Elijah stood chest-deep in the river, his eyes closed against the sun. The waters waltzed around him with a slow deliberateness, guiding his thoughts as his ears filled with the crispness of winter. It was not a fast river, at least not in the curving eddy Elijah found when he first peered over the steep embankment some twenty minutes ago. The two men had pulled into the rest stop for a quick piss and to stretch their legs, but with Asher doubling back to “mail a package,” Eli knew he had some time.
It had snowed for the last two days, but Elijah’s descent to the river was easy, with the boughs of the massive ponderosas catching most of it. He’d first hesitated at the water’s edge, considering his chances at the threat of what lay under the water, then he gambled and stepped into the unknown in just his socks. His white button-up clung to his numbing body, a lighthouse beacon in the dark water, its light only occasionally displaced by the slow whips of his twirling tie. It only took a few heartbeats for the cold to burrow deep into his chest. It climbed into his brain, his thoughts churned through mud, and his lungs sputtered like an engine gasping for fuel. His body lit up like a neon sign, urging Elijah to flee, get to safety, and escape the waters, but he fought back. His shivers would soon rock him into unconsciousness, and to Elijah, that was okay.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Eli.”
Elijah flicked an eye towards the bank and found Asher standing with his arms crossed over his bulging gut. Elijah dropped his chin and sighed, then, with slow, deliberate movements, made his way towards Asher. His muscles screamed as they battled joints cast in ice. Out of the water, the once barely noticeable pirouettes of wind cut through Elijah like great fleets of arrows, leaving behind gaping holes that burned like blisters. He pulled the soaked shirt over his head, let it drop to the ground, and then stripped off his socks and boxers.
Asher’s laughter boomed in his ears, shaking the icicles in Elijah’s brain. “Think the frost will keep those berries hibernating ‘til spring?”
Elijah held his mouth close, worried that if he opened his jaw, his teeth might chatter so wildly he’d chip a tooth. He pulled on his slacks and jacket from the neat pile he left on the shore, then shoved his phone into a pocket and stashed his gun in his waistband. The suit jacket and slacks clung to his body, drinking their fill of the water left on his skin, adding new weight to Elijah’s unbalanced frame as they pressed the damp coldness of the river back into Him. Elijah resisted the urge to lie down. With a hand on Asher for support, he ignored the mud caked to his feet and slipped into his boots. The two started back up the embankment with Asher close behind, ready to catch him if he fell, the squish-squash of his boots just barely audible above the noise of the river.
Inside the car, Asher put the heat on max and pointed the vents towards Elijah. The blast of hot air felt like it was scalding his flesh, but Elijah remained still, allowing the pin-like heat to mingle with his numbness.
Asher studied him for a moment. “You said you were doing better.”
“You’re gonna kill yourself. It’s not good for the heart.”
“The monks do it,” Elijah said. “In the Himalayas, where there’s snow year-round. Never heard of them dying from it.”
“The orange boys who don’t talk or fuck? Yeah, let’s follow their lead,” Asher said, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel to what Elijah guessed was a half-true rendition of Ode to Joy.
“I’ll be fine.”
“You need a good lay, that’s it—something to clear the fog out. We need to find you a good lady—someone to ride this poison out of you. You won’t want to go swimming if you’re swimming in it, ya’ know?”
“Mmhmm,” Elijah mumbled, twisting his hands in front of the hot air. His pinkies were a delicate shade of lavender.
“You think I’m kidding, but men go to war for it. Heather of Troy, right?”
“You want me to set you up with Becca’s sister, Ruthie? She’s had a couple of kids, but the Ex moved out a year ago. Bet she’d love to warm those berries for you.”
“My berries would appreciate it if you stopped talking about them, thanks.”
“Suit yourself. I’ve been trying to convince Becca that we should invite Ruthie over one night when the kids are at their Grandma’s. Ruthie still got some life in her, ya’ know? Open a couple of bottles, put on some jazz or something—see what happens when the fire burns down. It’s not unheard of, and I always wondered what Becca would do if…”
It was easier, Elijah had found long ago, to just let Asher keep talking. All he needed was a few nods every couple of minutes to keep the one-man conversation going, and Eli could be left alone to ingest the different worlds they drove through. For the last few days, he’d been enthralled with the never-ending utopia of trees, snow, and jagged mountain peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Idaho’s wilderness had taken him by surprise. It was different, somehow. The state was quiet. Not slow or empty, nor asleep or lifeless, but vibrant with silence.
Synching his vision to the blur of the passing trees, Elijah let his thoughts wander, eventually nodding to sleep under the caress of the heat vents.
Most of the time, the two traveled in silence. They avoided major roadways as they always did, but the storm and unplowed roads had drastically slowed their progress. The dossier initially demanded a drive from Cheyenne to a location just outside of Sandpoint, Idaho, near the Canadian border, but after the first half-day of driving only took them two hundred miles, Elijah called the Operator. Their new instructions “were to arrive within a reasonable timeframe. The client had been alerted to the change, understood their situation, and promised to pray for their safe travels.” If they made good time today, the GPS showed them arriving by mid-afternoon.
“The kooks better pray for us, driving through this,” Asher had responded, gesturing out the window.
While Elijah shared in Asher’s disapproval at the unknown hours left stuck in the car, he also welcomed the break from their job, even if it left him with nothing to do but count the hours down along with the beat of Asher’s thumbs. They were on their fourth assignment this trip and still had three more unopened dossiers to go. The holidays were always the busiest season.
Elijah woke as the car pulled to a stop, the bright lights of a diner flooding the car.
“We’re still a ‘way’s out,” Asher said, taking a few bills from the zippered wallet. “Figured you’d want to eat and put some clothes on.”
“How long was I out?”
“A while. Had to check a few times to make sure you were still breathing.”
“I’m fine, Ash.”
“Not really an adjective I’d use.”
Asher was thick with muscle when they first met, but the last few years in the car hadn’t been nice to him. He was still an immense man who could kill with ease, but death now looked like it might come from a smothering amount of body weight than from his Ranger training.
Elijah grabbed the dossier and a change of clothes, then headed to the bathroom to change. When he took his seat at the booth in the back of the diner, the one spot in the restaurant where they could sit and see without anyone approaching from their rear, his food was waiting for him.
“Who are they?” Asher asked, nodding towards the file as he funneled fries into his mouth.
“Does it matter?”
“I s’pose not.”
“It only gave the family name and coordinates. Somewhere up in the mountains. But it’s probably just another old man in a diaper. It always is,” Elijah said, cutting into his burger with a knife and fork. “Could you ever do it?”
“Do what?” Asher asked. “Put my folks up for orders? I mean, it’s an interesting dilemma, isn’t it? If you hit a deer with a car, you need to put it out of its misery. Their brains are cooked, and their bodies have shut down, and, man, you’ve seen it. That look as they slip away. We are saving them.”
“We are the Angels of Death,” Asher said.
They spent the rest of the meal in silence, and when Elijah was down to only a few remaining fries, Asher got his partner’s attention with a deep belch.
“Now, that river ain’t give you cold feet, did it?”
“I hope not. You’d think you would have gotten all that out in Kuwait.”
“I was just making conversation.”
“We all have our jobs to do, Cowboy.”
“Why? Are you getting bored?”
“Hell no. I do the driving. You do the high-fiving. Why would we go and ruin a perfectly good routine?”
“Variety is the spice of life.”
“I’ve always been a meat and potatoes kind of guy.” Asher twirled the car keys around his finger, then stood. “You done? I want to get there before dark.”
When the “Thanks for visiting Sandpoint” sign was in the rearview, the GPS took them further north before signaling to turn onto an unpaved road. They were only a handful of miles away from the border, and, gazing at the landscape, Elijah realized these tendrils of the Canadian tundra didn’t follow border laws. These mountains were cold and deadly with keen blue peaks, each like a dagger ripping at the sky. Yet, something about its serenity called to Elijah. The weight of the snow. The sharp contrast of evergreen to white. The sheer cliffs they drove along where one sneeze could send you to a crushing end. This land had rules, and it was beautiful.
The road hugged the edge of the mountain, pointing the men into the sky as they traced its girth. To one side were deep, old trees. To the other, a sprawling view of the valley floor and the thousand-foot drop separating them from its beauty.
“Haven’t gripped a wheel this tight since the Gulf,” Asher muttered.
Someone had driven the road before them, clearing deep ruts in the snow.
“They must be eager for us to come if they’re willing to drive this,” Elijah said, his eyes fixed on the engorged basin below. He felt like it was calling to him.
“Probably more eager for us to leave than anything,” Asher said. “Which is perfect. In and out, and back to the Motel. Might even spend some time in the jacuzzi tonight. Those bubbles can do pretty funny things, you know.”
“Is not. Besides, they pump it full of chlorine for a reason.”
“I really don’t think that is the reason.”
“Well, maybe not. But tomato, to-mah-toe.”
The road widened, and the incline started to flatten. Asher pointed the car forward, slowing to a stop as they crested the last hill. In front of them, the mountain plateaued, and the frozen blue peaks opened like the mouth of a shark, its rows of teeth threatening the heavens. These were old, overgrown mountains, where the air was thin, and a clear day gave you a glimpse of the Earth’s curvature.
“What a view. Shame.”
“Doesn’t matter where we are,” Elijah said, peeling his eyes away to look at Asher. “It’s always a shame.”
“Relax, Cowboy. I was just saying it seems sacrilegious to do anything out here. Like a blowjob in church.”
“It’s our job.”
“Yes, yes, it is. And a funny little one at that.”
The road opened into a clear-cut patch of blank forest. They drove until the road died out at a simple, single-story farmhouse nestled against the tree line. Grey smoke puttered out of the chimney.
They pulled next to an old, powder-blue Ford and glassed the house, taking in as much information as possible. The exposed wood façade gave the impression of a log cabin, except the panels were uniform, and the lines were straight, like a manufactured home the decorator forgot to paint. Eli could see lights on behind the lace curtains.
Motion drew Elijah’s eye away. To the far side of the home, a rusted-out swing set sat nearly invisible against the backdrop of pines. Elijah would have missed it if not for the young boy seated beneath it.
“You see him?” Ash asked.
“Mmm,” Elijah replied, squinting against the setting sun.
The boy sat with his chin tucked to his chest, his palms pressed together in silent prayer. Elijah’s eyes moved from the boy’s hands to his bare forearms, then up to the oversized white t-shirt drowning him. The neckline bowed deeply, revealing a patch of bright pink flesh. He could see the grime crusted on the shirt even from the car. He seemed to vibrate with his shivers.
Elijah felt his back tense.
“Not our problem,” Asher said. “We do our job, and we move on to the next, no matter how much we don’t like what we see. Remember, Des Moines?”
“Hard to forget,” Elijah said, closing his eyes as images flashed of a blood-soaked basement packed with dirty men.
“We are ghosts. We see nothing, and we say nothing. We do our thing, and we keep moving, or the Operator finds someone who will. I don’t want to end up in one of those stacks of dossiers.”
“I know how this works, Ash.”
“That kid probably just runs hot. When I was little, I spent most of my life sprinting around the yard naked. The cold never bothered me.”
“It looks like it’s bothering him.”
“Well, then I hope he’s praying for a coat.”
Elijah pursed his lips and forced himself to look away from the boy.
“C’mon,” Asher said, pushing the driver’s door open. “Let’s get this over with.”
Elijah cursed, then stepped out of the car to join Asher. Even though it was policy that the Operator gave a pre-arrival call, they always seemed surprised when Asher and Elijah showed up, and from the look on the young girl’s face who answered the door, this was no exception.
“Hello?” she called, peeking halfway around the door. Long strands of ashy blonde hair hung around her oval face. She shuddered where she stood, her fingernails tap-dancing against the doorframe.
Asher gave Elijah a quick look before answering. “Your parents around?”
The girl’s eyes ballooned as she nodded her head.
“Can you go get them, please?”
She nodded her head again, two long, exaggerated movements, then snapped the door closed. Asher muttered “kooks” as he lifted his wrist to check the time.
“They probably don’t get a lot of visitors,” Elijah said in a low voice.
“Kid acted like she’d never seen a man before.”
“Think I should stay out here?”
“You just don’t want to talk with the family.”
“True, but this might go easier if only one of us does the introduction.”
“Introduction? We’re not meeting the in-laws, Eli.”
“Introduction, collecting blood money—you know what I mean.”
“Fine,” Asher said, narrowing his eyes. “Just stay close. I want to get out of here as soon as we can. I’m getting some real Misery vibes.”
Elijah dipped his head in appreciation and stepped off the landing. He heard the front door open, and Asher’s practiced speech played in his head as he walked along the side of the farmhouse.
He found the boy on the swing, his head still bowed in prayer, body quivering. Elijah stepped into the fresh snow and felt his boots sink a few inches. He took another step, pleased that the drift wasn’t high enough to fill his boots, then another, before pausing to clear his throat loudly. He didn’t want to spook the boy.
The frail form showed no signs that he had heard him.
Elijah continued to trudge forward, and when he was a few feet away from the swing set, he stopped and cleared his throat again. The boy flinched at the noise, but he kept his head down and palms together, dedicated to his prayer. Thick chunks of dirty blonde hair obscured most of his face from Elijah’s view. He had old, leathery scars along his arms, and there were holes in his jeans where the fabric had worn. At best guess, Elijah thought he couldn’t be more than seven years old.
“Mind if I sit?”
The boy remained silent.
“I’ll take that as a no.”
Elijah took the empty swing next to the boy.
“Pretty cold out here, isn’t it?”
“Do you have a jacket inside?”
“What about your parents? Do they know you’re out here?”
“Being out in the cold like this can kill you. Did you know that?”
A great, resounding crack splintered the air as a branch broke deep in the woods behind them. Elijah recoiled at the noise, instinctively reaching for his pistol as he twisted towards the darkness. He stared into the timber, alert for any movement, and when none came, his body relaxed, and his held breath escaped his lungs. He rolled his attention from the woods to the field of snow between them, then back to the boy. Elijah’s boots had made the only path in the snow. How long had the boy been out there?
The boy was shaking, his body trying to generate any heat possible. The crusty, oversized t-shirt was thin, and Elijah could see his collarbone and the start of his chest from within the stretched collar. Each rib bulged against the bright pink skin.
“How long have you been out here?”
Frustration started to bubble in Elijah’s gut, but he stomped at it, wrestling with his voice to maintain a non-threatening level.
“Can I give you my coat?”
It was a subtle, involuntary motion. A quick jolt of fast-twitch muscle as the boy’s body pulled him towards salvation. Elijah took off his suit jacket and wrapped it around the boy, tightening the lapels around his praying hands.
A tiny voice, barely louder than falling leaves, came to life.
Elijah frowned as he found his seat once more. “Are you feeling any warmer?”
“Would you like to go inside?”
“That’s okay. We can stay out here a while still. What’s your name?”
The boy lifted his head, and dark eyes pierced Elijah.
“Are you here to kill me?”
Elijah’s stomach turned in on itself. “Why would you ask something like that?”
The boy stared into him, his pupils pleading for an answer.
“No, I’m not going to kill you,” Elijah said, turning away from the serrated glare.
Elijah could hear the disappointment in the tiny voice. He closed his eyes against it, shielding himself as best he could, but not before he felt a piece of his heart freeze and shatter.
“Are you an angel?” the boy asked.
“I’m Elijah. What’s your name?”
“It’s nice to meet you, Al.”
Elijah waited for a response, and when none came, he accepted the quiet. He sat back and let the breeze rock him, growing more and more aware of the thinness of his own shirt. The sun was setting behind them, casting the shadows of the trees across the swath of untouched snow. It would be dark soon, and Elijah wondered if they would be here long enough for him to get a good view of the stars. He couldn’t recall the last time he looked at the stars.
Al’s tiny voice split Elijah like a whip.
“Why won’t you kill me?”
“I deserve it.”
“I shouldn’t be alive.”
Elijah pushed off his swing and crouched in front of Al, waiting for him to meet his stare. When he did, Elijah spoke in soft strokes, an oil painter dabbing clouds into a landscape.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Al. Why do you think I’m here to do that?”
“Sinners need to be punished.”
“You’re too young to be a sinner.”
“Are you an angel?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you going to save me?”
“Do you need to be saved?”
“Angels are supposed to save us.”
“I’m not an angel, Al. I’m just like you.”
“You’re a murderer too?”
His words blasted into Elijah.
“Who says you’re a murderer, Al?”
Al measured Elijah for a moment, then, with the speed of a hare fleeing the jaws of a fox, he flicked his eyes to the farmhouse and back to Elijah.
Elijah frowned as he turned his head up to the window. Narrow eyes and a tangled black beard glared down on them from between the lace curtains.
A blast fractured the air as the front door of the farmhouse slammed.
Elijah turned back to Al with a half-smile. “I’ll be back.”
The boy dipped his head, and the jacket peaked as his hands returned to prayer. Elijah found Asher leaning against the trunk of the car, halfway through a cigarette.
“Where’s your jacket?” he asked, taking a long drag.
He offered the pack to Elijah, who shook his hand in dismissal. Asher pulled another cigarette from the box and used the spent end of his first to light the fresh one. He took another long drag before speaking, his voice muffled from the acidic smoke. “Bunch’a freaks on a mountain.”
“What’s the word?”
“I’m not sure yet. I need to call it in.”
“Call what in? Is the old-timer already dead?”
“There is no old-timer.”
Elijah’s stomach filled with sand. “Why are we here, Ash?”
Asher looked at Elijah for a few moments, and when his chin quivered, he dropped his gaze. “Pops in there thinks the boy is possessed.”
Elijah tilted his head at Asher like a dog considering a bone.
“The wife died in childbirth, and he blames the baby who killed her. Thinks the kid is the devil-reincarnate or something.”
“And he put a contract on his son?”
Asher flicked his cigarette and watched it fizz its last breath into the snow.
“We’re not murderers, Ash.”
Asher pulled his phone out of his breast pocket, dialed a number, and pressed the speaker button before holding the receiver between them.
“Operator,” a woman said.
“Alpha-Comanche, 334, calling home, please.”
The line went dead. A few moments passed, then a second woman’s voice spoke.
“Who is the Shinigami?”
“A rose in the field of clover,” Asher said.
“Good evening, Asher,” the woman said, adopting a casual tone. “You’ve arrived?”
“Then I can assume why you’re calling for the second time today.”
“I’m not going to kill a kid,” Elijah interjected, struggling to keep his voice low.
“Ah, hello to you as well, Elijah. Asher, it is not polite to put someone on speakerphone without their knowledge.”
“I’m not doing it,” Elijah said again.
“Doing what, exactly?” the woman hissed. “Your job?”
Asher flashed a look, and Elijah took a steadying breath before answering. “We help those along that cannot do it themselves. We don’t kill kids.”
“That’s not what your contract says,” the woman said. The sound of shuffling papers came through the phone. “And I quote: ‘once opened, the Contractor agrees to fulfill the terms outlined in the dossier. Failure to complete the agreed-upon arrangement will result in early termination of both partners.’ Does that sound familiar?”
“It does, Ma’am,” Asher said.
“And do I need to remind you of early termination terms?”
“You opened the contract. You made contact. You have a job to do, gentlemen. I suggest you get to it.”
The line went dead, and Elijah smacked the trunk, swearing into the open air.
“I’m not going to kill a kid, Ash. He needs help.”
“So does the dad. And his daughters, too.”
“I talked with him,” Elijah said. “The boy. He thinks he’s supposed to die.”
Asher pulled at his chin. “What are we going to do?”
They stood for a while, then Asher spoke. “I asked the father why he hadn’t just done it himself, ya’ know. Why he needed us. He said he’s a man of God, and the Devil creates these situations to produce a sinner. So, it’s holy to refrain from murder, but it’s within your power to pay someone else to do it for you. And do you know what I thought? I thought that’s the same holier-than-thou-bullshit that lets the church get away with diddling altar boys.”
“We can bring him with us,” Elijah said.
“We can call child protective services.”
“And let the freak in there tell the police all about the service he paid for?”
“We could take the father instead.”
“There are four daughters in that house, Eli. I’m not leaving five kids without a parent. And he’s not on our contract. We aren’t murderers.”
“I’m not going to kill an innocent boy.”
“If we don’t do our job, it’ll be my family without their father instead. You don’t have anything tying you down, but I’ve got my girls back home. If you leave, the hammer comes down on us both, and they’ll just find another two idiots to drive up into the mountains and do what we couldn’t. It’s the boy or us.”
“His name is Al.”
“I wish you hadn’t told me that.”
The farmhouse door slammed, and both men whipped their heads up to see the bearded man striding along the front of the home, followed closely by a line of four young girls. His daughters were wrapped tight in winter jackets, their ankle-length dresses kissing the snow as their blonde heads bobbed behind their father.
Elijah watched in disgust as the man spoke to his son, his voice carrying easily across the open air.
“Come, boy,” the man commanded. “It is time.”
Al did as he was told and rose from the swing, leaving Elijah’s jacket behind. He walked towards his father like a priest through a courtyard, his head down and hands held in prayer.
“Stop,” his father spat. “Kneel.”
Al knelt in the snow and rested his forehead against his thumbs, his palms still glued together. The girls and their father circled Al and grasped each other’s hands. They started praying, whisps of their chanting floating across the driveway, its singsong harmony squeezing at Elijah’s throat. Behind them, the sun passed behind the mountain, casting the field in pale blue light.
Elijah started towards the group, but Asher stopped him with a hand on his chest.
“We do our job, and we leave. That’s it.”
Elijah smacked him away and stepped around Asher’s bulk, cursing under his breath as he cut across the driveway. He could hear Asher tracing his steps only a few feet behind him. As they approached the circle, the father pulled away, leaving his daughter’s hands to flail for each other, eager to replace the missing link in their chain. They continued to chant as he spoke to the men.
“’ For He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one,’” the man said, his words cascading from his beard. “’ He has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.’”
Elijah squared his shoulders and met his gaze. “And whose cry is that? Yours, or your son’s?”
“I have no son.” The man spat on the ground, then raised a finger at Al. “The Devil tempts you in many ways. Alastor took my wife, but he will not take my faith. I prayed every day for an answer, and He sent me you. Angels of the Lord, you are here to strike this evil from the Earth.”
“You’re insane,” Elijah said, taking a step toward the man. “You’re blaming a boy for an accident, and you want him to pay for it with his life?”
“The Devil’s tongue has worked its way into your ear. I saw it with mine own eyes. He is of my flesh, but his soul is of Hell. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ I will rejoice in freeing him from the Devil’s grasp.”
“Sir,” Asher said. “What if you’re wrong?”
“Then, I pray for forgiveness. But these answers were shown to me by the Lord himself. Do you question His vision?”
“I question your sanity,” Elijah said. “You brainwashed that boy into thinking he needs to die. You made him believe he is evil.”
“The Lord speaks. The Devil whispers,” the man said. “Does he whisper to you?”
Elijah reached behind his back for his gun, but Asher caught his wrist with dense strength.
“’ Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.’”
The man turned from Elijah and split the circle as he rejoined his daughters.
“We are ghosts,” Asher said, letting go of Elijah’s wrist.
“No,” Elijah said. “I’m not.”
“My daughters, Eli. Think of my family.”
“Then you do it,” Elijah hawked, his face twisted with fury. He pulled the gun from his pants and smacked the butt end into Asher’s chest. “Let’s see the driver get his hands dirty.”
“I don’t want to do this either, Eli,” Asher said, his voice quiet against the backdrop of chanting.
The prayer grew, their words coming quick and sharp. The chant ricocheted off the trees, shattering the night with shrill calls that spiraled towards the heavens.
Asher stepped towards the circle, the gun at his side, and the ring of bodies grew even louder, shouting their prayer into the coming darkness. They swayed as they chanted, puffs of breath swirling around their skulls. Asher dipped under their linked arms and studied Al. The boy hadn’t moved an inch since he first knelt.
The girls and their father cried into the night, their cruel song reaching its crescendo as their voices cracked with strain. Elijah could see Asher breathing heavily inside the swirling mass of sound, a thunderclap hovering over a prairie at dawn.
Asher lifted the gun and pointed it at Al. In an instant, the chanting stopped, and the crushing silence of the mountaintop swept over Elijah. Asher’s back heaved with deep breaths as he pressed the muzzle against the boy’s head.
A heartbeat passed. Then a breath. Then a moment.
“I’m sorry,” Asher whispered, his voice loud in the cold air. He lowered the gun and stepped away from Al.
The circle gasped, and the father cried out, but no voice was louder than Al’s.
“Please, save me.”
“I can’t,” Asher said, defeat ringing in his voice.
“Fool,” the father screeched. He threw his daughter’s hands aside and strode towards Asher. “God sent heretics to test my faith. Like Abraham, this is my charge.”
The man reached forward and pulled the gun from Asher. Moving without thinking, Elijah rushed him, and diving under the girl’s outstretched arms, he tackled him, wrestling for the gun. The girls screamed and scattered into the yard, moving towards the farmhouse as quickly as their little legs could tromp through the snow. All the while, Al remained still, a monument of grit on the eve of war.
Elijah grunted with pain as he fought the man.
“Eli!” Asher yelled. “Let him do it. Let him free us.”
They rolled in the snow, fighting for position as they clawed at the weapon, trying to pry it from each other’s grasp. Elijah twisted and pulled, forcing his shoulder between the gun and the man. He rolled onto his stomach and yanked, his muscles screaming in protest like an ox working against a stump.
Then, there was no resistance.
The man released his hold on the gun. Triumph roared in Elijah’s chest, but fear quickly replaced it as the man slipped his arm around Elijah’s neck. He squeezed hard, sinking his heels under Elijah’s hips to control his panicked bucking. Asher boomed and beat at the man’s back, but he was unrelenting in his power as he cut the blood flow to Elijah’s brain.
Elijah gasped and struggled to think. He flailed his arms at the man’s face, but that only made him squeeze harder, whispering as he choked the life from Elijah.
“’ He will wipe every tear from their eyes,’” the man seethed. “’ There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”
Elijah felt the world skip like a record. He was falling deep into a fissure. His eyelids slipped shut, and he forced them open again. With a final push, he gripped the gun and flung it from beneath his body, hoping it would land somewhere Asher could reach it.
Time slowed, and he watched the black metal twist through the air and land in the snow. His lids flicked closed again. Elijah strained to open them a sliver, praying that his partner was pulling the gun from the snow and aiming it at the man sucking the life from his limbs.
Then, understanding dawned, and Elijah accepted his fate. Asher hadn’t seen the gun. He was going to die.
Elijah let the warmth encase him. It licked at his feet and kissed his breast, pulling him into the unknown. He tried to speak, but no sound came. The darkness took him by the hand and plucked Elijah into the sky, where it embraced him and walked him towards the stars.
“God sent an angel,” a tiny voice said far below Elijah.
The squeeze around Elijah’s neck fell away, and he welcomed death.
“An angel just for me.”
Something was wrong. The warmth was leaving. Elijah cried out for it to return, but the darkness rolled away. It cast him aside, and he sank back to Earth.
The tiny voice was beside him. “I knew if I prayed, He would save me.”
The snow was cold against Elijah’s cheek. His lungs seized with ragged bursts.
“Careful, boy,” the man said.
Elijah groaned, fighting against the clunking of his mind. He rolled to his side and opened his eyes, desperately grasping at reality. In front of him, Al stood tall in the moonlight, stark and unsullied against the deepness of the woods. He was pointing the gun at his father with shaky hands.
Al turned to look at Elijah, who blinked against the brilliant lights dazzling off the boy. His skin was glowing, and he had stopped shivering. He shone like the sun, a monolith of peace against the brutality of the Blue Mountains.
“My angel,” Al said, dipping his head towards Elijah. “Thank you.”
Elijah tried to respond, to say anything, but all that came was a putrid gargle of gravel.
“He welcomes me into his kingdom.”
Al returned his gaze to his father, who flinched under its power. Then Al lifted the gun away from his father, placed it under his own chin, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger.
Thayne Casper writes lies for fun. Some of those lies have been published. Most of them have tumbled down the shower drain. He is an emerging writer and MFA candidate at Ashland University with a growing list of publications, including REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Kithe Journal, and a series of novels ghostwritten for a popular Indie Author. Having spent his life surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, his inspirations continue to come from the depth and mystery of the Pacific Northwest. Thayne Casper resides in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and their homestead of adopted animals.