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Engines of the broken wo.., p.18

Engines of the Broken World, page 18


Engines of the Broken World

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  “You should’ve helped,” I said, because I couldn’t stand her talking about how selfish she was anymore. “Your world needed you.”

  “You don’t understand. It wasn’t just me. Nobody cared. None of us did anything. It’s all over now. We faded away to nearly nothing. Shallow and meaningless. And I was dying anyway, and then there was a way to try to fix things, I thought, to come here when your mama died.”

  “But you were the one who killed her. The other thing told us,” Gospel said, real hate in his voice for a moment. I got a grip on his shoulders, at the frosty bottom of the steps, but he didn’t make to move forward.

  “Did James tell you that? It’s not true. Did he tell you he was a murderer, and that he was about to die for it when I saw him last? I don’t know that I’d trust him.”

  “He told us about dying, that he was killed as punishment for doing bad things.”

  “Well. More truth than I thought he had in him. But I didn’t kill your mama. Not really. I probably didn’t help her live any longer, but I didn’t kill her. I think maybe she got some of my apathy, the same way I got some of her madness. And one day she just gave up, gave up and died.”

  “Mama wouldn’t do that,” I said, but I didn’t really believe it. I never thought there’d be so many secrets, so many lies, in my little family, but there were, and I didn’t think I could ever know the truth of it anymore. I had to try, though. It mattered, the truth; even if the world was ending, the truth still had to mean something.

  “Maybe not. But that’s what it seemed like to me. I woke up from a dream in a sweat, tired and aching, and I knew she was dead. I just knew. So I went to my machines, and I went back to sleep with them running, and I dreamed of her, only she was gone. I managed to cross the bridge. I came here, into her, by bits and pieces. It was like a door had been left open for me, and I could creep in when I slept. In my dreams, I saw you, I spoke with you. And then … then I died, and at last I arrived.”

  “But why’d you come here?”

  “To kill the Minister. Just as I said.” She coughed, white fluid spitting out of her mouth. The puddle around her was bigger, still steaming in the wintry air. “The Minister was the means by which God split the worlds, it and all the other Ministers, though the rest were just helpers to this one, and all of them are gone now. If we kill the Minister, I believe everything will be undone. The first shall be the last. It’s the alpha and the omega.” Talk from the Good Book, that was, but Auntie didn’t even believe in the Lord.

  “How can you kill it?” Gospel said.

  “I can’t. But you can. As easy as using your knife. Your hands. Anything.”

  “What’ll happen?” I asked, my voice barely more than a whisper.

  “I don’t know what it’ll mean, I don’t know what world will be made, but it’s got to be better than the one I lived in and died in. And it’s got to be better than this place, with the world falling in around us and about to stop altogether. Doesn’t it have to be better?”

  I thought about Jenny Gone being eaten by the nothing of the fog. I thought about wanting to grow up and about meeting a boy. I never would now, even if the fog just stopped, which I didn’t expect could happen. I thought about how I was going to die before I was a day older.

  “Yeah,” Gospel said, his voice firm. “It would have to be better than this damned place. It would.”

  I didn’t want to, but I nodded. I couldn’t think of anything worse than our present situation, dying cold and lonely in a hard place like this. And, oh, how I hated that maybe she was right, horrible creature that she was. But, after all, it was why we had come down: to try to find out what we might do.

  “Good. I think it’s too late for me, in the new world you’ll make, but maybe not. Maybe your mama and I will get another chance.

  “Go now. Go and find the Minister. I don’t think it can stop you except with words. I don’t think it can ever hurt humans.” The voice was growing weaker, quieter, like now that she’d said her piece she was done with talking.

  “It almost killed Miz Cally,” I said.

  “She wouldn’t have died. The Minister was protecting its secret. That’s spoiled now. Too late in the game for it to even be able to do that much. I think all the strength it has is taken up in closing down the world.”

  “It might run away again.” I kind of hoped it would, even though I didn’t want to die. I just didn’t think I wanted to kill the Minister either.

  “Not far. Not now. It has to be in the center when the world ends, I’m betting.”

  The Minister had kept talking about how it couldn’t get close to the fog, and now the fog was closing in. She was right. It couldn’t run very far. “This house is the center?”

  Her voice was so quiet, I could barely hear her at all now. “The last place on Earth I would expect to be the last place on Earth. But there it is. And here we all are. And you two have a task to see to. Go on, and come see me when it’s over, if you can. I’ll try to hold on. Or maybe I’ll come see you, huh?” Her head dropped down to her chest. I thought for a minute she was dead, but then I heard, faint and seeming far away, that same old song again.

  “Hush, little baby,… don’t … you … cry.…” But I did, I started crying for Mama, who was dead, and for Auntie, who had just wanted to live, and for myself, who wanted to live but was going to be dead anyway. For everybody else too, I was crying. The tears were cold on my cheeks right after I shed them.

  “Come on, Merciful. Let’s go. We got a job to do,” my brother said, just like he was aiming to set up a fence or beat the rugs. That was Gospel, though. I don’t think he cared none for any of it, just wanted to have it done.

  Only I saw tears on his cheeks too as he went past me real fast, his feet banging on the stairs.

  I looked for what I figured would be the last time at Auntie sitting there, singing out from the wreck of Mama’s body, and tried without much success to pretend that when I went up those stairs it wasn’t Mama I was leaving there too. And then I climbed up the steps, into the warm kitchen, and went to go kill the Minister.


  “Are you okay?” my brother asked me when we were both at the top of the steps. “That was a bitter thing, to have to see Mama like that again. I’m sorry we had to do it.”

  “It’s nearly all bitter now. But it’s almost over, right?”

  He nodded. “Almost.”

  There was light in the sitting room, a faint blue glow that reminded me of the full moon. I held Gospel back as we circled the wreck of the kitchen table, held him back because I didn’t know what we might see in there. There wasn’t a thing in the house that shone blue like that. “What do you think that is?” I whispered to him.

  “Hell if I know, Merce. Hell if I can even guess.” He sounded so tired, so worn, and I wondered if he was well at all, or how bad he was still hurting from the beating he got earlier and from the frostbite that still marked his face.

  “Well, we got to end it the right way.”

  “Don’t you or me know what’s right anymore, so don’t pretend you do. We’re just doing what seems best, minute to minute. And like you just said, we ain’t got much more time to get confused. Now, are we going in there, or are we staying in here?”

  “In there,” I said, and gave him a little push. He started forward, my brother with his knife held out before him, and I followed careful and cautious, falling a little behind, because Gospel being Gospel, he was moving fast for trouble. He got into the room and stopped right there, staring over to the left at where we’d left the Minister. When I peeked in around him, I could see what had stopped him, and it stopped me, too.

  The Minister was still the Minister, a little gray squirrel sitting on the lower lip of the loom, with tiny wet black eyes and furry small-clawed paws. It was looking at us, not seeming to have moved much at all since we’d left it. And yet … there was something more there. There was a shape around it, a shape that passed through the loom, or int
o the loom, or something that my eyes couldn’t rightly describe to me. A tall man, maybe, though you could see right through it and there wasn’t much more than the idea of a man. And it was shining, that manshape, shining with a faint blue light that lit up the room, and warmth was coming off of it.

  Or maybe it just looked like an angel now—maybe it was an angel, to be able to talk to God and be at the Flood and who knew what all else—and everyone knew angels glowed, leastways they did in the Good Book, in the pictures.

  “I don’t like the looks behind your eyes,” the Minister said. It reared up onto its haunches. The man shape around it didn’t move at all.

  “What do you mean, Minister?” Gospel said, trying to sound innocent. He’d always been bad at that trick.

  “The way you hold that knife, the way you walk, everything suggests to me that you have made a decision. A bad one, if I’m any judge of right and wrong. One that shows you’re halfway to the Devil.” Which he was, it didn’t say, but we both knew.

  Gospel stepped forward, circling around the back of Papa’s chair toward the loom, behind Mama’s. The Minister watched him come closer. I stepped over the threshold into the room and felt so much warmer, felt warmth shining out from the Minister, from the glowing image of what I now thought of as an angel.

  “I heard you talking with the thing in the cellar,” the Minister said. “I heard it, and I heard you, and I know what you mean to do. You should be ashamed,” it said. But Gospel, he wasn’t a strong one for shame, and so he kept on walking.

  I heard the creak of the rocker and horrible thumps, the dreadful clumping thumps of hard footsteps on the floor, coming rapid and loud, and then the thing that had been the Widow was at the door. The head was in its right hand, and something bulky was in the left. It pulled back that hand, holding the head high with the right, and I called out, “Gospel, duck!” but my stupid brother didn’t hardly listen. He turned a bit and cringed down, and the Minister bounced to the side on the frame, and then that last log from by the fire flew across the room and slammed into Gospel’s chest. The knife dropped from his hand as he flopped into the corner of the room, bouncing off the linen chest and landing with a ragged crash on the ground. I swore I heard a bone snap in the hit.

  The Minister, what had bounded aside to avoid the log entire, sprang off the frame with the faint blue shape around him still and landed right next to Gospel, reared up and fierce, its tail puffed out.

  “Capture it, Merciful,” the thing in the Widow said. James, that was its name. “Get it. We’ll make God pay for what He’s done.”

  “What you done, more like,” I said. I ran over to Gospel and dropped on my knees beside him. The thing in the door didn’t move, only stood there with the head lifted up high to crane a view over the chairs. “Is he alive?” I asked the Minister.

  “For the moment, yes. He is … very badly hurt.” The little creature didn’t look over at Gospel, just kept its eyes trained on the staring head. The Widow monster hadn’t moved closer, just shifted from side to side.

  I checked my brother over, careful not to touch him too rough. His chest felt wrong, kind of soft, and there was blood on his lips, and bubbles that formed up when he breathed in and out. But at least he was still breathing.

  “He can’t dare touch you now,” the Minister said, very softly. “You’re his last chance. He needs a mortal to touch me, to destroy me.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “He’s an abomination. He’s not really part of God’s creation. So creation doesn’t respond to his will any longer, not like it responds to yours.” I didn’t understand exactly what it meant. I just stared down at Gospel and shook my head. “You’re the last one who can make any decisions,” the Minister insisted, “the last one whose free will matters. You can stop that thing.”

  “Or you can capture the Minister. Kill it, if you like,” the man’s voice said from the dangling head of the old woman. “I can hear you, you know. There isn’t too much other noise now.”

  And there wasn’t, I realized. The wind, the hiss of the snow, it had all stopped sometime in the last few minutes.

  “Why’s it so quiet?”

  “The world is very small now, Merciful. There’s not enough of it left for the wind to blow, for the snow to rustle. There might not be snow falling anymore, in fact. The fog’s cut off even the lowest of the clouds.”

  “How long do we have?”

  “Half an hour, maybe. A little more or less, if you struggle against it or if you accept it. The choice is yours, as it was always going to be.”

  I had half an hour to live, or to die. I had half of one hour, that was all, to decide what if anything I was going to do. Gospel couldn’t help me and the Minister wouldn’t help me and no one else was left. I wanted to cry again, but I’d cried about all I could. I’d cried for good reasons and bad, and I was going to try my hardest not to waste time doing it again.

  “Take it, Merciful,” the devil said. “Take the Minister and hold it, and I’ll show you what to do.”

  I looked at the little squirrel, standing so brave in front of Gospel, and I knew that I wouldn’t take it and hold it. I knew that no matter what I did, I wouldn’t let the little thing be tortured or whatever it was that the monster wanted to do. The light around the Minister, the glowing shape like a man, was getting brighter, and I could see outlines—a face that was handsome and gentle, and strong arms, and a faint shimmering of broad wings. I knew that it was an angel, just like it had said. I knew it, and I knew I could never let that kind of hurt be done to it.

  The needful moment had come, I guessed.

  I reached inside Gospel’s jacket. His chest felt weak and soft, and I tried not to notice that as I took hold of the gun, warm from being against his body. I’d only shot it off the one time, but it already felt cozy in my hand, like it sort of belonged there. I stood up, with the gun tugging my tired arms down.

  “What’s your name?” I asked.

  “Gabriel,” the Minister said.

  “Not you.” I hadn’t even thought it would have a name. “That one.” I knew what Auntie had called it, but I wanted to know if she was lying, wanted to know if I could trust anything she had said, and this was the only card I had left to play.

  “I have no name any longer.”

  “You do,” I said. I took a single step and raised up the gun. “Tell me your name.”

  “You can’t kill me. I’m not as weak as that thing below. My hate makes me strong.” Its voice was dark and evil when it spoke, and I got a shiver up my back because I knew it was terrible still. But I had listened when the Minister had talked, and I had figured things out. I knew something.

  “Fine. Don’t have a name. Makes it easier to say good-bye.” And I pulled the trigger. The shot went far wide, no chance I had hit anything, but the monster was surprised as all get-out anyway, and it bolted back into the bedroom.

  “Don’t you let Gospel die, Minister. Gabriel. Don’t you dare,” I said, and I went after the thing in the Widow. There wasn’t a good place to hide in the bedroom, and anyway the Widow had been too big to just go about hiding. But it wasn’t hiding. It was standing right by the fire. The head was back in place atop that long body, and in the shadowy light it almost looked to be Miz Cally, from her nearly bald crown down to her booted feet, one ringed hand shining in front of her mouth as if she’d been caught in a gasp.

  “Don’t shoot, Merciful,” she said, and it was the Widow’s voice, just the same as when she was calling on the Good Lord against the thing in the cellar. “I’m still here. I’m still inside.”

  And I stopped in my tracks, because I didn’t know. Maybe somehow she was still in there. Maybe the Widow had been fighting to get out all this time, and now the thing was so terrible afraid that she was winning. Only … even if she had been there before, Gospel had knocked the body so hard, she’d be dead now. She had to be dead now. Dead, and I hoped she was with God in His Heaven just like the Minister had said. I r
aised up the gun and stepped closer, so that I was just out of the thing’s long reach, barely back out of danger.

  “You can’t kill me,” the thing said in its man voice. “You can’t kill what’s already dead.”

  And maybe I couldn’t. But I’d try anyway. The rules were changing. I screwed up my face.

  “My name is James,” the thing said suddenly. I wondered if it thought that would stop me, thinking it was a person with a name like anyone else. But it wouldn’t. It just proved what Auntie had told me, proved that he was a killer and a terror and worse than anything else in all this narrow world. He was wicked through and through, and there wasn’t no point to leaving him be just because once, long ago, his mother had named him James.

  “That’s a nice name. But I don’t suppose I care about that anymore,” I said, and I pulled the trigger again. The gun bucked in my hand and smoke jumped up in front of me and the thing staggered back and into the fireplace. I didn’t stay to look at it, didn’t want to know if it was dead or alive, didn’t want to do anything more. I stumbled back out of the room, closing the door behind me.

  “You killed it?”

  I dropped the gun and shrugged, spent. “Maybe. I don’t know. It fell over.” Into the fire, I didn’t say, but I started to pray for poor Widow Cally, for Esmeralda, who was my mama’s friend and taught me to jump rope. I asked God to please look after her and to please see that she got her time in Heaven, because she was one of the best of souls. And I expected that He heard me when I prayed just then, because I was like as not the only thing in all the world doing any praying. Unless maybe Gabriel was doing some, but I thought it probably didn’t really need to pray at all.

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