Twilight of the Dogs | Paul Witcover | The Piltdown Review

Twilight of the Dogs

Twilight of the Dogs

We were watching the stream of the fighting in Hampton Roads, looking for Dad or anybody else we knew, when the bombs started falling. Until that instant, I’d been certain the war would pass us by. Nothing interesting ever happens in Urbanna. But Reverend Samuels always said the Jacks would come sooner or later, and now it looked like he was right. He generally was.

At the first explosions, Amber and Cyndi began to scream, and what sounded like every car alarm in the neighborhood went off at once. I felt myself freeze up. This wasn’t how I’d pictured myself acting in a combat situation. Two days ago I’d sworn up and down to Dad that I would fight like a veteran if given half a chance. Now I willed myself to spring into action, but it was no use. I could only sit there on the couch, aghast and helpless.

Then Mom’s steady voice filled me with a shame that took the place of courage. “Come on, Jon. You know the drill!”

She was already hustling the twins out of the room, making, I knew, for the church. That’s where everybody was supposed to gather in the event of an attack. Even before the miracle of a week ago, when elements of the army and national guard went over to the side of the Hampton militia and took control of Langley Air Force Base, Reverend Samuels had been insisting that we plan for the worst. The miracle of Langley had only increased his sense of urgency.

“You think it’s finished because of what happened at Langley?” he’d thundered from the pulpit to the crowd that had gathered to give thanks. “It’s not over by a long shot. It’s just beginning. You think because we’re godly folk here in Urbanna, wickedness won’t seek us out? I tell you, it will come for that very reason! And when it does, there will be only one protection. One salvation.” He flung his arms out to either side. “Behold, the wicked are overthrown, and are not, but the house of the righteous shall stand.”

It was my job to get Gran to church. Gran was Dad’s mom. She sat on the sofa now, eyes glued to the TV as if she didn’t hear the bombs exploding or feel the house shaking, as if those chaotic images of war broadcast by cambots miles away in Hampton were more real than the war that had suddenly shown up on our doorstep.

“Come on, Gran. We’ve got to go.”

She looked up at me, her clouded blue eyes like glass bubbles that could shatter at a word, and pursed her lips in annoyance. “Quiet, you, Mark,” she said.

It wasn’t the first time she’d mixed me up with Dad. I didn’t bother correcting her. I just reminded her that Reverend Samuels was waiting.

“The reverend?” Gran had a crush on Reverend Samuels. There was no other word for it. Whenever she was around him, she batted her eyes, giggled, blushed, the whole nine yards. It was embarrassing, watching my seventy-six-year-old grandmother behave like a thirteen-year-old girl. But it did come in handy sometimes.

“That’s right.” I eased her to her feet. Her body had the heft of porcelain. The bombs seemed to be drawing nearer. My legs were trembling with the need to run. I had to shout to make myself heard. “He’s waiting for us at the church.”

“Fetch my yellow scarf.” Flakes of dandruff fell over the shoulders of her blue dress as Gran smoothed her hair. “The reverend says it sets off my eyes right nice.”

“There’s no time.” Gripping her arm, I impelled her forward, trying to herd her out of the room. “You look fine.”

She stopped. “Where are you taking me, Mark?”

I grimaced. Gran would pick today of all days to act up. Her biggest fear was of being put into a nursing home like Grandad. And like him, dying there. On bad days, when the dementia was at its worst, the slightest departure from routine left her confused and suspicious, fastening on vaguely imagined conspiracies to explain her sense of shadows gathering and closing in around her.

“Where are you taking me?” she repeated, more fearfully now.

“I told you, to church!”

It must’ve come out harsher than I’d intended, because Gran started to cry. She stood there, limp as a dishrag, tears running down her face. I tugged at her arm, but I couldn’t budge her. It was amazing how someone so frail could fix herself so stubbornly to one spot. The house was shuddering and groaning, and the sky was full of screaming. I felt like joining in. I realized I was going to have to throw Gran over my shoulder and carry her to church. She’d probably fight me every step of the way, but what else could I do? Leave her? I thought for a moment about hitting her: a tap on the chin, enough to knock her out, and when she woke up she wouldn’t remember anything. But what if she didn’t wake up? Besides, I’d remember. I’d know.

And God would know.

“Take it easy, Gran,” I said soothingly and reached for her again. Then I thought of the HK‑91. The armed man fears nothing, is equal to anything. How many times had Dad told me that? He was gone now, fighting against the godless government, but I’d sworn on the Bible to protect the family in his absence. Once the bombs stopped falling, the Jacks would come. I was going to need that rifle. I should have thought of it sooner; Dad sure as heck would’ve. “I’ll be right back, Gran.”

She ignored me, fleeing back to the sofa and the comfort of the TV. The wall screen was still showing live feeds from Hampton. The city had been bombed by both sides and was little more than smoking ruins now, but Jacks and militiamen were fighting it out in what remained of the streets, as were the cambots of church and state, tiny arachnoid shapes recapitulating in miniature the warfare they recorded, edited, and broadcast via the network of themselves. Packs of dogs scavenged among the dead, moving purposefully through the debris as if they, too, shared a link.

After Dad and most of Urbanna’s able-bodied men, along with plenty of kids my own age and even younger, had gone to the relief of Hampton, I’d moved his guns to the foyer closet, placing them high on the top shelf where the twins couldn’t reach. Now I wrenched open the door and stood on tip-toe to grope for the HK‑91. As my fingers closed around the familiar shape of the assault rifle, something huge crashed down behind me with a roar like a freight train derailing into a pit of glass, and I felt myself lifted as if by the scruff of the neck and thrown forward.

The next thing I knew, I was lying half-buried in down coats and chunks of plaster. I had a feeling I was forgetting something important, but I couldn’t stay focused long enough to figure out what. My head was throbbing so violently that I thought I was going to puke. When I touched it, pain like I’d never imagined shot through my brain. Then sickness came rushing up and out of me.

Afterward, I began to wriggle my way back, inch by slow inch, more to escape the reek of my own vomit than anything else. I kept having to stop, coughing and gasping as my stomach heaved, but soon there was nothing left to come out. Moments or hours later, I glimpsed the stock of the HK‑91 protruding from a pile of coats, and only then did I wake up to where I was. The hardness of the weapon in my hand filled me with fresh and unexpected strength, like grace.

Then I remembered Gran, and that thought filled me with strength as well, a strength that rose from within me like the sickness had, and which felt almost like a kind of sickness itself. I backed the rest of the way out of the closet and stood on shaky legs, supporting myself against the wall with my free hand. My fingers were red with blood, and I wondered vaguely whose it could be.

“Gran!” I called, or tried to; no sound emerged from my lips. There was no sound anywhere. The explosions, the sirens . . . all gone. Vanished. Just a hissing noise like sand blowing over sand. I smelled burning things.

I pushed away from the wall and staggered through an obstacle course of debris—upended, smashed furniture, pictures and photographs hurled from their perches on walls and tables, the contents of shelves and cabinets dumped unceremoniously into the snowfall of plaster and broken glass blanketing the floor. It was as if a giant had lifted the house, shaken it like a snow-globe, then set it down again.

I reached the family room . . . what was left of it. The TV was gone, along with the wall in which had been set, leaving an opening that looked out into the front yard and the street beyond. I saw no sign of Gran or, for that matter, the couch on which she’d been sitting. This time, when I shouted her name, I heard the faint rasp of my voice, felt it in my bones like distant thunder, and I realized the world was not as silent as it seemed. The bomb that had wrecked the house had temporarily deafened me. At least, I hoped it was only temporary.

I began to search the room, looking for Gran, but there was nothing. Had she been blown out of the house by the explosion? Or perhaps just wandered off, dazed and confused? Perhaps she had walked to the church and was waiting there now, along with Mom and the twins. I imagined how glad they’d be to see me, how they’d laugh and cry when I stepped through the door, the answer to their prayers. How Amber and Cyndi would come running to hug me. How Gran would be flirting with Reverend Samuels as usual. All of them safe.

Then I took a deep breath and wiped wetness from my eyes. Who was I kidding? Gran wasn’t at church. And I’d better stop telling myself fairy tales if I wanted to get there. Urbanna had been attacked; that much was plain. I glanced at my watch: it was nearly seven. I tried to remember what time it had been when the bombs had started to fall. An hour ago? Two hours? I wasn’t sure. But I must have been lying there in the closet for a long time, dead to the world. Had the Jacks come while I was unconscious? Were they here now?

I had to assume they were. Disgusted at my slowness to comprehend the obvious, I clicked off the safety of the HK‑91 and made my way to the opening in the wall, keeping low and availing myself of every shred of cover. I didn’t know who might be out there, watching. There could be snipers waiting for a clear shot. With my hearing gone, there would be no warning crack, just the sudden impact of a bullet, like effect preceding cause.

Hugging what remained of the wall, I advanced to where it ended entirely. I crouched there for a moment, fighting down my fear. Then I peeked out. The cars and homes of our neighbors lay smashed and smoldering. Small fires were burning themselves out as though they’d burned for hours already. There were bodies sprawled in the street and across the singed and cratered lawns. I counted three in our yard alone. Two wore the uniform of the Jacks; the other was a militiaman. I couldn’t make out the man’s face, or even his unit, but his hair was blond, like my dad’s. But Dad was miles away, in Hampton.

Meanwhile, some other part of my mind was fitting the pieces together. Following the bombing, the Jacks must have entered the town, only to be attacked by militiamen in turn. A battle had ensued . . . one I’d as good as slept through, to my shame. Now I saw no trace of life or movement. It appeared that both sides had withdrawn, leaving their dead behind.

Just as I’d been left behind. First by Dad, then Mom and the twins. Even Gran was gone. Perhaps I was as dead as the men outside, only I didn’t know it. If I retraced my steps, would I find my body sprawled on the closet floor?

No. I was alive, not some walking ghost. I might be deaf, but I wasn’t blind. The important thing was to get to the church. It occurred to me that the Jacks, in their wickedness, might have violated the sanctity of God’s house. It wouldn’t be the first time. They were known for such atrocities, and worse ones. Of course, they denied everything, but we, the faithful, knew the truth. We’d heard the testimony of survivors, seen the footage cast by CCP cambots from all across the country.

I stepped over the wall and outside, muttering a prayer. The sun was a pale smudge behind gray clouds and drifting smoke. A hot breeze was blowing. I didn’t think I’d ever heard a noise quite as loud as this silence. It made me want to scream, fire a burst from the HK, anything to shatter it. Instead, I hurried toward the body of the militiaman, passing the two dead Jacks on the way. One of them was a woman—a Jill. I knew that women fought alongside men in the federal army, but it disturbed me to see. It must be a hard thing for a Christian man to have to kill a woman, even if she is the enemy. But God doesn’t ask the easy things, as I’d often heard Reverend Samuels say and was coming to understand for myself.

The militiaman lay as if asleep, curled into a fetal position and turned away from me. His hair was blond and bloody. I couldn’t see any indication of the man’s unit, but the shoulder patch on his camouflage fatigues bore the insignia of the Church of Christ, Patriot: the white cross with the black silhouettes of two rifles stacked on either side and leaning together beneath the bar, propping it up. I took a breath and steeled myself. I had a terrible premonition that I was looking at the corpse of my father. Dropping to one knee, I turned the body face up. Or tried to. It was stiff, heavy, as if rooted to the ground. I braced myself and heaved.

I fell back onto my butt as the body abruptly rolled over. The dead man’s eyes were gone. Blood-rimmed sockets gaped in a face that looked nothing like my dad’s. It didn’t even seem human. The crows had been at it. And not only crows. The nose and one cheek had been torn away, revealing bone-white teeth and a bloated, purplish tongue. The body remained curled around its death, like a spider. I scrambled to my feet and backed away.

A movement out of the corner of my eye was the only warning I got before a dark blur bowled me over. My hand came up instinctively, and I felt something sharp tear at my wrist. My screams were swallowed in the hissing silence as I struggled to throw off my attacker. The absence of sound made what was happening seem like a dream or a movie, a violent dance without music. Somehow I got my feet up and kicked free. Only then, as it prepared to spring at me again, did I realize that my attacker was a dog. I swung up the HK‑91 and fired off a burst.

The spray of bullets cut the dog nearly in two. I turned away, feeling my gorge rise, and saw another dark blur vanish around the side of the house. I tried to stand but fell twice before I was able to do so. My wrist was bleeding freely, the skin torn. I felt no pain, just a tingling sensation that climbed my arm in pulses synchronized to the throbbing of my head, the beating of my heart. It rose, then fell, then rose again a little higher than before, creeping up in a numbing tide. I don’t know why I didn’t turn and run back into the house. I wasn’t thinking too clearly. I took a lurching step, as if stumbling downhill, then another, moving like a zombie as I crossed the yard in pursuit of the other dog.

Turning the corner, I came upon a sight that froze my blood. A pack of dogs was tearing at something on the ground. I saw a flash of blue amid the seething mass of fur and limbs. Then I was firing into the thick of it. A few dogs fell. The rest ran off.

I ran to Gran. Had I shot her as well? Once again, I hadn’t thought things through. Some fighter I was turning out to be. “Gran! Gran!”

She couldn’t hear my voice any better than I could. She was in far worse shape than the militiaman; if not for the dress, I didn’t think I would have recognized her at all, so thoroughly had the dogs mauled her. I forced myself to kneel beside the torn and bloody body and look for some sign of life. A breath. A pulse. There was none. The Earthly vessel was shattered; Gran was with Jesus now.

I stood on shaky legs and checked the dogs I’d shot. One of them was still alive. It looked like a mutt, part beagle. It wasn’t moving, but its mouth hung open, its long tongue lolling out, red with blood—whether its own or Gran’s, I didn’t know or want to know. It was watching me intently with brown, intelligent eyes. I raised the gun . . . but then a prickling along the back of my neck made me turn around.

The dogs had returned. There seemed to be more of them than before. The pack stood perhaps twenty yards away in the next yard, watching me, their bodies tensed and ready. I recognized neighborhood dogs among them, dogs I’d seen a thousand times being walked or running free in the park. But there were also dogs I’d never seen before, dogs of all breeds and sizes, as if they’d come from miles around. There didn’t seem to be a leader; at least, no dog stood out from the rest. I fired a burst over their heads. They didn’t flinch. They stood firm, like soldiers prepared to accept certain losses rather than retreat an inch. Cold fear uncoiled down the length of my spine.

I bolted. I didn’t have to look over my shoulder to know that the pack was coming after me. I pounded up the walkway and onto the front porch of our house. Then I was inside, slamming the door behind me. A second later, the dogs smashed against the door so forcefully that I was afraid it would splinter. But it held.

I wasn’t safe yet. The dogs would find the collapsed wall of the family room and get in that way. I wouldn’t even be able to hear them; for all I knew, they were already inside. Gasping for breath, I ran to the basement door at the end of the hall. Only as I reached it did it register that I wasn’t holding the HK‑91. I must’ve dropped it outside. I hesitated. Was there time to search the closet for another gun? But even as I glanced back, a dog shot out of the family room, paws scrabbling almost comically as it saw me and sought to alter its headlong trajectory. I didn’t waste any more time, just wrenched open the door and flung myself through.

The musty odor of the basement filled my nostrils. I stood in darkness on the top step and groped for the light switch. It didn’t work; the power must have been knocked out in the attack. But Dad kept a flashlight hanging on the wall for emergencies. I found it and played its beam over the stairs that descended steeply to the cement floor where I’d knelt and prayed three days ago. Dad had called me down after supper. As I descended the stairs, I’d been hoping that he’d changed his mind and was going to let me come along to Hampton after all. But when I reached the bottom, he’d pulled out the family Bible and made me kneel and put my hand to the vow-smoothed leather and swear that I wouldn’t come after the militia . . . that I’d stay behind to protect Gran, Mom, and the twins. I repeated the oath he demanded of me though the duty it imposed seemed neither fair nor necessary. And it had seemed even less so the next morning when I watched history pass down Main Street in a festive parade. I’d watched and waved as the column departed, a false smile stuck to my face while inside I was burning with rage and humiliation at the sight of so many kids my own age and younger among the men. The injustice of it had made my heart seethe with bitterness against my father. Years from now, I’d thought, when people spoke of how the righteous had risen up to take back their country, I would have nothing to tell. But Dad had been right to make me stay. I would have a story of my own now. I was smack dab in the middle of it.

I tried to think clearly and logically of what was happening and what I should do. WWDD—what would Dad do? Well, he wouldn’t have dropped his gun, for starters. I leaned back against the door. I felt it shuddering in its frame as the dogs hurled themselves against it; I was glad I couldn’t hear whatever noises they were making. My heart was thudding. My head was pounding, and the tingling from the bite in my wrist had spread all the way up my arm, though the bleeding had stopped. I could barely move the fingers of that hand, or feel them. My watch was gone, torn away in the dog’s attack. Could it have been rabid? Even if it had been, the sickness wouldn’t be on me yet.

What had turned the dogs so vicious? Had the noise and bloodshed of war snapped something civilized in them, returning them to a wilder, more savage existence? Did the same thing happen to men? Perhaps that was war’s secret allure . . . the knowledge I’d seen in the eyes of my dad and the other veterans as they’d driven off, a look that had called to me with a promise of revelation and transformation, like the look in Reverend Samuels’s eyes on the day of my baptism, when he’d plunged me down into the warm water of the pool and held me there. I’d opened my eyes and watched my former self and all its sins go streaming away in the bubbles rising up all around me until the burning in my lungs had grown too great to bear and I’d begun to fight against the strong hands that held me down—which, as if they’d been waiting for just that signal, pulled me gasping into the sweet air of a new life. It struck me now that this was a second baptism, sanctified by blood and a silence similar to that which I’d experienced in the baptismal pool. When I surfaced now, how would I be changed?

Reverend Samuels had been right; wickedness had come to Urbanna. That the dogs were possessed by demons, I had no doubt. I’d always known that this fight was for the future of the country, but what if even more was at stake? What if the final struggle was being played out here and now? Were these the last days of conflict and conflagration leading to the Rapture? Or, and the thought staggered me like a punch, sent my shoulders sliding down the trembling plane of the door until I was sprawled on the top step like one of my sisters’ rag dolls on a shelf, had the Rapture already come and gone while I lay unconscious, the godly lifted bodily up to Heaven, leaving the Earth to sinners? I’d always thought of myself as among the elect, the saved. Had that certainty been sinful, an excess of pride? If so, I repented it now. But I knew that repentance, however sincere, wasn’t enough. I could still be saved, but I had to earn salvation by being strong in my faith and actions. That was the way of the Christian Patriot, of the righteous men like my dad who had left their families behind and gone to Hampton in the service of something bigger than themselves. I realized that it didn’t matter what had happened, whether the Rapture had taken place or was still to come. I’d sworn to protect my family; that I would do to the best of my ability, or die trying. But I couldn’t do it from here. One way or another, I had to get to the church. If, when I got there, it was empty, I’d know and rejoice for the sake of Mom and the twins and all the others so blessedly ascended. And if it were not empty, I would be needed more than ever.

But first I had to get past the dogs.

Yet I felt so tired, so drained. I couldn’t even get to my feet. I felt the dogs scratching away on the other side of the door as if determined to claw their way through. I imagined their claws working inside me as well, scratching furiously at some inner barrier that would break sooner, and with more terrible results, than the door at my back. I sensed something in me akin to the dogs, a fierce and ravening potential desperate to be born. I didn’t know what it was or where it had come from. I only knew that it would crack me open like an eggshell. I clutched my knees to my chest and shivered. Gazing down the narrow beam of the flashlight as though peering into the shaft of a tunnel, I prayed with all my heart, asking for strength and guidance. I’d never felt so afraid. So alone.

The glittery drift of dust particles in the flashlight’s beam reminded me of driving home through snowfalls after a day of deer hunting, Dad sitting quietly behind the wheel and me quiet beside him, weary to the bone and half-hypnotized by the beautiful chaos of white flakes shining in the headlights, tempting me with the promise of a deeper, hidden order, a pattern that would make sense of everything if only I had faith enough to surrender to it. Now I did surrender, letting myself sink into the bottomless swirl of dust, though it was exhaustion rather than faith that moved me.

I felt as if my soul had slipped from my body into a river of light in which countless other souls hung suspended, carried by fateful currents to whatever destination their lives had merited. My fear left me; I felt only wonder. The dust motes were like windows I could peer into as they tumbled past. There I glimpsed entire lives; not in the way of earthly seeing, for the brightness around me was blinding, but with a new kind of sight that bypassed my eyes. Here there was no time, no sequential ordering of images. The totality of each thing, each person, was present simultaneously, the whole contained in every part, conception to death, like a hologram existing in dimensions I’d lacked the senses to perceive until now. I wasn’t seeing men, women, children . . . or, rather, that was the least of what I saw. They were strangers, like the bodies outside; yet I knew them. And knew that I was equally exposed to their gazes. I felt no shame or modesty. On the contrary, I’d never felt such acceptance and love. It came pouring into me from all directions. It was absolute, unqualified, like no human emotion I’d ever known or imagined. I realized then that I and all the other souls here were parts of a totality far bigger than ourselves, a construct so vast and multifaceted that only God could possibly perceive it. Yet—and it was this which truly awed me—that totality was present in me, in each of us, though as far beyond the grasp of even my current, heightened comprehension as that comprehension had been beyond the grasp of my former senses. I was part of a hierarchy in which every place, however humble, was equally essential and valued in the eyes of God, just as all militiamen were of equal value in the eyes of the officers above them, whose orders were for that reason carried out without question or hesitation, an obedience founded not on fear, as with the Jacks—little more than slaves, really—who served the federal government, but, rather, on faith. Lord, I thought, so overwhelmed by this vision of a heavenly militia that I could only abase myself before it, I am not worthy . . .

None are worthy unless made so by the Redeemer’s grace.

It was Gran’s voice! Suddenly I felt the warmth of her love infusing me, though there was no visible sign of her presence. But I didn’t need to see her; I knew she was here. And somehow it didn’t seem at all surprising or unusual that she should be speaking to me, though I hadn’t forgotten for a moment that she was dead. I-I’m sorry, Gran. I failed you. I didn’t know if I was speaking the words aloud or only thinking them.

Don’t be sorry. Rejoice as I do.

It’s my fault you died . . .

This is not death, but life everlasting. I am born again in the communion of saints.

My heart leapt. And me? Is there a place for me in that communion?

For you and for all mankind.

Then it’s true. These are the Last Days.

No, she answered. The First. But it is not to speak of this that I am come. We have need of you, Grandson.

We?

All of us here, freed from the prisons of our bodies. We can see—oh, so much! But we cannot act directly.

What, Gran? What have you seen?

You must go to the church, Jon. Your mother and sisters and all those sheltering there are in mortal peril.

What’s happened? Is it the Jacks? Have they—?

Hush. There is no time. You must hurry, or it will be too late.

But the dogs . . .

Have faith, Jon. I will be with you in spirit. If you show no fear and trust in me, the dogs will not harm you.

I-I’m afraid, Gran.

Does death still frighten you so much? After all you’ve seen, all I’ve told you?

I was ashamed, but couldn’t lie to her. Yes.

A time will come when you will throw open the door to Death and invite him in gladly. But that time is not yet.

It seemed impossible that such a time could ever come. But surely if I opened the basement door now, the death waiting on the other side wouldn’t wait for an invitation. It would charge right in, all snapping teeth and rending claws. I can’t do it, Gran. My faith isn’t that strong.

Then your mother and sisters will perish. And not just in the flesh. The communion of saints will be denied them. Their voices will be forever absent from the heavenly choir. Will you let that happen when it lies in your power to prevent it?

But how? What power do I have?

When the time comes, you will know. God will provide.

I wish Dad was here.

He is.

It took me a moment to grasp her meaning. No!

Your father fell in Hampton. He fought bravely and died well. He has joined the communion. Will you deny him the joy of a reunion with his wife and daughters?

So many impossible things had happened, but this struck me as the most impossible of all. How could it be? Dad dead. Gone from the world, and me left behind . . . again. I want to talk to him, I demanded, as though this were a phone call. Like I’m talking to you.

You can’t, Jon. He hasn’t adjusted yet. The transition is . . . confusing.

I felt a weight that hadn’t been with me before, as if Dad had borne it until now. A chain of fathers and sons forged across the generations. Now that heavy chain was mine to carry forward, mine to pass on . . .

Jon? Are you listening?

Is it over? I asked then. Have we lost?

There was laughter in her reply. How can we lose? With each death we grow stronger.

I’ll need a weapon.

Faith must be your weapon. And your shield.

But—

Enough!

I jumped at the sharpness of her tone. It was as if whatever stood at the far end of the chain of fathers and sons—the very first father of all, perhaps—had yanked the chain taut, bringing me abruptly to heel.

There is no more time for talk. You must act, Jon. Now, this very instant!

Even as she spoke, I felt myself expelled from the light of her presence. The sensation of weightless suspension gave way to the hardness of the stairs on which I sprawled, the door at my back. My muscles were stiff, protesting the awkward position. I felt a fierce thirst. Had I fallen asleep? Had it all been a dream? My face was wet with tears. The weight of Dad’s loss was still with me. I knew it always would be.

I got to my feet with a groan—an audible groan. I could hear again! And that wasn’t all. My head no longer pained me, and though the numbness in my arm remained, I found that I could move it, and the blood-smeared fingers of my hand, easily. Gran had healed me . . . or God had, working through her spirit. Just as she’d been healed, for no trace of the dementia had been evident in her words or in the luminous intelligence I’d perceived behind them. What more proof did I need? Yet I didn’t open the door. Pressing my ear to the wood, I listened intently but heard nothing. Only the muffled, mindless, yet somehow mournful wailing of car alarms. Perhaps the dogs had gone. If only I could see what was behind the door!

Gran?

But I knew she wouldn’t answer. Blessed are they that do not see, and yet believe. I thought again of Dad’s sacrifice, of Mom and the twins and our neighbors all huddled together in the church, praying for deliverance. In some way I didn’t understand, I was that deliverance. Or could be, if I had faith and courage enough. And hadn’t I sworn already to protect them? I reached a trembling hand to the door, turned the knob, and pushed it open.

The dogs were waiting, as I’d known they would be. They filled the hallway. But they didn’t charge. They didn’t make a move or a sound. They sat or stood, watching expectantly, anxiously, tails lowered, brown and yellow eyes shining in the beam of my flashlight with the unnatural intelligence of the devils residing there.

Steeling myself, I took a step forward, gripping the flashlight tightly in my hand, like a club. The nearest dogs drew away, opening a path between them. Another step, and more dogs retreated, whining as they went. It was like Gran had promised; her spirit was pushing them aside, protecting me. Armored in her grace, which came from God, I advanced with increased confidence into the midst of them. When I reached the closet, I paused, thinking to procure a better weapon than the flashlight, but no sooner did I turn than the dogs drew close to bar my way, warning me back with growls and bared teeth and bristling fur. The other dogs had closed ranks behind me, cutting off my retreat. I had nowhere to go but forward.

Outside, the sun had set, and the night seemed darker than any I had ever known, with a thick haze of smoke drifting through the air, obscuring the stars and moon, and my flashlight the only source of illumination apart from guttering fires. Everything was the same, but changed: the wreckage of houses and cars, the bodies of the dead, all rendered at once less real and more terrible in the flashlight beam. The stench of burned wood and rubber and other things I didn’t want to think about curled in my nostrils. I saw my HK‑91 in the driveway where I’d dropped it, but I didn’t bother trying to retrieve it. The dogs herded me past. Now that I could hear again, the clamor of the car alarms was making me wish for silence.

I walked to the end of the street and turned up Main. It was hard to believe the militia had driven down this street just days ago, the whole town lining the sidewalks to cheer the parade of pickups and SUVs. It had been a regular Fourth of July: horns honking, people shouting and waving upside-down American flags, guns being shot off into the air. Now Main Street was cratered from the impact of shells and bombs, strewn with smashed cars and broken glass. I passed more bodies, but the dogs wouldn’t let me stop to examine them. I thought of Dad, lying dead somewhere in Hampton, and of my friends who had gone with him to fight. How many of them lay sprawled in the graceless contortions of death; how many of their martyred souls had joined the communion of saints? All, surely all. But then why didn’t I feel happier for them? Why wasn’t I rejoicing? The noise of the alarms reminded me of Amber and Cyndi, how they’d screamed when the bombs had started falling. How would I tell them that they no longer had a father? And Mom . . . She was a widow now, thinking she still had a husband.

I began to run. The dogs paced me to either side, barking and yapping in excitement, or perhaps frustration. Every so often one would dart in to snap at my legs, but my faith held firm, and I was not bitten. When I reached the steps of the church, the pack dropped back, and I knew then that I was safe. What was in them could not come close to such a holy place.

I ran up the steps, looking for some sign of life within the church, but the windows were dark. The door was locked tight. Was I too late? I pounded at it, shouting for admittance. “Open up! It’s me, Jon Jensen!”

The door cracked open suddenly, and a strobe of light flashed into my eyes. Someone grabbed me and pulled me inside. I heard the door slam shut. I cried out and swung the flashlight blindly, more out of instinct than anything else, but the blow never landed. My wrist was seized in a grip of steel, and what must have been a forearm caught me under the chin and pinned me back against the door. The flashlight dropped from my fingers as the voice of Reverend Samuels rasped in my ear. “Don’t fight me, Jon! You’re safe now. Safe. Do you understand?”

I managed a nod, and the pressure on my windpipe slackened. I gasped for air and would have fallen, but Reverend Samuels bore me up. My vision was beginning to clear when, with the click of a switch, the lights came on, blinding me a second time. The church had its own generator; even if electricity were out in the rest of Urbanna, there would be power here. I let myself be guided through a soup of blotchy shapes and colors.

“Here, sit down,” came Reverend Samuels’s voice again.

I sank gratefully into a chair. A hand fell onto my shoulder, squeezed. “Drink this.”

A plastic bottle was thrust into my hand. I raised it to my lips and tasted cool cider. I drank greedily.

“Where’s your grandmother, Jon?”

I shook my head, unable to speak. The round, red, sweaty face of Reverend Samuels swam into focus. He was squatting in front of me in his baptismal robes of brilliant, arterial crimson—for there could be neither birth nor rebirth, whether of an individual or a nation, without the shedding of blood, as Jesus and Jefferson had said. One of the altar pieces, an M‑16, dangled from a strap at his shoulder. His eyes looked big as blue marbles behind his glasses. They stared into my soul, judging me.

“Everyone made it but you two.” Reverend Samuels dug his fingers into my shoulder. “You were supposed to bring her.”

“I-I couldn’t!” I blurted out. “I—”

He interrupted: “Is she still alive?”

Tears came welling up at the question. I wiped my eyes fiercely, ashamed. “She’s gone, Reverend Samuels.”

“I’m truly sorry, Jon.” With a sigh, Reverend Samuels released me and stood, holding the M‑16 steady against his side. “I know how much you loved her. But you mustn’t blame yourself. It was her time. God called her home.”

“I know,” I said.

“Then dry your tears. The arms of Jesus will comfort and avenge.”

The windows of the vestibule were covered with thick blankets to keep the light from shining out. The double doors leading to the sanctuary were closed. Behind them I heard, for the first time, faint strains of organ music. “Is everybody okay, Reverend Samuels? My mom and the twins?”

“They’re fine, Jon. Everyone’s fine here.”

The surge of relief was so strong that I was sobbing before I knew it. I’d arrived in time! Mom and the twins were all right. I could still save them. Save everyone. But from what? Gran had said only that my task would be revealed to me, and that God would provide the means to accomplish it. I had to have faith. “Take . . . take me to them.”

Reverend Samuels gently pushed me back as I tried to stand. “I will. But calm yourself first. Seeing you like this will only upset them.”

I nodded, struggling to master my tears.

“What’s it like out there, Jon?” Reverend Samuels asked meanwhile, lowering his voice to a raspy whisper. “The net is down. Phones are dead. And there’s nothing but white noise on the radio. We’re cut off. I know there was a battle; we heard the fighting. But then nothing, only the howling of dogs.”

“They’re devils, Reverend Samuels.”

“You saw atrocities, then?” he said almost eagerly. “The Jacks—”

“Not the Jacks,” I interrupted. “The dogs.”

He blinked in surprise.

“They’re possessed.”

“Possessed?”

I told him how the pack had ravaged the bodies of the dead and tried to kill me. He listened expressionlessly, but I could tell that he didn’t believe me, not even when I showed him my wounded wrist.

“That’s a nasty bite,” he said.

“I’m telling the truth, Reverend Samuels. I swear it!”

“You’ve been through a lot, Jon. One thing for sure, God was looking out for you today.”

I nodded. “I’m here for a reason.”

“We all are, son.”

“No, something’s going to happen, and I have to stop it.”

“What do you mean? What’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know! But Gran said—”

“Jon, whatever your grandmother may have told you before she died, you have to remember that she was sick. Her mind was gone.”

“No . . .” I didn’t know how to explain it to him. But he already thought I was crazy, so what did I have to lose? “She’s with the angels now, Reverend Samuels. She spoke to me. Said everybody here was in some kind of danger and that it was up to me to save them.”

Reverend Samuels blinked owlishly behind his thick glasses. “This is God’s house, Jon. No danger can touch us here. And we don’t need any saving. We’re already saved, in Jesus. And so are you.”

“You don’t understand. She guided me. Kept the dogs away. I—” My insides twisted painfully, and I felt sure that the danger, whatever it was, was at hand. There was no more time to talk. I lurched to my feet . . . or tried to. My legs wouldn’t support me. I couldn’t even feel them. I hit the floor hard, the plastic bottle that Reverend Samuels had given me bouncing from my hand and rolling away. What was happening to me? I tried to get up, but my arms were useless. “Gran,” I moaned. “Gran, help me . . .”

“Don’t be afraid.” Reverend Samuels’s face loomed over me, round and red and dripping with sweat, his glasses shining like moons. “I’ve got you.”

The next thing I knew, I was blinking up into bright lights. The organ music had grown louder. “Reverend Samuels?” I called weakly.

There was no answer. The organ played on. It was a familiar tune, but I couldn’t concentrate enough to recognize it. A red-hot knife was slowly sawing its way through my guts. I turned onto my side and heaved. What came up was black and foul-smelling. The sight of it was so wrong that I couldn’t keep myself from whimpering.

Where was Reverend Samuels? Why had he abandoned me? And Gran, too. Where was the comfort of her voice? They had all abandoned me.

At least I could move again. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I forced myself to sit up. I was in the sanctuary, upon the rostrum. The pews of the church were filled with people, all the citizens of Urbanna who had remained behind: women, children, old men. There were perhaps a hundred. I could almost believe they were sleeping, lulled by the sweet sounds of the recorded music. Crawling to the lectern, I pulled myself slowly to my feet. I saw Mom right away, in a pew toward the back. Amber and Cyndi sat slumped on either side, sheltered in her arms. I cried out, but their heads did not rise. No one stirred. No one woke. I thought of how I’d wanted to spare them the news I carried, thinking to shield them from death, when all the while, death had already claimed them. Now they were beyond me and my news.

A fit of coughing seized me, and I clung to the lectern as bile and blood spattered from my lips onto the pages of the hymnal that lay open there. I read my own death on the white pages. The cider had been poisoned. And I had not been the only one to drink. Why hadn’t I realized sooner? Because I’d known about this; we all had. It was the worst of worst-case scenarios, a sin permissible in order to protect the weak and innocent from the depredations of the Jacks. With communications down, and fighting in the streets outside, Reverend Samuels and the rest must have given up hope, lost faith in the militia. Or fallen back on a higher, purer faith. Yet God was not pleased. He had sent me here to stop the sacrifice. I remembered Gran’s warning: Your mother and sisters will perish. And not just in the flesh. The communion of saints will be denied them. Their voices will be forever absent from the heavenly choir.

Only, I’d come too late. I groaned, imagining the scene, how the reverend had stood where I was standing now, leading the congregation in hymns as bottles of cider were passed from hand to hand along the pews, mothers helping children to drink, then drinking themselves and passing it on, the voices slowly growing softer and fewer as time went on, until only one strong voice remained. And then that, too, falling silent. But not in death. No, Reverend Samuels wasn’t dead.

At that moment, I felt such anger and hatred for him that my whole body shook with it. I had no illusions about my survival, but I prayed for the strength and time to make him pay for what he’d done. He was carrying one of the altar pieces, but the other remained, also an M‑16. It was behind me, leaning against the big wooden cross that stood in front of a pristine white curtain at the back of the altar. I took a step toward it, but without the lectern’s support, I fell. As I lay there, trembling with rage and frustration, the poison carving me up inside, I seemed to hear my father’s voice. The armed man fears nothing, is equal to everything. At that, new strength flooded my limbs, and I crawled to the altar and took down the M‑16. It was, of course, loaded. I clicked off the safety.

And not a second too soon. From behind the curtain, I heard the sound of Reverend Samuels’s voice raised in song. It was faint at first, but growing louder, and I realized that he was climbing up from the basement, returning to the sanctuary.

Let us with undissembled love,

Like children in one band,

March to our Father’s house above,

And to the promised land.

It was the hymn “Ye Pilgrims, That Are Wand’ring Home.” The words seemed twisted by circumstance into something sinister. Or maybe I had never understood them correctly until now.

My little flock, I bid adieu,

Our parting is to-day;

O may we all to Christ prove true,

And try to watch and pray.

I positioned myself behind the altar and waited. If I’d been here, as planned, would I too have drunk willingly of the poison, accepted it like a communion cup, sure of my place in heaven?

There is one thing that wounds my heart,

And grieves my soul full sore;

To think we must in body part,

Perhaps to meet no more.

The curtain rustled, then parted. But instead of Reverend Samuels, a Jack stepped through. Surprised, I hesitated, and in that moment of hesitation he strode past my hiding place without a glance, raised his gun, and began to fire short bursts, raking the pews. At that, I reacted at last, aiming my rifle and firing a single shot. It struck the Jack in the side; he spun and went down, the rifle flying from his hands.

I dragged myself over to the fallen soldier, who lay face up in a spreading pool of blood. It was Reverend Samuels. His face was gray, his lips bloody. His glasses were gone; his blue eyes had a brittle shine, as if they were turning to glass themselves. They blinked, then seemed to focus on me, widening with something like wonder.

“Why?” I croaked. Meaning, why everything? The poison, the uniform, the fighting, the dogs. This last, senseless desecration. All of it.

But his eyes had hardened, their transformation done. There would be no more answers from Reverend Samuels. Unless he himself was the answer, the final answer to every question.

A furtive sound drew my attention, and I glanced over my shoulder in time to see a handful of cambots scuttle across the ceiling and behind the curtain like daddy longlegs. They had recorded everything. Perhaps transmissions were down, or being blocked, in our area, but the cambots were capable of traveling for miles. One of them at least, and the lies it carried, would get through. In days or weeks, footage would appear on TV, and the world would see me shoot Reverend Samuels.

Except no one would know it was Reverend Samuels. They would see a militiaman shoot a Jack. A Jack who had just massacred a church full of innocent people. The atrocity would further discredit the government and bring fresh sympathy to the Christian Patriot cause. Reverend Samuels hadn’t panicked, after all. He’d wanted this. Arranged it. Convinced Mom and the others that there was no other choice but poison. Then, when its work was done, he’d started his. I pictured him moving along the pews, carefully arranging the bodies, preparing them for the cambots, for his grand entrance in the role of the evil, murderous Jack. Only, I’d interrupted the performance. Like some returning prodigal, I’d been welcomed back into the fold, even given a place of honor upon the rostrum. A brave young militiaman, cut down attempting to protect the innocent. A martyr. But I’d played a different role. Avenger. That was what people would see. And I knew it would be a powerful message, more so than the original, even if it wasn’t true, or not the truth that it would be taken for. But there was nothing I could do about that now. I slumped back against the lectern. I could no longer feel my legs, and instead of a hot knife twisting in my guts, a heavy ball of ice seemed to have settled there. It was too late for me. Too late for everything.

Gran? Why don’t you answer?

But she had forsaken me. If I hadn’t dreamed her up in the first place.

I don’t know how long I sat there, drifting in and out of consciousness, before the sound of a dull, muffled boom roused me. The floor trembled. The lights gave an ominous flicker and then went out. I felt as though I had never known darkness until that moment. It was like being buried alive. Assuming I was still alive. I couldn’t feel my body, and it began to seem to me that I was floating free in that oceanic dark, a lone thought in a fading mind. It was a solitude so stark, stripped of every consolation, every hope, that I found myself longing not for light but a deeper darkness, a final extinguishment of the spark that was me. I wondered if the noise I had heard was the resumption of bombing, and I prayed for one to strike the church, reached out with all the desperation of my yearning to pull oblivion down from the sky. How different this was from the vision I’d experienced on the basement stairs of a vast communion of souls, a heavenly militia! I could no more join in that communion now than I could make myself rise and walk, or return the dead to life.

I heard no more explosions. But after a time impossible to measure, colors began to bloom in the dark: pale, pulsing blues and oranges and pinks, as though the sun were rising inside the church. I watched in awe, enraptured by a beauty so simple yet inexplicable that it could only be a miracle. I rejoiced then in my heart and chided my lack of faith, sure that the intensifying colors presaged an angelic visitation, that Gran was about to speak to me again, or to appear before me wrapped in the glorious raiment of heaven. She was so close now that I could almost see her shape, rosy as the dawn. A veil as thin as gossamer was all that separated us. And then it parted, pierced by a wing whose feathers were bright as flames.

But no angel stepped through. Instead, in the garish light, I saw that the curtain behind the altar was on fire. So that was what Reverend Samuels had been up to in the basement! That was the sound I’d heard: an incendiary. He had planned well; there would be no evidence to disprove the testimony of the cambots. I laughed at the joke that had been played on me, that I’d played on myself. Then laughter gave way to another fit of coughing.

The curtain burned quickly, falling away in sections that draped across the beam of the wooden cross, setting it ablaze in turn. I watched as the fire spread, numb in mind and body. I wondered if the poison would complete its task before the flames reached me, or, if not, whether it would insulate me from the pain. I tried to build my courage by telling myself that any suffering would be brief, and that soon I would be following Mom and Dad and the twins. They were waiting for me, and Gran with them, Grandpa too, and all the rest, all the martyrs and saints, the Christian Patriots, the virtuous dead. Waiting to welcome me into the godly communion that was the reward of a steadfast faith.

Yet had my faith really been steadfast and true? Even as the flames curled up the walls to lick at the high ceiling and the sanctuary began to fill with smoke, so that I coughed out as much of the tainted air as I breathed in, I knew the shameful answer. I had given in to doubt and despair. I had been quick to dismiss my vision as no more than a foolish dream, ignoring the warnings Gran had given me. In any case, I’d told myself, I was too late; the poison had done its work by the time I’d arrived, and there was no one left to save.

But it seemed to me now that Gran had been referring to souls, not bodies. She’d said that I was saved already, but not so Mom and the twins and all the others gathered here. Perhaps the manner of their deaths was blocking their souls from entering the heavenly kingdom: as suicides, they were not welcome. That seemed unfair; if anyone should be barred, it was Reverend Samuels.

But that judgment was God’s to make, not mine. If Gran was right, and I had the power to redeem their souls, how could I give up without at least trying to exercise it? Why else, though I’d drunk the poisoned cider the same as everyone else, had I alone been spared a quick death? I was still alive for a reason. There was something I had to do.

But what? I prayed for an answer.

And then I remembered something else Gran had told me. A time will come when you will throw open the door to Death and invite him in gladly. But that time is not yet.

And now? Had it come now?

I knew at once that it had. This was another test of faith, just like earlier in the basement. And that test, I understood with a sudden clarity that seemed more than merely rational, had been a rehearsal for this one. In a sense, they were the same. I had opened the door to death, but death had not touched me. The dog pack had parted to let me through, and I had walked among them unmolested, like Moses across the floor of the Red Sea. Now the dogs were waiting outside the church. Waiting for me to open the door and admit them.

And then? Would they enter despite the flames and fall upon the bodies here, as they had those outside? Whatever happened, I didn’t think I would escape as I had before. But there was no escape for me anyway. I could either lie here and let poison and fire dispute for the honor of finishing me off, or I could attempt what had been asked of me, even though I didn’t understand its purpose, how letting a pack of devils into the church could be the salvation of anyone. But wasn’t that the whole point of faith, that it went beyond human understanding? God doesn’t ask the easy things.

The flames had engulfed the cross and the altar. The smoke was thickening, and it was growing more difficult to breathe, though I’d managed to pitch myself over onto my side, closer to the floor, where the air was fresher. Walking was beyond me, my legs numb and useless, but though I couldn’t feel my arms either, I found that I could use them to drag myself forward. At the edge of the rostrum, I pulled myself over the lip and fell the short distance to the floor. I lay there a moment, then began elbow-crawling up the center aisle. It was slow going, with the hiss and crackle of the fire loud in my ears and growing louder. When I glanced to the left or right, I saw the feet of kids in sneakers and sandals dangling above the floor, and the feet of grown-ups resting upon it, and in the shifting light of the flames their legs seemed to jiggle and dance in place like the legs of frantic marionettes. I saw the wet shine of vomit and urine and blood, and it was plain, too, as it hadn’t been from the rostrum, that some of the congregation had lost control of their bowels. After a while I stopped looking and kept my eyes glued to the floor in front of me, measuring the winking inches of my progress. I didn’t even look up when I passed the pew where Mom and the twins were sitting. I was afraid that if I did, I wouldn’t be able to go on.

Reverend Samuels, in his hurry, had left the sanctuary doors open when he’d carried me in. The vestibule beyond was sunk in shadows only fitfully disturbed as yet by the flames behind me. Though my arms felt heavy as lead weights, I didn’t dare rest. I knew that my time was running out.

I had no memory of crossing the darkened space. All at once, it seemed, I had reached the front door. The golden knob glittered above me. I reached for it, but I might as well have been reaching for the moon. My hand fell back, defeated, and as it did, a wordless howl broke loose from somewhere deep in my chest: a raw, primal cry of fear and pain and failure, of loneliness and anger, anguish and loss. It was a howl of accusation, of imprecation, of prayer.

Answer came from the other side of the door.

Not one voice, or a dozen, but what seemed a hundred voices, a thousand, howling out in response. Strangely, it wasn’t terror that flashed through me then like lightning, but hope. A bright and wild energy came crackling through my veins—from where, I didn’t know—and all the hairs on my body stood up at once, lifted by some invisible force that pulled my arm up too. A will greater than my own surged through me, not to be denied. Nor did I attempt to deny it. I watched as though in a dream, a spectator within my own body, as my fingers, with a dexterity and strength they had lacked seconds earlier, closed around the knob and turned it. At that, as if the action had opened a sluice in me, I felt the motivating force depart my body in a rush, returning to its source. I fell back, emptied, and the door swung inward.

The dogs poured through. One small, snarling tributary split off to engulf me. I tried to raise my arms to fend them off, but weak as I was, I could do nothing. Teeth tore into me, and I cried out. But soon enough I was beyond all pain, all terror.

I did not dwindle; I did not die. I felt myself disperse into the dogs that tore at me, into all the dogs, and I was not alone there, for everyone they had tasted was present in that host: Gran and Dad, Mom and the twins, even Reverend Samuels, Jacks and militiamen too, from Hampton and beyond, all reconciled now, part of a vast and lively communion. I added my voice to the choir, joining the unending howling hymn.

Then we spilled out of the burning church and into the night, hungry to preach our gospel to all creation.  

shortlink: dogb.us/twilight

          

               

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