face never moved at all except for the lips, not a twitch.

  “We don’t know,” I said, and I was honest and sounded it. I didn’t know where it had gone, no better than they did, so I surely wasn’t lying. The two horrors circled closer, each of them moving one slow foot in front of the other. They looked like mirrors of one another, both so tall, the one bald and with rings all over her hands, the other with long hair and bare, rotting fingers, each one sliding a foot forward and then following with the body. So slow they moved, and so terrible. My eyes went from the one to the other, and I didn’t see any hint that they meant the least bit of good.

  “What are you?” Gospel asked again, his voice thin and high, cracking like it almost never did anymore.

  They stopped and looked at each other. Auntie nodded her head a little and stepped back just a half pace, sliding away the same as she had forward. The other one smiled a little sideways smile. “We are,” she said, her man voice strange in Miz Cally’s mouth, “the last of our world. The same as you. My companion is a scientist where we come from, and she discovered the doorway into this world.” There was something more that it wasn’t telling us. It knew something about how Auntie had come here, for certain. “And she was able to come here because a part of her was here already, as I suppose she’s told you. Me, well, I just took the opportunity, at the last instant. Followed her the way she’d come, you could say. The rules are changing.”

  It was so much like what the Minister had said that I thought it must be true.

  “But what are you?”

  “I’m a dark angel now, come to rid the world of all its troubles. And you’re going to help me,” it said. “Help me by finding the Minister. Or you could not help me, but then I’d get terribly angry.”

  And it reached up with both hands and gripped the frame of the cabinet that the Minister had hid on, not too long ago, and with one jerk tore it from the wall, to crash down on the broken table. Bits splintered off and showered Gospel and me. I think I let out a scream, but if I did, Gospel’s was louder, and angrier, too. He jumped right up behind me, so that I kind of tumbled over without him to lean back against anymore. And then he grabbed up one of the legs of the table, that had broken almost all loose but with a chunk of wood still at the top, and he held it in both hands like he was getting ready to toss rocks and hit them. It was longer and probably more dangerous than his knife, but I didn’t think it was good enough to get to those devils. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cheer; mostly I wanted to tell him to sit down, because they would kill him. But they didn’t.

  No, the two of them stayed mostly where they were, only shifting a little to be sideways to Gospel. The Widow figure lowered its arms and stared from that side-cocked head without a smile at all now, and Auntie’s swollen hands were clenched as best they could be and looked ready to hit something, but they didn’t move. Neither did Gospel, for which I thanked the Lord above. I scrabbled behind him and to my feet. “What’s the plan?” I asked in a whisper.

  “I ain’t got no plan, Merciful. We can’t run, we can’t hide no place. Maybe I can hurt one or both of these devils and that’s good enough, right?”

  “You don’t want to hurt us,” came Mama’s scratchy, wet voice, a thing I can’t rightly describe. It was still her, almost, but from a throat that didn’t want to talk at all and barely could. “We’re your only hope to live. The Minister won’t leave you alive, you know.”

  “It’s true. God is done with this world. He’s going to end it. The Minister is His instrument, and when it ends, so will you. The Minister will let you die. But we can stop it.” The Widow stepped a tiny bit closer, a pace far too small for the long, long legs under its skirts.

  “You better stay back where you are.” Gospel cocked back the table leg. I could see his arms shaking, but I hoped that maybe the two dead things couldn’t tell as well as I could how weary my brother was.

  “You don’t understand,” Auntie said. “This is the truth: the Minister is to blame. It’s the machine I’ve told you about, changing itself and changing the world. The God it serves is done with both our worlds and wants them gone. But it’s not too late to save them. To save everyone.”

  “Everyone?” I said.

  Mama’s poor dead head nodded. “We can save everyone, put everything back the way it was, if you just help me. Help me, Merciful,” she said with the white eyes meeting mine, and for a moment she sounded just like my mama in those last desperate days when she finally knew something was wrong with her and couldn’t make it right. My mama, begging me for help, and there hadn’t been a thing I could do. Oh, how it hurt to hear that same painful plea from this monster, and how I ached to find a way to help whatever in her was left of the woman who birthed me. But I knew there wasn’t even one bit of Mama actually in there.

  “You have to kill the Minister,” Auntie said.

  “No,” the other one said, cutting her off. “It’s not to die, or we can’t get even.”

  “I don’t give a fig what either of you want,” Gospel said. “We don’t have the Minister, and we’re not getting it for you. It’s a waste to even ask. Get it yourself if you’re so all-fired powerful. Do your own damned dirty work.”

  “I suppose I can afford to kill one of you…” The Widow’s man voice drifted off, and it started forward, arms reaching out and seeming even longer than they ever had in life, the jewels on the rings shining in the light from the lamp and the stove’s merry flame making long shadows on the wall, shadows that hid Auntie, who didn’t move at all. If Gospel was scared, he didn’t show it. He waited, waited for the arms to get close, and then he swung that table leg fast as he could, batting first one arm, then the other, away, and then leapt into the gap, the arms closing in on him fast, and brought the chunk of wood down on the Widow’s already broken neck. The club came down hard, onto the dark soft skin of the old lady who had taught me how to play rummy and how to knit and how to make apple cider. Her neck split right open, and I let out one more scream as the head dropped away with a thump. The thing, whatever it was,
reeled back and away, falling over. It was reaching out, legs jerking around.

  I’d been clinging to Gospel’s coat and had jumped forward with him, my hands slipping around his sides, until I felt something there and remembered the gun he always wore. It wasn’t much use, of course, but the things wouldn’t know that, would they? So when the Widow started to stand up again, I reached into my brother’s big, baggy coat and pulled out the gun, while he turned to look at me with shock. I put my fingers on the trigger and lined it up with the old woman’s chest. I just tried to pretend I hadn’t known her, hadn’t loved her. My friend was gone.

  “You stop moving right now, whatever you are.”

  I don’t know how I thought it could hear me or see what I was doing, without a head. But I wasn’t surprised that it stopped in the middle of getting up, one hand on the floor pushing up, one knee down too, the other leg bent and one hand out, reaching toward Auntie. She still hadn’t moved, like she was waiting for one of us to make a mistake. Waiting for her chance. Her head tilted now, a little, and the white eyes were on me, so I turned the gun on her.

  “There aren’t any bullets in that gun. Your mother got rid of them all after what happened.”

  “There are bullets,” I said, but I knew there weren’t. Mama hadn’t let us keep any, because of how Papa got himself killed with thinking he could win a fight.

  “No, Rebekkah threw them all away after your father shot himself.”

  “After … what do you mean?” The gun shook in my hand, all feeling gone from me. “Papa got shot by a stranger.”

  “Don’t listen to that thing, Merce,” Gospel said, panting and pulling up the table leg again.

  “He was the same age as your mama, as me. Born just when the worlds were splitting up, if I’m right. He could tell things, just like she could. But he must’ve believed, where she only suspected.”

 
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