It was her hands. They were the strangest thing about Carolyn. Her hands were large and rough looking, reddened with hard work, and not feminine at all.
The knuckles were large and the nails were squared and trimmed short. In every sense of the word, they were not a woman’s hands. They were too coarse and wrinkled and large to belong to a woman as slender and delicate as she.
Yet when she spoke, she also talked with her hands. And her hands were graceful as they traced out the motions of her words. They would flit from one place to another, dancing fluidly. I was reminded at times of a flock of birds taking wing, startled by a sudden noise but never losing their grace in fear.
Her hands were beautiful when she spoke.
I watched them as they counted money, the blunt fingers flipping through various bills from various places. Different colors flashed past my eyes as she paged through a symbolic journey around the world, some red, some blue, some green, some in every hue of the rainbow.
The bills made a rasping sound as the papers rubbed up against each other in her large hands. She was silent now and her hands were not dancing.
She was tall, almost fragile in how thin she was, but her presence was big. She filled the room with her slow, deep drawl and the hands that moved to the rhythm of her words.
I looked down at my own hands and wondered at the difference. My hands were soft, their skin pale and nails delicately pointed. I was pretty and small, the total opposite of her. But when I spoke my hands did not dance, and I felt ugly for it.
“Here,” she said in a southern accent that dripped from her lips like a dark honey. Her long fingers wrapped themselves around a bill of Trader’s Scrip in shades of azure and green, pulling it from the bundle with a decisive jerk. “All we need is to spend the night. We’ll leave first thing.”
With a flourish she then flipped her hand up and over to hand it to the man who waited there. Even that simple motion was a dance.
He watched her uneasily, eyes going from the valuable piece of paper she held and then back to the roll of bills she grasped in her other hand. Only crazy people traveled alone now, his eyes said. Only those that wanted to die left the shelter of their homes and moved from place to place. Even Traders carried stronghouses with them.
Greed warred with caution in his eyes. The bill she held before him could buy many things these people needed, but at the price of allowing a pair of strangers into his stronghouse. In this day, that could be deadly.
The man’s eyes passed from her to me. He was a large man. His bald head was covered with a fine sheen of sweat in the afternoon heat and his skin was grub pale. I watched in disgusted fascination as a bead of perspiration rolled from the top of his shaved pate, down the roll of his cheek and into the valley of his nose. The tip of a pink tongue flicked out from between his fleshy lips and licked it away. It was a snakelike, predatory motion. It chilled me.
He took the paper she offered and ran his pudgy fingertips back and forth across the writing, almost as if he was considering sending us back out to die that night.
After what seemed an eternity he finally made the brightly colored bill disappear into the pocket of his shirt, then pushed two dull brass tokens across the tabletop with a rasp.
Carolyn watched his hand linger on the metal disks, almost as if he were still unsure if we were worthy to survive the night in his fine abode. I looked around the room again and sighed silently. Even before the Ending Times, this place would have been a dump but I was sure that the condition had only worsened since then.
The ceiling stains seemed almost comprised of tobacco spit, they were so brown and dark. In some places they ran down onto the walls, causing the plaster to swell and flake off in large pieces that still lay where they fell. A musty smell permeated the place, telling of mold, mildew, insects, and the occasional rodent hidden between the walls. Only the fat man smelled worse.
I had seen a state of disrepair in almost every place I had been since They had come, but some places were more broken down than others. People who still had hope, no matter how tenuous, were cleaner than those with none. Judging by this place, these people had no hope left at all.
The windows were thrown wide open, heavy wood shutters creaking on their hinges outside, inviting whatever breeze there might be to come in and cool the room. Thus far, the invitation had been refused and the room seemed even more sweltering than the sun beating down outside. I suspected the breeze was smarter than Carolyn and I were at this point.
The heavy black drapes on the inside and the wooden shutters on the outside seemed the only things in this place that were kept in good repair. It made sense. When your life depended on something, you tended to keep it well.
I turned back to see the man finally take his hand from the disks and watched her pick them up with a flourish that made the dull brass sparkle in the dimness of the room. But I always thought that everything she touched sparkled. It was in her nature.
“We lock up tight soon. This is the town stronghouse, so everyone stays here.” The man broke his gaze away to leer at me. “Don’t you think you’ll be getting a bed to sleep in unless you’re sharing it with someone else.” The scent of his breath overpowered the sour sweat smell of his body and my stomach heaved despite my best efforts.
Carolyn put her arm around my shoulders and pulled me to her. “We’re grateful for the floor.” Her other hand covered her heart as she bowed her head towards the man.
His eyes flicked from one to the other of us again and his eyes narrowed. An almost obscene smile ghosted his lips and he spoke to Carolyn again. “I don’t care which way you and your pretty friend go, lady. Just make sure you don’t do anything immoral under my roof.”
I felt Carolyn’s hand squeeze my arm hard as I choked down a retort, and then she answered him. “I know we’re strangers, and we’re grateful for you opening your stronghouse to us. We won’t do anything to make you regret that. Will we, Bean?” She looked down at me, green eyes coolly encouraging me as she gestured, her other hand tracing symbols of reassurance that only she knew.
I forced myself to smile, dimpling prettily as I knew how to do to make myself innocently vapid. “Of course not.” I looked back over to the fat man and batted my eyelashes at him, feeling my gorge rise the entire time I did so.
He grunted and sat back in his chair, eyeing us both with unmitigated suspicion. After a long moment he jerked his chin towards the back wall. I watched his jowls ripple hypnotically before I felt Carolyn tugging on my arm, leading me towards an empty spot of floor.
She kicked some of the larger pieces of broken plaster into a pile as I opened our pack and spread a small blanket over what remained of the carpeting. I pulled off my hiking boots and opened a small pack of beef jerky, offering her a piece in full view of the fat man who had turned to watch our every move.
She hesitated for the barest moment and then took the food with a muttered word of thanks. It wasn’t as if she needed it, but I was a strong believer in keeping up appearances. Sinking gracefully to the floor and chewing, she then absently scratched her left shoulder blade, brushing her dark hair out of the way in the process.
“What do you think?” I whispered the question in my softest voice but it was met with a fluid gesture, a hand drawn straight across the front of her chest, and then two fingers gestured to her eyes. Quiet. Watch.
I nodded minutely and then passed her another piece of jerky. She grimaced at the taste but didn’t complain.
The fat man had focused his attention to the receding line of sun on the floor in front of his chair. I could read tension in the set of his head and neck.
Carolyn followed my gaze and then spoke softly, her hands subdued as well, only making the slightest motion. “Sun’s sinking. They’ll be here soon.” She switched her attention to her right shoulder blade, acting for all the world as if she’d commented about the weather.
A shadow fell across the door, momentarily darkening the room as a tall man walked in. His dark hair fell across his face, almost obscuring brown eyes. He was wiry thin, but exuded a brutal strength with every step.
He flashed the fat man the brass disc that he wore around his neck, and then stopped still when he saw us in the back. His eyes flickered to the two disks that rested on the edge of our blanket and then he turned to glower at the fat man.
With a dark look at us, the fat man shrugged. “They paid for a spot with Trader’s Scrip. Leave them be.”
The thin man stared at us again, and then shrugged. He picked up a hammer from the window ledge and began to pull the shutters closed against the coming night.
With a loud clunk the first shutter locked into place and was wedged shut with heavy wooden shims. Locking pins followed, hammered from the body of the shutters into the walls. The room became dim and I watched the afterimages of the man burned on my retinas long after he had been swallowed by darkness.
Blinking blindly as the other people filed in, I watched each one show their brass disk to claim their right to live through the night.
Some were old, some were not so old. Men and women. There were no children, of course. Children were innocents, and there were no innocents left on the Earth.
Without exception they stared at us openly, shocked to find strangers in their midst.
“Is this wise?” asked a tremulous old man as his swollen hands fumbled through his shirt for his disk. “How do you know you can trust them? How can you be sure they won’t bring Them upon us?”
The fat man grunted, not even bothering to answer anymore.
The second shutter fell into place with an even louder noise and the room grew darker.
THUNK. Another shutter closed, and the hammering of the locking pins into the wall was almost drowned out by the beating of my heart. This was the worst part, the time when claustrophobia seemed to bear down on me, make my nerves jangle and my lungs fight for every breath. I could feel the hair on my arms stand up as I started to tremble. I knew what was to come, and I feared it. I hated this.
Just when I felt as though I would start sobbing in terror, calm ran through me, soothing my frayed nerves and easing the tight band around my chest. I opened my clenched eyes to find Carolyn, thin lips barely turned up and her hand gently pressed on my forehead, almost as if pushing the fear away. Calm, the gesture seemed to say. This will be over soon.
I caught my breath in a silent sob, grateful as always that she was there. Carolyn was my light in the darkness.
The last people shuffled into the room, each heading to their own small area. Some had small mattresses or even cots. Others were like us, on a thin blanket. But each had their own place to be, their sense of community no matter how tenuous, while we were strangers in their world.
The wiry man stood by the door, holding it open until the last person shuffled in. He glanced back at us and I saw his eyes narrow, almost as if he would have preferred to have us on the other side of the door when night fell.
At a nod from the fat man, he slammed the door shut and threw a heavy bar across the frame. Wooden shims followed, wedging it securely shut. The setting sun bled red light that oozed through the cracks in the shutters. Then even that light was dowsed as the heavy black drapes were pulled shut.
With the room plunged into total darkness, my other senses became sharper. It was apparent that there had been a small breeze before because now the air had grown even more stifling. The smell of unwashed bodies mixed with the sickly sweet smell of decay coming from the walls made me want to vomit even though I’d been unable to eat earlier.
The soft scratching sound of a match being struck was followed by the sharp scent of sulfur and a gentle golden glow as a woman next to us lit a candle. Other candles soon followed, seeming like a field of fireflies coming to rest in the room and making it seem more welcoming.
“Zeke says you’re traveling alone, just the two of you.”
I jumped as the woman spoke in low tones. She jerked her chin towards the fat man who had finally gotten up from his seat and waddled towards the back of the room. “I didn’t think that anyone was brave –or stupid — enough to travel anymore. Where are you going?”
Her hair was long, flowing in brown waves to her shoulders. The candlelight softened her features and made her look prettier than I suspected she really was. She cradled the stub of candle in her hand and then put it gingerly on the floor between our blankets.
Her clothing was dirty but had once been of fine quality. She gently held a baby doll, its small face smudged with dirt. One blue glass eye stared at me cheerfully despite the gaping hole where the other eye had been. Once-golden curls covered half of the doll’s head, leaving the rest bare and covered with small holes where hair had been rooted. The woman clutched the doll to her breast and hummed tunelessly to it, rocking back and forth as she watched us and waited for an answer.
I glanced over to Carolyn–her green eyes glowing in the dark-—and was answered with a nod.
I swallowed, clearing my throat of the dry fear that had closed it off before. “We’re headed East.” I said, remembering our cover story. “I had family out there and I’ve been looking for them.”
Her brown eyes flickered from Carolyn to me and back again. “I see.” Her voice was neutral, almost flat. “Have you been through Putnam? I had family there.”
I paused, trying to remember the towns we’d seen, but was unable to remember that name. “I don’t think so.” I looked down at my hands. “Not many towns left out west, I’m afraid.” I didn’t tell her why.
She nodded, rocking the doll absently as she did so. She couldn’t have been more than nineteen when The End came, I thought to myself.
“I didn’t think so, but it never hurts to ask.” Her voice was sad and low.
Carolyn leaned forward. “I don’t remember that town. I don’t think we came that way.” She paused and then continued, “I’m sorry.” Her drawl was soft and rich, as comforting and deep as a feather bed on a cold night.
The woman accepted this with a slight nod. She then turned to look at me again. “Tell me what it’s like out there.”
I blinked in surprise. It was shocking enough that she had chosen to speak with us-—most people in the settlements didn’t—-but to ask about the world outside? No one had ever done that. I finally swallowed and wet my dry lips. “Dead. Everything is dead.” I couldn’t keep the despair from my voice. “They come every night and destroy more and more. Soon there will be nothing left but flames and death.”
She closed her eyes and held the doll tighter. “I keep praying that they won’t come here, but I wonder how long we really have.” She cocked her head towards the shutters and heavy drapes. “We hear them in the night, screaming and howling, but they rarely bother us. Zeke thinks that they’ve found things more interesting than us out there and we’ve been lucky.”
Carolyn spoke again, her hands leaping into action. “Luck doesn’t play into it. They’ll be here in their own time, you’ll see.” Her hands moved, but I found only cold beauty in their dance this time, not comfort.
The woman nodded again, and I felt sympathy rise in my heart for her and her small, lost doll. “What was her name?” I found myself asking before I realized what I was saying.
The woman froze and then smiled, her small, white teeth showing in the saddest smile I’d ever seen. “Jessica. Her name was Jessica.” She caressed the doll’s dirty locks and I felt my heart break in my chest, leaving raw edges to rub against my ribs. Or at least the sharp pains felt that way.
“I had a daughter too, before all this happened.” The words tumbled from my lips. I felt rather than saw Carolyn stiffen next to me, her large hand resting on my shoulder. “I miss her so much it hurts. I can’t sleep and not dream of her.”
The woman nodded, her dark hair falling forward to hide her face as her shoulders shook with hidden tears. After several moments, she gasped to calm herself and then raised her face to look me in the eye. “I understand.”
I turned again to Carolyn and caught her examining the woman, seeming to memorize every detail. Could this woman be what we were looking for? Carolyn then studied the doll clutched in the thin arms, an unfeeling repository for all the love a broken woman had left to bestow. I would have given anything to know what thoughts ran behind the pools of green ice in her eyes.
Maybe it was because of everything I’d been through with Carolyn, or perhaps from my strange state of almost grace, but I always knew when the sun set. I couldn’t describe what it felt like if asked, of course. Maybe a twinge of sadness mixed with regret and fear and some other unnamable emotions? No. But it didn’t matter how dark and deep we were, or how many shutters or boards were on the doors, I always knew they were coming long before they arrived.
Hair stood up on the nape of my neck and I leaned back against Carolyn, taking an animal comfort in the warmth of her body. Was it like this before man rose up and walked on two legs, I wondered. Was it like this, huddled in front of fires in drafty caves, waiting for whatever it was outside in the dark to leave? I didn’t know, and Carolyn wasn’t talking.
Far, far away a scream sounded. It sounded like a rusty valve on an old pipe, squealing in protest as part of it was sheared off to make the joints turn. The low murmur of voices went silent as everyone in the stronghouse listened and waited. No air moved; no one dared to breathe and disturb the silence.
After a long moment, the woman next to us sighed audibly in her relief. She met my eyes again, this time with a slight smile. “I don’t think they’ll be here tonight.”
I nodded back to her, but I was unable to smile. The calls still echoing in my mind were causing some primal part of me to shiver in fear, drawing up some memory from long ago. Licking dry lips, I spoke to hide my terror. “I remember reading that people in the middle ages feared that Satan walked among them. They actually thought that he would come up behind them in the dark and carry them away to Hell. I remember laughing at the idea. I mean, how stupid did you have to be to believe in something so ludicrous?” I laughed bitterly at my own words.
Flipping her dark hair back, the woman gripped the doll a little tighter to her chest and then answered. “I guess they were right all along. It would almost be funny if we weren’t here, wouldn’t it?”
Low voices and quiet laughter began to fill the room again as the townspeople began to come to life, their fears settled by the silence from outside.
Suddenly, a noise that was the cross between a moan and a howl came from the other side of the door, causing my teeth to clench, silently grinding to prevent a scream of terror from escaping my lips. The sound was lonely, and full of cold pain and something completely inhuman and indescribable. A gasp and a sob came from someone on the other side of the room and then the room went dead silent, every ear straining to listen.
There was a scratching on the door, at first gentle then harder as whatever it was on the other side tried to find some way in. The door began to rattle and shake violently, but wouldn’t budge. The wood was solid and the locking bar was strong.
A different howl– this one more sharp and cruel– came from the other side of the stronghouse, followed by a thrashing against the heavy wooden shutters. A woman nearby screamed, and the battering intensified in response. Her cries grew louder and others began to wail and sob.
Zeke ran out from the small curtained alcove on the back wall he had retired to earlier. His movements were fleet and graceful, belying his bulk. I watched as he reached the screaming woman and slapped her, causing her head to snap back and hit the wall behind her.
“STOP IT!” he hissed at woman. “The house is strong, the shutters and door are thick. They cannot break through.” The heavy drapes behind him began to sway from the force of the blows raining down on the shutters from the other side. Creaking sounds from the wood seemed to counter his words, but he continued, this time speaking to the entire room. “They won’t get in, and they’ll get bored and move on. Just keep quiet so they’ll leave!”
His words seemed to bolster the others even though they huddled together in fear. Some smothered sobs in their sleeves but remained silent as the creatures outside tried to force their way into the room.
The sounds at the door had changed, almost as if whatever it was had stopped hammering and was now running long talons up and down the door trying to shred its way in.
“See?” Zeke hissed again. “They can’t get in. Calm down.”
I felt rather then heard the third creature arrive, its heavy gait on the roof causing old plaster to rain down on us as it paced back and forth above us, searching for some weakness, some way to get in. It screamed in frustration and slithered back and forth, down the side of the house and back up again. It was joined by another, and then more. Their number was beyond counting now.
The wails from outside were horrific, causing everyone except Carolyn to cringe in terror. She just sat behind me, smoothing my hair with her cool, weathered hands and humming tonelessly. Funny to think she couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, actually. Irony struck me at the strangest times.
The creatures were still trying to get in. They pounded on the doors and windows, clawed at the roof, scrabbled at the bricks outside. All the while, we waited inside and prayed for the sun to rise.
“I told you!” A thin, tremulous voice rose above the noise outside. The old man who had questioned our presence earlier was yanking on Zeke’s arm and pointing at us. “I told you they would bring Them on us. How could you let them in?”
Zeke swatted down the old man with ease, but the seed was already planted.
The wiry man leaned forward. “They’ve never been this persistent before, Zeke. I think he’s right. They drew Them here.” The sweat on his brow glittered in the candlelight as his dark eyes promised horrible things for us.
A pale, colorless woman spoke from her pallet from the far side of the dark haired woman. “I heard the tall one say that they would come ‘in their own time’. They brought Them on us, both of them.” There was a frightened murmur of agreement as the every eye turned to look at us with suspicion. I could feel Carolyn’s hand on my shoulder, tight and firm, giving me strength to endure this in silence.
The howls outside sounded almost gleeful in their efforts. The sound of splintering wood began to fill the air.
“Zeke! They’re breaking in!” The woman next to us shrieked and held the doll close, shielding it from the horrors that lived in the dark.
Beads of sweat gathered on Zeke’s bald pate as he looked from the door to the two of us huddled on the thin blanket. His eyes narrowed and then widened as another loud crack filled the air. “If you think they brought them on, then we’ll throw them out.” His voice was strangled as he rushed onwards. “That’ll give Them something else to keep busy with until sunup. We can fix everything before They come back tomorrow.”
I felt my jaw drop in horror. “NO!” I felt the word explode from my lungs. “How could you do such a thing? We’ve done nothing to deserve this!”
A man materialized by my side, hauling me to my feet while the wiry man grabbed Carolyn and did the same to her. Zeke’s voice was harsh as he handed a length of rope to my captor. “Don’t tie her feet. The longer they can run, the further they’ll take Them away from the stronghouse.”
I struggled, the sour smell of my panic filling my nostrils as rough cord was wrapped around my wrists. The tears I shed were real, as they were every night. “No!” I begged. “Please don’t do this. You can’t do this, for pity’s sake.”
Others surrounded us, holding us still. Or at least holding me still. Carolyn didn’t struggle at all except to snatch her hands back from the wiry man.
Her voice boomed out across the room, deep and commanding. “Is there no one here who will speak for us?” Her hands swept out in front of her, including all the people in the stronghouse. “Is there no one who will stop this from happening?” Her green eyes flashed, and the people went still. No one would look into her eyes, so they focused instead on her long fingers that beckoned and pleaded.
She asked again, this time raising both her hands above her head towards the heavens. “Is there no one here who will even try to help us?” Silence greeted her again, and then a rough shove from the man as he captured her wrists and silenced her hands with rope that should have made her wrists bleed.
The clattering from outside was louder now; the creatures were anticipating their feast. The sounds of fragmenting wood continued to grow and spread to one of the shutters. They were making fast work of the stronghouse.
I whimpered in pain as I was hauled towards the door by my hair, and I heard Carolyn being dragged behind me. She spoke one last time, her drawl soft with sadness, but still audible. “Will no one say anything?”
The wiry man grabbed the hammer and began to knock the wedges out of the door frame. “When we shove you out, run as fast as you can.” He grunted his instructions between impacts. “Maybe you’ll get away.” He turned to me and smiled a grim smile that chilled me even more than the screams outside.
I spat at him. “Watch I don’t try to run back inside and bring one of them back on you, you bastard.”
He brandished the hammer at me, thought better of it and then continued to loosen the door. I was more valuable alive. The rattling at the door had stopped. The creatures knew what was coming.
I looked back over my shoulder to the people in the room and despaired. There was no one there who would speak for us, again. I turned to my other shoulder and looked at Carolyn. Her hands couldn’t dance, and she was pale and drawn.
“WAIT!” A voice rang out in the stronghouse, echoing against the walls. My heart grew wings and took flight in my chest, almost ready to burst through my ribcage in joy. Finally.
“WAIT!” The dark haired woman yelled again as she struggled to her feet and through the crowd of people who surrounded us. “Wait, Zeke.” She put her hand on my arm as she came level, the other arm still wrapped around the poor, pitiful doll. “Don’t throw them out.”
“What?” Zeke growled at her, but she didn’t back down.
“You said they had Trader’s Scrip, Zeke. Don’t throw them out without taking it first. They don’t need it. We do.” A sad smile traced her lips as she half-shrugged at me and then turned away.
My heart deflated and sank to the pit of my stomach while my tongue stuck to the top of my mouth. I stared at her back and wept inside. So close. So close. Zeke’s hands groped over first Carolyn and then me, searching for anything of value, his very touch a desecration.
He then met my gaze steadily and patted me on the head. “Run fast. Lead them away from us, strangers. Die well.”
The last wedge fell from the door and the wiry man leaned his weight against the locking bar, lifting and pushing as hard as he could as Zeke placed a hand squarely in each of our backs and shoved us into the night.
It was dark, so very dark, and the only light was a wedge on the ground from the door that disappeared as it was slammed behind us. I blinked and looked up. An endless length of black velvet spangled with stars and a crescent moon hung so close that I could reach up my hands and touch them.
The night air was cool and clean, not foul like in the stronghouse. I breathed deeply, savoring the feel of it in my lungs and the taste of it on my tongue. The bitter flavor of the woman’s betrayal still burned my mouth.
I felt Them before I saw Them. Their bodies flew towards us, small whirlwinds of darkness with yellow eyes that promised death to all they touched. I stumbled as the first one brushed against me, and then fell back against Carolyn who stood solid and unafraid.
The creatures paused and then surrounded us with their darkness, enveloping us and lifting us away from the ground, carrying us up and above the buildings of the town and into the nearby woods. The wind gusted through my hair as I watched the stars above us.
Solid ground appeared again beneath our feet and I stumbled, unable to keep my balance with my hands bound. I dropped to the ground and bowed my head, tears running down my face.
“I can’t do this anymore, Carolyn. I can’t.” I tried to hold myself up but fell, landing face first in the dirt. I lay there, unable to do more than sob helplessly.
I felt Carolyn’s warm hand on my shoulder as she softly patted me and caused the rope on my wrists to fall away. Another gentle touch healed my scrapes.
A hissing voice cut though my sobs. “I assume there is no one to save?”
I pulled myself to my elbows and then to sit up as Carolyn spoke to the demon, one hand still on me, the other tracing a negative in the air. “No. No one is to be spared.”
The demon cocked his head at me, his dark skin shining in the moonlight. Small horns sat on his forehead and his eyes were a baleful yellow. They blinked at me and he clumsily reached over to pat me on the shoulder. His touch was like fire and ice rolled into one. “You walk on now. We’ll wait till you’re further away so you can’t hear the screaming.”
I flinched. How pathetic was I to inspire pity in a creature that was by its very nature pitiless? “Would you really do such a thing? That almost seems like a kindness.”
“Not kindness, really.” He smiled, swiping his tongue across his teeth. “It makes them think that throwing you out worked and makes them relax. Their terror is so much more delicious when we return for them after a long quiet time.” He wriggled his eyebrows obscenely at me. “One person’s kindness is another’s cruelty. Time to walk on now. Let us work.” He smiled again and then drew the darkness around himself and left.
I turned to Carolyn and gasped. Seeing her in her true form always undid me.
She was radiant, glowing softly in the moonlight, her hair blowing gently in the breeze and gilded with her own inner light. Her eyes were no longer green but black with fields of stars, the gaze of the eternal. The faintest suggestion of wings traced behind her, brushing the ground with light. She was beautiful beyond words, and my throat closed up with my love for her.
Her hand still rested on my shoulder, and I looked at it. Her hands were the hands that razed city walls and rained fire and brimstone from the skies, and they were large and roughened from such hard work. But they still danced when she spoke, tracing patterns of beauty and comfort. Of all of her, her hands were the most beautiful part.
I felt a sob rise in my throat and I choked the words out. “I can’t do this any more, Carolyn. I can’t keep going through this every night. I don’t think we’ll ever find anyone.”
She spoke, her voice low but powerful and still with that dark, honeyed drawl. “He swore that He’d save the Earth if I found ten good people left, Bean. That’s all. Just ten. That’s not so many.” Her hand left my shoulder and traced a one and a zero. “That’s all.”
“He took all the good people already. You know that, I know that. There’s nothing left but the dregs. There is nothing good or wholesome left on the Earth.” I looked straight into her star-filled eyes and felt the world spin under me as I stared into eternity. “I can’t even remember how long we’ve been looking, Carolyn. We’ll never find ten good people. Never.”
She smiled down at me, and with one long finger gently tapped my nose. “Nine, Bean. We only need nine. I found you, remember?”
I closed my eyes and thought back to the day long ago that Carolyn had come to our stronghouse and I had spoken for her. I had argued and begged and pleaded for them not to throw her into the night, but they did and then threw me out with her.
I had passed the test the others had failed.
I opened my eyes to her and felt a tear work its way down my cheek. Watching as Carolyn touched it, I wondered for the millionth time if she ever wanted to weep, or if she even could.
“It’s time to walk on, Bean. They’ll be starting soon.” She swept her hand to indicate the road before us that led to the next village on our search.
“Will we find someone there?” I couldn’t keep the sound of despair from my voice.
She smiled sadly and shrugged, her hands still pointing towards the road. “We’ll never know unless we try, will we?”
I crawled to my feet and put one foot numbly in front of the other as Carolyn fell into step, humming in that off-key way of hers. It still amazed me that a member of the heavenly choir couldn’t carry a tune.
But it didn’t matter because her hands danced for us as we walked.
Irene Ferris was inspired to write this story after trying to explain the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to her young daughter. This is her first published story.
Elizabeth Seelye, illustrator, is a Grand Valley State University graduate with a BFA in illustration. She lives a quiet life at home drawing, surrounding herself with books, and pampering a cat who seems to think she is the Queen of All Things.