Across the Western Sky, page 1
Across the Western Sky
S. C. Armstrong
1. Thunder and Lightning
2. The Fate of Wicked Men
3. The Wake
4. Sunday is Coming
5. Gravity’s Work
6. Her Arms
7. Racquetball Partners
8. The eta Aquariids
9. Softball & Stereotypes
10. Order of Service
11. An Invitation
13. Four Letter Words That Start With ‘F’
14. Enthusiastic Consent
15. What My Father Would Say
16. Guard Your Heart
17. Browser History
18. Waiting for Marriage
19. Enemy Turf
21. Midnight Texts
22. Lunch Date
23. His Arms
24. Asking Permission
25. Weighing the Consequences
26. Tragic News
27. Parental Advice
28. Town Hall Rerun
30. A Distraction
31. Street Harassment
32. Lines Crossed
33. Tougher Skin
34. Angry Men
35. A Concerned Call
36. Knock, Knock
37. Bang, Bang
38. The Hospital
39. The Perseids
About the Author
Also by S.C. Armstrong
Thunder and Lightning
Dozens—perhaps even a hundred—faces glared at Matt McDonald as he stood at the podium in town hall. Most probably wished he would cease his argument, surrender, and go home. He was tired enough to consider their silent plea. This marathon of a town hall meeting had dragged on for over two hours now, as many of the speakers recycled the same protests. Matt wasn’t prepared to give up his fight, though. Not yet.
“Ultimately, this isn’t about stopping Christianity or stripping away people’s right to worship as they please,” Matt said. “It really comes down to a simple matter of separation between church and state.”
Giant stone tablets. That’s actually what this entire issue came down to. Giant stone tablets carved to represent the Ten Commandments and dropped in front of the municipal building. One of the town council members had lobbied for the display, in his words, to pay homage to the Judeo-Christian roots of the American legal system. It had little to do, so he claimed, with his robust personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Then again, this was about more than giant stone tablets. Matt searched the faces on the right side of the aisle, many of them grizzled and wrinkled. These faces mirrored their town, Beaumont, New York, whose best days lay firmly in the past. The Ten Commandments monument symbolized a time to them that made sense, when the culture at large more or less agreed with their own worldview and values.
The faces in the audience remained unmoved by Matt’s words. Even the ones more or less on his side, who thought the entire matter was pointless. Matt couldn’t blame them. They simply wanted the night to end. So did Matt. He could have been home, sitting in the quiet of his living room, piecing together the second half of his one-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle while his wife read next to him, her feet propped up on his lap. Hell, he would have happily tackled reorganizing his chaotic garage over being in town hall.
The large man standing next to Matt cleared his throat. Matt braced himself for another sermonette.
“Mr. McDonald, we know exactly what this is. It’s a slippery slope. And America has been sliding down it for years. First, it was prayer in schools, then it became legal to take the life of innocent babies. Then the entire system of marriage was corrupted, as the fabric of our society began tearing at the seams. Soon, you’ll look to rip out any mention of God in the public square. Eventually, Christians won’t be welcome in this country at all. And what will become of this coming generation?”
Caleb Wilson. The erstwhile local minister. Tall and broad with a voice that matched his build, Wilson’s expression oozed self-importance. Matt suspected every town in America had a clergy person like Wilson: fiery, paranoid, and ready for battle. Most towns probably had more than one. Usually, they remained safely within the confines of their churches, content to preach to the choir. But issues like the Ten Commandments display brought them out in force into the public square.
Matt fought off the urge to roll his eyes. Of course it came back to this unfounded narrative of Christian persecution in America. Let it go. Don’t engage. But Matt’s silent exhortations to himself went unheeded.
“Oh, come on. That isn’t true,” Matt argued. “Look around this room. More than half of the town council goes to church. Most of the people in this room go to church of one kind or another or would identify as Christians if pushed on the matter. Almost seventy percent of the country still consider themselves Christians. Do you really think you’re in danger of losing your religious freedoms?”
Wilson met Matt’s gaze. “Despite the statistics, we have fewer and fewer freedoms every year.”
Matt opened his mouth, ready to dispute Wilson’s claims. He glanced at his son, Curt, standing near the back of the town hall. The once gangly high school senior’s frame had filled out nicely over the last year. He was becoming a man. Coincidentally, he shared his father’s unbelief.
Next to Curt stood his friend Kate. When she’d come out as gay two years ago, life had turned exceedingly difficult for her. Though many accepted her, she’d received more than her fair share of abuse. Standing only a hair over 5’1 and probably coming in under a hundred pounds, her slight existence seemed to threaten the conservative sensibilities of Beaumont. This fight Matt was undertaking was as much for them as it was him.
A sudden peal of thunder caused the building to tremble. People murmured, glancing around. Before anyone could claim that the thunder was the voice of an angry and vengeful God, perhaps clearing His throat before He really started speaking, Matt spoke again.
“Hey, you want to put up a set of giant stone tablets in front of your church or on your lawn, knock yourselves out. That is well within your constitutional rights. You talk of the coming generation. Whether you like it or not, our youth are increasingly diverse. Some don’t believe in any particular religion or God. Some don’t subscribe to your traditional view of marriage or gender. But when they come here to this building, whether it’s to attend a meeting, go to court, or seek help from the police, they need to know that they’re a valued and included member of this community. Putting up the proposed monument sends the opposite message: that they only have a voice and place here if they conform to other people’s values and norms.”
Reverend Wilson appeared as though he wanted to jump in again, but another clap of thunder reverberated through the room, rattling the window panes.
“There are other secular groups I could contact to help litigate this matter—like the Freedom From Religion Foundation or The Satanic Temple—but I’m optimistic we can handle this situation as neighbors,” Matt said, despite the fact that a decent chunk of his “neighbors” appeared at the moment as though they wanted to run him out of town with torches and pitchforks.
Again, Reverend Wilson’s jaw moved, but Mayor George Byers beat him to the punch. “Well, we’ve heard a lot tonight. I want to thank everyone who came and contributed. It’s getting a little late, and by the sound of it, we have a doozy of a storm brewing. So I think we’re going to have to table the matter and revisit it at next month’s meeting.”
A collective groan punctuated Byers’ declaration. Though everyone was glad to go home, his decision created a likely s
As the people around and behind Matt filed out of the town hall, he turned to his son, who now approached him.
Matt held out his arms. “So, how’d I do?”
Curt crossed his arms and grinned. “You said you weren’t going to engage the Christian persecution myth.”
Matt nodded. “I did say that, didn’t I? Well, I didn’t engage it much.”
“What about my speech at the end? Was that a little too much?”
Before Curt could answer, his tall and lanky friend Tom jumped in. “Hey, great speech, Mr. McDonald!”
Matt’s expression brightened. “Thanks, Tom.”
Tom, a friend of Curt’s from childhood, smiled broadly as he stood next to Curt. His thick blonde hair was long enough to flow down his neck.
“Hey, Tom, I never heard where you were going to college,” Matt said.
“Hofstra, to play lacrosse. I got a scholarship and everything,” he replied with a grin.
“That’s awesome, Tom! Congratulations!”
As a long-time lax bro, Tom must have been ecstatic about the opportunity to play at a school with a measure of top-level success like Hofstra.
Tom turned to Curt. “Alright man, gotta run. I’m meeting up with this girl…” Tom trailed off as he noticed Matt was listening. “I’ll tell you about her later. I need some advice, man.”
“Yeah, no problem,” Curt said.
“See you tomorrow.” Tom slapped hands with Curt and dashed out the door.
“You giving love advice now?” Matt asked.
Curt shrugged. “Here and there.”
Matt nodded. “Well, at least Tom liked my speech,” he said, returning to the matter at hand.
“He likes everything.”
“I’m just kidding.” Curt grinned. “I liked it, too. I felt valued. And included. Like I was part of the community.” His grin turned into a smirk.
Matt narrowed his eyes before breaking into a smile of his own. “Alright smart aleck, let’s get out of here.”
He wrapped his arm around Curt’s shoulder. His son now stood an inch or two taller than him, a threshold he’d crossed the summer before his junior year.
“Does Kate need a ride home?” Matt asked.
“Nah, her parents came to get her.”
“Good,” Matt said.
Besides the ominous weather, meetings like this one stirred up a lot of sentiments. Backlash was inevitable, and someone like Kate—due to her sexuality—made an easy target. Matt felt better that Kate wouldn’t be walking the streets of Beaumont alone. Of course, he doubted his protective son would ever allow that to happen.
The two reached the door. The skies had opened up, pelting the asphalt outside with a driving rain. Lightning forked across the western sky, followed in a few seconds by a loud thunderclap. The wind whipped through the trees, bending limbs and dropping leaves.
A large black pickup, flying an oversized Confederate flag in the truck bed, chugged through the parking lot. Matt and Curt stared at the vehicle as it disappeared down the street. The Tasker brothers. Two ne’er do wells who rarely if ever showed up for worship on Sundays, yet still aligned themselves with the family values of Wilson’s church. Born and bred in Beaumont, they represented the faction of people who wanted to return the town to its post-war glory days.
“I wonder what side of the issue they’re on,” Matt murmured.
“Do you think they know New York wasn’t part of the confederacy?” Curt asked.
“Hard to tell what the Tasker brothers know.”
A late-model BMW sped past the town hall entrance next, far exceeding the thirty mile-per-hour speed limit.
“That was Tom, wasn’t it?” Matt asked.
He shook his head. “That boy drives too fast.”
“Well, he’s going to see a girl,” Curt said as if that fact explained everything.
They stood on the threshold of Town Hall, waiting for the downpour to cease or at least slow down. But there was no end in sight to the deluge.
“Huh, I don’t want to read into things here, but maybe someone up there is mad at us,” Matt said.
Curt turned his head toward his father. “Dad, I was going to wait to tell you this, but I think you should know I just turned my life over to Jesus last weekend.”
“You did, huh?”
“Yup, I was baptized and washed in the blood.”
Curt enjoyed joking about his potential religious conversion from time to time. The truth was, Matt would have been mostly supportive if Curt embraced religion. At least in theory. He’d always espoused free-thinking and never wanted to indoctrinate his son into unbelief. In the end, Matt wanted Curt to chart his own course.
“I see. So you’re saying that all this is just for me?” Matt motioned to the storm blasting their small town.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Well, then maybe you should walk home or something. It might not be safe to be around me.”
“No, I should be fine. I hear that God has really good aim. Even better than a cruise missile.”
Matt grinned. “Okay, as long as you’re sure.”
Matt inched out the door as another bolt of lightning hit. As the flash dissipated, Matt dashed toward their car, located in the parking lot to their right about twenty-five yards away. Curt followed behind, sloshing through the puddles that had already formed in the uneven pavement. By the time they reached their car, both were soaked.
“Boy, this weather sure is nasty,” Matt said once they were safely inside. He pulled out his key and turned the ignition. “I hope we get better weather next week or we’re not going to see any meteors.”
The eta Aquariids—a meteor shower that passed by the earth in late May—would be visible the next week. Though not one of the better shooting star displays in the northern hemisphere, Matt and his son still traipsed out in the predawn hours to watch, as they had for all of the meteor showers since Curt was a small boy.
Curt brushed away the wet hair that now clung to his forehead. “How come Mom never comes to these meetings?”
Matt turned out of the parking lot into the street. “Well, you just sat through one, so what do you think? I could imagine one or two better ways to spend my evening.”
“Yeah, but Mom has to sit through way worse stuff than this at work. I thought she really cared about this issue, too?”
“She does. Your mom doesn’t trust herself, though.”
Curt gave his father a questioning look.
“She’s afraid that if the religious folks get a little too aggressive, that she might snap and tell them off.”
Curt nodded. “You do not want to make Mom angry.”
“No, sir,” Matt said. His wife’s temper was usually pretty even, but woe to whoever pushed her buttons past the breaking point. “You certainly do not. She might shoot you.”
It was a running joke in the family that Elizabeth McDonald—a bastion of liberal values—was an avid shooter. She claimed handling firearms possessed a nostalgic value, stemming from the rural area where she grew up learning from her father to shoot at coyotes or rabid animals.
The storm raged around them, continuing to light up the sky like flares. Only a second or two separated each bolt from its corresponding rumble. Matt gripped the wheel tightly. Their drive home was less than ten minutes, but the weather outside was drawing his nerves taut.
“What do you think is going to happen?” Curt asked. “What do you think the council will decide?”
“Well, that’s anyone’s guess right now. I think the law is on our side.
Not that Matt looked forward to that. Though an attorney himself, he dreaded the notion of legal action, which would mean many more meetings like the one that had just ended. Such a course of action wouldn’t endear Matt to the town, either. Most of the time, his minority religious position that no god existed flew under the radar. Until moments like this one.
“But you won’t need to worry about that,” Matt said cheerfully, smiling at his son. “You will be living large at Binghamton University, strutting around like you own the place, no doubt.”
Curt smiled, before a bolt of lightning streaked to the earth, striking a nearby tree. The flash turned into flames, as splinters of wood sprayed away from the blast zone.
Matt hit the breaks out of instinct, but the car hydroplaned across the slick road. When the breaks failed, Matt hit the gas, instead. Curt released a cry as half the tree emerged from the flames, falling toward the car. Matt reached out for his son, even as the weight of the tree crushed him and everything went dark.
The Fate of Wicked Men
Hannah Wilson stood next to the stove, waiting for the pancake batter on the griddle to bubble. In the meantime, she tended to the eggs, which were hissing next to the pancakes. A spatter of grease from the crackling bacon stung her hand. Hannah barely flinched, making sure she finished turning over the eggs so they didn’t burn.