by Cate Gardner


From Issue 16 (Dec 2011)

“The Devil pulled the string on his attic door and all the people tumbled down,” Pastor Baest said, recounting recent history. “Soil shot up in an almighty plume, affixing its weight to the sky and colouring the world sepia. Amen.”

“Amen,” the children repeated.

Allyson mouthed the word, looking at the sky through the torn church roof. The inconstant sun pressed against the dust haze. Pastor made the fall sound easy, with no calculation of personal loss. She pressed her hand to her stomach. It grumbled, echoing the ground’s rumblings. The earth no longer shifted as often as it had done in the beginning, when the world had first collapsed, although she doubted it would ever still again.

Using a bone shard as a pencil, Allyson scratched a line on the pew in front – a calendar of sorts. According to her calculations this was the eleventh Sunday since the fall. She’d lost count of the months or perhaps years. Not that time rolled in the old-fashioned way anymore. Whatever the measurement, it felt like an age since she’d last seen Darren.

The church bell tolled end of service and the end of their Sunday. Above, dust clouds shivered their load across the sky to block out the sun. Allyson shivered too. Cold air pressed through the holes in her moth-eaten cardigan and wind whistled through the hole in her cheek.

Darren’s sister, Yellow-Anne, collected the hymn sheets from the children. Blood-streaks had replaced Anne’s once golden highlights and her hair hung limp over her sunken cheekbones. The children clutched her torn lace skirt and gathered about her unformed hips. They waited for Pastor Baest to lead them from church. Yellow-Anne walked with a limp. She’d shuffled along even before the fall.

Allyson wondered why they bothered to leave at all. It wasn’t as if there was anywhere in particular to go. Their decimated town comprised the church, a broken gravestone, a quartet of trees and a crypt, a section of road, and the post office front – places she’d skipped and strolled with Darren before her cheekbones had collapsed and worms had nested in her belly. Their town ended behind the church.

Pastor stepped from his pulpit.

His cassock moth-bitten into a cape and his words stolen from a cult-leader’s manifesto, Pastor Baest had fashioned his exposed bones and brain into a superhero’s guise, but his rotting guts spoke otherwise. All the same, Yellow-Anne followed him, and the children and the bell ringer, Bill, followed her. Allyson was last to leave. By the time Allyson had entered the remains of the graveyard, Pastor Baest had locked himself in the crypt.

Time no longer measured in seconds, minutes or hours, its calculations were now wrought from the gaps between earth shudders. Allyson waited four earth shudders before approaching the crypt. She pressed her eye to the keyhole, then, unable to see anything, pressed her ear to the thick wood. The wind whistled. Beneath her, the ground rocked, urging her away from its edges. Allyson rejoined the children, who sat on the grass outside the church. This decimated world broke her heart. She hoped it broke the children’s hearts too, but feared it didn’t.

Yellow-Anne clutched her ragdoll body and pressed her bony back to the church wall. She rubbed her lame leg, a sneer twisting her thin lips. The girl no longer looked like her brother Darren–another death of sorts. At Yellow-Anne’s disfigured feet, a girl poked and pulled at a boy’s intestines, as if hoping to unravel them to use as skipping rope. Otherwise, there wasn’t much else for them to play with. The edges of the hopscotch squares, which they’d chalked several shudders ago, had crumbled into the abyss. Allyson looked at the trail of intestines. The remains of her stomach churned, disturbing the children with its rumble.

She pressed her finger to her lips. “Shush,” she said.

Moving to the edge of their world, Allyson lay on her belly and looked down at what they called Hell. The long-dead swarmed. Ripped from their graves with the first shudder, their embalmed bodies didn’t rot like hers. Allyson parted her hair and pressed her fingers to the hole in her skull. Below her, other ants swarmed. The fresh dead, the broken and perhaps the living (someone had to have survived), were busy constructing barricades to keep the true zombies out. The ones who had died and been buried before the fall. Allyson thanked the Pastor’s god. Up here, the remains of their world may be small, but at least their infection did not give way to apocalyptic madness. She looked towards the silent crypt. Except for the Pastor, and he was an all-too-human sort of monster. The quake had not fashioned him.

Allyson sat and dangled her legs over the edge. The drop was forty foot and pitted with handholds. If the long-dead chose to climb, Allyson and the children would make a paltry meal. In the distance, what remained of the city poked defiantly above the caverns, pressed against the horizon, metal on smoke. Skyscrapers listed at unnatural angles. Allyson suspected the city wouldn’t stand much longer. When the skyscrapers fell, the old world would be truly gone.

“Come away from the edge,” Bill, the bell ringer, shouted. The man never ventured further than the church door, clinging to its wood as if he believed God still lived within. “You’re scaring the children.”

A girl with hollow eye sockets looked up at Bill. “I’m not scared, sir.”

“None of us are,” Yellow-Anne said, spitting out the words. “You’re the one squealing, Bill.”

Darren would have admonished his sister.

Allyson stood, brushing dust off her hands. “How about we hijack the church organ and have us some hymnal karaoke.”

“You’ll bring the house down,” Bill said.

“Perhaps that’s my intent,” Allyson said, ushering the children inside the church.

Despite the attempt at life inside and the continued shudders, the church didn’t crumble. Pastor Baest stood in the church doorway, a ghost of his former self, his cassock flapping from his bony shoulders. She’d lost count of the shudders since he’d locked himself in the crypt and they’d danced into church. There’d been no Sundays in between and looking at the weight of the dust-filled sky, Allyson feared they’d seen the last of them. A sigh rushed through the cracks in her jawbone. Sometimes she wanted the world done.

“Allyson, come with me,” Pastor said.

The blind child clutched Allyson’s skirt. “It will be okay, pet,” Allyson said, uncurling the girl’s fingers from her thigh and trying to ignore the snap of their bones. She’d have kissed the girl’s fingers if she’d had lips.

Allyson and Pastor Baest formed a solemn procession as they walked the short distance between church and crypt. Across the road, the post office had fallen from the edge and in the distance, a lone skyscraper poked towards an empty sky. When had the others fallen? At times, it seemed what remained was all there ever was.

Taking the key from his belt, Pastor Baest unlocked the crypt door. She wondered why he’d bothered to lock it. It wasn’t as if the dead could crawl out. Or so she believed. The door creaked open to reveal an almost empty space. Most of the crypt had tumbled into the abyss, opening their town to Hell and its inhabitants. Only the stone steps remained and they formed a jagged pathway between worlds.

“Sometimes we have to face our temptations,” Pastor Baest said. “Overcoming them makes us stronger.”

She had no temptations left to battle. She’d left want behind in the old world.

The steps ended at an iron gate that had buckled with the shifting earth – a barrier between here and there. On the other side, a dead girl moaned. The girl’s milky eyes turned to them, her head perched on fractured shoulders. Loose black thread dangled in place of eyelashes. Allyson had never known the dead to wander so close. Usually they foraged far from where Allyson’s town rested. The girl stood, leaving an arm behind on the rock where she’d sat, and held out a spool of cotton and a needle, as if she expected them to sew her together. Pastor Baest grabbed her thin wrist and stole the needle and thread. The girl scratched his forearm, causing him to drop her things. Allyson picked them up. The Pastor turned and hurried Allyson up the steps.

“I don’t understand,” Allyson said. “What does showing me this girl achieve? How is she a temptation?”

The earth shuddered. The walls of their small world crumbled about them, covering their skin with loose earth. Allyson spat out soil. At the top of the steps, the Pastor pushed her out of the crypt and locked himself inside. Allyson fell. The spool of thread rolled from her hands. Yellow-Anne grabbed it, delighted to find a new toy. Within two shudders, the children sat on a pew sewing loose skin together – crude stitches attaching arms to shoulders and wrists to forearms.

Allyson remembered how Yellow-Anne had stitched her dolls’ hands together so they’d never part. Allyson had wanted to stitch her fingers to Darren when he’d become engaged to Melanie Waters.

“I died,” Bill said, holding his fingers to his face and examining the torn, mottled skin. “I died.” As if the fact surprised him.

Allyson wandered to the cliff edge, wondering if life had more purpose over at the last remaining skyscraper or in the earth’s bowels. She wondered how their small community continued to stand. Perhaps it rested on the Devil’s shoulders.

She hoped Darren’s girl had broken at First Fall.

Below them, the ants built crude homes from fallen trees, broken rocks and litter. They wore makeshift masks to protect their dead lungs from dust that couldn’t kill them further. At times, they looked at her watching them and crossed themselves. Allyson replied in copy.

Remaining at the edge, toes curled over crumbling rock, Allyson realised the world hadn’t shuddered and she hadn’t moved in some time. Although, as they now calculated time in shudders, she figured she’d been standing there for no time at all. Her muscles had adopted rigor mortis. For a moment (or perhaps a year), Allyson thought she’d become a gargoyle perched on the edge of the world. The sun poked through thinning dust clouds, bringing with it a palette of long-forgotten blues. Bill set the church bell ringing. The ants huddled together. Allyson turned away from them.

The children gathered about the crypt door, pretending rotten pieces of wood were animals. A fallen hollowed-out tree was to be their ark should it ever rain anything but dust again. The crypt door creaked open. Black veins pulsing beneath his mottled skin, Pastor Baest booted the children aside.

“I wonder if perhaps it’s safer down there,” Allyson said.

She looked at Yellow-Anne.

He ignored her. His tongue wiped across his lips and his hands rubbed his belly.

Fresh clouds announced the end of Sunday. In the distance, the last skyscraper fell. Its dust cloud rushed towards them, carrying with it glass fragments determined to blind those that could still see. Allyson pressed her hand to her face. She wondered how the ground dead fared. She waited for the earth to still before daring to look into the cavern.

‘Cavern’ seemed an inappropriate word, now that they stood on the last remaining peak with the survivors spread across the basin; busy little re-building ants.

Pastor Baest joined her at the edge, his cape flapping behind him like rotting wings. “We should steal them from Hell.”

“I’m not certain this isn’t Hell,” she said.

He pulled her away from the edge and pressed his lips to hers in an iron-tasting kiss. He bit the remains of her lip, tearing away skin.

Staring at the open crypt door, the children gathered their things together and clutched their insides to their chests. Allyson pulled away from the Pastor’s clammy grip and ran for the crypt. Their town was Hell, and the real world, or as close to it, continued below. They had to escape the pastor. Before the children could follow her inside the crypt, the pastor flew by them, as if he were a bat’s wing and they the dust beneath him. He slammed the door and locked it, trapping Allyson alone. If this was banishment, it was okay with her.

Pressing her hand to the soil wall, Allyson made her way down the steps. Her right arm dangled loose, having been dislodged from her shoulder. The bottom steps were sticky with gore, the gate into the other world open.

Spots of blood formed a winding path across rubble. Shallow breaths filled the otherwise silent air. Allyson’s and the children’s lungs hadn’t required breath since the first quake, though sometimes she caught Pastor Baest attempting to breathe. She found the source of the sound slumped against the remains of a terraced house. A girl, her breaths growing frantic as Allyson approached. The wound in the girl’s leg festered green and her head lolled to the side. Despite these symptoms, Allyson knew the girl was alive.

Melanie? No, a lookalike.

“Are you recovered?” Allyson asked.

The girl attempted to lift her arm. It flopped to her side, fingers trailing in the dirt. Raindrops, the first in at least eight Sundays, splashed between them. The girl tipped her head back and opened her cracked lips.

“I must bring the children to see you,” Allyson said, daring to touch the girl’s smooth skin.

The girl shook her head.

“No, you’re right. Pastor won’t allow them to come to you, so I shall take you to them.”

The earth shuddered, marking time’s passage. Rubble hurtled from the skies. Allyson wrapped her good arm around the girl, shielding her from the brunt of the storm. Small missiles slammed into Allyson’s back. When the world had ceased its violence, Allyson lifted the girl and found her no weight. All skin and bones and, despite the life pulsing in her chest, weighing less than Yellow-Anne. The girl groaned but offered no fight.

At the top of the steps, the crypt door stood ajar. Pastor Baest perched on the gravestone. “See,” he said to the children. “I told you, Allyson wouldn’t leave our church.”

Allyson dropped the girl onto the grass. The girl groaned. Bill fell to his knees, palms pressed to his grey cheeks.

“The thing,” Bill said. “The thing we are become. May God have mercy on our souls.”

Allyson looked at the blue skies. Sunday again. She wondered why they hadn’t gathered in church for Pastor’s sermon, and then she noticed… The church had gone–fallen into below world. The children gathered about the living girl, pressing their hands to her fever and poking her wound.

“Are they all like this down there?” Yellow-Anne asked, brushing hair off her face and exposing her cheekbone. She chewed her words. “Soft and pretty and tasting sweet.”

Allyson didn’t ask if Yellow-Anne thought the girl looked like Melanie. They both had enough festering wounds.

Forming a broken necklace, the children held hands and allowed Yellow-Anne to lead them into the crypt and down the steps. They had a new leader now–Yellow-Anne, a broken girl for a broken world. They did not look to Allyson.

“May God forgive your rotting souls,” Bill cried. Running toward where the church had stood, he fell off their world.

Pastor Baest turned the key in the crypt door before Allyson could follow down the steps. If she’d intended to. Bill’s words resonated, “This thing we are become.” She didn’t fully understand what he’d meant. When the air had cleared of Bill’s final screams, Allyson sat at the cliff’s edge and waited for the children to emerge below. As she watched them pick their way across rubble, hope rose in her chest. It felt almost like breath.

“The girl is dead,” Pastor Baest said, pressing his hands to the foundling’s forehead. “Will you join me in…”

“No more prayers, Pastor.”

“…finishing my meal?”

Screams rose from the cavern. The people in the camp nearest their cliff scattered.

“Do you think they’ll cure the children?” Allyson asked, ignoring the meat dangling from Pastor’s lips.

Perhaps Anne would grow to look like her brother again.

“I believe the contrary,” he said. “The children are the cure and we shall rebuild our church.”

Thunder echoed across their short land. Allyson pressed her hand to her stomach. She would not listen to her hunger.

Illustration copyright © 2011 byPierre Smit
Copyright © 2011 by Cate Gardner

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Cate Gardner

Cate Gardner lives in Liverpool and hopes tiny pirate ships ferry rats to a surreal otherworld via the brook that runs beneath her street. She also hopes said rats wear pinstripe suits and carry umbrellas. Monocles are optional. Her short stories have appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Shock Totem, Daily Science Fiction and many other wonderful places.

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