Penitence Way

People do bad things when they’re desperate, and in the small town of Penitence most folks had some kind of hardship. Poverty, sickness, loss; we moved through these things like lizards through the sand, looking for some bolthole to hide in.

It was all we knew, and had known, for nearly a hundred years. Our grandparents told grey tales of toiling bloodlessly in the desert, misery from one turn to the next. The past, present, and future of our lives had been nailed to the wood we’d built that town from, and in our hearts was a stubbornness that loathed to leave it all behind.

We had nothing much to cheer us but each other, and after being holed up together for so long familiar faces had lost most of their charm. Few strangers passed by Penitence way, and those that did rarely stayed long, the town having nothing to offer but a few run-down saloons, and a whorehouse with more lice than women in its beds.

Besides, the stink of the town kept most people away. The Dead Smell, we came to call it. It hazed Penitence like sick-room heat, coming from nowhere, but never going away, no matter how many times you scrubbed your house clean. Some folks said it was the way the wind blew, bringing in the rot of animal carcasses from the desert. But now I think it was just despair, the human reek of hopelessness.

Some folks tried to leave town, shucking Penitence off themselves to settle someplace new. But without any money nobody got far, and soon enough they’d come crawling back like a dog hit by a horse-cart. That, or they’d go missing in the desert, which happened more often than it should, even with all the rattlers and cayotes roaming around.

We all had our own stories of things we’d seen out there, things none of us could account for. But that was the desert’s business, we’d always say, and besides, there was soon enough weirdness in our own homes that we didn’t care to know what stirred in yonder sand.

Most of it boiled down to Artie Beaumont, and what we did to him, piece by piece, for most of his young life, and what he did to us, thereafter.

The kid was five years old when his Ma figured he’d be some good to her, after all. Artie was the bastard son of some cowboy who’d stayed the night, and left a seed of the boy inside his mother as a thank-you note. One she would’ve ripped up and torn away, no doubt, had the doctors of that town been any good at that sort of thing.

Not that anyone could’ve blamed her for it; like most of us Audra Beaumont didn’t have a nickel to her name, and with another cawing mouth under her roof the woman was spread so thin that she didn’t have anything left of herself to love the boy with.

This was a real shame, for Artie was a good kid, no bother to no-one. He had his nice manners and Godly ways, and never played rough, nor broke windows like some of the other boys around town. Maybe if he’d been bad things might have ended up different. He might never have told a soul what he had inside him, that dark part of himself.

That part was something no-one could ever prove was there, no doctor, no preacher, not even Artie’s Ma, who know the boy inside and out. But once Audra learned what he could do she wrung him dry of it, wrung him til he bled.

She never did tell any of us how she first put two and two together, but knowing Artie’s character I can make a guess at it. He was always trying to win that woman’s affection, taking on more chores than any kid should take on, sweeping his Ma’s porch and backyard like an old maid.

I’d hear her griping at the boy as I passed by the house, moaning about all the dreams she’d pissed away by having him, what she’d do if she was a wealthy woman. Things every parent thinks in their hidden heart, from time to time, but most never say aloud, making their peace with the life they’ve made.

But then those lost chances returned to Audra, whether it made sense for them to or not. She came into a great sum of money, willed to her by some distant relative who should rightly have had no reason to leave her a dime. Her figure whittled and tightened to what it had been before she’d had her boy, and every bad tooth in her mouth dropped out, one by one, and grew back new.

These were just the changes I could see with my own eyes, and there were surely more of them, for Audra was sharp enough to make a buck out of Artie right away. She’d go about town telling anyone who’d listen that her son was blessed by the Lord and could make miracles, better than in the bible itself.

Our preacher wasn’t too happy about that. We all saw him striding off towards the Beaumont house in his black hat, ready to put Audra right. Only it was her who put him right, for he came out of her front door some hours later looking as sheepish and contrite as a heathen come to church.

Soon enough that preacher was singing Artie’s praises in just about every sermon, blasphemy be damned. The boy was a gift from God to our modest town, he said, put here to bring hope and light to us all. We all nodded along, making like none of us had heard the rumours about our humble Father.

Word was he’d been putting it to another man’s daughter and picked up the clap, which had cleared up nice and good after that one visit to Artie Beaumont. Seeing as nothing else was like to put a real smile on the old man’s face we were all inclined to believe it, and that was just the start.

Once Penitence folk got wind of Artie’s miracle-working he had visitors just about every day. You’d turn up at the door, give his Ma a coin, and tell her what it was you wanted- most of us started simple enough, then, not expecting much to come of it. Audra would nod her head and head upstairs to Artie’s bedroom, never letting any of us talk to the boy ourselves.

Maybe it was that Audra had just enough care in her not to leave grown adults alone alone with her son, or else she just wanted to keep her reputation clean to protect the business. Whatever the case, you’d hear them talking a while amongst themselves, her and the boy, a low muttering through the floorboards. Then there’d come a pause, a pause where the air in that house felt tight and breathless, like a hay barn at the height of summer.

That’s how you knew it was happening, as us townsfolk soon learned.

Audra would come downstairs and tell you it was done, although you wouldn’t see nothing for it for a day or two. Some people asked about refunds, but the lady would just give them a sharp look and say, “You won’t need one.” Sure enough, every wish little Artie granted came to pass. Mayor Tiecoat’s abcess went away without a drop of medicine, Widow Shawley found herself a new man, and just about every barren couple who’d been trying for their firstborn had a baby on the way.

With not one visitor disappoined the townspeople attached themselves to the Beaumont boy like flies to a dead dog. There were so many people rolling up to that house that Audra hitched her prices right up to reap a profit, and she never once turned a soul away.

There were only a few rules as to what you could ask for: nothing that wasn’t natural, like raising the dead, and nothing that could directly harm another person, that being insurance against the consequences, if Artie was even capable of such a feat. After a time I came to believe he was, for certain folk started finding loopholes to get around the law. If Audra got wise to them she turned a blind eye; the sheriff couldn’t bang her up for miracles, after all.

She was a rich woman by that point, with more men dripping off her arm than a famous concubine. Still she kept Artie working harder than ever, with no signs of slowing down. He’d been happy to do it, once, but over the years that started to change.

You’d hear him begging with his mother, sometimes, saying he didn’t want to take on wishes no more. But Audra would bawl at him til he gave in, probably beat on him, too, although none of us saw her do it, nor bruises, neither. She’d come down those stairs, looking white in the face, and through the walls you’d hear the boy screaming, high and strangled, like a hound got at by cayotes.

The tight feeling that came before each miracle got stronger, too strong, like the Devil himself was stealing all the air you ought to breathe. The first time it happened I asked Audra if there was something wrong, but she just shrugged and said, “Nothing. Artie’s just at that age, is all. He’ll settle.”

Hell knows what she meant by ‘that age’, but things turned out alright just as she said, and I bought her story without thinking on it too hard. We all went back to that house again and again, asking our favours, basking in the rewards. Penitence was, at last, a wealthy town, a place you could almost feel proud to live in.

It should have struck us as unnatural, but we liked this new life too damned much to question if it was really God that had blessed Artie Beaumont, or something else.

Which brings me back around to the problem of those loopholes, the slippery evil some of my neighbours got past Audra’s rules. You only had to wish an enemy ‘a swift and painless end- God forbid it -when it’s their time’, all innocence and good intentions, and Artie would know what you wanted, or the miracle thing inside him would, anyhow.

In a week or less your intended would be toes-up from a heart murmur they never knew they had, a silent monster of a tumour, or a gunshot from some drunken cowboy nobody saw coming. There were a lot of deaths that way, I’d wager, far more than you’d hope from what I’d always thought to be decent folks.

Then you had the matter of other wickness: uncles wishing their neices would keep their mouths shut about some secret, jealous women asking a man to leave his wife when he’d never even thought to look her way before. Petty desires frowned upon by the Lord and the Holy Bible, but then again even the most devout of men will give God the cold shoulder in favour of their own want.

We put ourselves in the gutter, all of us; we had no one to blame but ourselves for that.

Things about town got strange before they got bad, mind. Penitence hadn’t seen new money nor trade in about thirty years, and suddenly strangers were breezing in almost every day, bringing their wealth with them. They were odd folk, all of them seeming to arrive on foot despite the next town being many miles across the desert. Most were single men and women, and none of them seeming to know each other, from the little they appeared to speak.

I’d never known travelling folk to be so quiet. Drifters and cowboys tend to want company, will talk your ear off, if you’ll let them. But the newcomers kept to their own selves, spending their money and moving out of town again in a day or so.

Mary Halestone, who kept the boarding house, said she’d hear them walking about their rooms but never talking, and had passed an open door one day to see three of the newcomers shuffled together like crows on a rooftop, looking blankly at a wall. She left them to it; after all, what kind of fool who she have been to complain about guests so quiet who tipped so well?

Then there was the case of Billy Whitewood, who took a liking to one of the newcomer women and got her to sneak off with him- Lord know how, seeing as he was always pig-ugly, and charmless to boot. Maybe she didn’t want him as much as he thought she did. As it happened Billy only had her up against some wall for all of ten minutes before he came lurching out into the road, white as a lilyflower and trembling like a drunk.

I couldn’t think what had him so spooked unless she’d robbed him at gun point, and she didn’t look the type, a dainty thing, barely a hundred pounds soaking wet. It was only later after a couple of whiskeys in the cantina that anyone coaxed the truth out of him.

“That woman,” Billy said. “She weren’t right. First off she smelled bad. Not dirt bad; see, unwashed I can take. She stank like something dead left out to dry in the sun. And her body- under her dress she was- she was dry-“

“Looks like she saw your cock and didn’t think much of it, Billy-boy,” I said, and we all laughed heartily.

No, goddamnit,” snapped Billy, his fists balling. “It weren’t like that. It was like there was- insects, all over her, locusts, or beetles, or something. Like she was made of them.”

Somebody passed Billy another drink, and he downed it without even looking at the glass.

“They was all biting at me, those things,” he said. “Or stinging me, shit, I don’t know. Didn’t leave marks, but my hands still burn like Hell. And I could hear this… this sound, sort of a humming, coming from inside her, like she was a damn beehive. I swear to Jesus, that’s what I heard. And when I looked up at this dame she just smiled at me like there weren’t nothing wrong. That’s when I ran. You all saw me.”

None of us believed him. We ribbed him hard, thinking he was spinning some yarn to make up for finishing too quick in his pantaloons. Billy was as red as a virgin’s cheek, but still he stuck to his story all night, and I think all of us saw the glint of true fear in his eyes.

“The gal weren’t normal,” said Billy. “None of them strangers are. I’d be glad to see them all walk into that desert and never come back.”

Shuddering, the man downed another drink and cast a dark look around the bar.

“That boy’s fucked up, too. You know which one I mean.”

We did, of course. Artie Beaumont had odd on him like a smell.

“Ya’ll hang off his tit like he’s giving you milk,” Billy grumbled. “It’ll end bad, I’m telling you.”

“The boy ain’t got no tit,” I said, grinning. “And don’t act like you ain’t asked Artie for something one in a while. Probably the only reason that newcomer girl could stand looking at your shit-bucket mug in the first place.”

“Yeah, well,” said Billy, gloomily. “Wish I’d never asked for squat, now. Preacher calls the Beaumont kid a miracle. I call him a damned witch. Things in this town have been weird since he started his shit-“

“Penitence ain’t never been regular to begin with,” I interjected, and Billy’s red eyes narrowed.

“You shut your yap. You know what I’m talking about.”

He leaned towards me, reeking of whiskey.

“You’ve had your eye on things around here, Danny. I seen you, standing quiet like a fucking sentinel, watching for shit to turn. You’re just soft on the Beaumont kid because he fixed your little girl up after she fell off her horse and couldn’t walk none.”

At this I stood up, by chair toppling back onto the floor with a bang.

“You leave Alma out of this, Billy,” I snapped. “I won’t have you bringing up her name for no fucking reason.”

Billy’s face glowed with self-satisfaction.

“I got reason. You know as well as I do that something in that Beaumont kid is turning bad. If it wasn’t to start with, it’s sure as Hell going that way now.”

“Oh, hush yourself,” I muttered, dragging my chair upright again. “You’re just sour over that woman not wanting to fuck you, is all.”

But I knew that Billy was right, that he’d somehow been astute enough to see it before smarter and more sensible men.

I decided to head out and check on Artie, hoping to settle the fears rattling through me like wind through an old roof. I found the boy crouched on the stoop of the Beaumont house, smoking a cheroot with an air of weariness that might have been comical for a boy his age, had he not had good reason for it.

Artie was coming up to sixteen now, but he looked older, his eyes sunken, a grizzle of hair springing up on his jaw that already had a sheen of silver in it. He’d grown scrawny as a wild cat since the last time I’d seen him, belly drawn in, his cheeks so pitted that I could have fit my fists on either side of his face.

It occurred to me then how little Artie left the house now, only showing his face to run errands for his Ma. He hadn’t set foot in church in years, despite all the sermons singing his praises, and from the look in his eyes I got the feeling he didn’t speak to God much, even in his own time.

As I trudged up to the house Artie scrambled up from the stoop and stared around for somewhere to stub out the charoot.

“It’s alright,” I said, hand raised as if calming a young horse. “I’m not here to lecture you, boy.”

Relaxing slightly, Artie sat down again, although his eyes still flickered with distrust.

“I ain’t working,” he mumbled, defensively.

“Well, good,” I said. “I’m not here to ask for nothing. Just thought I’d come by, see how you’re doing, and all. What’re you sitting out here for?”

The kid shrugged. His shoulders were all skin and bone, like a shirt thrown over the back of a chair.

“Ma’s got company. I don’t like to be around much when she does, but I ain’t got nowhere else to be.”

Nodding, I crouched in the dirt and leaned forward, hands braced on my knees.

“How are you and your Ma getting along now?” I asked, gently. “Used to be that you’d scream and yell at each other loud enough that the whole town’d hear it. Not so much, these days, huh?”

Artie flinched, his bleak stare jerking away from mine.

“We’re fine. That was nothing.”

I found myself nodding again, not quite believing it. As if reading my mind Artie said, abruptly, “She’s not bad lady, my Ma, not like people think. She’s had a tough life. She can’t help being how she is. If folks knew her like I do-“

“Oh, I don’t doubt it,” I said, placating him. “But it can’t be good for you both cooped up in there, day after day, right? You should think about getting a little job of your own in town, something to keep you busy, get you around other people. Hell, you should even get out of town for a while. Your Ma isn’t hard up for money. She could do without you, for a month or so.”

At this Artie let out a bitter laugh.

“And what would I do? Who’d hire me? I ain’t had no schooling, ain’t got no skills that’d be any use to anyone.”

Grinning, I said, “You’re kidding, right? You got your, uh, you got your little thing-“

“No.”

The word was said with such a finality that I felt the mood change like the weather, a pocket of cold. Artie withdrew into the shadows of the stoop, like a spider drawn to movement on its web.

“Them miracles don’t work on you, huh?” I asked, softly. “Just for other people?”

“It might,” said Artie. “I just- I don’t wanna do it. If I could stop, never do it again, I would. But I ain’t got nothing else.”

The strain in Artie’s voice raked up guilt in me like I hadn’t felt since I was about his age.

“Look, boy,” I said. “I’ve asked you for a couple of things over the years. Mainly to help my daughter, Alma, if you remember her. Her legs were broke so bad she might never have stood on her own again, if you hadn’t made her right. I’ll always be grateful for it. Only thing was my wife left us, not long after. Never comes by to see Alma, doesn’t want a thing to do with her. She said it weren’t God’s will, what you did, said we’d meddled in something I shouldn’t.

“But I said, Moira, that boy was given his abilities by the Lord. Wouldn’t make no sense for him to have them if things weren’t meant to change. Now I don’t know which of us was right, but whether or not God has given his blessings you shouldn’t have no shame in trying to help people. Whatever happens as a consequence ain’t your fault.”

Again the boy laughed, and a slip of fear touched the nape of my neck like the hand of a dead child.

“You think that’s why I don’t wanna do it?” said Artie. “Well, it ain’t. It’s because of what I see. What I feel. What I know. Didn’t used to be so bad, in the beginning. But then I-“

He started to breathe hard, and I thought of men I’d seen come back from the war, never quite right, always jumping at sounds only they could hear.

“I used to beg my Ma,” said Artie. “I used to beg her not to ask for things. I told her how much it hurt, like having my fucking head crushed under a rock. But that weren’t the worst of it. Behind my eyes, I started seeing things. Things that lived deep under the desert- I could feel them inside me, growing like plants in my bones. I heard them talking to me. “

The boy twisted his face away so that I couldn’t see anything but the white gleam of one eye in the gloom.

“I didn’t know what to do. Got worse every time I made something happen. Like it made them see me. They showed me things no kid ought to. The worst that people do. Things dead and diseased, or alive past the point they should live. I saw snakes rolling all over each other in some dark hole in the sand, only they weren’t snakes, after all. They were part of some big, old thing that wanted me to talk to it, but I never did. That made it mad.”

I watched the red point of Artie’s cheroot lighting up again in the dark of the stoop, wondering what to do, how to respond.

“You still seeing those things, Artie?” I ventured. “Hearing them?”

The boy grunted softly.

“Every time. Starting to think it wants me for something. Like it’s using me. Maybe that’s why them miracles hurt so bad.”

Grief struck me like an anville. This poor kid had been suffering for well over his life and nobody knew it, or not enough to care. Nobody but Audra.

“Your Ma,” I said, cautiously. “You’ve tried telling her, I gather.”

Artie tapped ash onto the floor.

“Sure,” he said, dully. “But she don’t believe me. Even the days I think she’s getting close to it she says it’s just thoughts. That they won’t hurt me. But how does she know that? This thing I can do- what if they gave it to me, those things in my head? How can she say they ain’t gonna do some horrible thing when I make people come to this town that aren’t even people at all?”

Again that cold fear got to me.

People?” I repeated. “You mean the new folks? You told them to come?”

The kid inched further into the stoop, his dead eyes suddenly bright with guilt.

“Not on purpose. They’re like flies to carrion. They smell something here, and they come. I don’t know where from. The place under the desert, I figure. And they ain’t people, not real people, anyhow.”

I could do nothing but stare, and Artie released an exhausted sigh.

“I reckon just about everyone knows they ain’t right,” he said. “They just don’t say nothing, that’s all.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked. “I want to help you, but I don’t know where to start.”

No one would believe it, I wanted to say. Believing a miracle, that’s one thing. Jesus performed plenty, and here in Penitence we saw them every day. But to stop being rich and vital and happy just because one kid is seeing monsters in his head- I knew the townsfolk wouldn’t take to it, no matter how I tried to hammer it home.

“You could try talking to my Ma,” said Artie, and he looked at me with a sudden childish hope that just about broke my heart. “If you could make her drop all this I might have some sort of chance. Will you try, some time she’s alone?”

I promised that I would. It seemed just about the only tangible change I could make in the hopeless trap of that boy’s life.

After talking to Artie I went home and stood in my front yard, watching my little girl Alma brushing her horse’s mane with as much affection as if it had never thrown her in the first place. I would have died for my daughter, and knowing that I secretly took on Artie as my own, too, seeing as no-one else had a care for him.

Every day over the next week or so I tried my hardest to drop in on Audra, but the woman never seemed to have a moment’s peace that wasn’t taken up by somebody else. Seems that she didn’t like to be alone with her own thoughts, much, and I would have left her to them if the one thing Billy had been so sure of hadn’t started coming true.

Something was happening to the newcomers. Where before they’d been of a passive and peaceable nature there were rumours of them turning savage, biting children, chasing women in the night and scaring them half to death. They’d started looking a lot less like people, too, but so slow as you wouldn’t notice the change. Look close and you’d see their faces were a little too long, their shoulders hunched too high, and a few of them took to shuffling like they’d walk better with four legs, on the ground, if they could get away with it.

But these strangers brought in so much money that nobody had the stomach to turn them out, not til they turned to killing folk.

I never saw it myself, only heard the stories. Babies torn to gristle in their cribs, men left cold on some dirt path, flesh eaten off them like they’d been got at by jackals. In time there was no denying who the culprits were, not when there were always one or two or them milling around wherever something of the sort occured.

Eventually the sheriff and a few other men took to shooting at the newcomers whenever they showed up, driving them back out into the desert. After that they stopped approaching the town, although you could see them in the distance, sometimes, watching us like birds circling a dying horse.

It was then that I knew for sure that Billy and Artie were right, that things in Penitence were turning bad. The Dead Smell that hung around town was stronger than it had ever been, the hot days humming with it. The only time it seemed to ease up was at night, so I took to walking then, trying to clear my head of that bloated corpse of a town.

It was these walks that took me upon Audra Beaumont at long last, after so long trying to chase her down.

In truth it gave me a start to see her, pale as a spirit in the night. She was sitting on a loveseat in her front yard, swinging herself with one small foot and looking at nothing in particular, her stare gnawing the dark.

The woman she was now was a different animal to what she’d been when Artie was a boy. Her beauty didn’t look right on her; it was like the only thing alive in her was those eyes, glimmers behind a pretty girl’s deathmask.

“Been looking for me, ain’t you,” she said, flatly.

I took off my hat and nodded to her, feeling somehow ashamed to have been called so starkly on the truth. Audra turned her head, the red hair that spilled over her shoulder looking as black as river silt in the dark.

“I know what you’ve come asking about,” she continued. “Before you open that big old mouth of yours.”

Her tone was just about as bitter as I’d ever heard it, and I found my hackles rises. I wasn’t used to no woman speaking to me that way, let alone Audra Beaumont.

“I’ve come to help you, Ma’am, if you’ll let me,” I said. “Help all of us, come to that”

Audra laughed, sounding so much like her boy that it was uncanny.

“And who appointed you, Mister Daniel Esiah Wake? You ain’t the sheriff, nor the preacher, neither. Just a man with opinions, ain’t you?”

“You’re right there, Ms Beaumont,” I said.  “I’m just a man, but I come here as a neighbour and as a father to speak on my feelings, and it’s up to you on whether you take to what I say or not.”

“The only thing I take from a man these days is money,” said Audra, and through that cynical voice ran a deep crack of pain. “The only decent thing they’ve got to give, seems like.”

“Well,” I replied, with as much patience as I could muster, “we’ll see about that
See, it’s your son I’m here to talk about. He don’t want to work no more.”

“Artie told you that?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, firmly. “Says he thinks it’s dangerous, that it’s bringing something evil into this town, and lately we’ve all seen it going that way. Folks rich enough to leave is staying here on accounts as they’re greedy for more of your boy’s powers, and they don’t give a damn how far south things go in the meantime.”

The woman sat in silence, her pale hands folded in her lap.

“You know what I think, Ms Beaumont?” I asked. “I think your boy ought to quit his miracle-making before the state of things gets any worse.”

Audra lifted her head, and I saw a wild stubbornness in the way she held herself that I didn’t like.

“Your boy’s suffering, Ma’am,” I said, sternly. “Don’t you want to help him?”

“I’ve been asking him for years and years to help me,” snapped the woman, “and he ain’t done it.”

Had I been a different man I would have slapped her.

“Forgive me, Ms Beaumont, but from this side of the yard it looks like your boy’s done plenty.”

“No.”

Audra stopped swinging and sat very still, and for a moment it was so quiet beyween us all I could hear was the loveseat chain creaking in the wind.

“You don’t know what I asked for,” she said, quietly. “What I’ve wanted since before he was even born.”

There were tears in her voice, and I froze, not knowing whether to comfort her, nor how. I’d lost the habit of it, after my wife left, having never taken up another woman out of fear of breaking my heart again.

“You know where my boy came from?” asked Audra. “I know what they say, all of them in town, same folks as come by my door asking my favour. How they all think I opened my legs to a stranger and got my Artie that way.”

Shame had me shuffling my feet again.

“Not my business to speak on that,” I said. “I wasn’t there, after all.”

The lady nodded slowly.

“Right. It was just me in this empty house, just me, til a man came in the night. Knocked and knocked so as I had to go downstairs to keep the peace. I wanted him to go away. I had no business with strangers, no men. But that man would not leave me be.”

Audra’s throat clicked, and in her eyes I saw the vagueness of remembering.

“He was strange, that feller, all dressed in black and covered in sand from the desert. Smelled odd. Looked odd. Face too long, and sharp as a stone. When I opened the door to him the man caught hold of me, and he- well, he didn’t look like a man no more, but like a shadow in a man’s skin. A shadow that moved.”

Hearing this knocked me so sick I didn’t trust myself to talk.

“He did what men do,” said Audra. “Even if he was something else but a man. After he was done he said he’d given me a child, and that I couldn’t get it out of me even if I tried. That this boy would do wonderful and horrible things, in time, and I’d be glad of him. But I ain’t been glad a day in my life. Nothing that child gives me puts a smile on my face, nor the warm in my heart. Can’t think of nothing but that night when I look at him, how that shadow in a man’s skin came to me, then walked away into the desert like I’d only conjured him up in some dream.”

Audra sniffed, and dragged her sleeve across her nose.

“I’ve asked Artie to bring that man back to me, so I can wish him dead. But he says he don’t want to, or can’t. Says if his Pa comes then the rest of ’em will, too. I don’t give a damn about any of that. Let them come, whatever they are. I’ll see them dead too.”

I had a horrible understanding, then, of what had happened to the town, and what might happen still if folks didn’t stop asking their infernal wishes of Audra’s boy. We’d invited Hell itself to our doorstep, and all of its demons, too.

I stepped forward and seized Audra by the hand in a frenzied urgency.

“You have to take Artie away from here, Ma’am,” I said. “Or by God, every one of us is damned, and all for nothing. I’m sorry for what’s been done to you, but you can’t take back that night. You can only change what happens now, by taking that poor kid away from everyone who wants to use him for wrong, you hear me?”

But she only gawked at me with a crazed numbness, barely comprehending the words, or so far gone that she didn’t want to hear it.

Her hopelessness infected me, but I fought against it, the way I and every one of my ancestors had always done, knowing the outcome. I went about town warning just about everyone I could think of that they ought to up and leave while it was still safe, and out of all of them only Billy Whitewood and my estranged wife went and did it. I had Moira take our daughter with her, for as sore as I was to see Alma go I couldn’t have her stay behind when rapture was upon us.

Yes, rapture– I’ll call it now as I saw it then, the end times brought upon our modest town. Only days after my daughter left every single one of us who’d made our cursed wishes suffered terrible ills such as one would never see outside the Book of Revelation.

I witnessed women and children who’d been made well from sickness stumbling, blistered and screaming through bloody mouths in the streets, lepers come to the new world. Houses built on strangers’ gold catching alight with emerald fire, charring their occupants even as they crawled, howling, through smoking ash. Men were dragged through stables by their own horses, who trod them into blood and pulp in the sand.

People who’d once starved began to eat themselves through sudden hunger, ripping flesh off their bones in dripping handfuls, and anyone left untouched by madness ran about in their masses until they piled up on one another, their bones crushed in the human sea of terror.

Going by the chapel I heard the pastor shrieking hymns over and over, the words lost in the middle of some pain I couldn’t imagine, nor ever want to. He, out of all of us, knew that God would not come, that something else ruled over Penitence now.

I was seeing the miracles of all these past years undone, and every cruel thought the townsfolk had ever had magnified back at us through the eye of the Great Evil himself.

Mad with desperation I ran to the Beaumont house, certain my own suffering was about to start at any moment. Artie was standing on the porch, looking like a grinning skeleton in the pale daylight.

“I can’t stop it, Danny,” he said, through chattering teeth. “I’ve been trying and I just can’t. I knew it was coming, I did-“

“Where’s your Ma?” I asked, staring over the boy’s shoulder, into the vacant doorway. “Fend off whatever’s coming for me and I’ll take you both away from here.”

Desolation stared at me through Artie’s eyes.

“She already left,” he said. “I promised I’d give her anything she wanted if she went away while it was still safe. I think that’s why all this came on so fast. They- they didn’t like it. Them things, under the sand.”

Cursing, I pulled the boy to me, flinching at the hollers and moans from the streets beyond us.

“Find me one horse that won’t try to throw me and we’re leaving this damned hole.”

Artie gave me another of those hollow looks, and said, “Nothing’ll happen to you when you’re with me. They don’t want me hurt.”

Sure enough, we got out of town unharmed within half an hour, taking an old mare Audra had bought to entertain the boy when he was young. As I turned back to look at the mess we’d left behind us I saw the whole town had gone up in verdigris flame, and was collapsing slowly into some vast sinkhole that had opened up in the sand. Rancid smoke blew up from the rooftops, and in it I could swear I saw faces, laughing at us as the old horse dragged us away from the furnace.

“Don’t look,” said Artie, from behind me.

He sat quiet as we rode through the desert, stinking of sweat and the staleness of someone who’s been sick for a long time without getting better or worse. For a time I thought the shock was what made him so silent, but I’ve come to realise he was numb to everything, all of it, worn down for over a decade until even the plague of death that had seized hold of Penitence was nothing to him.

I should have been afraid of him, I suppose, and part of me had a mind to abandon him out there in the desert, let him find for himself though the pale sand.

But Artie had been hurt enough by me and everyone he’d known, and besides, the boy could have followed me on the back of his miracles before I’d even rode half a mile.

For days we travelled together, me and that kid, the nearest town feeling an age away. We drank from a flask that seemed never to empty, and ate off a loaf of bread that never got any smaller. It sent chills down my spine to think how that came to be, but I didn’t say a word, not even when, at night, I heard Artie whispering, feeding his wishes to himself.

I prayed to Jesus no bad would happen to us on his account, nor mine, come to that.

On the fourth day we came upon a redheaded woman riding a black horse towards the faraway town, her hair opening like a bloody star on the wind. Artie made me stop the mare and climbed down, his skinny form barely making an impression on the sand.

“It’s my Ma,” he said. “I better go to her. She ain’t got nobody in the world but me.”

I put a hand on Artie’s shoulder, and although he didn’t say a word I got the sense that he was grateful for what I’d done, in the end. Even then I remember thinking he must be some saint to forgive how badly I’d hurt him, even if I’d not meant what I’d done.

“You promise me one think, Artie,” I said. “If you use that gift of yours again, on other people- make it people who deserve it. Them who do what men do.”

Those were Audra’s words, and they had stuck with me. To Artie they might have meant anything at all, but there was a harrowed tiredness in his expression that made me think he understood. I had to believe he did.

That was the last time I saw Artie and Audra Beaumont, but there have been many times over the past years I’m sure we’ve almost crossed paths, weaving around each other in some devil’s dance. I’ll hear stories of some village abandoned in the night, warm food left on tables to the rats, or cities gutted by sudden fire which dying folk ran through like a summer rain.

At some point I ended up with no pity left in me, only shame. Shame that so few people had compassion enough not to drain the boy of his power, shame that I’d taken from him with that same hunger. But as the days go on I feel that fading, too, and wonder what I’ll have left when every feeling I once knew becomes a haunting of itself.

I never did see my wife and daughter again. For years I looked for them in every town and camp I passed through, but they’d vanished clean away, faded from my life like a handprint on cold glass. Maybe the desert swallowed them, in the many ways it does those who don’t know how to survive its wastes. Or maybe it was Artie that took them, whether he meant it or not, a toll for my crimes.

I want to think they’re out there, alive someplace safe, that we’re only kept apart from each other by the vastness of this land, and the thousands that live upon it.

But I know better than to hope, after Penitence; that’s the fare of men that have never paid their due.

Published by (Not actually a Lady) Ruthless

I'm a 26 year old horror writer! Non binary. Stuck with this domain because I'm lazy

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