Robert retrieved the last can of papaya juice from his cooler–no one drank coffee anymore, caffeine having been outlawed in the last Fundamentalist push–and looked for a place to sit. He tried not to look at the trench. It consumed his life just as it consumed the bodies he spent his days pushing into it.
Three truck drivers, identifiable by the grey crosses adorning the breast pockets of their blue Disposal Ministry jumpsuits, stood under the only tree, their trucks idling nearby, diesel engines rattling, carrion birds swirling over their grisly cargos. Robert considered joining them. But, even though his jumpsuit was Disposal Ministry blue, his cross was black not grey, and people didn’t mix much these days. No trust. Besides, they were huddled over a blackmarket holomag–porn judging by their secretiveness–and an overture might make them suspicious.
He popped open his juice. Snatches of conversation reached his ears as he drank, confirming his guess about the magazine’s contents.
–“a load of that”–
–“Hey, hey, looky there”–
–“the size of those”–
–“Ooooweeee, I’d sure like to”–
–“Don’t turn that page”–
Robert felt a hand on his shoulder. A familiar voice said, “Hey, how you feeling? Ain’t had no more of them bad dreams, have you?”
Robert turned. Carl Williams stood behind him.
“Told you not to bring that up here, Carl–you never know who’s listening.”
“Hey, settle down, Rob. You ain’t got nothin’ to worry about, you ain’t done nothin’ wrong. ‘Sides, ain’t no Purity agents ’round here. If there was, them truck drivers would be smack dab in the center of attention.”
It was true. No black jumpsuits with flame red crosses emblazoned on the breast pockets were visible. But that didn’t mean much–the truck drivers could be undercover Purity agents pretending to look at porn.
He looked at Carl. He meant well enough, Robert knew. But how could he tell him about the things he saw from his bedroom window in the night? About the thoughts and doubts he harbored? They could get him anything from six months in a Penance Camp to life in Correctional Colony. He could even end up part of the trench he spent the last four years helping to build. And he didn’t need Purity agents mind-probing him while he tried to sort things out.
“You’re right, Carl. I just don’t like talking about it. “Wish Nell’d never told Doris.”
“She only said somethin’ ’cause she’s worried.”
“I know—I know. I’ve got it under control now.”
A pained look shot through Carl’s eyes at the lie, but he said nothing.
“Really,” Robert said.
Carl gave Robert’s shoulder a paternal squeeze. “Well, if there’s anything we can do, just let us know.”
Carl got a bottle of apple juice from his own cooler, sat across from Robert, and pulled a dog-eared copy of the Moralist Manifesto from his pocket. A mixture of fire and brimstone Christian dogma and Moralist social and political philosophy, the Manifesto served as constitution and Holy Writ.
“Mind if I read aloud?”
“I don’t much care to listen today, Carl. I’m busy with my own thoughts.”
Lips moving, Carl began to read, but after a moment, he stopped.
“You know, Rob, if you studied the Word a little more, mayhap you wouldn’t be havin’ no problems.”
Robert pushed a lock of hair off his brow, turned his pea green eyes on Carl. Anger flashed in their depths.
“I know everything in that book as well as you do. It doesn’t help. So leave me alone about it!”
The men sipped their juice. Carl broke the silence: “You an’ Nell comin’ for Sunday dinner as usual?”
“Of course, we’ll be there,” Robert replied. He regretted snapping at Carl, but sometimes the man didn’t know when to stop.
As the whistle blew break’s end, the men rose and ambled back to their machines. Robert gunned his engine and went back to work. Vultures wheeled out of his path, only to alight and resume feeding after he passed. Twelve foot tall Terex trucks backed to the trench’s edge and dumped their loads–bodies falling from them like cordwood–then returned to the Purification Center to reload. The hot Texas sun shone down from a blue and indifferent sky.
* * *
In bed that night, Robert stared out the window, thinking about his problem. A gibbous moon hung high in a cloudless sky. The sounds of the surrounding forests and fields–crickets chirping, birds rustling on their roosts, the hum of insects–filtered into the room.
The trench lay less than a mile away through a stand of pines and across a field of corn. The earthen berm pulsed in his imagination like a dark scar.
Nell, his wife, slept beside him–oblivious– her long dark hair fanned out over the pillow, her features softened by sleep, her pale skin gleaming in the moonlight. Robert wished he could be more like her. Or Carl for that matter. Things were so simple for them with their blind acceptance and unshakable faith.
Doubt haunted him day and night, the faces of the dead forcing him to question all he was supposed to believe. His government. His God. He wasn’t an executioner, only a cog in the mechanism, a workman on the “Monument to Purity” the government was building as a “Symbol of the Triumph of Good over Evil.” Nevertheless, he felt guilty. Felt the eyes of the dead upon him. Accusing him.
When he turned his gaze back out the window, he saw it; a blue miasma hung above the trench. The shade of an old bruise, it writhed as if in agony, blotted out the stars. When the faces of the dead appeared, they were filled with bitterness. And something else. Something Robert couldn’t identify.
He closed his eyes, tried to force the image from his mind. But it refused to leave him. Each night it became more real, more persistent. He rolled over and stared at the wall, but the faces followed him–even into his dreams.
Next morning Robert awakened early unrested and out of sorts. The bed beside him was empty, the mingled fragrance of eggs, bacon, and grapefruit wafted through the bedroom door.
Memories of last night flooded his mind. Had the vision been real or a phantasm conjured by a tormented mind—a shattered mind?
He thrust his dark thoughts aside and padded into his government trailer’s living room. On mornings like this, he missed his coffee. But caffeine was addictive, bad for the body and the spirit. It was the government’s duty to protect him from it. Wasn’t it?
Robert sat down at the table, forked a grapefruit-half into a bowl, and sprinkled sugar on it.
“Morning, hon,” Nell said. “How you feeling?”
“Fine, I guess.”
Nell turned, fixed him with her gaze. “Don’t give me that, Robert Wallach–you look terrible. You woke me this morning, tossing and turning. Talking in your sleep again, too.”
Fear shot through Robert. Nell loved him, but if he said the wrong thing, she might report him, thinking it was for his own good. Happened all the time.
“What’d I say?” he asked, trying to keep his voice calm.
“Not much that I could make out. You just kept saying I’m sorry over and over again. For what or to who, I don’t–”
Nell slammed a plate with two eggs and a slice of bacon on the table in front of him. “I wanna help, but you won’t let me. Every time I try, you get evasive or defensive.”
Robert said nothing.
Nell took the seat across the table and forked the other grapefruit-half into her bowl. They ate in silence.
Afterwards, Robert moved to the living room, sank down into the worn sofa, and gazed out the window toward the trench. The sun shone down on the pines, bathing the conifers with warm yellow light and casting the space below them in dark shadows. The blue cloud was gone.
Nell went into the bathroom. The soft roar of the shower drifted down the hallway. It stopped after a few minutes, though, and the bathroom door opened. Steam billowed into the hallway.
“Robert,” Nell said through the open door, “‘Services start in an hour, you need to get ready.”
“I’m not going,'” he said, not turning away from the window.
Nell strode into the room, stood in front of him, a towel wrapped round her body, hands on her waist.
“What do you mean you’re not going?”
“Just what I said: I”m not going.'”
She tried to speak but stumbled over her words and started over.
“What’ll people think?”
“I don’t care what people think. No law says I have to go to Services–at least not yet–and I’m not going. Simple as that.”
Nell started to say something else but reconsidered and instead, turned and went into the bedroom. She came back a half hour later, dressed and contrite.
He turned away from the window, looked at her.
“Dinner with the Williams. Are you going?”
“Of course I’m going. Already told Carl we’d be there.”
“Should I pick you up?”
“No, I’ll walk,” he said. “It’s only a mile.”
Nell smoothed her dress, checked her watch.
“There’s still time for you to get ready– if you’ve changed your mind, that is.”
Robert heard the concern in her voice–saw its shadows darken the blue of her eyes.
“Not today, hon. I really don’t feel like it.”
“Okay. Guess I’ll see you later then.”
She leaned over and kissed him, quick, on the cheek, but not so quick that he failed to notice the tears quivering in the corners of her eyes. He reached up and brushed them away.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”
She left without another word. Robert turned back to the window and gazed toward the trench. Vultures rode in lazy spirals above it, black specks swirling against a brilliant blue sky. Though the trench offered them nothing today, they fed well there yesterday and would again tomorrow.
* * *
Sometime later Robert rose, showered, and dressed. The sun’s weight heavy on his head, he set off down the narrow strip of asphalt that ran in front of his trailer. Carl and Doris lived at the far end of the temporary government housing area.
This housing area was no different from the ones he had lived in for the past four years. Brush-hogged and bulldozed farmland, hastily laid streets already pot-holed and crumbling, run down government trailers and battered automobiles, ragged lawns strewn with children’s castaway toys. Three years ago in place like this in Mississippi, he, Carl, and Doris became friends despite their age difference. When he met Nell in Louisiana the following year, Doris made her feel part of the family long before the wedding took place.
On arriving, Robert discovered he mistimed his approach. He wanted to be waiting when they returned from Services, but both cars were parked in front of the trailer. They had, no doubt, been discussing him since their return.
Robert turned off the blacktop, climbed the rickety wooden steps, and knocked.
Carl answered the door. He wore a grim expression.
“Well, look who’s here. Decided to come out of your shell and spend some time with people that care about you?”
Robert ignored the sarcasm. “Afternoon, Carl.”
Carl swung the door the rest of the way open and stepped aside, revealing the trailer’s living room. With the exception of a few modest pieces of furniture and Doris’ framed needlepoint pieces, it was identical to Robert and Nell’s place down to the dark brown carpeting and kitschy cherub and seraphim wallpaper.
Nell and Doris were huddled together on the sofa, tears streaking their faces–Doris doing her best to comfort Nell, “poor-dearing” her and patting her back. It was worse than Robert expected.
“You gonna come in, or stand there lettin’ the air conditioning run out the door.”
Carl’s words startled Robert out of his reverie, and he stepped over the threshold. But then he didn’t know what to do–he was as lost and confused as anyone. He stood in the middle of the room, fidgeting with his hands and waiting for someone to take control.
“You gonna sit down and stay a while or what?” Though the words were almost the same, Carl’s tone was softer, more worried now than angry.
Robert moved as far across the trailer’s small living room from Nell and Doris as he could get.
“What do you think you’re doin’, Robert Wallach!”
Doris stood, pointed at Nell. “Get over here with your wife!”
“I don’t want him over here,” Nell said.
Doris pointed again, insistent. Robert crossed the room and sat down on the sofa beside Nell. Her arms convulsed around him.
Carl and Doris looked at him from their place across the coffee table, eyes filled with concern. Robert knew they wanted to help, but he didn’t know how they would react to the truth–no, he did know. That was the problem. He had to get through this without blurting it out.
“Robert,” Carl said, “we’re worried ’bout you. Nell says you toss and turn and talk in your sleep, and when she brings it up, you get secretive and defensive. We’re your friends, an’ we wanna help. But we can’t do nothin’ unless you tell us what’s goin’ on.”
“‘Is it a crisis of Faith?” Doris asked. “If it is, I can help. Went through one myself a few years back.”
Carl plucked a well worn copy of the Church Manifesto off the coffee table. “Whatever your problem, the answers–”
Acute awareness of the moment’s minute details flooded Robert’s consciousness–smells of dinner cooking, chicken baking, collard greens boiling; the air-conditioner vibrating the floor; the sounds coming from outside, children playing, car doors slamming, the somnolent buzz of insects.
“–are in here. Let’s get down on our knees–”
Unable to tolerate anymore pious rationalizing, Robert exploded.
“No, they’re not! I’ve looked. There’s nothing in there but hate, lies, and fairy tales.”
Carl’s mouth fell open, Doris glared at him in shock, dismay, and anger. Nell jerked away from him with a sharp intake of breath.
“That’s blasphemy. This is the True Word of God, an’ I’ll not have you disrespectin’ it in this house!”
“But it’s wrong, Carl–the fear, the repression, the Cleansing, all of it’s wrong. I look into the faces of the dead and know it’s wrong.”
Carl rose, shaking with anger. He pointed a gnarled finger at Robert, opened the Manifesto, and read.
“And the servants of the Lord shall cleanse the land of the impure of heart and spirit. Their bodies shall be cast into the trench as fodder for the worms, and an earthen berm shall be erected above them as a Monument to the Purity of God’s chosen people and as a Symbol of the Triumph of Good over Evil.”
Carl paused for a moment. Then, looking up from the page, “That’s God’s Word. God’s command-”
“No, Carl, that’s man’s word. The Cleansing is murder plain and simple. I don’t know how I blinded myself to it for so long, but I can do it no longer, and I’ll have nothing more to do with it.”
“That’s heresy!” Carl said.
“It may be heresy, but it’s true.”
“Robert, I love you like the son I never had, but you’re a danger to yourself and others, and I’m gonna to have to ask you to leave.”
Robert looked at Nell. She refused to meet his gaze.
“Coming with me?”
“No, I think I’ll stay here.”
The smell of burning chicken following him, Robert stepped through the door and into the heat of the midday sun. He walked down the sun softened asphalt street in no particular direction and wondered how long he had before they sent Purity agents after him for his own good.
* * *
Robert found himself standing at his door, fumbling his keys toward the lock sometime later. He had no idea how long he wandered, but the sun hung low in the western sky, and the heat of the day was past.
Someone had visited the trailer in his absence. The living room and kitchen bore the marks of a hurried search, and some of Nell’s clothes were missing from the bedroom closet. Robert went into the living room, sat by the window, and stared out toward the trench. Soon he drifted into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Night had fallen when he awakened, and the moon hung full and heavy in the sky. He gazed toward the trench, but no blue miasma swirled above it as the night before.
He watched for some time before hunger–he’d eaten nothing since breakfast–drove him into the kitchen.
Through a gap in the curtains over the kitchen window, he saw a swirl of blue.
He pushed the curtains apart and pressed his face to the glass.
A blue cloud hovered outside the kitchen window. Though similar to the miasma that hung over the trench, this seemed thicker and more condensed, as if possessed of physical substance. And though it lacked feet or legs—the lower extremities tapered into a flickering point–the cloud had the shape of a man.
The being was wraith-like, its chest sunken and bony, its arms long and thin, and its face a death’s head, the substance that composed the flesh drawn tight over the structures beneath. But the creature bore no accusatory expression, no malice, no anger.
The wraith smiled–a grim but nevertheless benevolent gesture. Then it lifted its right hand and beckoned with crooked fingers.
They’d finally come to claim him…
Robert dropped the curtains and backed away from the window. But the curtains blew open of their own accord, and the window rattled in its frame, compelling him to look again.
The wraith’s hue deepened from blue to viscous black, and a flaming red cross flared into being on its right breast. The creature turned and pointed toward the road at Robert’s back.
Robert rushed across the trailer and peered out the window facing the road.
Three pairs of headlights barreled toward him. He didn’t need to see the black sedans. The headlights were enough. His time had run out. Purity agents were for him. And he well knew how that ended.
He whirled and slammed through the trailer’s back door, tumbling down the steps to the ground three feet below. The wraith waited until he regained his feet. Then turned and entered the pine forest that separated the housing area from the trench. Robert followed, the squeal of the Purity agents’ sedans sliding to a stop in front of his trailer spurring him on.
The creature flew through the woods, its pace so rapid Robert was forced to run to keep up. Yet no matter how he tried, Robert was unable to close the gap, but neither did the wraith pull away. Always it floated just ahead, twisting and turning through the forest, vanishing behind
the trunks of the pines only to reappear a moment later, beckoning Robert onward with luminous fingers.
The pursuing Purity agents’ excited shouts echoed through the forest behind Robert, and he chanced a look over his shoulder.
Wraiths swarmed through the woods behind him. They capered and cavorted, confusing and harassing the Purity agents. The shouts soon gave way to screams, the Purity agents’ voices rising in a terrified cacophony. The pursuit became separate and disorganized, then crumbled, the voices fewer and farther away as the agents turned and raced out of the forest.
Robert turned and hurried after the wraith. A moment later they burst out of the shadows of the pine forest and into the cornfield where the light of the full moon fell unhindered. Though the wraith seemed attenuated in the silver brightness, it kept going, ducking and dodging through the rows of corn. Then the cornstalk walls fell away, and the trench appeared.
The creature went to the center of the earthen berm covering the trench and hovered. The other wraiths streaked out of the cornfield like blue bullets, adding their substance to it. The figure thickened and swelled, flowered into an amorphous cloud of faces.
The faces spun and swirled, one merging into another until a single visage that was not any single face but a composite of all the faces appeared. The body of a Colossus, composed of a rippling mass of blues and purples, formed beneath the face.
Overawed, Robert fell to his knees.
The figure took on mass and solidity. Then it spoke: “Rise, Robert Wallach. We are no god that you should bow before us.”
Robert wasn’t sure whether the words were real or formed in his mind. Either way, the effect was the same. He rose.
“But–what are you, then?”
“That is complicated and it requires great effort to manifest ourselves in this manner. Let’s just say we are echoes of those consumed by the trench–scholars and criminals, humanists and predators, doctors and drug addicts–this apparition is composed of the gasses given off by our decomposing bodies.”
The Colossus paused, then, “We have a request of you, Robert Wallach.”
“Oh, we think you know that. After all in your own fashion, you are one of us.”
“Consumed by the trench…. ” he said in low soft voice.
“Yes, consumed by the trench.” The Colossus wavered, its edges unraveling into the breeze. “We have little time, even now our cohesion wanes. And, too, the Purity agents have regrouped and are on your trail.”
Robert glanced back the way he had come, fear in his eyes. He turned back to the Colossus.
“What do you want?”
“The trench is a ravenous beast; it has taken on a life of its own. This atrocity must be brought to an end. You, Robert Wallach, are the instrument of the trench’s demise.”
“Go into the Wastes beyond the Western Frontier. There you will find others. Organize them, arm them, lead them. We will help when we can. You will not fight alone.”
A sudden gust of wind wavered the Colossus. A cloud passed over the moon.
“Will you do this thing we ask, Robert Wallach?”
Robert considered his answer. He saw no reason to refuse: All he cared for was lost. The sound of sirens and baying hounds reached him from the housing area, and he made his decision.
“I’ll do it. Someone must.”
Robert couldn’t be sure, but he thought a smile curled the corners of the Colossus’ mouth.
“Good luck, then, Robert Wallach,” the Colossus said and vanished.
The moon broke through the clouds and shone down upon the trench. The unfinished end pointed to the west like a guiding finger. Robert aligned himself with it and set out. He knew his journey would be long and dangerous and filled with hardship. But as he walked away, he heard confusion in the baying of the hounds searching for his scent and fear in the voices of the Purity agents tending them and knew he would not be alone.