Raven

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CHAPTER 13 – Cast Out

Matti hadn’t noticed, before, how the torn flap of skin on her knee had curled as it dried. She couldn’t remember when she had torn it. It wasn’t bleeding. Looking closer, she could see how the dried blood would form a sealing scab if it weren’t disturbed.

Must have been a day or two. How many other cuts and tears have I got that I haven’t noticed yet? How many more will I get before I finally give up and die? This might even be a good place to do it. I’m in the shade. Nobody is chasing me. No thing is chasing me. The ground isn’t all that uncomfortable, as long as I don’t roll around too much and wind up on a piece of broken glass. Yeah, maybe I’ll just end it right here.

The eave of the destroyed building against her back provided the shade. A shattered window in the wall above her and a few feet to her left had littered the ground with shards of glass when it had blown out. But the shrub bed where she lounged had a thick layer of shredded bark mulch that provided the softest bed she had found since leaving her own on that far away morning three days ago. If only thirst, hunger and exhaustion didn’t overshadow it so much.

She was only bantering with herself when she first settled into the shade, telling herself she was ready to give up and die. She was hot and tired. She had ditched another invader just a couple of blocks back, but far enough that her panic had diminished, and she could begin to think about something less immediate than outrunning a monster trying to kill her.

But, as her thoughts bounced around her new situation and how much had changed since Wednesday morning, depression began to wrap around her like a heavy blanket.

She was hot, thirsty, hungry and tired, but that was only the beginning. She was alone, so terribly alone. People were around, running here and there in their own bids at prolonging life, but she was alone. Some individual survivors and small groups of people joined others, gaining some comfort in their ordeal, but she remained alone. Woody had saved her from a small mob and she had begun to feel safer in the short time they remained together. But, then he had sacrificed himself for her, and she was, once again, alone. Un-wiped tears streamed down her cheeks as her mind recalled her family and friends and how she would never again see them, or talk to them, or hold them.

What had begun as playful banter was starting to feel more like a real solution to her misery and evolving into serious consideration that saw simplicity in what was not yet a plan. I could use a piece of glass on my wrists, but I probably wouldn’t even have to. If I just stayed here in the open, it probably wouldn’t be long before one of those things came along. It would probably hurt, but I doubt if it would be for all that long. And, who knows, maybe not at all. They seem to be pretty good shots, once they get close. I bet it’d get me right in the heart, or the head. Then it would be over. No more running and hiding and crying … and remembering. I’d be with Momma again. And Dad and … and …. Oh, Woody, why did I let you go?

The sobs were hard enough to make it difficult to even think. They also made it difficult to hear footsteps. Only when something touched Matti’s shoulder did she realize she was no longer alone.

With a start, she jerked about to confront whatever had touched her. She didn’t even consider it could be a whoever. Her near-resolution to let it end was gone like a popped soap bubble. Her adrenalin peaked as her body primed itself to take whatever measures it needed to preserve her life for even a little bit longer. But what she faced was a human woman kneeling before her, reaching out to her, extending an open hand to her.

Other people were behind the woman, some standing near and watching, others slinking past in a group strung out along the street. Even those going past peered back over their shoulders at her. When the woman spoke, Matti realized it was a repeat of what she had already said.

“Are you hurt, dear? Do you need help?”

“Wha … who … I don’t …” Matti couldn’t get beyond stammering.

“Is someone with you?”

Matti finally managed to put words together. “No. No one is with me. I don’t have anyone …. I don’t need – yes, I do. I’m all alone, and I need someone –” and then her words melted into mutterings stabbed by frequent, wracking sobs.

When the woman’s arm wrapped around Matti’s shoulders and drew her into a warm, wonderful embrace, it was as though her Momma had returned. Her own arms wrapped tightly about the woman, her ash and dirt smudged face buried against the stranger’s ample bosom.

Because keeping her wits was necessary to stay alive over the last three days, after Woody left she had managed, so far, to keep occasional emotional outbursts limited to surface ripples, maintaining the deeper feelings of loss in a special place, knowing it would be crippling to set them free. Now, this woman’s simple act of showing Matti that she cared allowed Matti to release her emotions, to let them surge and burst free in a tearful deluge.

The woman let her cry for a minute as she patted her on the back. But, then she began rising to her feet, helping Matti to hers in the process. When they were both upright, the woman gently pried Matti from her embrace and looked into her face and eyes, then she simply smiled and nodded.

As the woman turned with her companions to follow those who had gone on, she said, “Come with me, now, dear. We have to get to safety. We can’t stay here. Come, now.”

Before Matti realized it, she was in the exodus. Better than two-dozen people, men, women and children, were ahead of her and the woman who still held a supporting arm around Matti’s shoulders. Several of those near the rear turned and, with no more than quick smiles and nods, reassured her that she should go with them.

The woman beside her was in her late forties as near as Matti could tell and had not tended to her personal appearance in recent days. Her tangle of light brown hair was streaked with gray, but she didn’t seem old, just unconcerned with showing her age. She matched Matti’s medium height, but she was quite a few pounds heavier. In fact, Matti couldn’t help but compare her to Momma: large and comfortable.

Matti didn’t notice how far they walked, but it seemed to be only a couple of blocks. The journey ended in front of a plain looking building with a small parking lot at one side that circled around to the back. Frosted windows lined the side of the building, and a set of double doors stood open at the front. The only word that remained unburned on a small sign was “Church” in plain, block lettering, although part of the first “C” showed scorching. The building, itself, had no ornamentation. A very tall man stood beside the entrance urging everyone through.

Matti looked forward to sitting down in the cool of the shadows within and resting her sorely abused body. Two women and a man just ahead of her in the parade waited in the foyer, their hands extended to receive them into the fold as Matti and her escort approached. But as she and the woman reached the doors, the tall man held his hand out, blocking their entrance.

“What is this, Ellie?” he asked of the woman, although his eyes bored into Matti’s. “You know my views.”

“But, Ned, she’s alone. She needs –”

“She can get whatever she needs from her own kind. This is no time to be picking up stray mongrels.”

Matti’s feelings of relative safety bordering on happiness dissolved in a mist. The hand of friendship and love that had extended to her was suddenly slapped away, jerked back out of reach.

“Ned, please, Brother Jones says you’re mistaken. The black race is no differ –”

“And look where Brother Jones is, now. His ashes are still smoldering.”

“But that’s not because –”

“Isn’t it? I warned him often enough. Now, do as I say.”

Ellie started to move, but then stopped and put her arm back around Matti’s shoulders. She met Ned’s glare with unblinking eyes, and, with a steady voice, she said, “I’m taking her in.”

The man’s glare flared for a moment before it rose over the heads of these last two before him. He peered back and forth for a moment and, through clenched jaws, commanded, “Get inside.”

Ellie ushered Matti inside and was following her when Ned shoved Ellie through the doorway, following on her heels, and closed both doors. Ellie collided lightly with the trio that waited. The two women turned with assurances that they were fine and disappeared into the gloom beyond an open archway with the man they accompanied. Before Ellie and Matti could walk on into the church to join the others, Ned grabbed Ellie’s arm and jerked her back.

“Never, again, oppose me before the brethren.” His eyes were blazing coals glaring at her.

The implied threat he hissed as he towered over her appeared to be understood, and Ellie flinched.

As the big man walked away from her and Matti, Ellie said, “My husband is very strong-willed. He’s a good man, though … most times. I’ll be the first to admit that he does have his faults. But … oh, I don’t know. He says he blows up like he does because he’s pushed to it. Maybe I do push, at times.”

“But, you didn’t push. You have a right to your opinion, don’t you?”

“I suppose I do, but … well, Ned says a woman should yield to her husband’s wisdom.”

“But, Ellie, that’s fine if he’s a wise man … oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean … I mean –”

Ellie patted Matti’s hand. “Oh, don’t you worry about it, dear. I think you just spoke a bit of wisdom, yourself. Well, you know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“I’m Matti Raven.”

“I’m pleased to meet you. I’m Ellie Morgan, but you already know that. Anyway, this is our church. Ned is only a member. I mean he’s not a minister or elder or anything. Too many of the members think he’s too fanatical in his interpretation of the Word, and that he picks and chooses things too much. Like his beliefs about your race – I mean the black – I mean … oh, dear. I’m afraid I’ve given you a bad impression.”

“Well, he seemed to be pretty clear that he didn’t want me to join you. And, since he doesn’t know me personally, I figured it must be because I’m black. Or would he have wanted to turn me away if I was white, too?”

“No, you’re right. He’s a racist. And he tries to justify it as being in the teachings. That’s one of the things Brother Jones and some of the others argue about with him. Well, they try to argue. I’m afraid my husband doesn’t listen to opposing views very well. Brother Jones and his family were killed when their house burned down yesterday. It looks like quite a few of our members are missing. Ned and one or two others decided we should all come here to be safe, that this place will be protected by the Lord since it’s His house.”

One of the men standing back at the entrance called out excitedly, but in a hushed voice, “Brother Morgan! Quick!”

Morgan joined the lookout at the door where he peeked through the crack just wide enough to see through. After a moment, he turned back to the congregation and announced, “Two of the demons are coming down the street. Everyone be seated. We must place our faith in the Lord. He will not abandon us. Pray, now, but quietly.”

Ellie led Matti to a pew near the front where most of the others huddled together. The seats were plain, unpadded wooden benches, varnished, but otherwise unadorned. While Ellie and the other members sat with bowed heads in all but silent prayer, Ned Morgan stood at the pulpit, a simple lectern on a small, raised platform at the front of the room. With his face turned upward and his eyes tightly closed, he raised his arms in prayerful supplication and mouthed his own silent prayer.

Suddenly, daylight sprayed through the gloom of the interior as the entrance double doors swung open.

Matti noticed none of the others looked up or back or interrupted their prayers. She did.

Two grotesque silhouettes filled the sunlit space for only a moment before stepping cautiously forward. Then thin beams of bright violet light began flashing about the room amid a rising din of screams. Men, women and children tried to climb over each other in a mad scramble to get out of the killing zone. But, as a few managed to get clear, the zone expanded to re-include them.

Matti ducked down below the top of the bench back, although she had little faith that the two inches of varnished pine would have much effect on the deadly lasers. She rolled off the seat and hunched on the floor where at least the killers couldn’t see her so easily. A great weight pressed down on her, and it took a moment for her to realize it was Ellie. Matti was nearly overwhelmed with an upwelling of love that the woman who had known her for less than an hour would shield Matti with her own body.

Ned’s voice rang out from the pulpit, “Oh, God, thou greatest of wonders, protect us, thy children. Save us from these demons of darkness set against thee. Send thy power to expel these demons back to –”

Terror filled Matti as she struggled beneath Ellie’s weighty embrace. The monsters were going to kill everyone in the building, and there was nothing anyone could do. She was going to die, and she couldn’t even run away. But, desperation gave her strength, and she managed to squirm out from under her protector. She tensed for the first step in her dash for the nearest window.

Suddenly, the lasers stopped, and the room became quiet. Only occasionally moans and cries of pain from the few merely wounded could be heard.

Matti looked back in hopes that the killers had been struck dead, but, of course, they hadn’t. They stood in the aisle with their weapons still raised, but they stared at the front of the church where Ned glared back at them from the pulpit.

Ned’s voice again thundered, “Be-gone, foul spawn of Hell! Be-gone from this holy place!”

Matti got the impression, from the way the invaders looked at the preacher, at each other, and back at the preacher, that they were astounded by this crazy human, or maybe just entertained. They raised their weapons toward the tall, loud human.

“Oh, Lord, give me strength of thy might to drive these foul creatures from our midst. I command thee, demons, be-gone! By the power of most almighty God, I cast thee out!” He thrust his arm toward the intruders, his long, bony finger jutting forward as though to indicate the direction they should go.

And it was like all the trumpets of heaven blaring at the same time. Matti stood dumfounded as haunting, ethereal sound swept over her, around her, through her. It seemed to come from the ceiling, the floor, the walls, and beyond. And, although the long wailing, warble seemed to reverberate through the church, at the same time it seemed to all be inside her head. But she could tell by the way everyone else behaved that they could all hear it, too. And when it ended, it was like all moving things in the world stopped for a moment.

The first movement within the church was from the two invaders, the two demons that had already slaughtered half of the humans that had sought refuge there. In absolute awe, Matti watched them lower their death-ray weapons down to their sides, turn, and walk back out the way they had come in.

No one seemed to be more amazed than Ned Morgan, even if it was only for a moment. He recovered his commanding posture and strode down the aisle to the double doors that still stood full open.

After he had looked outside long enough to verify that the two killers of his flock were, indeed, walking away from his church, he turned back to face the congregation. Those that had survived this most recent slaughter stood facing him, silent and waiting.

“Hallelujah!” Brother Morgan shouted. Again, with his arms upraised, his words rang through the small building, “Praised be the Lord, who in His endless wisdom has bestowed upon me, His most humble servant, a great power. Let, now, all transgressors quake in fear, for they, too, shall be cast out!”

Thunderstruck, Matti stared at the tall man; she had truly witnessed a miracle. His speech had taken on a decidedly biblical element; although, he sounded more like someone trying to sound Shakespearian who didn’t really know how. Maybe this was the way some preachers spoke when they got really worked up. But Ellie had said he wasn’t a minister. She supposed a man didn’t have to be a minister if God chose him to work His miracles. Among the cries of anguish over the various members who had not survived the attack, mumblings and mutterings began to circulate through the reduced throng, and she heard whispered, “miracle worker,” “prophet of God,” and “Lord’s savior.” Shivers ran up and down her back as she thought about what had happened.

She turned toward the awestruck membership to see what Ellie thought of her bigoted firebrand of a husband but didn’t see her. Then she looked back down to where she had lain beneath the large woman’s protective mass and felt her stomach lurch. Ellie still lay there, unmoving.

“Ellie?” she whispered. “Ellie!” she screamed.

The rest of the group still marveling over what they had seen and heard turned at Matti’s cry. By the time the first had moved in closer, Matti had rolled Ellie partly over and was cradling her head. Her hands gently stroked around the blackened hole just behind Ellie’s temple where the laser had burned through. Tears rolled off Matti’s chin, landed upon Ellie’s face then ran down her cheek as though she cried at her own death.

“Thou, too, bringeth death upon the righteous, oh evil thing.”

Matti looked up at the words to see Brother Morgan looming over her.

“Thou spawn of Satan, why must thou seeketh the most innocent among God’s children to work thy malevolence?”

He punctuated his words with an accusing finger stabbing at her heart, and Matti realized he was somehow blaming her for Ellie’s death.

“No. It was that thing that shot her,” she protested.

“Twas thy comrade, thou meanest. Thy cohort in evil. Thy twin in Satan’s family of foulest demons.”

“What … what are you talking about? No! I’m not –”

“Silence!” Morgan roared as he drew himself up to even greater height. “I have long exhorted to my brethren that thy kind are the progeny of the murderer Cain, marked by the Lord, Himself, in his condemnation so that all may know thee. The hue of thy skin is God’s mark! Thou arte murderers, all! Thou bringeth death and destruction wherever thou tarry. Thy very touch brings death. The good brethren, here, saw thee laying thy hands of death upon the good woman thou wouldst embrace now with deceit.”

“No, please, I didn’t –”

“Be gone, foul creature!” Brother Morgan held up his arm across his face as though to shield himself from the hellish thing before him. “I command thee to depart from these good folk. Desist thy works of devilment. I cast the out! Be-gone!”

When Matti looked about among the others for support, she found none. The faces that had shown such good will and humanity as she had walked with Ellie now either frowned in uncertainty or scowled in condemnation. The faces before her now held the same hateful expressions as those she had encountered downtown when she had tried to help her neighbor. She remembered the uselessness of trying to argue with them. Whispered words spread like blowing embers before a wildfire.

“I never did –”

“She was just sitting there on the ground, like she knew we’d be coming –”

“Did you notice her eyes?”

She paused just long enough to ease Ellie’s head gently to the floor, but then she sprang to her feet and bolted for the open doorway. Before she made it half way there, the whispers became shouts of hate.

“Murderer!”

“Stop her!”

Fortunately, all the good brethren were gathered toward the front of the room, and Matti was able to get through the archway before the first missile flew. A hymnal smashed against the wall next to the archway just as Matti slipped through it and out the door. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she raced down the street, uncaring of the direction so long as it was away from the little church.

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