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Engines of the broken wo.., p.16

Engines of the Broken World, page 16

 

Engines of the Broken World
 


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  “Suspected what?”

  “Don’t listen, Merce. Cover your ears,” Gospel said.

  Auntie just talked over him. “That God was angry. Everything was doomed. Who knows what he believed? He never told your mama.” She shook her head and stepped in one slow pace closer. The fumbling hands of the other devil were reaching for the fallen head again, but I couldn’t move myself, couldn’t react beyond staring at Auntie. “One day, when you were still very young, five years old, maybe,” she continued, and now her voice was soft and gentle, like she was telling a story at bedtime, “he took his gun, and he shot himself.”

  “No.” I could feel tears in my eyes, but I couldn’t make myself wipe them away.

  “It didn’t happen that way,” Gospel said. “It didn’t, Merciful.” But he wasn’t much of a liar, my brother, and I could tell he was fibbing. “He didn’t shoot himself. He died in a fight, with a stranger.”

  “That’s not true,” Auntie said, still soft and sweet. “There was no stranger. It’s not even a good story, is it? But you believed it because it’s what you wanted to believe. If there had been such a person, and he’d killed your father, how did you two and your mother survive? Your mama told you he was protecting you from the stranger, that’s how he got killed, but if that’s so, then why did the man just leave? No, your papa killed himself when he realized what was coming. The end of the world. And your mama hated his gun after that. And even if Gospel managed to keep the gun, all the bullets were thrown away. I remember it clearly from the dreams I shared with your mama. There aren’t any bullets, Merciful.”

  I was shaking by then, shaking with sorrow and shock. “He didn’t kill himself,” I said, but my voice was weak and shuddery. The gun was barely in my grip anymore.

  She slowly, sadly nodded her head once, milky eyes fixed on mine. I couldn’t look away, couldn’t break the spell she had me under. And then Gospel was there between us, the club reeling back, only this time it wasn’t no surprise, and Auntie caught the table leg and wrenched it aside, then smacked Gospel down with her other hand. He dropped like a stone, crying out in pain.

  “Shoot her, Merce,” he gasped out. I raised up the gun again, only I knew it didn’t matter.

  “Yes. Go ahead and try,” Auntie said, stepping onto Gospel as she approached me. He groaned.

  “Shoot … her.”

  The crack was as loud as anything I’d ever heard. As loud as the loudest thunder, and as strong. Mama’s body lurched back, a thick white fluid oozing from a hole in her chest. The gun had kicked horribly when I pulled the trigger, and my arms were aching, but I had done it. She stumbled back, dropping against the wall just next to the doorway. A sudden motion swept past her. The headless Widow, with something round clutched under one arm, had darted past and into the darkness of the sitting room. I just watched the devil leave, too surprised to even move the gun from where it hung in my hands. Where had the bullet come from?

  “There can’t be any bullets,” Auntie said, her voice now very wet, more of the pale gooey stuff coming out of her mouth. “Your mother got rid of them all.”

  “I went and found them right after,” Gospel said. “Some of them, at least. She tossed them pretty far.” He crawled back to me, panting out breaths. “And I loaded up the gun and been carryin’ it that way for a while, just in case. Ever since I saw that mist … I knew it was trouble. And I was going to be ready, just in case there was something a gun could shoot that might come on out of it. Didn’t happen like I expected. Then again, I didn’t never think it was Merciful as would pull the trigger.” He winced and gasped as he pushed himself to his feet. “We got to find the Minister, Merciful. Maybe it can get rid of this one, now that it’s weak.”

  “You don’t want to do that,” the thing said, but it wasn’t hardly moving now; only the face was still active. Mama’s face. I shot my mama. My face crumpled, hot tears burning trails down my cold cheeks.

  And then Gospel did something I never thought would happen: he reached out and took hold of me, awkward and loose, like you’d hold a little chick, afraid of crushing it. “Don’t you cry, Merce. Don’t you cry now, when you done the right thing. You done the right thing, and I’m proud of you.”

  I wondered if this was really my brother, who I thought hated me but was holding me, all tender, and I just cried more while he told me to hush. He took the gun out of my hand, though he had to pry my fingers loose, and he slipped it back in its holster. When we looked around again, Auntie was gone, which I suppose didn’t surprise me much. All that was left was a little puddle of white where she’d rested, and a few drops that showed that she’d quietly slipped past us to the cellar. I guess she didn’t want nothing more to do with her “old friend,” no more than we did.

  “Leastwise we know where she is. Better than that other,” Gospel said. “You all right to go on? I figure we got to find the Minister now. There can’t be too much time left.”

  “Yeah. I’m … all right.” Mostly I just felt tired, tired and empty, like I couldn’t cry no more, couldn’t get any more upset, and like nothing in the world could shake me. I was wrong, of course, but that’s how I felt.

  I took up the lamp, and with Gospel in front of me casting a long shadow, we started into the sitting room.

  TWENTY-TWO

  Our breaths came out as big clouds of mist in the sitting room. After being in the kitchen, where it had actually been a little warm, it seemed terrible frosty again. My teeth felt like they were shaking right out of my head, though maybe that was a little bit because I was scared. Anything that could pick itself up after what Gospel did to it and just run off, that was something to be scared of. I wished I still had the gun in my hands, even though my arms felt like jelly from having shot it, and probably would have fallen clean off if I pulled the trigger again.

  I heard a faint noise and realized it was Gospel pulling out his knife, the wicked sharp thing that he carried for skinning squirrels and suchlike. It made me feel a little better to know he had it, though I wished it was bigger. I’d have preferred it if he hadn’t been walking slow and stiff from the hits he took from Auntie, but at least we had his knife; the gun, too, if we needed it, though I wasn’t sure how many more bullets there were.

  The light was pretty dim and wavering because I couldn’t hold the lamp steady, but I was still looking at the floor for any sign of where the horror that was the Widow had gone to. The floor was all slick with the icy blood, though, so that I couldn’t tell anything at all, not even at the bearskin rug, which was clean of mess but didn’t have any sign she’d been by neither. Gospel didn’t spend any time looking around but pressed forward, with me just behind him. I didn’t want to have him leave me. We didn’t pause at anything until we came to the door of the bedroom, pushed close but not shut tight. There was light beyond, flickering orange light from the fire in there, which should have been a lot smaller by now but didn’t seem to be. Maybe the things had built it up while they had their little chat, though I couldn’t see them needing light or warmth or just about anything human.

  “You all right to go in, Merce?” Gospel asked. I think he really meant it too, wondering how I was.

  “I think so. I can be brave for a little bit longer.”

  “I don’t expect all this will take too much more time, so a little bit should do it,” he said, with a grim sort of chuckle. He reached over with his free hand and squeezed my shoulder, then turned away from me.

  Gospel stuck out the knife and hooked it inside the door to give it a pull. The bedroom was lit up by the fire, which was roaring in the hearth, almost all the wood from the pile on it, only one big log a foot around and a foot long left for later. If there was a later. Gospel stepped in, with me still right behind him, and he jumped as he looked around. I did too when my eyes followed his and saw the Widow Cally sitting up in Mama’s rocker with her head on her lap, hands crossed dainty on the bald top, rings glittering and shining in the light. The eyes on the head were open, and the
mouth, too, open in a broad grin that showed off the Widow’s strong, white teeth.

  “Come on in and have a seat, children,” the head said, with the same mannish voice, though I couldn’t think how it was making the sound, not being attached to any lungs or breath at all.

  “I don’t believe we’re going to do that,” Gospel said, though we were in the room already. The seat, well, I agreed with him absolutely. I didn’t want to sit down near that thing, like it was time for a story by the fire.

  “Well, stay standing, then. It’s the same to me. I’ve got things I’m going to tell you, and then you can decide what to do. Stay or go, kill me or not, though I don’t know if you can manage it. I’m not as weak as she was, let me tell you. Are you ready to listen?”

  “No,” Gospel said, but at the same time I said, “Go on.” My brother turned back to glare at me, and I cringed from his look. There was nothing this thing had to say that I wanted to hear, nothing at all, only I wanted to know the truth, or try to figure it out. So there was nothing I could do but put out my lip to Gospel’s glare and hear whatever filth the thing wanted to spread. “Go on,” I said again.

  “I was a murderer in the other world. Maybe I will be in this one too, so don’t interrupt.” The face on the old woman’s lap smiled. It gave me the shivers. I reached into Gospel’s coat again and dragged out the gun, hoping it was hidden behind my brother. Gospel didn’t react, but he must have known what I was doing. “I was given to Rebekkah to do her experiments on. She was trying to find some dream world: a place that wasn’t dying. Here, I suppose. Funny—you’re dying too, aren’t you? Just in a different way.

  “But I died there, in my world. They killed me, for my sins as they’d say. And when I died, I finally saw the world she was talking about. I was dead, but I could see it.” The shoulders shrugged, but with no head above them it looked just awful.

  “I could see this world, and I came to it. And right off, I knew things: I knew that God and the Devil are one and the same, and I knew that He was killing us all. Killing me and my world, and killing you and your world. And damn it if I was going to let that bastard get away with it.”

  “We should just shoot it, Merciful,” Gospel said. I shook my head.

  “Don’t even try it, girlie. I’ve killed before. I’d do it again without thinking twice. No, you just listen, because I’m telling you why you should help me. That squirrel thing, that Minister, it’s got a straight line to God. I can see it, plain as day. It glows. It shines with a light brighter than the sun. Leastwise it does when I look at it with these here eyes,” the deep voice said, lifting the head a little from its lap. “It’s ’cause I’m dead, and ’cause I’m not from here. Makes me special.”

  “Just shoot the damned thing!”

  “I’m listening, Gospel. I’m trying to figure out what’s really happening.”

  “Smart girl. Always try to figure out what’s going on, who’s getting the short end of the stick. That’s us, right now. But if we get the Minister, we can turn it around. Through it, I can make God scream out in pain.”

  “That’s not right. We can’t … you can’t hurt God. He’s God.”

  “All things are possible, sweetness. For everything there’s a season. Even punishing the Creator.”

  “Do it your damned self,” Gospel said.

  “I can’t. Can’t touch the thing, can’t get hold of it. It’s too strong for me. But not for you.”

  “We’re just kids,” I said.

  “You’re the last people in the world. That’s plenty, believe me. Plenty to get hold of that Minister. And then we take some revenge on God.”

  “But Auntie says we should just kill it,” I said, “not hurt it.” I didn’t mean to do either, but I wanted to know whatever this monster could tell me. Probably it would lie, but I guessed I was getting pretty good at telling lies from truth by this time.

  “Don’t listen to her. She killed your mama, you know. Couldn’t come over here, couldn’t leave our world, unless that happened.”

  “That don’t make any sense,” Gospel said.

  “She needed a place to come to. Needed a home for herself. That was your mama. So she drove her crazy with her experiments. Then she killed her.”

  “She really killed Mama?” I hoped Auntie was good and dead down in the cellar. And if not, I’d go and kill her.

  “Sure did. That’s what all her work was meant for, to study this world from ours so she could escape. Killing your mother, getting herself to this place, was the final step. I saw it all go down, for a couple years. I don’t really blame her: you always want to get out of prison, even if your prison is the whole dying world. But we don’t need to worry about her anymore. Just about that Minister.” The head chuckled a little bit, a sickly laugh that didn’t sound like it came from anything human, which I guess Miz Cally wasn’t anymore, not really.

  “He’s lying to hurt you, Merce,” Gospel said.

  “I know it.”

  “Rebekkah killed your mama,” the devil said. “That’s the truth.”

  I shook my head. “No, she didn’t.”

  “Who the Hell cares? You got a chance to make God pay for what He’s done. Driving your mama mad, killing your papa, leaving you two all alone: if God’s so strong, so mighty, and so loving, couldn’t He have stopped it? Couldn’t He have helped you? But no, all you got was that useless little Minister.”

  “We can’t … we’re not supposed to understand God’s will,” I said.

  “That’s just another way for Him to avoid the blame, isn’t it? I mean, Hell, the guys I killed didn’t understand why I did it. Don’t mean I had a good reason. Least not as the way they would see it, right?”

  I didn’t know what to say. There was badness and wickedness in the world, yes, and God let it happen, yes. But I just had to trust that there was a plan, even if I couldn’t guess at what it was. Even if maybe it was a bad plan. “I trust God.”

  “That’s helped you a whole lot, hasn’t it, girl? Better to trust Him once you’ve got some leverage. Once the Minister’s in your hands and you can make Him sweat.”

  “Why would we help you with that?” Gospel asked.

  “’Cause it feels good to get back at someone. Didn’t it feel great to bash my head off? Didn’t it feel great to shoot the other bitch?”

  It hadn’t, of course. It had felt terrible. Oh, there was a moment, a tiny, tiny moment, when I had been kind of excited and happy just to do something, to save Gospel and defend myself, but I hated what I had to do to make that happen.

  “You don’t understand them at all,” the Minister’s calm voice said from the darkness of the sitting room. I wanted to look for it but didn’t dare tear my eyes from the Widow. “This world isn’t like yours. They’re gentle, even Gospel, who’s halfway to the Devil.”

  “I ain’t gentle,” Gospel said, but he didn’t put anything into saying it.

  “Children, come away from him.”

  I stepped out of the bedroom right away, but Gospel stood there a moment longer. I could see from the doorway his hand tight on the knife, his fingers flexing in the gloves, like he wanted to do something but didn’t dare, or like he was trying to make up his mind. But he only backed slowly to the door, shutting it behind him and coming out into the sitting room to stand beside me.

  “You’ll be back,” we heard, muffled and terrible, the man’s voice from the Widow’s dead mouth. “I’ll be waiting.”

  “You give me that gun, Merce. If you ain’t gonna shoot at a moment like that, I’ll just hold on to it, okay?”

  “I can shoot when it’s needful.”

  “Well if that weren’t a needful moment, then do you think there’s really going to be another?”

  I thought for a minute and then realized he might be right, and handed him the pistol. He put it back inside his coat.

  The Minister was waiting on the loom, bright black eyes shining in the light of a lamp that rested on the floor beside it. I wondered h
ow it got the light there, with its tiny squirrel paws, but maybe the Minister wasn’t holding to one shape very much anymore. Rules were changing, they all said: why not for the made things too?

  “He’s right about one thing, children. There isn’t much time left. I’m sorry for that, at least. I would have liked to see you grow up.”

  And maybe that was the saddest thing I’d heard yet. The little machine sitting on the loom, and the faint hint of ache in its voice as it mourned for us who weren’t even dead yet. I wished to God that we didn’t have to die, but I didn’t guess He would listen on that particular request.

  “What’s really happening, Minister? You got to tell us,” Gospel said.

  “And can we believe anything you say anymore?” I asked.

  “I have only been untruthful when it was necessary, and I won’t lie to you now.” If the Minister could’ve sighed, it would’ve, I could tell. But that wasn’t something it was made to do, so instead it just dipped its head, rubbing its small paws together. “I will tell you what you need to know. There’s no time left anyway, and you should make your choices in knowledge, not ignorance.”

  “Choices?”

  “Hush, Merciful,” Gospel said, and the Minister started to speak.

  TWENTY-THREE

  “It began with the Last War. Such terrors. The slaughter of innocents, and no mercy or pity. God grew angry with man, as He had before. We pleaded for kindness this time, though. We remember the Flood—it was awful. We begged for Him to be gentle and He did as we asked, my brothers and sisters and I. Gentle He was, yes, and kind. But now … it’s hard to bear, this kindness. Hard to think that everything will soon be nothing.”

  “Wait just a second, Minister. You spoke to God? Directly?” Gospel said.

  “I am His Minister here. Of course I have spoken to Him.”

  “But you’re a made thing, not a … I don’t know, an angel.”

  The little nose twitched. “We were made, but not here. Long ago, and in a place that you can’t understand, God made us. Machines, made things, devices: you had so many names for us when we first came to you.”

 
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