November Novella: Lambs

This month’s Patreon novella is Lambs. The whole thing is available on my Patreon, along with- at this point- a whole 8 others! For five dollars a month, you can also vote for the novellas I do in the future, and have a chance at a free 10,000 word commission. Starting for February, the choices are

Damage Control: Action, Buddy Cop/Special Ops. The Esoteric Forces of the United States is in charge of keeping things under wraps. Preventing anyone from learning the truth, a truth that would shatter the assumptions the world is built on. Sometimes, things get too big to keep under wraps. The only thing that they can do is try to roll with it. In the aftermath of the events of Skin Hunger, Sergeant Fetu Miller must undertake four missions to stabilize the situation. And worse, he must undertake them with an unexpected trainee.

Still Life: Horror, Post-Apocalypse, Romance. A young man wakes up to find the world suddenly emptied. Wandering the streets, he finds that the only other things are what he terms the Mannequins, plastic dolls that only move while he isn’t watching them. While slow and not particularly strong, he nonetheless finds himself being stalked by them, staying constantly ahead of their approaches. Then, he hears a radio signal being broadcast from nearby- By another human. Specifically, a young woman.

A Big, Bright, Shining Star: Sex Comedy, Action. A mysterious figure has been scouring the San Fernando Valley’s criminal underbelly for the better part of a week, claiming to be the goddess Ishtar, threatening to punish mankind for their sins- though her method of punishment is a bit unusual. The entrenched demonic figures in San Fernando Valley don’t want an outsider horning in on their business, but if she is who she claims to be, they may not stand a chance… Not to mention that the criminals she’s punished have been unsettlingly eager to do what she wants.

Chapter 1: Resolutions in Favor of Vegetarianism

“God is dead. And should we not follow his example?”

The congregation murmured their agreement as I bowed my head, my mind wandering as Father Steer continued his fiery oration. I could see the faith he inspired in everyone. The joy, the love. I wished I could be that kind of person someday. But I knew that you had to be special if you wanted to be like that. You had to be unique. If you wanted to thrive in this world. If you wanted to be something more than someone else’s follower.

I wasn’t special. I wasn’t unique. I couldn’t ever hope to be a leader. I was a follower. But at least I’d found someone worth following.

“Ecological disaster. Pollution. Meteors. As mankind’s awareness grows, its power shrinks. We are so aware of all the ways that our world could- suddenly, and violently- end. Without any way for us to do anything about it. We are at the mercy of God. Of parents who do not care. Of adults who know they will die soon, and so will happily strip this world to the bone so that when they die, they will not die alone. Is there any justice in this? Any rightness? How could there be!”

I nodded along with the words. They were all true. Nobody cared about us. Nobody wanted to help us. They told us how we should live our lives, and when their plans for us went wrong, they mocked us. My heart pounded as I clenched my fists together in prayer. I wanted to punch something, to attack, to bite and tear, to do something- but I had no target. That was why I was here. Father Steer showed us the way. I closed my eyes, and pounded my fists against my chest, the rhythmic thumping picked up by others, filling the air.

“In this decrepit, worthless world of ours, the only choice we have is how we will die! We all of us will die, and believe me when I say that there is no loving, caring god to take us into his eternal bliss! When I watched my fellows walk listlessly to their end, when I watched them slaughtered, I knew that there was no heaven awaiting them! In their eyes, in the corpses, do you know what I saw? What became of their souls?” He raised his hands into the air. “Nothing. There was nothing there. There never had been. All we are, all we will ever be… It ends when we die.”

I let out a howl, and the others picked it up. A sound that flowed out from the soul, a sound of pure frustration and rage at the injustice of the world. To be given a single life, to be given a scant few years, and to have it filled with such pain. Father Steer waited as we screamed, letting the howl grow ragged and weak, before raising his hands, bringing it to an end.

“How will you spend that time? Will you be like a beast, living your life in a small way? Work every day of your life, marry, reproduce, die as your body betrays you or when this society chews you up and spits you out? Be another good little slave like your parents, and their parents before them, making sure that the machine keeps working, that the world keeps turning? That your children will see the same future that you do? That your children will go down the same path of pointless, merciless, crushing horror? Chewed up by the slaughterhouse? Or are you going to do something!”

I screamed, raising my arms. I wasn’t ever going to be a leader. I wasn’t that kind of person. But by god, I could follow. I could follow Father Steer straight into the bowels of hell. It couldn’t be much different from this shitheap town.

“That’s right, my children! Tomorrow night is a blessed night! Tomorrow night is the night that we shall do what cannot be done! We are weak on our own, every one of us- Yes, even me! I am nothing without you, my faithful followers!” He smiled beatifically down upon us. “We shall create a god. Together, we shall bring God into being. A god who cares for us. A god who listens to us. A god who will break the slaughterhouse! A god who is not dead! Who does not listen dispassionately and dismiss our prayers! We will make a better God!”

We howled with ecstasy at that, our arms raised into the air, shaking with the fury of the cry. Our voices reached the rafters of the slaughterhouse, rocking loose the dust. There’s an elemental power to that many human voices. They overlapped, matching, growing powerful, reverberating strangely in the room until the voice was more like a living thing than a sound. Out of many voices rose a single piercing tone, greater than the sum of its parts. We shook the building with our cries. And it felt good. To be a part of something that mattered, to be a part of something that meant something. We would save everyone from the nightmare machine, from being slaughtered like the poor dumb animals that had been slaughtered here. We’d live wild, and free.

“Thank you, my children,” said Father Steer, as the scream died down. He smiled warmly, his dark features gentle. I wasn’t quite sure where Father Steer was from- His skin was swarthy, but not quite black, his features broad but tough to nail down. That was part of his mystique, the mystery of his past, the excitement that came from not quite knowing what had motivated him. He had shown up in the town about a year ago, and begun preaching. He only preached to children, and there had been a lot of nasty rumors about him, but they’d all come to nothing. He was a part of the city, now, and there was nothing our parents, nothing the authorities, nothing the adults could do about that. He was our leader. He was our way to scream into the night. “Remember to make your tithe. Every dollar helps us to achieve our goals.”

I reached into my pocket as the collection plate went past. I’d had to get into my mom’s purse. She’d only spend the money on whiskey, on things that made her not hurt. Things that would make her hurt me, instead. She’d beat me for stealing if she figured it out. That was fine. I had to give until it hurt, because that showed how much it mattered. I dumped the twenties onto the collection plate, feeling the bright burn of ecstasy at seeing that I’d once again managed to get more than almost everyone else. Everyone but Holstein. But she was the one who had all the connections and knew how to grab things out of the local pharmacy, and who would pay for them. I didn’t mind not being able to match up to her. She was special. She was Father Steer’s trusted confidant, the one he was closest to.

As I stood to go, I found her hand on my shoulder. She’d been really pretty, once. The most popular girl at the local school, the smartest, the most capable, all those things that I’d admired. She was nearly eighteen, now, the oldest of us. Her birthday was tomorrow, in fact. Blonde hair had gone stringy, her eyes dark and circled, like she hadn’t been sleeping well. She worked so hard for Father Steer. I knew she would be rewarded. I smiled. “What’s up, Holstein?”

“Father Steer wants to see you,” she murmured. “In the back room. Go.”

The back room was the special place. The place where the rituals happened. Most of us weren’t allowed into the rituals. We talked a lot about it, trying to figure out what the rituals were like, what kind of weird and crazy stuff Father Steer got up to. Not that he’d do anything awful. There had been rumors of animal sacrifice, of satanic orgies, of all kinds of crazy stuff. But there’d never been a shred of evidence for it. People just feared what they didn’t understand, what threatened their power and their preconceptions. It was just a small rec room, a card table set up in the center, a desk covered with books, a small diploma from some church or another that Father Steer had been ordained as a priest in, and which probably didn’t know about the stuff he got up to.

Father Steer himself sat in the back of the room. There was a small rabbit in his hands. White fur with black patches, its ears floppy and lying down across its back. The tiny creature looked even tinier in the hands of Father Steer, who was six and a half feet tall, and built like a Greek god. He smiled at me. “Derry. You’ve been working very hard lately. You’ve been bringing in impressive donations. I gather their source isn’t entirely legal?”

“My mom,” I said, looking away. “I know that we shouldn’t attract attention, but-“

“That time is over. We’ll be attracting more attention now. And it is good to know where your values are.” He smiled, holding up the rabbit. “Would you like to hold it?”

I was a little embarrassed, but I stepped forward, taking the rabbit from his hands.

“That’s right. Curl your arm up under her legs, the other one around her side. Hold her close so she feels secure. She’s a sweet little thing, isn’t she?”

I smiled. The rabbit’s fur was soft, her body smelling like clover, slightly sweet and very mild. I ran my fingers through her fur, and she made a soft noise, like clicking her teeth together, head nuzzling into my arm. “What’s her name?”

“Daisy. It was my mother’s name, you know.” Father Steer’s expression became distant for a moment. “The world is full of difficult decisions, Derry. What we will do, what we have planned, is going to be difficult. Do you think that you can do that? Do you think that you can make decisions under duress? Do things that may hurt, or feel wrong, because they are necessary?”

“I…” I looked down at the rabbit, and stroked her hair. “I can do my best, sir. Father Steer. That’s the most I can ever promise.”

“Mmm.” Father Steer nodded, sympathetically. “Break Daisy’s leg.”

I stared down at the rabbit. Her soft black eyes lifted to look up at me as she clicked her teeth again. Perfectly trusting. I tried to understand what he’d just said. “What?”

“Break her leg. It is easy. She is a small rabbit. You are a human. It’s simple.”

“Why?” I asked, my voice soft. He sounded harsh. Merciless. Somehow… wrong.

“Because I said so. Because if you do not, you will never be welcome in this church again.”

“But-“ I looked down at the rabbit again. My head was pounding. The small animal trusted me, absolutely. She’d never been hurt. She’d never hurt anyone. “Please, sir-“

“Do you not have faith in me? I need to know that you will follow my orders, Derry.”

I held that tiny limb in one hand, feeling it with my thumb. The bones were so small. So weak. I felt tears brimming in the corners of my eyes, my lips curling. “Sir- I can’t-“

“Just one twist. She will recover. You are just hurting her, Derry. Not killing her. What is wrong with that?”

“I don’t want to hurt her, sir,” I whispered, feeling the tears drip down my cheeks. Holstein wouldn’t hesitate, would she? She wouldn’t stop for a moment. I squeezed, and the rabbit let out a little grinding noise, hunching up.

“Do it, Derry. Do it, or leave.”

I stared down at the rabbit, and turned, numb, taking a step towards the door, and then another.

“If you’re going to run away, boy, at least leave me Daisy so that she can be an object lesson to someone else who isn’t as weak as you are.”

I ignored him, taking another step, and then another. I reached out, my head spinning, and grabbed the door knob.

“Derry.”

His voice had changed. The hard, alien tone to it was gone. It was warm, and gentle again. I didn’t turn around.

“Derry, it’s alright. You did the right thing.”

I turned around, and saw him smiling, a few tears in his eyes.

“It’s very easy, Derry, to do the wrong thing. Because we are threatened with pain, with ostracization. Because people threaten to take away the things that bring us joy. To act morally in the face of that, to refuse to harm an innocent- That is what makes you better. It is okay.” He waved for me, and I took a step towards him, and then another.

I knew he was different. I knew he was better. “I- I really thought, sir- I’m sorry.” I wiped my eyes with my free hand, holding Daisy close. She squirmed a little bit in my arms, but clicked her teeth again. “I didn’t have faith in you.”

“Yes. You doubted my orders. You doubted my words. That is good, son. That is the kind of thing that I need. But you need to remember, always remember, that you considered it. You thought, for a moment, of doing it.” His expression was stern, but compassionate. “That is the weakness of humans. No human is innocent. Every human feels the urge to harm others, whether out of pressure by society, or simply because they can. Animals are innocent. Humans are sinful.” He smiled softly. “But ah, what grace there is in overcoming our weaknesses.”

I softly stroked Daisy. “What would you have done if I’d hurt Daisy?”

“I’d have slapped the absolute shit out of you, Derry, and told you that you failed the test. Might even have told you to get out.” He laughed softly. “I need some clever people who are close to me, Derry. People who will keep an eye on what I do, and always call me on my bullshit. Now, as we approach the moment of apotheosis, it’s more important than other.”

“Apo… what?”

He smiled. “Greek. It means for something to reach its highest point, to climax. Literally… It means to become a god.” He stood up, and stepped around the desk, gently taking Daisy from my hands, kissing the rabbit on the forehead, placing her in the large and comfortable looking cage. He regarded her silently for a moment. Then he turned towards me. “I need you to keep an eye out. There will be those who try to stop us.”

“Why?” I asked, softly.

“Because we want to create a future. We want there to be a tomorrow. And adults… They have given up on their future. They resent the young, their hopes, their dreams, because they have lost them. They are embittered by all that they have lost. They have sacrificed so much, and found themselves lost. They see you, and they are reminded that there is hope, and there is no poison more bitter to the hopeless than hope. Like warmth returning to a frostbitten limb, it reminds them of all that they have lost. It burns them.” He rested a hand on my shoulder. “Men like that would snap Daisy’s leg in an instant for the smallest pretense. They have no fear of causing pain, because they have experienced so much that they have become jaded. They accept pain as an inevitability. They embrace it as a lover. Humans are so easily warped.” He sighed softly. “Now, off with you. Have a good night, Derry. Play with your friends. Enjoy life. It is so short, after all.”

I nodded, and stepped away. Still shaken by the experience, still a bit frightened, but feeling heartened. I’d been right. He’d shown me. When it came right down to it, I would do the right thing. That knowledge was like a balm, lightening my heart. It justified everything I had done, because it showed I was right. I was right.

“So.” Holstein was waiting outside of the back office, her eyes on me. Devon stood next to her, looking nervous as he passed me, heading into the back room, the nervous younger boy combing his brown hair out of his face with his fingers. “What did you two talk about?”

“He just wanted me to keep an eye out for anyone who might make trouble,” I said, and smiled. “He’s really a good man, isn’t he?”

Holstein, whose default expression nowadays was a kind of slack annoyance, looked away, her face flushed. “Of course he is, dumbass. He’s a good man. Better’n this shitty town deserves.” She wiped her nose, and sniffed. “You want to make him happy, right?” She took out a small packet. “This is about a gram. I’ve got a guy out in the trailer park. He’s going to give you eighty dollars for this. Not a dollar less. Got it? The yellow trailer in the northwest corner. His name’s Gay.”

I stared down at the crystals. “Holstein- this is-“

“He knows what is. He wants it.” She wiped her nose again. “Who are we to deny him, huh? It’s money for Father Steer. You want to help him, right?”

“But-“

“Humans aren’t innocent,” she whispered softly. She placed the packet into my hand. I studied it for a moment. There was a small halo, and something-

“Ugh.” I grimaced at it. “That’s disgusting. What is that, a dick?”

“Not a human’s dick. Gotta have a memorable logo,” she said, grinning. “Get going, choir-boy.”

I slipped it into my pocket, and left the slaughterhouse. My bike was chained up outside. It was a beautiful day, bright and warm, the waning heat of summer floating serenely in the air. It was already September, but summer was taking its sweet time to run out. I stood up on the bike, and made my way down the old country road.

The town was shit. I’d sometimes thought about getting away, but where would I go? I was never going to be able to afford college, I could never move to a big city. I’d heard about people moving up to Canada, working on the oil sands. I’d sometimes thought about that. But this town, it didn’t have a future. All the work had dried up, and alcoholism and drug abuse were about the only ways for people to entertain themselves. I might end up like that, if I wasn’t careful. I knew a lot of people in Father Steer’s congregation had.

The trailer park was a great example. There were half a dozen people sitting out on steps, staring off into space, mouths slack and open. People who were being ground up like animals in a slaughterhouse, killing themselves slowly. Except, in a way, it was worse. Because Holstein was right, they knew what was happening, they were aware. They weren’t innocent. They’d accepted it.

It made me hate them just a little bit. At least an animal wasn’t aware that it was being led to the slaughter. An animal didn’t cut its own throat. It was too stupid to understand what was happening. There was an innocence in that. They weren’t so stupid that they could be talked into killing themselves for something that didn’t even care about them. I stepped up to the yellow trailer, and knocked three times on the door.

The door opened. The man inside didn’t look like a meth addict. He had kind of crazy eyes, and a badly unkempt beard, but he had all his teeth, and he didn’t look strung out and eaten up like most people did. He frowned at me. “Holstein send you?” I nodded, and he waved me in, taking out a wallet. There were a lot of twenties in it.

“You’re Gay, right?”

“Nah, straight as an arrow,” he said, and grinned at me as he placed the money in my hand. “Yeah. Hey, look- I’ve asked Holstein about this a couple of times, but I’ve been wanting to visit the Father. Get to know him. I don’t suppose you could…?”

“He doesn’t care for adults,” I said, firmly.

The man nodded, slowly. There was a rustling in the cabin. I turned my head, and saw a massive bald eagle, nesting on a shelf in the trailer, amidst the torn remnants of several expensive looking leather books. The man smiled as he saw my eye. “That’s Paloma. Pretty, isn’t she?”

“Yeah,” I said, staring at the bird. It was… frighteningly intense, its eyes focusing on me with laser focus, disconcertingly aware.

“Hey, kid. Father Steer- he have any quirks? Anything odd about his behavior?”

I looked up at him, my eyes narrowing. “I think I should go, mister.”

“Yeah,” he murmured, shaking his head. “Good luck, kid. You’re going to need it.”

I stepped out of the trailer, quickly, looking over my back. The man stood in the doorway, the bald eagle on his shoulder, watching me. His lips were moving, but he was speaking too softly for me to hear him. I sped up, running to my bike, and peddling away.

The screen door was hanging open at my house. I stopped, staring at the door. I considered bicycling away, until my mother stepped into view. The plastic bottle in her hand was half empty, and her eyes were full of anger. “Peter. Come here.”

“It’s not Peter,” I said, my arms tensed, still standing astride the bike. I could run away. Bicycle away. Get away from her. She couldn’t catch up with me.

“I’m not calling you by that name. That’s not your fucking name. I gave you your name, young man. You’ve been at that church again, haven’t you?” I lifted my foot to the pedals. “Oh, going to run away? Maybe I’ll call the police. Tell them that man’s been molesting you. Tell them that you were too scared to run away. That he’s been beating you.” She smiled, teeth yellowed by years of cigarettes. She’d quit, and it hadn’t made her any happier. “Bet there’s some convincing evidence.”

I shook. The police wanted Father Steer to be shut down. They wanted an excuse. My mom could easily give them that excuse. I closed my eyes, and stepped off the bike, chaining it up. I walked to the front door. The smell of cheap whiskey, burning and acrid, made my stomach churn.

“That a boy.” She reached her hand into my pocket, and withdrew the eighty dollars. “So. You didn’t have a chance to fucking blow the money yet. Good.” She glared down at me. “You probably think you’re doing me a fucking favor, don’t you? That you’re saving me from myself. I didn’t ask you to make decisions for me. Fuck, I didn’t even ask for you.” She turned, and strode into the house. I followed her. I watched as she took the chili peppers out of the fridge. She minced one of them, slowly, carefully, taking her time. Despite the way her head swayed, her hands were steady as a rock as she minced the hot chili pepper into thinner and thinner strips. I watched, doing my best to let go, to capture that feeling of emptiness, as I watched her. This was going to hurt. It always did. But hurting was important. What hurt more was that I was going to fail Father Steer. She had the money, now.

She wiped her fingers in the chili pepper juices, and approached me, hands lifting towards my face.

“Am I interrupting something?”

My mother jumped a bit, turning, her eyes narrowed. “What the fuck-“

“The door was open.” The man there smiled. He wasn’t particularly exceptional. Taller than me, maybe ten years older, black hair and hazel eyes. He was dressed in a nice looking suit and jacket, and a hat. He looked like someone out of a movie. “FBI. I’ve been working a case here.” He flipped out a small badge, smiling. “A cult, suspected of drug-running.”

“Oh. Oh! Good. Good.” She paused for a moment, her eyes drifting to me, seeming to do some mental calculations. “Yes. I’d be happy to tell you-“

“Your son’s the one I want to talk with.” He smiled. “You don’t mind if I take him for a moment, do you?”

“Of course. Of course.” Her eyes lingered on me for a moment, as the man opened the door, holding it open for me.

“He isn’t running drugs,” I said, my head lowered, my hands in my pockets.

“That’s not why I’m here,” said the man, leaning against the tree, his eyes on the door. His fists were clenched. “You know, I wasn’t even planning on being here. I was just passing through. But I smelled something rotten.” He let out a slow breath. “She hurts you, doesn’t she.”

“What the fuck business is it of yours?” I asked, my voice low, glaring at him. “What does it matter? You didn’t stop it. Maybe she won’t hurt me tonight, but when you’re gone, she’ll hurt me again, and she’ll be pissed because you interrupted her, because you scared her. She’ll be suspicious. You just made things worse. You don’t really care. You just fake it.” I looked down at my feet. “The only one who cares is Father Steer.”

“He does, huh? He’s stopped her from hurting you? He’s not been responsible for her hurting you with those requests of his?”

I looked aside. “He gives me a little hope for getting out of here.”

“God. Kids.” The man shook his head slowly. “You don’t need him to get you out of here. The world’s full of a lot of places you can run. A lot of places you can go.” He let out a sigh. “You’re right. I can’t fix your mom’s drinking. I can’t fix her baseless rage. I could beat the absolute shit out of her, break her arms, make sure she never hurts you again, but that wouldn’t fix things. I can’t deal with problems on that scale.” He smiled at me, and I felt a little shiver of terror run through me.

“You’re not part of the FBI, are you,” I whispered.

“Not anymore. But the important part is, something bad is about to happen here. It’s a bit below my pay grade, but I was here, so…” He shrugged. “Father Steer. He’s not human.”

“Come on-“

“Yeah, I wouldn’t believe it, either.” He sighed. “Things are about to go to shit. When they do, I’ll be there. If you need help…” He took out a small card, and handed it to me. “Call this number. I can’t stop your mom from drinking and being an abusive piece of shit, but I can help with quite a lot of things. Consider it.”

“Yeah,” I whispered. “Right.”

I turned away, and walked into the door. I stopped for a moment, looking over my shoulder at the man, standing by the old and withered oak in the yard. He smiled at me, as he stood in the fading sunlight. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The world. Even with the cruel things that happen in it. It’s still so damned beautiful.”

I turned back to the door, and stepped into the room.

“You didn’t tell him anything, did you?” asked my mother, her eyes ugly. “You know that if you accuse me, I’ll tell them that it was Father Steer.”

“I didn’t tell him anything,” I said, my voice soft, hollow, as I walked up the stairs. My stomach growled, empty, but I wouldn’t have stayed in that kitchen if I’d been starving to death.

The next morning dawned, with the promise that everything would change. It was a beautiful Saturday. The sun hadn’t quite risen yet, but the sky was growing brighter. I snuck down the stairs, past my mother, lying insensate on the dinner table. I didn’t know if she would survive, when we broke the machine that we called civilization. I didn’t really care. She had already decided to die. I wouldn’t let her take me down with her.

When I arrived at the slaughterhouse, dawn was peeking over the horizon, casting its golden light down into the town, filling the trees with light. There was a chill in the air.  I opened the door, and stepped in.

Father Steer smiled at me. “Good morning, Derry. Is everything alright? You look… shaken.”

“It’s nothing,” I said, shaking my head.

“It’s never nothing. Come, my boy. Walk with me a bit.”

The two of us walked out into the sunshine, standing in the open cattle pen. The ground had regrown with brilliant green grass after the slaughterhouse had been shut down. He rested a hand on my shoulder. “What is bothering you?”

“I… I didn’t get the money,” I said softly. “My mom found it. She took it from me. I’m sorry-“

“Hush. It is alright.” He smiled warmly, magnanimously. “You risked a great deal. That is what is important. Success, failure, these things do not ultimately matter to me. What matters to me is that you gave it your best shot. You tried. That is a rare and beautiful thing, Derry, to try.” He softly squeezed and kneaded my shoulder, pulling me up against his side. “I am very proud of you. In fact, I need your help, tonight, for the ritual.”

“The apotheosis?” I asked, my eyes widening. “You said we were going to make a god.”

“Yes.” He smiled. “To make a glorious new world.”

“I thought that Holstein-“

“She is… not quite the right person for this.” Father Steer smiled softly. “You are the right person. All you have done for me, all you have done in my name. I know you have not stood out in a crowd. But you were made for this. I know you will make me proud. Return here, tonight, at the setting of the sun.” He placed his hands on my shoulders, squeezing them. “You are special. I need your help with this. I cannot do this without you.”

I looked away. “But- Holstein-“

“Isn’t worth thinking about right now,” he said, his voice stern. “She succeeds. But that is not enough, sometimes. She isn’t like you.” He sighed. “If you wish to, talk with her. She will not tell you any different. When you have spoken with her, if you still believe she is the right one to do this, I will trust your judgement. If you decide she is not worthy… Please. Hurry back.”

I nodded, and stepped out of the holding paddock, making my way back to my bike. I would talk with her. Maybe it was just this specific task. Maybe she hadn’t wanted it. Maybe-

I found her at the bridge. She sat on the suspension bridge’s edge, her backpack at her feet. The little bridge on the edge of town, where the river cut through the town, where the steel had used to be picked up and dropped off, where the people went when they didn’t see any exit. Old verdigris iron, covered with that curious dusty green that developed on certain bridges. Signs asking people to please, consider calling a suicide hotline. Someone had spraypainted the number over with ‘WHY BOTHER’.

“Holstein?”

“It’s just Elizabeth again,” she said, softly. “I’m not a part of the church anymore.” Her legs dangled over the edge. The little suspension bridge hung maybe seven or eight feet above the water, her eyes on her reflection. “He had a test for me.”

“The test… Holstein- I mean, Elizabeth- No, Holstein- it’s okay! It’s okay. You made the right decision. He wouldn’t make us hurt something. You probably left before he had a chance to explain.”

She didn’t answer me. She stared down at the water, at her own reflection.

“Holstein?”

She looked up at me. “You know, it’s funny, the ways you realize you’re not a good person. That you’re really, totally bad.” She looked back down at the water. Her hand on the backpack. “Go away, Derry. You won, okay? You’re better.”

“You didn’t,” I whispered, horror in my voice. I felt a sick little feeling in my stomach, “Please, Holstein, tell me you didn’t.”

She didn’t answer me, her head slumped down low, blonde hair hanging over her face. “He asked me to. He told me that- He-” The words drifted off, and she stared down into her reflection.

I reached into the pocket. I felt the card between my fingers. This was what it was about. This was why the world had to change. Because of shit like this. Because of people like Elizabeth. I slowly crumpled up the card. “Whatever you decide to do,” I said, softly, “you probably deserve it.” I threw it out, onto the water.

A moment after it hit the water, the wind gusted. It caught the little piece of paper, and pulled it up, out of the water, sending it dancing up, higher and higher, into the sky. I turned away and walked back to my bike.

Everyone died eventually. Some people just deserved it. I rode my bike for a while, ignoring the occasional pings from my mom on the phone, just losing myself in the moment. Enjoying the impending sensation of the world changing. It lasted all the way to the slaughter house, all the way in through the door, and right up to the moment when I found Devon, bound on the floor of the back room, staring up at me with terrified eyes.

“Only animals are innocent,” murmured Father Steer, right behind me. He smiled, and placed the handle of a knife between my fingers.

 

 

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