The assault rifle is still warm in Randolph’s hands, like the pistol holstered at his hip, and the shrapnel embedded within his rent-riddled fatigues. Smoke still smolders from the torn fabric. His hair is matted by blood and sweat. Both liquids run down his face and sting his eyes. Most of the blood isn’t his own. He doesn’t remember when or where he lost his helmet, and he’s surprised when he hears his dog tags clinking together against his chest, reminding him that they’re still there.
He squints past the blood and sweat as he tries penetrating the smoke filled landscape. Randolph hears more than he sees and the sounds only make things worse. Mangled moans, shrieking screams, mumbling and gibbering, the inane sounds of the fallen and fading. He smells more than he sees as well: the copper-scent of blood, the ripe stench of feces, vomit, and urine. The fumes of the dead and dying mingling with the acrid smell of gun smoke and bomb blasts.
The haze is so thick that he can’t tell if it’s day or night. As if answering his question, a strong gust of wind clears away some of the shrouding murk, and reveals the horror that he’s only smelled and heard.
Hundreds of bodies litter a field once boasting foliage. Now the dead and dying outnumber the shrubbery. They plague the landscape as far as the eye can see. A cornucopia of corpses. He’d thought he’d been trudging through thick mud, but now knows that he’s been stepping on body parts and waste.
Something grasps Randolph’s leg. He looks down. There’s a soldier lying on his back, eyes wide, entrails spilling out from his belly, one hand trying to hold his guts in, the other clenching Randolph’s ankle.
“Help me,” the soldier pleads.
Randolph knows he’s already dead. He’s just lingering on to life. Randolph slings the rifle over his back, kneels down, and without saying a word, swipes the man’s eyes close with one hand as he draws his pistol with the other. He places the muzzle to the soldier’s temple and pulls the trigger. It doesn’t surprise him that he feels nothing.
As Randolph rises, he sees a flash of black and white, among all the greens, reds, and browns. He makes his way over. As he gets closer, he notices that it’s a person kneeling over an injured soldier, dressing his wounds. The black and white flash that caught his attention are the garments of a nun.
When he reaches her, she looks up, and Randolph’s breathe catches in his chest. The face that stares back at him is a familiar one, though one the soldier he is now will not meet until well after the war.
“Nancy! What are you doing here?”
“I was looking for you,” Sister Nancy Harden says. “Where were you?”
Randolph doesn’t know how to answer the question. He’s staring at her face, her russet eyes, the strands of matching hair peeking past her wimple. He feels the pang of loss, remorse and regret, feelings the soldier that he is will not feel for years to come.
“I’ve been here,” he finally manages. “I’ve been here.”
She nods, as if his answer makes perfect sense, a thin smile crinkling her cheeks. “Not for long I hope. This isn’t a good place, Randolph. Not a good place at all.”
The alarm shrilled. Day glared through the curtain’s useless barrier and found Father Purgeon’s face. Without so much as a peek from his sleep-encrusted eyes, he reached for the clock on the nightstand, felt for the off switch and depressed it.
With the alarm silenced, he heard the coffee machine’s percolations coming from the kitchen. He gave into the sights and sounds of the morning and shed the sheets from his body. His mind did the same with the dream, though the feelings of remorse and regret lingered. His feet touched the cold wooden floor. Toes wiggled searching for slippers. Frustrated at his feet’s failed attempts, he swiped the sandman’s residue from gummed eyes, spotted the footwear, and slipped them on.
Then it all came back: Roman, Sarah, Avalyn. Panic seized him. Where was Roman? He was supposed to have been back by now. Had something happened to him? Father Purgeon got up and walked to the window. A clear morning. It should’ve brightened his mood some. It didn’t.
Roman had had his chance. He glanced out the window, eyes dilating with the morning’s glare. He decided that he was going to do what he should’ve done in the first place. Report it to the authorities and take Avalyn to the hospital.
He stepped out of his bedroom, made his way down the hall, and entered the living room that also served as his study. He’d just sat down on the couch bookended by his library when he heard the sound of footsteps. He turned. Sarah and Avalyn stood at the top of the stairs.
“Good Morning, Father,” Avalyn said, walking towards him.
He stared at her feet. It was all he could do. Shock disallowed anything else.
“I’m feeling much better,” Avalyn said when she reached him. He was still staring at her legs. He looked up now. In her hands was a bundle of clothes. “May I wash up and put these on?”
“We found them downstairs. With the clothes for donation. We didn’t think you’d mind,” Sarah chimed in.
“Of course not, the bathroom is to your left.” the priest said pointing her down the corridor.
Avalyn walked off toward the bathroom.
After the bathroom door closed, Father Purgeon turned to Sarah. “What happened?”
“What do you mean?” Sarah asked, as if this type of thing happened every day, as if children miraculously healed all the time.
“What do you mean ‘what do I mean’?” Father Purgeon asked, hissing so that he wouldn’t shout. “How is she walking? What’s going on?”
Sarah smiled. “She’s such a strong young girl, isn’t she? She recovers quickly. Her fever broke right after you left. She’s fine now.”
Was this some kind of joke? He had seen it himself. He knew her leg had been badly broken. He could almost feel his sanity slowly slipping away.
And what was with Sarah? There was something different about her, and he couldn’t quite place his finger on it. Nothing obvious. Something subtle. Just beneath the surface. Gone was the worry she’d shown just a few hours ago. Gone was the tension that had creased her brow.
Suddenly Father Purgeon felt like the only sane person he knew, and even that was questionable. He had accepted a lot in the last twelve hours. If he could accept Roman, he should be able to accept this. Could he?
“So what you’re saying is that she healed herself. Did I get that right?”
“Yes,” Sarah said, smiling serenely at Father Purgeon.
“I’m going to have a cup of coffee. I’d like you to go help Avalyn.” Though he phrased it as a request Sarah sensed that he wasn’t asking. Without waiting for her compliance, and thankfully, without having to see that inappropriately serene look on her face again, Father Purgeon got up and made his way to the kitchen. He needed a moment and he meant to have it.
He heard the bathroom door open. He heard running water. Then heard the door shut.
He grabbed a mug on the counter and poured himself some coffee. He was surprised that his hands weren’t shaking. Then he reached into the cabinet above the coffee machine, rummaged past canned goods, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He drew one from the box, placed it in his mouth, and then tossed the rest back in the cabinet. He turned on the stove, lowered his face to the flames, lit the cigarette, and took a deep drag.
With mug in hand, and cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he made his way back to the desk and sat down. He smelled the nicotine in the cigarette’s vapors and tasted it on his tongue. Felt the furry feel of the slippers on his feet and the morning’s breath against the back of his head. After another deep inhale, he opened the top draw, groped inside for a second or two before pulling out an ashtray. He placed it on the desk and rested the cigarette in one of its notches.
He brought the coffee mug to his lips. Sipped its warmth and felt its comfort. When the coffee hit the back of his throat, he allowed himself to think. He exhaled what he felt he’d been holding in since Roman showed up at the rectory with the child in his arms and, what he felt now, after seeing Avalyn’s mended leg. Had she healed herself as Sarah had said? And if so, what did that mean? Was Avalyn even human? He couldn’t understand Sarah’s non-reaction, her amicable acceptance. Too many questions. Too many shocks in so little time. He thought of Avalyn’s missing savior. She and Roman were two peas in a pod. Two question marks without answers. He controlled his frustration, barley.
Before he knew it, the bathroom door opened, and out came the ladies. They made their way down the hall. Blue jeans and a wool, black sweater replaced Avalyn’s tattered garments. Now washed, her damp, auburn hair looked bathed in bronze, framed a pink-pale face scrubbed clean.
“Your leg. This has happened before?”
“Always,” she said.
“Does the severity of the injury matter?”
“Are you human?” Father Purgeon had to ask in light of recent events.
“Are we still waiting for Roman?” Sarah asked, taking a seat on the couch.
The question startled Father Purgeon. Avalyn had to have filled her in. He was grateful that he didn’t have to, yet he wondered how much Avalyn had told her. He’d never mentioned Roman to Sarah. Their meetings were confidential, not because Roman asked them to be, but because Father Purgeon had felt they had to be. He didn’t quite understand his reasons then, but when unsure, he tended to go with his guts.
“I haven’t heard from Roman. He should’ve been here by now.” Father Purgeon pulled on his cigarette. “We don’t even know if he’s alive.”
“He’s not dead,” Avalyn said, joining Sarah on the couch.
“You know this?” Father Purgeon asked, though it was more of a statement than a question.
“How?” he asked as calmly as he could, not quite liking the way Sarah placidly just sat there, taking all this too easily, as if every negative emotion had been lobotomized from her brain.
Calm came over Avalyn’s face.
She dropped her head and stared at the floor, squeezed her hands into small fists. She looked like she was preparing herself with a difficult task, preparing to share some pain she had locked away. Or maybe, it was something she’d come to terms with and was unwilling to dig up again, because in doing so, the priest thought, she might realize that the pain was still there.
“Do you know what it’s like knowing when everybody is going to die? Knowing how and when? And that there’s nothing that you can do about it, even if you wanted to? Like my mother. All my life, I knew when she was going to die.”
Though he wanted to ask her about a million questions, Father Purgeon felt that he’d learn more by keeping his mouth shut.
“I know that Roman is alive because the Shadowy Man would have told me if he was dead,” Avalyn said.
“The Shadowy Man. He’s always been with me. Watching over me. Warning me. Like a guardian. But he only comes with the night.”
“Was that who you were talking to last night?”
“While you were sleeping?”
“I wasn’t sleeping. My body was resting, but I was in the In-Between place. The Deadtime. There are many doors there. He takes me through them. Shows me things.
“I knew that man was coming for me. Drake, the man who kidnapped me. The Shadowy Man came to me that night as he always did; a shadow that blocked out the brightness behind him. I’ve never seen his face. Though I’ve always known it. He took me to where he always takes me. Where the blackness is perfect, yet holds all light. To the great Nothing where everything exists. Where there are endless doorways, leading to each and every all. The Deadtime.”
“We do not have much time,” Avalyn hears The Shadowy Man say. “Someone is coming for you. You have to be strong.”
“Who’s coming?” she asks. He doesn’t answer.
She hears the click of a lock whose echoes are eternal. Sees a door whose frame is light. And feels a cool breeze on her cheek when it opens.
As always, she sees the other doors, glimpses their eternal numbers, lining the timeless space above, below, and beyond. She looks down as she always does, feeling the vertigo, finding it exhilarating and horrifying at the same time, and peers between her feet, where there’s no ground. As far as she can see, doors stream into infinity, curve labyrinthine through corridors of night. The DeadTime.
Beyond the doorway in front of her, she sees a room, dimly lit by moonlight. Even in this sparse illumination, she recognizes it. She begins to step through the doorway. The Shadowy Man’s arms wrap around her and pull her back. “You must remain here with me for now.”
“Why are we in my room? Why am I watching myself sleep?”
The door to her bedroom opens. The Shadowy Man’s arms tighten. In the entry, silhouetted by the hallway nightlight, a thin stretched form of a man. Moonlight bounces off the blade in his hand. She hears the knife slither across fabric as he slides it into his back pocket, but not before she sees blood drops dribble from it.
“Who’s blood is that?” she screams, even though she knows.
“You must remain here. He must take you. Help will be waiting.”
“What happened to my mom?”
“You know. You knew this day would come. I am sorry, Avalyn. Things are now set in motion. This is the beginning.”
“I woke up in the trunk of a car.” Avalyn could see more questions in Father Purgeon’s eyes, but she felt she’d told him too much already. She raised her head and cleared her throat. “I wish she didn’t have to die.”
He watched her eyes fill with sorrow, but no tears. It seemed she’d done all of her crying. She clasped her hands on her lap, the color all but drained from the knuckles. He reached out for those tightly entwined fingers, loosened them gently, and held one of her hands as he pondered the tale she had told. She’d known her mother was going to die. She’d known someone would be there to rescue her from Drake, apparently, because the entity she referred to as the Shadowy Man had told her. Who was the Shadowy Man? Some sort of supernatural guardian? Could he be trusted? Should he be trusted? And what had he meant when he’d said ‘Things are now set in motion. This is the beginning.’ The beginning of what?
Things were indeed set in motion and Avalyn knew that she couldn’t stop these events. Roman couldn’t either. Nor could Father Purgeon. She wished she could give him more, but there was too much at stake. Besides, the Shadowy Man had bid her not to. Later, she wouldn’t have a choice. Later, none of them would.