Vengeance Is Mine
“You know he near broke my arm? First time I ever saw him?”
Abigail fixed Lucas with a look, though his eyes were focused on the road ahead. “You’re jerking my chain.”
“I ain’t. Saying it true,” he replied, voice earnest. “Went on over by the clinic after Eli told us he was settin’ up shop. Only I musta said a wrong word, ’cause he didn’t doctor me so much as bend my arm behind my back and slam me ‘gainst the nearest wall.”
Abigail shook her head in disbelief. “Why for?”
“Don’t much remember.”
“Maybe you said a crossed word about God.”
Lucas laughed. “Could be. Don’t think it took too much, anyroad.”
Abigail found Lucas was easy company. They’d spent some time together in Phoenix, talking over memories of Elias, their experiences with Doc Valentine. Visiting Elias had left her at a loss. After a few days of idling in the city, Lucas had suggested she join him on the return to Perdition, maybe see if they could turn up anything about the bogeyman they’d been chasing – the Charming Man or the Dearest Brother, whatever it was you called him.
It hadn’t been much but an idle thought Lucas had thrown out, but Abigail felt herself latch onto it. Now it seemed felt like something important, something she had to do.
The hand of God at work, maybe.
“You think he’s a good guy?” Lucas said suddenly, interrupting her thoughts. “The Doc, I mean? You think he means well?”
Abigail hesitated for a moment before answering. Something about the way Lucas asked made it clear the question was important to him. “Lotta sumbitches in the world mean well, Lucas. Road to Hell’s paved with good intentions, y’know?”
“Guess that’s true,” Lucas replied, crestfallen.
“Doc’s a driven man,” she added, feeling like she should say something more, something to break the pall that gathered around Lucas. “Hard to fault him for that. Might be a little misguided, you know? Seems the kind of guy who only knows how to solve his problems the one way.”
“He was getting better,” Lucas said eagerly. “Doc’n Eli, they was thick as thieves. And after that time he near broke my arm, well, he didn’t try and do it again. He did right by us. You didn’t come to him for a bedside manner, sure, but he made sure you walked out healthy as could be. You don’t know our town too well, Ms Abigail, but in Perdition that means a whole heckuva lot.”
“But sometimes he slips back, right? Sometimes you see the stormclouds.”
“Yeah. Worse since Eli went away.”
She shook her head. “I have this rule. The more someone says they’re sorry, less they actually mean it.”
“Every man casts his shadow,” Lucas said, after chewing the thought over for a moment. She got the sense he was quoting something, though she didn’t know what.
The truck angled down as they hit a defile in the road. When they came back up, Perdition sat visible ahead of them. A small cluster of low buildings, with the chapel’s tower standing clear of the skyline.
“Maybe I’ve steered you wrong, bringing you here,” Lucas said. “Eli never hid anything from us. Too good for that. He just weren’t one for secrets.”
“No,” Abigail said, eyes fixed on the bright white body of the church, “but he was one for God.”
The yellow truck pulled up outside the chapel with a bang. Abigail looked skeptically at Lucas.
“It s’posed to do that?” she said.
“She’s like most girls,” he replied, patting the wheel. “She does what she wants.”
Abigail pinned him with a look, opened her mouth to reply, and then thought the better of it. Kid had a rare gift for saying what was on his mind without it ever seeming out of step. Whatever it was tumbled from his thoughtless mouth, you could tell he meant well.
“You want me to come in with you?” he added, flicking his eyes toward the church.
“No,” she said, and popped the cab door. “Better you see to your own thing.”
Even as she said it, she wondered who that was for. But she knew, in her heart, that it was only for her benefit. The thought of having anyone at her side as she looked for a connection to Elias just felt wrong.
“Take care, Ms. Abigail,” Lucas said, and with that he pulled away, the yellow truck shuddering off down the road. She watched the trail of dust he kicked up for a moment, and then took a breath, looked to the church.
It was unchanged, to her eyes. A squat white building penned in by a fence enclosing an empty yard. She could almost make out the shadows of the past – could picture Elias sitting there on the wooden stair leading up to the doors. See herself standing right here, ready to climb on her bike and ride away.
The way she was always best at.
She took another breath, swinging open the gate. It was stiffer than she remembered, fighting against her, and it snapped shut behind her.
A few short steps took her to the foot of the stairs, and she climbed toward the doors. She found them unlocked.
Small towns, she thought to herself, and pushed her way inside.
The interior was cool and dark. It seemed somehow dead, echoing and empty like an old ruin. The shell left behind when God stepped out. Her footfalls rang out hollow on the old wooden floors, rebounding from the walls like sacrilege in the silence.
She felt like an invader. Not just an intruder in a space that belonged to Elias, but a fraud who had no place there.
She steeled herself, and walked the length of the church, toward the altar. But something made her avert her eyes. Images of her family swam into her mind, feelings of shame, of isolation, bubbling up inside her, regressing her to childhood.
A small door stood behind the altar, leading to a small room in the back – a place she was sure had a special name, but couldn’t call to mind. She entered, that outsider feeling growing inside her, until she felt it almost as a fear. And no matter how much she tried to tell herself it was empty superstition, the fear remained.
She glanced around the study to distract herself. It was a small room. At the far end sat a cramped writing desk. Sturdy shelves lined the western wall.
Traces of Eli’s life were all over the room, in his ornaments, his decorations. He kept the place neatly ordered, but the writing desk had been left as it was the day he had been taken. A frozen snapshot of time.
She approached the shelves. Row upon row of cardboard boxes sat there, no bigger than shoe boxes, labeled in ways she didn’t understand. Until a single one caught her eye.
It was labeled with her name.
Her heart pounded suddenly in her chest, as if to tell her she was crossing a line. But there was a purpose in her being here, she said to herself. This was the only way…
She reached for the shelf, drawing down the box and placing it on the floor. Dropping to her knees, she popped the lid. Inside, loose letters had been stacked almost to the brim. She lifted a handful out, spread them on the floor.
She recognized them. Of course, no secret here: they were the letters she had sent to him. The way they kept in touch. All the contact they’d had since they parted ways after the MC, the records broken only by the rare occasion when they had chosen to see each other in person.
Even so, she found herself unable to move for a moment. She sat there, the letters still fanned across the floor, thinking it over. How meticulously Eli had kept the record of their lives, how carefully he had stored the letters, as if they themselves were the memories he held of her. They were as important to him as his own internal thoughts.
The burning came into her throat, into her eyes, and quickly she swept the letters up, dumping them back into the box without a care, stuffing the lid back on a moment later as if to trap some creature there. She straightened up, shoving the box back onto the shelf. As she did so, she caught sight of another.
It bore a name she didn’t recognize – Simon.
She pulled this box down, cracking the lid. Like her own, it was full of letters, though these had been stowed haphazardly, without apparent chronology.
Abigail scooped up a handful, spread them on the floor, and began to read.
Lucas tried to force down the smile that climbed its way across his face as he approached his home. Maybe he hadn’t been gone for all that long. But sometimes you measure time in events, not minutes.
He opened the unlocked door and let himself inside, feeling strangely like a trespasser. He wondered if that’s how he’d feel when he moved out of home, like a stranger breaking into his old life.
“Ma? Pa?” he called, into the darkness of the house. It was cool inside, the AC battling staunchly against the Arizona sun.
“In here, Lucky!”
His mother’s voice echoed from the living room, and as he approached the sound from the TV came to him. He peered through the door to find his mother curled up on the couch, watching an old Western movie.
“Hey, Ma,” he said, moving into the room. He settled on the couch beside her, watched as the movie’s hero mowed down a horde of bad guys. His mother wore a broad smile on her face, delighted at the scene.
“You’re so bloodthirsty,” Lucas said, grinning.
“I live with your father,” she replied. “Like to pretend I’m the one with the gun!”
Lucas smiled “Missed you, Ma.”
Something in his voice made her turn her attention fully toward him.
“Now, what’s this?” she said. “You go wanderin’ off a couple days, come back all soppy. Where you been, anyhow? You Da’s been looking for you.”
“Had some business up in Phoenix,” he said.
“That so? What kinda business?”
He waved off the question. “Pretty personal, tell the truth.”
“If there’s a child, you gotta spill the beans now.” She waved her hand to emphasize her point. “That’s the deal. Anything else, I’ll let it slide.”
“There ain’t a child, Ma, I swear to God.”
“That’s good enough for me.” She said it as if to make a joke, but she caught the absence of a smile on his face. “Somethin’ wrong, Lucky? Y’ain’t quite yourself.”
Lucas hesitated for a long while, conscious of his mother’s eyes searching his face for some clue. A tumble of images fell through his mind: the stranger with the white scarf, the wrathful face of Doc Valentine, the woman on the hill, the bedside of Elias…
He shook his head.
“You ever felt…you ever felt like, just when you got a handle on life, it kinda just starts slippin’ away?”
His mother let out a small laugh.
“Heck, Lucas, that’s the definition of life, right there.” The smile faded from her face, and her voice grew warm with comfort. “But what’s eatin at you, Lucky? You know I’m here to help, right?”
He did. But he couldn’t summon the words. Couldn’t risk drawing them into his world. It was incredible, he thought, the way you could live in a world that other people couldn’t even see. But there it was, all around them, invisible, like the air they were breathing.
And he knew, too, how far it reached. Up into Tucson, to Phoenix, maybe farther out than that – he didn’t know how far the Dogs stretched, how big their world was. And if not them, there’d be others, other invisible kings and invisible pawns. And up, up it would go, until invisible kings rubbed shoulders with the kings you could see: businessmen, governors…presidents, even.
He glanced up, and there it was on the TV, too. The theme park version of Taylor’s world. So ingrained that it was safe to spin it as entertainment.
He felt dizzy. A wave that came over him suddenly, physically, leaving him cold. The floor beneath him seemed to fall away. Distantly, he could hear his mother calling for him, but her voice was flattened and tinny. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe…
And as soon as it came on, it was gone. Dissolving away. His heart still raced in his chest, but he was back in the room. His mother was staring at him now.
“Lucas, are you—”
“Sorry,” he said quickly, “I guess I ate something bad.” He threw himself back into the couch. “Don’t worry about me. You know I’ll be alright. Lucky Lucas, that’s me.”
She opened her mouth to object, but he waved a hand at the TV.
“Watch your movie,” he said. “Didn’t mean to interrupt.” He waited for his mother to realize the moment had passed.
“Well, look,” she said, “you wanna talk, you know I’m here for you.”
“I know it.”
They watched the movie together in silence for a while longer, and Lucas tried his best not to think about how the bad guys must feel to be on the wrong end of the gun.
Joanna had dropped painting after school. Boys were the first distraction. Then there was work, bills. And so much garbage television to watch. There wasn’t time for much else.
Joanna’s hand moved steadily across the paper, brush dancing lightly. Learning to paint again was like living a dream half-remembered. They had electricity here, but the whole town had a fondness for lamp and candlelight. It was by lamplight she painted now. The dim light made the colors hard to make out, but that was part of the appeal. You had to go by instinct, to feel what you were doing. And when you brought it into the harsh light of day, you sometimes found you made something different than you ever could’ve imagined. It was like listening to a song filtered through background noise, hearing a unique version of that tune you could never hear again, no matter how much you loved it.
The small dormitory was quiet around her. The Children had restored an old boarding house for their main lodging, so most everyone had their own room. The halls of the building were beautifully painted with collaborative murals.
Painting was a good stand-in for the sleep that still eluded her. She thought of him often, expecting him to barge through the door at any moment, begin railing at her for her actions of the past week. It would be her fault, somehow. It was always, no matter how cruel he became.
He came to her in dreams, and she woke up feeling worthless. Sometimes, he stopped her falling asleep at all. Even far away from him she received the energy of his hate, like he was broadcasting. So she turned that energy into creation.
That had been the Dearest Brother’s line. A single, throwaway sentence buried in a longer service, but that line had stayed with her more than any other. Creation was the inverse of pettiness and hate. It turned cynicism into a rose garden.
The noise from outside finally broke through her concentration. At the same moment she became aware of it, she realized it had been going on for some time.
She stood, stretched out the tension in her back. Her window was boarded up, not yet repaired by the family, so she slipped out of her room and down the long corridor toward the doors. She emerged into the evening air, as the mountains cast their long shadows over the valley.
The twilight was still warm from the day’s sun, heat rising up from the ground, but a cooling breeze had come with the sunset.
Down the gentle slope into the town’s square, a group of brothers and sisters had gathered around the town’s well. She watched them curiously for a moment, squinting into the dark, but couldn’t make out what they were doing.
They were gathered almost as if for a sermon. But sermons always happened in the daylight hours.
Curious, she moved toward them. As she drew closer, she could see that Dearest Brother sat on the lip of the well. The gathered crowd was facing him – and at his feet, a man knelt with hands bound.
At first, she could hardly believe what she saw. Then a sick feeling emerged in Joanna’s stomach. It looked like a lynch-mob, or a witch-burning.
She moved near enough to hear what was being said, approaching the crowd of a couple dozen from behind. In the crescent formed by the crowd, she could see Rayne standing opposite, at the front of the far curve. She knew the face of most everyone, and knew a few more by name. There was Frank, who had helped her set up her dorm. There was Luce, who’d been the one to get her started on painting.
And there, facing the crowd, was the Dearest Brother. He was in the midst of speaking. His voice, even raised, retained its odd, clipped nature. But when he raised his voice it turned that odd quirk into something exotic, attractive in the purest sense of the word.
“-then I will hear them. But there are many witnesses. Our brother Kyle’s guilt seems…” He paused, as if searching for the word. “…evident.”
A few interjections rose from the crowd, until Dearest Brother pointed, suddenly, selecting a single man.
“I’ll hear your words, brother,” he said.
“Dearest Brother,” the man replied, and Joanna knew him vaguely – Gary, maybe? “Kyle’s a thief. Not saying we should ignore that – but we’re a family here. I’ve worked with the guy, sure it was just a moment’s lapse, is all. We should offer some forgiveness.”
The reply from the crowd was mixed: some agreed, others muttered objections.
Joanna blinked, wondering if she was in a strange dream. This was an honest-to-god kangaroo court, like nothing she’d ever seen. It was the kind of thing that only happened on TV, or in stories from history.
Dearest Brother next singled out a woman to speak.
“Kyle’s my brother – and by blood,” the woman said. “but he’s always been trouble. I convinced him to come here, but I’m sorry for that. Kyle needs tough love. He should be punished fairly for what he’s done, and maybe he’ll learn something for it.”
Kyle started to say something, but Dearest Brother cut him off.
“You’ve spoken to your defense. You won’t say anything more while other opinions are heard.”
She watched, fascinated, as he called on a few others in turn, all of them offering varied perspectives. Luce spoke for how Kyle had offered them so much, always lending a hand to any who needed it. Others pleaded to Dearest Brother’s mercy, talking of the Lord’s forgiveness.
Joanna didn’t step forward, or have much interest in offering her own opinion. But her mind tended toward vengeance first. Something in her escape had kindled anger in her: anger for those who escaped from the justice owed to them. She’d fled a man who had made a life of it, used people up and thrown them away without a second thought. If she could have him dragged here, put on trial for what he’d done? You’re damn right it was punishment she would ask for.
Maybe a dozen people had their say before the end. The sky overhead grew speckled with stars, obscured by the occasional ghost of a cloud.
“I’ve heard wisdom in your words here tonight,” Dearest Brother said at last. He rose from his seat on the well to stand on its lip, towering above the crowd. “Strong arguments have been made. Now I make the decision for us.”
Dearest Brother bowed his head and closed his eyes. Everything went silent. Utterly silent. Joanna stood amazed at how entranced the brothers and sisters were, hanging on for the moment when Dearest Brother would open his eyes. There was theater here, she realized, but she tried to curb the cynicism of the thought.
Finally, Dearest Brother raised his head. Joanna felt a thrill of excitement in spite of herself.
“I will speak my judgment to you,” he said.
Joanna could feel the way the crowd held its breath, waiting on Dearest Brother’s words.
“I say there should be punishment meted out to fit the crime.”
A few protesting voices went up, but Dearest Brother held up his hand and silence fell.
“Forgiveness is God’s to give,” the Brother added. “but justice is in our hands. We’re all here because we know something is wrong. The world doesn’t hold the justice we seek in our lives. But here, in this town, we have something more. We’re all of us working to be better here, seeking redemption for what might lie in the past. But what meaning is there in redemption if we all have infinite chances?”
He gestured at the crowd, and two men moved forward, taking the bound man by his arms. They hauled him to his feet, and led him away toward the building reserved for Dearest Brother and the staff of the town.
Abigail burst from the shade of the church into the waning light of evening. Some distant part of her registered shock at how much time had passed, but she couldn’t think on it now. Her right hand held a rolled wad of letters as she ran from the churchyard out onto the street.
“Lucas!” she cried, as if her voice would carry across the expanse of the town. “Lucas!”
An old man was passing by, his aged face leathered and prune-like. His dry face cracked in a smile, revealing gapped teeth.
“The O’Connor boy?” the old man said. “Blond kid?”
Abigail took a step toward the old man. “That’s the one. He live near here?”
“Sure does.” He turned, pointed across the street with a finger that couldn’t fully straighten. “Just over the way, out back of the gas station. There something the matter?”
But Abigail was already mumbling thanks, setting off at a jog across the silent road. It was then that her mind began to catch up with her.
The O’Connor boy?
The phrase sounded so familiar. So, so familiar…
And then it came to her. She’d heard it before. Said then in a flat, cold voice. The kind of voice that carried a clenched anger no matter the words it carried.
The voice of Doc Valentine.
“Got a description from the O’Connor boy,” he’d said, conjuring up his image as he’d stood there in the parking lot of the High Water, a perfect stranger. She hadn’t known the O’Connor name. But if Doc was right, then it was Lucas who had given them a face for the Charming Man, might have been Lucas had fed the stranger everything there was to know about Elias – about what he was to the town, about the schedule he kept, about how close he was to Doc Valentine.
She stood there for a moment longer in stunned silence. The boy hadn’t spilled a word about it. Had kept his silence the whole time. They had talked about Elias, about Valentine, at length; why hadn’t he said a word about his own encounter with the men in white scarves?
Abigail moved on, and soon the O’Connor house came into view, sticking out around the corner with the roof of the gas station just beyond. She knew it on sight, for the canary yellow truck that stood just outside. But now she was slower to approach it, her legs seeming to hold her back to give her mind time to work.
This wasn’t an omission. Not a detail skipped in the telling of the story – Lucas had stitched his lips tight, sealing truth up with silence.
It was no accident.
The boy had lied.