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Engines of the broken wo.., p.19

Engines of the Broken World, page 19


Engines of the Broken World

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  “Now just the one in the cellar,” the Minister said.

  “She’s already done for.” I walked around to where it rested, the shining shape all around it, and Gospel just behind, with the blood on his lips barely bubbling from tiny, weak breaths. “He’s dying, isn’t he?”

  The little face turned to Gospel. “Yes. He’ll probably not make it to the end. But he’ll live forever in Heaven.”

  “Maybe he wanted to live a little longer here,” I said, but I knew it was pointless to go wishing. I knelt down beside my brother, empty of tears.

  “You’ll be back together with him soon enough.” The Minister’s voice was full of sympathy, but all I could remember was Jenny’s missing arm, and I knew that would be the way for me. Quick or not, that would be the way at the end, and I couldn’t think of it as a good thing, even with Heaven on the other side.

  The light from the Minister was getting real strong, and I could see the shine of the blood on Gospel’s lips, could see how his cheeks were starting to peel where the black dead skin was, could see that he was bruised on his chin from I didn’t know what. I reached out and took his hand. He might’ve pushed me away if he could, but there wasn’t any strength in his hand. It was limp and weak and didn’t do nothing but sit in my sweaty palm.

  “Tell me when he dies, Minister.”

  “You shouldn’t think about that, Merciful. You should pray. There isn’t much time.”

  I could smell something on the air, sickly sweet and smoky, and I knew the Widow’s body was burning in the bedroom fireplace.

  “Tell me when it happens.”

  It didn’t say anything more, just sat there as the light got brighter and the shape around it became more and more what it was: an angel. And then it bowed its little head and didn’t say anything, but I knew. I reached up and wiped at Gospel’s lips with my sleeve, wiped off the blood as best I could, and leaned in and kissed him on his forehead, then lifted myself back up to my knees.

  “So he’s in Heaven now?”

  The little head bobbed.

  “And the Widow? Jenny? My mama?”

  “God’s love extends to everyone.”

  “Then why’d He end it all?”

  “He was angry.” The Minister didn’t sound angry itself, only sad.

  “That’s a stupid reason to kill everything in the world.”

  I thought I saw the angel wings flutter, as if it were shrugging, but the Minister remained still. “Perhaps. But we can’t ever understand God fully.” And in its voice I heard that even this being, even an angel, didn’t understand. And if even an angel didn’t understand, maybe there wasn’t anything to understand at all. Maybe it was just stupidity and hurt pride and whatever else God must’ve felt when the world went a way He didn’t want it to. I had to believe, though, that there was something more, that maybe Auntie had told true: I could hope to have faith enough to make it better. I could change the world. The Minister’d said as much itself. But it was a thin hope, and my proof thinner still.

  “Come here, Minister,” I said, holding out my hands. It paused only a moment, a moment when I saw the shining arms of light strain just a little, as if they wanted to do something, but it came. It came and looked up at me with soft black specks of eyes, and twitched, and hopped into my hands. It was trembling.

  After all the terrible choices we’d made, all us Truths, I didn’t know if I was about to make a good one. But I still had a choice, and that was something. I couldn’t bear to hurt the Minister, I knew that. But I could kill it, kill it quick and painless. I’d wrung the necks of squirrels before, and in the end the Minister, for all the shining light of Heaven and all the wisdom of ages and all that sort of thing, the Minister wasn’t much different. My hands shifted. The little eyes didn’t leave mine. And then, just a tiny snap, quieter than a heart breaking.

  It got very dark in the sitting room. I could see only shadows. For a moment, I couldn’t hear anything at all, and I thought maybe the world had ended when I did what I did. Everything had gotten so quiet, like the hour before dawn, when sometimes Mama would sleep and I might go out on the porch in the still, gray light. I didn’t even know if there was a porch outside anymore. In the kitchen, the last wood in the stove gave out a pop. Where I sat, the cold crept back up and curled around me, and I shivered, body and soul at once.


  I was the only one left, the only person in all of creation. God’s whole concern on Earth now, that was me.

  I pushed myself up from beside Gospel and walked in the dim light to the kitchen. There was still a fire there, still burning bright and trying to be warm, though whatever the Minister had done to make the room cozy earlier, it was gone now. I gathered up some of the broken bits of the table and the cabinets, all the things the monsters had smashed, and I carried the wood armload by armload into the sitting room, making a little stack just next to the loom.

  When I was gathering up the last load, I heard the cellar stairs creak, but not sounding the way they usually did, and that’s when I noticed it. The air at the top of the stairs was fuzzy, misty, the flipped-up hatch fading away. The edges of the boards there didn’t connect to the wall any longer, but to nothing at all, just the empty mists that were closing down the world. I wondered if this was how far they had come and now they would stop, or if they were still moving in, even without the Minister. It didn’t matter either way. Not anymore.

  There was a big, deep pot that we used to boil up preserves in, and I got that, too. It was so big, I could barely carry it with my arms wrapped around it, and so heavy I struggled to move. My foot slipped on something, and I dropped the clumsy thing. I looked down and saw the top part of the little ballerina from the music box, the head and one arm.

  I bent over and picked it up. It was chipped and cracked and barely held together.

  “Hush,… little…” I whirled around. Auntie was there, or what was left of her, dragging herself up the stairs with cracked and broken hands. She looked thin and frail, like she had been dissolving into the white stuff that smeared her. Her face sagged worse than ever, and I couldn’t even see my mama in it anymore. This was just Auntie, now. Her head was tipped down so I couldn’t see her eyes, but I thought, in the wavering firelight, that her jaw was moving. The song had got awful quiet if she was still singing, because even in the silence, I couldn’t hear a thing.

  “You’re dead,” I said to her. “Dead and gone.”

  “Did you kill it?”

  Soft as a whisper, those words, but I could see that she was really trying hard to speak. Her chin, resting on the top step, had juggled her head around as she moved it, but only the tiniest of sounds came out.

  “Yeah. Yeah, I killed it.”

  “Did everything get better?” I hadn’t expected it, but there was hope in the voice, faint and weak as it sounded. After all of this, she still hoped.

  “No. It didn’t.” But I still thought maybe it would. I still hoped, too. The world was almost over, and I didn’t have much of a thing to pin my hopes on, but still they were there.

  She moaned. “It was supposed to get better. God’s cheating.”

  “You don’t believe in God,” I said. I looked down at the little ballerina in my hands. I set it down carefully in the pot.

  “No,” she said. Even though I was so terribly close to her, I couldn’t hear her any better. She was fading away.

  “I have to ask you this. And you have to answer. You just have to.” Nothing, no sound at all. I might have been too late. “Did you kill my mama?”

  There was a silence of moments. I stood shaking in the chilly air, wondering why the fire right behind me couldn’t make me warm. I needed to know this answer, of all the answers I’d got and not got in the last days.

  “I didn’t help her,” Auntie said. “She was lost and alone, and I did nothing to help her. I was waiting, waiting for her to die. I could’ve helped her, I think.” I had leaned in while she talked, the candle lighting up her
horrible face, just so that I could hear her at all.

  “But did you kill her? The other one, he said you did.”

  “I don’t think so. I just wanted her to die, wanted to be here, not there. It’s stupid now.”

  She hadn’t killed Mama. Hadn’t done anything to help but hadn’t hurt her. Maybe Auntie had made Mama plumb crazy, but it went both ways, near as I could tell. And it was the end of days. I didn’t have it in me to hurt anyone else, to do anything worse than I’d already done. Not for no reason.

  The edge of the fog had come closer, was brushing on her far arm. Her legs might already have been gone down below. “I’m going now,” I said.

  “No. Don’t leave me alone.”

  “I’m sorry. But we’re both all alone now.”

  “You got Gospel.”

  My eyes went wet again, but I brushed away the tears. “No … he … he didn’t make it.”

  “Oh, Merciful.” At least I think that’s what she said. Her voice was less than the step of a cat, than the drop of a snowflake. Maybe I heard it. Maybe I didn’t. The edge of nothing slipped over her shoulder. I couldn’t watch it happen.

  I took up that big kettle, and I struggled and strained and carried it into the sitting room. The ballerina came out, and the smashed-up wood went in, and I lit a fire there, a little thing next to Gospel, who was still and quiet and peaceful, and let it burn in the kettle, with another armload of wood to feed it. I didn’t suppose I’d need much more. I set the little bit of the dancer next to Gospel’s head and patted it and wished things had been different. And then I took Gospel’s hand in mine, and I took a deep breath, and I started to pray.

  Not a real prayer, not some kind of Minister-speak. Just talking to the Good Lord and hoping, seeing as I was the last little girl on Earth, that He’d listen. I don’t know what all I said, because with the cold and tiredness and all the troubles, I wasn’t thinking too straight anymore. I know I asked Him to make things right. I know that I asked Him why everyone had to die. I know I promised that if He gave us another chance, we’d all be better. I didn’t think I was lying, because I was the only person who could promise anything right then, and there wasn’t anything anyone could say or do to make me into a liar. Not at present, at least.

  I told Him all kinds of stupid things, like about the time that I’d hidden a raccoon kit in Gospel’s bed but hadn’t ever been caught, or the time I ate the last piece of cherry pie and blamed it on my brother, or about how, now and again, I’d been mean to Mama when she wasn’t herself and couldn’t know. That last part was hard to admit, hard to tell, but I thought I’d better come clean.

  I don’t know how long I talked, only my throat got dry, and I could see that the firelight was growing dim and that it was shining on the edge of the mist that had come all the way into the sitting room by that time. And I was still holding Gospel’s hand, which was getting cold in mine. He never liked for me to touch him, but I couldn’t see it mattering now. His face was white with frost, and I wondered if I had frostbite on my cheeks like he did, because I couldn’t feel anything. My lips were shaking, and my teeth were chattering, but I could still talk a little. I could still manage one more prayer.

  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”—and here my breath caught, and my hand clenched Gospel’s, and I didn’t know if I could go on—“I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” I was sobbing as I spoke, tears freezing on my cheeks in the horrid cold. “Surely goodness and love shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.’” I thought I couldn’t have felt a prayer more than when Jenny died, but I was wrong, because I felt this all the way to the bottom of my soul.

  I took a deep breath. I only had hope, hope that the Good Lord would hear me, that what the Minister half told me mattered, that if I wanted hard enough to live, somehow the world would get better. The fog was all around me now, only the kettle and Gospel and the tiny body of the Minister were still inside it. The world was over.

  I closed my eyes and silently asked for forgiveness. And then I said the last word in all the world, maybe. The last thing anyone would ever say, to men or angels or God. The last word of the last prayer.



  A million thanks to my ever-supportive University Book Store crew: Caitlin, Lauren, Kitri, Jamie, Kelsey, Anna, and a clutch of other people who read, commented on, and/or were generally positive about the long process of getting a book from rough draft to publication.

  Thanks also to my friend Elana for pushing me to go to the consultation that led me to my wonderful editor, Noa Wheeler. I never would have done it on my own.

  Thank you, Noa, for reading and loving the book enough to champion it and make it happen.

  And a mass of gratitude to all the rest who have been invaluable to me through the entire process: Nancy Pearl, Brad, Terri, my entire family, Victoria and Bernadette, and always, always, Adam.

  Henry Holt and Company, LLC

  Publishers since 1866

  175 Fifth Avenue

  New York, New York 10010

  Henry Holt® is a registered trademark of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

  Copyright © 2013 by Jason Vanhee

  All rights reserved.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Vanhee, Jason.

  Engines of the broken world / Jason Vanhee.

  pages cm

  Summary: In a rural village far distant from the dead and dying cities, twelve-year-old Merciful discovers horrible secrets and must make decisions that may save or doom her world.

  ISBN 978-0-8050-9629-3 (hardcover)

  [1. Supernatural—Fiction. 2. Science fiction.] I. Title.

  PZ7.V4En 2013 [Fic]—dc23 2013026768

  First Edition—2013

  eISBN 9781466848467



  Jason Vanhee, Engines of the Broken World



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