"Maybe they are. That fella up on the fire truck's talkin' nonstop, Li'l lady. Maybe he's got them under some kind of sway."
"Whatever he's telling them is bad. It's evil."
"You've got a gun. Do you want to stop him?"
"I've only got three bullets, Elvis. What am I going to do, fight my way through to him? These crazy b.a.s.t.a.r.ds are burning people at the stake. Do you think they'd even let me get close enough to him to take a shot?"
"I don't know, Li'l lady."
Hope glared at the man with the megaphone as he waved his arms, exhorting his followers to cleanse the world with flame. "He deserves to die."
"Does he? In his mind, he's doing the right thing."
Hope rounded on Undead Elvis. "Are you defending him?"
Undead Elvis smiled and shrugged. "Just sayin' the world isn't black and white, Li'l lady."
"No. No, it isn't. It's gray." Hope picked up a handful of ashes, still warm. "And they're making it this way." She let the ashes scatter on the hot, smoky breeze from the wall of flames. "Maybe there's no absolute good or evil, but I can't see anything good about what they're doing, and I'm no saint. Do you get what I mean?"
"I do, Li'l lady. So what are you going to do about it?"
Hope sighed. "Nothing. I hate saying that, because I want to do something. Look at them. Those poor a.s.sholes are laying down and burning to death, and n.o.body cares, Elvis! That guy is up there egging them on and working them until they drop just so he can feel like he's doing G.o.d's will. I don't pretend to know what that is. I still don't think I even believe there is a G.o.d. But if there is..." Her jaw tightened. "He wouldn't approve."
"But you're going to do nothing?"
"What can I do? I don't want to die burned at a stake. And can I deny the world this baby I'm carrying? What if Gabe was right and this little peanut is going to somehow repair the world? I can't risk that." She rubbed her belly, still taut from her years on the pole.
"For what it's worth, I think you're doing the right thing, Li'l lady."
"I just hope I can live with that decision."
Hope and the Forest The Righteous Flame's fire truck set off its siren and the horn blared over and over. People left the fire line and returned to congregate around it. Many collapsed, perhaps from hunger or exhaustion. All of them sat to give their attention to the man with the megaphone.
The engines on both trucks were stopped so he could deliver a rambling, angry sermon to his flock. Hope could see many of them nodding their heads in agreement with his words. Or perhaps they were that far removed from their reality.
Working at their leader's exhortations and using shovels from the back of the fire truck, several workers dug a shallow pit. Unburnt wood was piled inside it and set ablaze. The workers produced a large pot, so big that Hope thought it looked like a witch's cauldron. They filled the pot halfway with water from the fire truck's tanks and set it atop the fire pit. People were starting to perk up and Hope's tummy rumbled at the notion of soup or stew. She wondered if they had a deer or something which had burned in the forest.
The leader pointed to a man, and without hesitating, the people fell on him like a pack of wolves. Hope jammed her fists into her mouth to keep from screaming. The man below had no such compunctions, and his gibbering, dying cry was the purest form of agony and terror Hope had ever heard.
Pieces of him were put into the pot, and later, the survivors fed.
After the sun had fully set and the leader showed no signs of slowing down his rhetoric, Hope decided the time had come to take action despite her own growing sleepiness. Death by burning or death by angry mob or something even worse awaited her if she stayed too close to the cannibals below. She planned to get far ahead of these Righteous Flame monsters in the forest and then find a place to hole up and sleep.
Her growling stomach reminded her they had no more food. It saddened her to think she was already neglecting her unborn baby. There would be food in the forest; forests always had food, didn't they? Animals, berries, edible roots. Hope didn't know how to tell which roots were edible, but she was hungry enough to try all of them.
The ash-choked stream was only a few yards from the road. It had given Hope an idea how to disguise the white paint of The Way, dingy and flaking though it was. "Come on, Elvis. Time to get dirty. Well, dirtier."
The two of them worked as the Moon climbed higher in the sky, shining like a jaundiced eye through the veil of smoke. They spread ash and mud on The Way's hood, doors, and fenders. The white paint disappeared under a veneer of gray and black. Hope stepped back to admire their handiwork. "It's not pretty, but it'll definitely be harder to see. Guess it's good there's all this ash or else we couldn't do this."
"Finding good even amid the tragedy, Li'l lady?"
"I guess I am. Hey, how come I'm filthy and you're not even the slightest bit dirty?" Undead Elvis's jumpsuit still sparkled and no smudges marred his sungla.s.ses.
"Because I'm The King, baby. Uh-huh."
Hope laughed, because it was so ludicrous she couldn't help but accept it as truth. "All right, Your Majesty. Get in the car."
Undead Elvis did so. "What's your plan?"
"Drive fast, don't hit anything, and don't stop for a long time."
"Sounds good to me."
Hope stared at the distant fire truck and tanker with the people cl.u.s.tered around them like maggots on hunks of rotting meat. She said, "I was never a very good driver. Inattentive. I was always getting pulled over for speeding. I couldn't ever park without hitting the cars around me. I left my last car in gear and got out and it rolled into a canyon. That's why I was walking when I met you in that bar. G.o.d, it seems like it was years ago. How long has it been really? A couple of days? A week? More?"
"I don't know, Li'l lady."
"It feels like forever. And we've barely begun this journey. I wonder how long it'll take."
"Until we reach the end," said Undead Elvis.
"I'm glad you're traveling with me."
"I'm glad to go along for the ride."
Hope put The Way into gear and let out the clutch. "Yeah, we'll see about that. Hang on."
She stabbed The Way through gear after gear until she ran out. The speedometer needle climbed past a hundred and stopped a few seconds later at 120, not because they topped out at that speed, but because the speedometer didn't go any higher. The engine howled as it tried to breathe enough of the smoky air. Heat poured from all the vents as it sought any escape from the engine compartment. Ash began to blow off the body panels, making Hope feel like she was driving through a thick fog bank. Nevertheless, she resisted the urge to turn on the headlights. She could see the great wall of fire with the narrow gap in it. That gap was the road, and only two trucks and several dozen people lay between her and that goal.
Members of the Righteous Flame stirred as The Way's roar became audible to them over the noise of the fire. Hope imagined they looked up the road to see a ghostly vision bearing down upon them through smoke and ash, like some kind of avenging beast h.e.l.l-bent upon punishing them for their grisly rituals and slaughtering their own for meat.
The preacher bared his teeth and screamed pure hatred at them as they flashed past the parked trucks. Even in the near darkness and backlit by flames, Hope saw veins popped out against his forehead and the tendons of his throat stood sharp as razors. For a fraction of a second, his gaze met Hope's and she knew he wouldn't give up until he made her pay. His fingers wrenched into claws and his shriek of "Burn you!" rose even above the throbbing exhaust.
A body bounced off the front fender and a squeak of terror escaped from between Hope's clenched teeth as a stubbled face with broken teeth and rheumy eyes flashed past her window, carved into a rictus of fear and pain.
Then they were past the throng and racing for the edge of the flames. Hope glanced in her mirror and saw people milling about, like they'd awakened from a deep sleep too soon. Maybe she'd somehow broken the spell woven by their leader. She hoped so.
For a moment, heat flashed all around as The Way burst through the edge of the fire line. Hope felt the skin on the left side of her face tighten from the intense burning. Then they were through it, racing underneath a dark canopy of trees. She turned on the lights.
The air cooled right away, and instead of stifling, smoky heat, the breeze blowing in her face was heady and redolent with the green scents of life. It invigorated her and she drove, putting as many miles as she could between herself and the Righteous Flame. After awhile, the only hint of smoke came from the car's interior and her clothing, and even the glow of the fire behind had vanished. Instead, the pure white moonlight filtered down through the canopy of overhead greenery.
They came to a break in the trees and Hope gasped. It seemed as if the sky was laid out across the ground before her. Then she realized the road skirted a lake or reservoir that reflected the stars. She stood on the brakes. The Way skidded to a halt at the road's edge.
"Come on, Elvis!" Hope threw open her door and started to pick her way down the stony bank to the water's edge. When she reached it, she crouched down to feel the water with her hands. It was cool, but not so cold that she wouldn't be able to tolerate it. She stepped into it, shrieking with laughter as it seeped into her boots.
"Be careful, Li'l lady," said Undead Elvis as he came to the edge of the bank. His white jumpsuit, as clean as ever, shimmered in the moonlight.
Hope ignored him and picked her way into waist-deep water. She shivered a bit at the chill, but the feel of caked-on dirt and ash washing away was worth every tremble. She didn't care if there were fish, snakes, sharks, or parasites. Taking a deep breath, she plunged full on into the water, submerging herself completely. Cool water seeped into her ears, making a muscle in her neck twitch. She shook her head under the water to let it soak her hair all the way to the roots.
She stayed under as long as she could stand it. When her lungs started to burn, she broke the surface, running her fingers through her sopping hair and laughing. Her Catholic schoolgirl outfit clung to her b.r.e.a.s.t.s like she was a finalist in a Spring Break wet t-shirt contest.
She splashed over to Undead Elvis. "Come on in! The water's fine."
"I don't think so, Li'l lady."
"Fine, then. You can watch my clothes while I swim. G.o.d, I'd do just about anything for some shampoo, body wash, and a razor." She giggled. "And as long as I'm wishing, how about a four-star hotel with free room service and a cabana boy to ma.s.sage my feet?"
"We'll find those things in Graceland. I'm still The King."
"I'm going to hold you to that, King Elvis." Hope unb.u.t.toned her dripping top and threw it at him. Her plaid skirt and thong followed a moment later. She kept her boots on in case there were sharp rocks. She didn't mind being naked in front of him; years of stripping had taken away her sense of modesty. Besides, he was dead. Surely he wasn't stimulated by her... was he?
She c.o.c.ked her a.s.s at a sultry angle and put her hands on her hips. She thrust her shoulders forward to enhance her cleavage for him. The moonlight and water would highlight the dichotomy of gentle soft curves and hard, taut muscles. "You like what you see, Your Majesty?" She dropped her voice into the low, husky register she used on stage.
He turned his head a little and Hope could tell he was averting his eyes behind his sungla.s.ses. "You're very pretty, Li'l lady, but I don't feel right ogling you. It ain't polite."
"I don't mind." She twirled as if she were a model on a fashion runway instead of knee-deep in a lake.
"You go on and swim. I'll keep an eye on your things."
Hope smiled. "You're sweet, Elvis. It's a shame you're, you know, dead."
Hope wasn't much of a swimmer, but she splashed around in the shallows, full of good cheer and carefree. When water got in her mouth, she swallowed it. It was cool and clean and revived her as much as a good, strong cup of coffee. Her water-hungry flesh absorbed more through her skin and when at last she tired of the exercise, she felt satiated and full, like a leaky tire that had been patched and refilled. She wandered back to the bank where Undead Elvis was alternately swirling her clothes in the lake water and then pounding them against rocks.
"You intending me to stay naked?" Hope smiled at him. "Looks like you're destroying my favorite outfit."
"I heard this was how they used to wash clothing when they didn't have soap." Undead Elvis twisted and rolled the skirt, squeezing water out of it. After repeating the process a couple more times, he couldn't wring any more droplets from it and he handed the damp cloth back to Hope.
She sniffed at it. "Well, at least it doesn't stink anymore. Thanks."
"My pleasure, Li'l lady."
Hope stretched out on the soft gra.s.s above the lake and let the cool breeze dry her skin and hair. Instead of dressing in the damp clothing, she hung it from branches to dry further. She was just drifting off to sleep when she heard a twig snap and a rustle in the underbrush. She sat up. "Elvis? Where's the gun?" she whispered.
"It's in the car," he said. "Do you want me to fetch it for you?"
She considered. The noise in the brush wasn't repeated. Perhaps it was just an animal.
Perhaps it wasn't.
Heart pounding with fresh fear, Hope yanked her boots back on and grabbed her clothes. "Come on, Elvis, I think we need to get on the road."
"What is it?"
"I heard something in the woods."
"Might just be an animal."
"It's night time. Any animal out and about now is going to be hunting, and I'd rather not be dinner. Or worse." She pulled on her thong and skirt. The cool dampness made her shiver. She tried to look in every direction at once, her back to the driver's side door of The Way, while shrugging into the white Oxford. She didn't bother to b.u.t.ton it, instead just tying the bottom together into a knot to hold the shirt around her waist. "Get in the car."
Fluttering black shadows rose from the trees around the lake to swirl overhead like leaves in a dust devil. Hope squealed in fear and started the car. "Elvis, get in the d.a.m.n car! What are you doing?"
He was bent over the bed, tapping the fifty-five gallon drum. "It sounds awful empty, Li'l lady."
"I don't care how empty it is, we're leaving."
Hope revved the engine in impatience as Undead Elvis climbed into the pa.s.senger seat. As soon as he sat, she goosed the engine and popped the clutch. The Way squealed its tires and fishtailed as Hope fought the wheel. She looked in the rear view mirror and saw no sign of the black birds, although she knew in the darkness against the canopy of the forest she might not see them at all. Their only chance would be to outrun them.
"What are those birds doing, anyway?" she asked. Her eyes ached as she tried to see to the very edge of the headlights' glow. Trees whipped past on either side, making a repet.i.tious whuff sound.
"I don't know, Li'l lady."
"Are they following us? Why do they keep turning up?"
"I don't know that either."
Hope glanced at the rear view mirror, wondering if she could spot any of the birds fluttering after them, but she couldn't see anything but darkness and the distant glow of the Righteous Flame's fireline. "Every time they come around, something bad-"
Before she could finish her sentence, a great antlered beast leaped out from the trees in front of the speeding car. Hope didn't even have time to shriek as they smashed into the n.o.ble animal.
Everything went dark for Hope.
Hope and Saint Mary's Hope rose into consciousness at a measured pace, like an ascending diving bell. She had no clear memory of falling asleep, nor of the room she occupied. She lay on a soft bed with white sheets and a blue and white afghan. Pillows rested under her knees and head. She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so comfortable.
She started to look around and learned that moving her head made her very dizzy, so she settled for moving only her eyes. The room seemed small but airy, with white walls and ceiling and solid wooden fixtures. A bas-relief of Christ on the Cross hung on the wall opposite her bed where her eyes would naturally fall upon it. She wondered where she was. Had she been dreaming? Vague, unsettling memories of the world ending and burning death lurked at the edges of her consciousness like a half-remembered dream.
Then she felt fluttering movement in her belly, and she gasped. She was pregnant! She remembered that much. Her hands flew to her stomach. Once it had been taut. Now it had a gentle swell. She marveled at the change and the feel of independent motion deep within herself.
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