Hands from the Sky
by Chris Capps
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
“You’d better get going,” the old man said as his head drooped and he stared into the lemonade swimming on sugar at the bottom of his glass. “I’m getting more tired by the second. Pretty soon it’ll be time. I can feel it. When you’re old, you get strong feelings about these things. Intuition, I suppose.”
He was breathing more heavily, more laboriously. It wasn’t any mystery that he was scared. That fear might kill a man.
“Goodbye,” I said, rising and hugging Edgar for the first time and for the last time.
“Take care of the place,” he said. “It’s yours soon.”
I walked out then, shuffling through the long trail in the woods back toward my property line as if from a funeral. Edgar had at least a few hours, as it would take the hands a while to crawl through the circuitous pathway down to his house. But they would come for him. And I suspected he’d need some time to himself before then. Whatever last moments he had, he’d wanted them alone to wait and reflect on a long life.
When I reached the edge of the woods, I saw the smoke. It was a column, rising into the sky downwind from me.
Out from my house.
* * *
There were two men standing outside, a rifle slung over each right arm like a pair of aristocratic hunters. One of them was smoking a cigarette. The heat, even from where I was on top of the hill was nearly unbearable, belching out in thick waves that carried the smell of a lifetime consumed. The men were calling out to one another over the roar of the fire, and I could see one of them nodding toward the arm snaking its way in through the window.
“No,” I said. It had to be that. As if I could just say one word and disbelieve everything I was seeing, watch it all dissolve like sugar or a smile. But it didn’t dissolve, it burned. And it kept burning, silhouetting the two shadows in evening shade that yelled and pointed as the white arm slid. It was glowing red in the heat like metal, pulling something out from within the house.
I looked away, shrank on the hill, drawing myself down to the Earth where I took the grass in fists that ripped and pounded. I must have been up there for a long time saying that. Long enough to be seen.
Soon enough I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, pal. You okay? Do you know who lived here?”
It was a rough voice, from a man in his late twenties, and an accent I would have guessed from further west. Rural, but just barely. I nodded, my eyes stinging and shut.
“I think someone might have been in there,” the other said. That one was older. “You know who?”
“Amanda,” I said. “Her name was Amanda.”
“We saw the smoke from the highway and came running,” the first said again. “Jesus, man. I’m so sorry.”
Lots of visitors today. They lifted me off the ground, pulled me up on weak legs. And I forced myself to look into the smoke-dark glow of the house. The roof collapsed, spewing blistering heat out to where we were. And then in my shock I felt something else, a snuffling nose pushing against my leg. It was Bella. She was whining uncertainly, the other end of her leash in the older man’s hand.
“We did manage to save your dog,” he said. “It was close to the house. She almost got burned.”
It was true. The tree next to the house where she had been tied was also in flames, branches spilling ember leaves in the color of a glowing autumn. The rope around its base had been cut. Grass ten meters away was curling under the oppressive heat, dried out and going black. The fire was going to spread.
“Do you have an outdoor spigot?” I heard.
We contained the flames over the course of the next two hours. We pumped water from the ground by hand, filling buckets which we doused at the perimeter of the cabin’s walls and wherever a stray ember landed and caught. It was scorching work, furious. And for a time I got lost in that, filling buckets and dumping them around the house, listening to each rush of water sizzle and vanish.
As night crawled on, we lost momentum, but knew we would be able to at least contain the fire from spreading further. The goal was never to douse the cabin, it was to keep it from raging out of control beyond the perimeter of its walls. As what was left of the frame sank into itself, it became heavier with smoke, and we moved further back, out to where the men had their truck parked.
I realized then that I never actually saw the hands pull Amanda’s body out. I was grateful for that. In the old soap operas, no one dies if you don’t see the body. Part of me still thought that way, I suppose.
“I’m sorry for what happened,” was the first thing the older man said as he pulled down the tailgate and sat on it, rifling through a package of plastic water bottles. “My name’s Harold. The younger one’s called Jeff.”
Harold didn’t seem that much older than Jeff, who had pulled out a plug of chew tobacco and was carving it up with a pocket knife.
“Anything we’ve got, you’re free to it,” Jeff said holding out a slice of hard chew. “I can’t imagine what that’s like, losing someone like that. In a fire of all things.”
I was silent then, staring into nothing as the mess of what had just happened untwined itself in my mind. Bella whined and rested her head on my leg.
“She’s worried about you,” Jeff said around his chew as he glanced over at Harold. “She’s a pretty old girl.”
“Her name’s Bella,” I said, not remembering if I’d said that before. The night had taken on a dreamlike quality, knowing that everything would be different, again different.
Amanda and I had not been as close as you might think, not in the sense I would have liked. We just lived together and kept each other company in what simple ways she was okay with. She still had a family, somewhere unknown. A husband.
“When you showed up,” I asked, “how big was the fire?”
“It was the smoke that called us in from the highway,” Harold said, stowing his rifle alongside Jeff’s in the back. “We probably wouldn’t have seen it at all if it hadn’t been for that. And of course the cathedral had an arm going right to it.”
That helped. It had been a long time since I’d seen an outsider, and as a matter of course I was expected to be a little suspicious. After that, I nodded and we built a small fire and made some food. They gave me a foam camping pad and we slept under the stars. No one killed me in my sleep, and that helped me as far as trust was concerned.
In the morning I woke to see Harold standing on top of the truck’s hood, focusing binoculars in on the cathedral.
“Son of a bitch,” he said quietly, as if to himself.
I rolled over, the grief once again pitting up in my stomach as I realized where I was. I wondered if the cathedral was still here for Edgar, the old farmer who I was supposed to inherit a farm from today.
I hadn’t mentioned Edgar the night before. Come to think of it, I hadn’t mentioned much at all, instead sticking to myself while the others told sad stories about the road they had traveled.
They seemed decent, as far as I could trust a pair of strangers. They liked Bella and kept us both fed as best they could. Breakfast was simple. Eggs and toast. We ate in silence, all too aware of the cathedral still hanging over our heads.
“Someone else live around here?” Jeff said at last. “You know why that thing’s hanging around?”
His voice sounded different. It was as though he had affected an accent the night before, and had forgotten to do the same the next day when the sun was up. It was rough, strangely hostile, unaccustomed to talking to strangers. Almost a parody of a real rural midwestern accent. Missouri, I might say.
“No,” I said, “it was just me and Amanda. There was a guy named Frank that lived down the way a bit, but he died a year ago.”
“Hm,” Jeff said, pouring whiskey from a newly opened bottle into a paper cup. “You sure about that?”
“Why?” I asked.
“I only ask,” he said, “because that thing is still hanging around, and you know how it works.”
“Hey,” Harold said, tossing his cup of coffee into the grey embers of the fire, punctuating his thought with the hiss of steam we had heard so much the previous night. “Shush.”
“I’m just saying we need to acknowledge it and know if we should get moving,” Jeff said.
“There’s people everywhere,” Harold said. “Could be anyone, anywhere. And if they’re not from around here they might be travelers. Might be sick. There’s a lot it could mean.”
“You get a lot of travelers around here?” Jeff asked, stuffing a chip of chew back into his rear gums. “Lots of visitors?”
“No,” I said, looking between them, “not that many at all.”
“All the more bad luck that we showed up when we did,” Harold said solemnly, bowing his head and leaning forward on his seat with his elbows on his knees. He looked loose, like he was ready to run.
“Go for it,” Jeff said. “Tell ’im. What’s he gonna do?”
“Jeff, I swear to God,” Harold said, his lower jaw curling up over his mouth as he eyed Jeff, “you don’t say nothin’ to anyone.”
“Tell me what?” I asked.
“How we found you,” Jeff said. His grin was pulled back, lower lip filling up with his tongue as he raised an arm over his shoulder and looked up at the cathedral. He was grinning, looking back from the building back to me, and then in a slow proud voice, he threw back his thumb. “She’s our compass.”
“Funny, Jeff,” Harold said, standing up and kicking the remaining cinders from the fire over to the young man now howling with laughter. As he passed by, he pushed Harold over to lie on his back in cooling ashes as the young man ran his tongue again over his teeth and caught his breath. The younger man was still laughing. Harold was by the rifles now. “Show some respect.”
“Are you saying you follow it?” I asked.
“As best we can,” Jeff said, tucking his tongue behind his molars and dragging out some of the chew soaking into his gums. “We lose it sometimes, but we always find it again.”
“Because,” Harold said, “we’re scum-suckers. We provide comfort where we can to those who’ve lost loved ones. And if there aren’t any loved ones to comfort, we take what’s left. For others we might meet down the road.”
As if to punctuate the point, he took a bottle of water from the case in the trunk and tossed it over to me. “Others means you. Others who’ve lost it all.”
“You’re vultures,” I said.
“Generous vultures,” Jeff said. “Vultures that share.”
“How far have you gone?” I asked. “Does that thing go all over the world?”
“No,” Harold said, crinkling bags of snack food and tossing them into a duffle bag, “this one mostly sticks to the midwest as far as we can tell. We’ve heard of others being spotted when this one isn’t around.
“I’m guessing there’s at least one other roaming around, but there’s probably a whole lot more. Hell, the only thing I know for sure is that you’ll never see two at once. They keep the horizons between ’em. You like salt and vinegar chips?”
“There’s more,” Jeff said. “There’s others. Not just a cathedral. I heard talk that there’s a tall man big as a house wandering parts of Northern Canada. I saw a picture once, a photocopy of a polaroid. Didn’t look like much to me. Didn’t see a face.”
“That might be true,” Harold said, rounding the back of the truck with a rifle in each hand. “Maybe. We hear a lot of talk, but most of it is... well, you know.”
“Yeah,” Jeff said grinning. “Like they say there aren’t cathedrals in India.”
“Who says that?” I asked.
“Indians,” Jeff said.
Harold handed over the rifle, and I took it, not quite knowing why. I held it in my hands, pulling back the bolt and checking to see if it was loaded. It was. Loaded and primed.
“Just in case,” Harold said. “We never know who we’ll run into.”
“A man?” I asked.
“Yeah. Prolly a giant elephant with a buncha arms out east too,” Jeff said. “We wouldn’t know. Like I said, we haven’t been out of the midwest. Rarely leave the state.”
They set me up with enough supplies to keep me going for a few months. I had them park their truck at Frank’s place and told them his story.
“He must have been alive those thirty-six hours,” Jeff said. “The cathedral never misses an appointment. If he died early, it would have known that. It’s right a hundred and fifteen percent of the time.”
“That’s what makes me nervous today,” Harold said, face turned up to the sky. “You sure no one else lives around here?”
The tour of Frank’s cabin was short. I told them to make themselves comfortable. Rain had been dripping onto the floor in the center of the room, soaking in during the spring months and growing a thin layer of mold between the floorboards.
Other than that and the crawling insects twitching antennas and scuttling out of sight, the house was as livable now as the day it had been when Frank had shot himself. I noticed that the rain had diffused the dried blood on the floor, something I was quietly thankful for.
“You go do whatever you need to do, but you take that rifle with you. We like to keep safe the ones that are in our care. You’re sure you don’t want us to go with?”
“Thank you,” I said, my hand touching the rifle sling at my shoulder. “I just need to see it.”
Harold cast his eyes down at the floor where weather had erased pastels of dried blood. He nodded, and said, “I understand. If you see anyone around, come back here and tell us. I mean anyone. Be safe.”
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Chris Capps