Hands from the Sky
by Chris Capps
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The walk from Frank’s was too slow. It took everything in me not to run at full tilt. But I made the trip without running. Despite our efforts the night before, there was still a thin column of wispy smoke trailing from the center of the burned house. I sat there for a bit when I arrived, looking over it in silence.
“Oh my God, David,” I heard from behind me. “I’m so sorry.”
It was Edgar. The old man had apparently survived the night. He had crept up behind me, not out of any kind of malice. He was just quiet. Respectful and quiet. After a moment he said, “If you’d been here...”
I knew what he was going to say. If I’d been here I might have caught the fire before it got out of control. There were a million reasons Amanda might not have noticed it slowly building in the house as she went about her day... or didn’t. She’d taken pills before to sleep a day away. More than once. Without me there, no one would have stopped her from going back to bed.
The breakfast stove could have leaked gas, or caught the grease that had colonized the top of it. A small fire might have broken out, killing her with smoke long before the heat woke her up. It’s not the most common way to die, but it happens.
And when it happens, people see. Crowds collect around it like moths. And if I’d been there, I would have seen it. Without the cathedral, I wouldn’t have left that morning. It would have just been a day like any other.
“There were men here,” I said. “Two of ‘em.”
“Men...” Edgar said. “What do you mean?”
“They helped me with the fire,” I said, running through the words the night before and watching the black tree dead next to the house. “They follow the cathedral.”
“Follow it?” Edgar said with his old brow furrowing. “What the blazes for?”
“People die,” I said, “and they leave a lot behind. Not this time, but sometimes. Especially with people spread out the way they are, trying to avoid other peoples’ deaths. They pick up supplies and move on. Other people need that stuff. The cathedral guides them.”
“Then why’s it still around?” he asked, pointing at the distant building still hovering in the sky. “Someone else is gonna die. That’s why they gave you that rifle, huh? They’re scared.”
“You’re scared, too,” I said. “At least if you’ve got any sense. I didn’t tell them about you. Something about this is all wrong.”
“Wrong how?” he asked. I didn’t know. I walked back to the house and felt the side of the tree, what remained of it. Under heel the grass had all been turned to ash and scattered by the morning breeze. Smoke was billowing up around the charred sticks of the foundation, black as the flame gouged trunk. The rope around the tree was black too, diminished enough to fall apart in my hands.
“They saved Bella,” I called out.
“That’s decent,” he said.
“They said they came around after the house had caught. Said the smoke is what called them in from the highway.”
The trunk was close to the house. Close enough to catch as soon as the fire really got going. But there could have been a moment when the house was still smoking, when they could have seen it at just the right time and come to save the dog only to learn later that a woman was also inside, beyond their reach. Beyond their ability to save her.
Or maybe the smoke would have killed the dog, too. Bella’s rope was long enough to get her away from the smoke. But then she might have been able to break what was left to get away from the flames. As it lay on the ground, the diminished rope was taut, pulling in a line toward the front door, as if she’d been greeting someone.
Around back was the door to the storm shelter. All that was left of it was a pile of broken black coals and the iron door handle. And a chain wrapped around it. When the house was still standing, there was a wooden post next to the storm shelter entrance. A tractor chain looped through the exterior handle to the door could have locked it.
I picked up the chain, watching the charred door handle slide off. Why lock it? What would you need to keep in the cellar of a burning house?
“They did this,” I said at last, thumbs running down each link of chain as memories of Amanda raced through my head. “There’s a tractor chain wrapped around the storm door’s handle. They locked her in.”
Immediately, I regretted how dispassionate I sounded. It was analysis, lost from the emotion I should have given it.
“Dave, no,” the old man said. Then, after taking the chain and examining it. “You sure it was them?”
“No,” I said, taking the rifle from my shoulder and pulling back the bolt to look into the breech. The shells were still there, peeking out with their stained bronze casings. Only there wasn’t anything at the tip. Nothing to actually fire. The shells they had given me were blanks. I ejected the clip and tossed it over to Edgar. “Look at this.”
“No bullets. No projectile. Just the primer and the cartridge,” the old man said as he scrutinized the clip in both hands. “Why’d they give this to you?”
“So I’d think I was protected. They must have caught that I was lying about being the only one here. They could have killed me last night, but they didn’t. They needed me alive for something. Maybe Amanda told them about—”
Barking in the distance. I looked up and saw Bella, tail wagging, tongue out panting as she sprinted across the field from the woods toward us. Edgar was smiling against the sun, hovering his hand over his eyes to see the dog running toward the burned house.
That’s how they found us. I don’t think for a second Bella understood that she was leading a pair of murderers right to us. She was a good dog. She just wanted to see me. Just as I had wanted to see Edgar.
“Son of a bitch,” Edgar said, still peering into the field and the dark trees beyond. It made perfect sense. These weren’t vultures. They were coyotes.
I grabbed him in that instant, pulling him down behind the dead pickup truck. Something whizzed past the two of us, ripping the wind around it, playing the air like an unnatural instrument. A second later we were lying in the charred grass, smelling the coals and Earth, hearing the report of a rifle.
The windshield of the truck cracked, splintering shards of glass out onto the hood. I craned my neck to look up at the windshield. Sharp cracks ran along the safety glass, splintering out like a snowflake in dust. Another bang.
“Come on out, fellas,” Harold’s voice called from the distance. “We don’t have all day.”
“Mary and Joseph,” Edgar said clutching my sleeve as he pointed up toward the cathedral. “Look!”
Two paper white arms were extending from the windows of the cathedral. They looked impossibly thin, like hair in the distance. But as they drew closer I could see the hands spreading their fingers at the edge of the field. Both were coming toward us.
“Here!” a voice said from the field. “Come on out and die with some dignity!”
It was Jeff. He had a rifle pointing at the truck, pouring casual shots out toward us, grinning the whole way as he approached.
“Shoot back,” Edgar said, his hand gripping my sleeve.
“What?” I said, tearing my arm out of his grip, whispering back. “There’s blanks in here!”
“Play along, son!”
Cursing, I ducked out from cover and returned fire. I didn’t take much time to aim, letting the shot out quickly before I caught cover again. Bullets whizzed into the dust behind me as I looked at Edgar. His eyes were on the impossible arms running over the distant pretty hills.
They didn’t look like worms closer up. I watched, entranced as Edgar was. They were articulated, with a thousand elbows twisting into place as the fingers spread from powdery white palms. They were closer now. Nearly close enough to hear them dusting the grass beneath them as they dropped into the field.
Another shot hit the coals littering the ground, sending them scattering toward us, peppering the side of the truck with fragments of charred wood. First one, then the other had left the cover of the trees and was approaching.
“Come on,” Jeff said. “I’m close now. Even you could hit me at this distance.”
He was toying with us. From the sound of his voice, he was right. When he repeated himself, it sounded unnatural and close, as if this whole standoff had been rehearsed over the years. He couldn’t be more than a dozen paces off, standing with the sun at his back, taunting us.
“That’s close enough!” I called out. “Stay right there or I’ll blow you away.”
A howl of laughter from the back of the truck. He kept walking as Harold closed in and peppered the ground with potshots up-range from his companion. I could see boots turned around, facing away from us. The truck shifted as Jeff sat down.
“Hot out here today,” he said.
“Why didn’t you kill me when you first saw me?” I yelled back.
“Your old girl told us about you and the old man. She didn’t say where you were, though. That’s when she stopped thinking of us as guests and hid in the basement with a gun. Couldn’t have that. Not the way we like to run things. We’re in charge these days. Nobody else.”
“That’s why you chase the cathedral. It leads you to people to kill?” I called back, hugging as close to the bumper of the truck as I could, feeling the rust of the bumper crunch against my shoulder and flake off. If I could have molded myself through the grill, I would have flattened completely and disappeared. But I couldn’t. All I had was time, and not much.
“That’s the odd bit,” Jeff said, kicking his heels against the truck’s tailgate as he stood up on its bed. “After a while we got to thinking about that. I didn’t want to hurt anybody that wasn’t going to die anyway. We tried waiting for people to die naturally, but we don’t always have the time.
“After a while we started wondering if it was us that was deciding where the cathedral would go or the other way around. Who’s leading who? You know what I mean?”
“Ashes,” Edgar said, picking up a handful of dust from the ground. He looked up at me, offering his hand, and dumped the gritty ash onto my upturned palm. “Like salt.”
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” Jeff said. He was leaning his heel on the roof of the truck’s cab now. “You still there?”
“Yeah,” I said, holding the ashes and pouring them into the muzzle of the gun. “You’re a man with a will of your own.”
“That’s not what I was saying,” Jeff said. “The truth is, I don’t know how much of this is free will anymore. And if it is, fine. But if it’s not, then screw it, you know what I mean?”
“Sure,” I said as the dust cascaded down the barrel of the rifle, tiny rocks and bits of coal clinking as they came to rest on the leadless cartridge at the bottom.
“The rest of you go run off and die in the big green world,” Jeff said. I could hear both heels of his boots now on the roof of the truck. “Me, I’ve got a system. We don’t work for that thing up there. It works for us now. We’re the last of the free men.”
The hands were getting closer now. We couldn’t see them in the tall grass, but the field was shuddering above them. Very close now.
“Say goodbye, fellas,” Jeff said around a craw of tobacco. “Good talk.”
I stood up and pointed the rifle at him, and he let me. He wanted this moment, wanted the last big reveal so I could learn that I’d been outsmarted even in this. I pulled the trigger, and let the tiny coals fly. They shot out of the end like a cannon, the force of a microcosm of detritus shearing away at his face and eyes. He screamed, falling backward off the roof of the truck.
One of the hands burst through the clear-cut line in the grass at the edge of my property. With Jeff’s rifle, I closed my eyes and stopped his screaming.
The bang had echoed over the field, and I saw Harold standing there with his own rifle trained on the two of us. There was something behind him, something bending its many elbows back and forth, wriggling toward his heels. Looking back for only an instant, he saw it. And then he froze, with realization pouring over him like a bucket of cold water.
“You think you’ve got me,” he shouted to us, desperately as he backed away from the hand in the grass. “You think you’re the one’s gonna kill me.”
And he lowered the rifle beneath his chin and closed his eyes. And with mortal resolution he screamed as his finger clenched around the trigger. The hand caught him as he fell.
“He’s not dead,” Edgar said pointing down at Jeff. The man was breathing slowly, gurgling. The hand nearby was waiting there, standing like a cobra over him with fingers pointed down as if it could somehow strike. Edgar disappeared as I stood watching in horror, crushed by what had just happened. I had just killed a man.
The thing that broke my trance was Edgar with the tractor chain. He wrapped it around the wrist of the long arm and pulled it tightly, letting the hook clip taut through one of the links. He clasped the other end to the front axle of the dead truck. And then he nodded once, tugging it to see that it was secure.
He didn’t say anything, didn’t wave, didn’t even look at me. He had picked up the rifle Jeff had been carrying, and propped it in the seat beside him, staring forward with his hands on the wheel as he sat down and slammed the squealing door shut.
The truck hadn’t driven off the property in over 20 years, but he knew it would take him. When the arm finally lifted Jeff’s body, the truck chained around the thing’s wrist lurched forward.
“Edgar, wait!” I said, rapping my knuckles on the truck’s window, realizing what he was doing. “Where are you going? Who’ll take care of your farm?”
“They do fine without me,” he said as the tireless wheels beneath him screeched and twisted. “I haven’t done much lately.”
And the truck sang as it pulled off, leaving a trail of pressed grass as the arm trailed him along. I stood there watching as it disappeared over the hills. And then several minutes later I saw an unusually large shape pulling up into the cathedral. And then I watched the whole spectacle, the building and everything that might be in it, drift away.
At Edgar’s farm I found the foal on rickety legs, bouncing behind its mother with new-found life. I caught my reflection in Soyoko pond, the image of a killer. He didn’t look much different. Maybe a little tired.
The rest of the day I spent opening the gates and setting all of Edgar’s animals free. I don’t know how well I thought they’d survive in the woods, but I figured they’d be fine as long as they stayed away from the dump and didn’t drink out of the pond. After that I put up a sign:
Free Farm. Animals might still be nearby.
Don’t eat the preserves.
Replace water heater ASAP.
I still think about Edgar a lot. I wonder what he found, and whether he was able to survive whatever came next. I’ve been heading north in the station wagon with Bella for a few weeks now, thinking about the photocopy of a Polaroid I heard about a while back. A man as big as a house, they say. If it’s true — and that’s a big if — I don’t know if I’ll find him or even if he’ll speak English. But there’s something about the way Edgar looked when the arm started to pull him in his truck off into the distance. Eyes forward. Ready.
Copyright © 2015 by Chris Capps