The story so far:
Log Lane Village fell beneath a descending shadowy cape as the sun set behind the jagged Colorado horizon. There was little question between day and night here; darkness rolled over the cabins like an all-encompassing tide that wouldn’t recede until dawn pulled it away from the east.
Stuart watched the harsh line crawl across Birch Street, engulf the Captain’s Explorer, and climb the stone wall and stained glass windows of First Church, leaving only a twinkle on the steeple. That, too, was extinguished within moments. Night claimed Harding’s General Store – the last post of daylight – and the cemetery beyond.
Stuart had no interest in visiting the cemetery with David’s newly assembled ragtag team of deputies. He hadn’t broken out his rifle in years and he saw little benefit of arming yet another sleep-deprived, paranoid citizen.
His cell phone jingled: Grosky.
Serge: “You gotta see this.”
Stuart: “I’m not interested.”
Serge: “You ain’t gonna believe it unless you see it. They’re all gone.”
Stuart: “What are you talking about?”
Serge: “All of them!”
A blue figure darted behind the police station. Charlotte. Wearing the same dress they buried her in. Stuart absently closed his phone, stepped slowly toward the corner of the brick building. He knew it was a hallucination – maybe the Preacher drugged his coffee? – but he couldn’t avoid satiating his curiosity. Another glimpse of fabric – surely a mirage – flashed between trees. Stuart upped his pace, forcing himself to not run or call her name. The rest of David’s posse could admit they were crazy, but Stuart had lost too much to sacrifice his sanity as well.
He followed the apparition through the Dougherty’s chain link gate that protected Morgan County from Hulk and Andre, two underfed pit bulls that only obeyed their master and the Captain. Unrecognized, they lunged toward Stuart, howling and struggling to uproot their chains from the cement anchor points.
Gabriel appeared in the doorway of Hulk’s doghouse. He giggled. Merely another illusion, Stuart knew, but the beasts must have shared the vision – they reversed direction and charged their sleeping space. Gabriel, five years old, genuine fear on his face, retreated into the doghouse and shrieked as the dogs attacked. Stuart shook his head violently. His son was dead. The trucker. The highway. This couldn’t be real, regardless of how helpless the “Save me, Daddy!” screams sounded.
Trembling, Stuart turned his back and left the yard. He sprinted down Birch, expending his energy until his heart pounded loudly enough to wash out any other distraction.
Flashlights blinked between the gravestones. Serge called Stuart’s name from atop a mausoleum. “Come up here!”
Stuart hopped up a bench and pulled himself to the roof beside his friend. All around were holes, a minefield of empty rectangles. Stuart doubted a Bobcat could do this much work without knocking down a single tombstone. Besides, it would take a fleet of backhoes to unearth so many bodies.
Except the bodies weren’t here.
Mr. Henderson wept over Rose’s open, unoccupied casket. Stuart spotted Linda Sizemore screaming at David, inconsolable. “How could you let this happen!” Like it was his doing.
“What do you think, Stu?”
Stuart wanted to go home. Better yet, find an empty room with no windows. Lock himself in, close his eyes, and vanish. Sleep long enough that when he finally awoke, the nightmare would be over.
Sarah screamed “Mom!” and rattled both men. In the distance, a lone silhouette raised a pistol to its head, fired, and dropped into the earth. Melanie Samms.
And then there were nine.
“Jesus Christ,” uttered Serge.
Stuart knew otherwise. Jesus didn’t live here anymore. Hadn’t since before the accident.
Stuart remembered church services with Charlotte, Gabriel and Michael. They’d named their children after angels, respectful of their gifts from above. Charlotte praised God endlessly. Michael, an excitable, optimistic eight-year-old, found Jesus and professed his faith at the revival. Seeing the unbridled joy in his brother, Gabriel asked spiritual questions too. Soon, they prayed, he’d join the flock.
Then, without notice, Stuart became Job. Stripped of his employment for no apparent reason, he prayed for patience and guidance. Unable to pay the house note, he and Charlotte took up odd jobs for First Church. Cooking meals for Wednesday night Bible studies. Cleaning the bathrooms – learning humility. Suffering a full-blown run of the chicken pox – begging for peace and mercy.
With Stuart’s bedridden, Charlotte shuttled the elderly from the retirement home. She and the boys would sing Old Time Religion and It Is Well up and down I-76. Until that Thursday. David called with the news.
For some reason, God turned his back on Stuart Cavanaugh. God’s thoughts were no longer Stuart’s thoughts. God’s ways were no longer his ways. If there was a loving, caring, supreme being, he would not let these things happen. No. Jesus left long ago.
“Stu! Come on!” Serge urged him toward the cemetery’s newest permanent resident.
Stuart watched the sky and recited, “All who call upon the Lord shall be saved.”
The words sounded foreign. Salvation was for sinners who believed in a loving Lord. Stuart possessed no such beliefs anymore. When he arrived at the grave, Dr. Hughes had already climbed down and pronounced her dead. He looked up and asked Stuart if he wanted to offer a prayer. He did not. Sarah pleaded, her eyes gushing tears while Serge squeezed her.
Finally, Stuart bowed his head. “God?”
He couldn’t think of anything else appropriate to say. He remembered verses the pastor used at other funerals, but the thought of repeating them made his tongue taste like batteries. Clutching his fists, he managed to say, “Why? Melanie deserved better.”
“That the best you can do?” came a voice from behind the crowd. Then a laugh they all recognized only too well.