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CHAPTER 24 – Stranger and Stranger

“I am able to talk with Satan a little more than normal, I guess. I sorta talk to him in my mind. I mean … well, I do, but not really. It’s kind of hard to explain.”

The Judge and Charlie received this bit of information with raised eyebrows, although they remained silent. Vonnie edged forward on the edge of her chair that she had dragged over from a neighboring display.

“Just tell it like it is,” Nate said. “We’ll understand. Honest. You said you know what Satan feels. Why don’t you elaborate on that?”

Matti closed her eyes for a moment while she steeled her resolve, and then she began.

She started out with how she had survived that first day and the horror of seeing her family perish. When she described the mental images that stopped her panicky flight and led her to where the creek went underground and the black dog already there, she withheld nothing. As much as she knew, even when she understood little of it, she told it all. She almost skipped over her escape from the lynch-mob thanks to Woody’s ability, lest they think she was hallucinating. But, then, she reasoned, if they’d buy her claim of talking to the animals, why not? After she described her aerial trip across the river, and then the delayed collapse of the truck through the kitchen floor, she noticed Vonnie and Charlie exchanging wide-eyed glances.

She described the scene that first day in the Wells house with the bodies of the dogs strewn about and then the scene in Kathy’s bedroom. She told of the flood of images and memories that swamped her and how she interpreted them to represent what she believed to be the course of events that preceded her arrival there. Matti’s description of Kathy’s death and Satan’s berserk response brought gasps from the gallery. When she told how Satan waited until she had finished the burial and was walking away before he approached the grave, no eye remained dry. When she got to the confrontation with Mickey and his gang, Nate joined in with colorful comments and verifications. By the time the tale had reached the anticlimactic walk to the museum, the audience looked like they were ready to applaud. She told them how she had convinced Satan to restrain his enthusiasm when playing with Emmie until everyone knew him and knew that it was only joyous play.

“So, you see, he was simply happy that he had found someone he could relate to. He and I get on fine, but Emmie is about Kathy’s age. I think – I know he feels a connection with Emmie similar to what he had with Kathy, or the possibility of one. He informed me just a few minutes ago that Kathy and he communicated like he and I do, probably a lot better since they had more time to develop a connection. But he says it’s okay if Emmie can’t.”

No one spoke.

If The Judge had been amazed by the story of Satan’s life and accomplishments, the revelation of Matti’s abilities appeared to astound him. However, he still remained silent. Vonnie and Charlie continued to exchange looks that Matti couldn’t interpret, and they also remained silent.

Erin started to speak, then stopped and looked at Nate. He nodded to her and remained silent.

Erin said, “Matti, we – Jason, Nate, Rachel, Emmie and I – have certain knowledge that I’m sure you don’t have. Nor you three, Judge. And, it’s only because of the way things happened. We may be the only ones that actually know why Earth was invaded, and why the invaders left the way they did.”

“No, not the only ones.” When everyone looked at her, Matti added, “I know. I was there when they were cast out. I saw it.” She still couldn’t fully believe what she had seen.

“You saw what?” Nate asked. “Cast who out? You mean the invaders?” His eyebrows scrunched inward to arch around a tightly wrinkled knot of skin.

Matti didn’t understand why he was puzzled. If they had seen it happen, why couldn’t they accept that she had, too? In fact, lots of people had seen it.

“Yeah – I mean, yes, the invaders. When Brother Morgan commanded them to leave, to go back to Hell, or wherever they came from. I saw it, too. He chased me away, earlier, said I was one of Satan’s evil followers. I mean the real Satan, not him.” She nodded toward the dog lying at Emmie’s feet. “But I saw Brother Morgan and some of the others marching after the demons that he chased out of the church, so I followed. And I was close enough to see him and hear him when he marched right out in the open and commanded all those that were downtown to leave. And they did. They didn’t try to fight him, or argue, or protest, or anything. They just went inside their temple, and it flew away. I was hiding behind a planter across the street. Where were you?”

Silence echoed.

Nate looked over at Erin. She returned his look then glanced at Rachel, then at Jason who peered at Matti.

Finally, Erin responded. “Matti, I think you saw something that confused you. Whatever this Brother Morgan did, or you think he did, it was not the reason the invaders left.”

“But – but I saw it happen with my own eyes. I wasn’t on funny cigarettes or something. He tried to chase me away; he condemned me as one of Cain’s marked descendents, and he said I had drawn them to our hideout and caused Ellie to be killed, but I didn’t, honest. I was just alone and scared and she was nice to me and put her arm around me. But I didn’t draw them in.” Matti’s quivering voice had begun to rise in pitch and volume before petering out to a last pleading, “I didn’t.”

She dropped her eyes to gaze at her lap for a moment while she fought a couple of sobs. She looked back up and, with her voice little more than a squeak, certain, now, that the judgement would be against her, she said, “I was there.”

Jason interjected, “This Brother Morgan you mentioned; is that Ned Morgan?”

She nodded and said, “You know him?” Her voice was still tight.

“We’ve met,” was all that Jason said.

Brother Morgan? He’s no brother of mine,” Charlie informed everyone. “He’s nothing but a hate-mongering, fire and brimstone belchin’ plumber.”

“I’ve encountered Ned Morgan once or twice,” The Judge added. “Professionally, I might add.”

Erin reached over and took Matti’s hand, held it for a moment, then let it go with a gentle squeeze. With a sympathetic smile, she said, “Why don’t you start over? Tell us about it again, about what Brother Morgan did.”

This time, she took her time. Again, using her literary and story telling talents, Matti described that Saturday afternoon now over a month past in which she had just about been convinced that she was a minion of the Evil One.

“Wow,” said Nate as Matti drew her narration to a close with the invaders’ landing craft rising into the smoke-filled sky while Brother Morgan stood like a modern-day Moses with his staff on the shore of the Red Sea. “No wonder you think he’s a deputy to Arch-Angel, Gabriel.”

“He probably thinks he is, too,” added Vonnie.

The Judge shook his head and said, “This seems to be a classic example of why eye-witness accounts and empirical evidence are not always reliable sources of the truth. Although, I have yet to hear the explanation of events that you four believe to be more factual than Brother Morgan casting out demons.”

“Yeah,” agreed Charlie, pointing his thumb at The Judge. “What he said.”

“Matti,” Jason said. “I can easily see why you think what you do. But the whole thing was a colossal coincidence. We five,” he indicated Erin, Nate, Rachel, Emmie, and himself, “had an encounter in which I believe we learned the truth of this whole thing. Now, it is possible that we were lied to, but to what purpose?” After glancing about the room at his listeners as well as his backers, Jason continued. “We had taken cover here, in the museum. How that happened is quite a story, too, but for later. Anyway, we managed to take a couple of the kryls captive.”

“What’s a kryl?” Charlie asked.

“That’s what they call themselves – the invaders. Although, I suppose, they weren’t invaders. According to them, anyway. That sound, the one you said sounded like all the trumpets of heaven, had just occurred. I don’t know if you could rightly call it a sound, though. We’ve talked about that since then, too, and I think it must have been some kind of transmission, maybe electromagnetic, that could penetrate walls to wherever we were and somehow stimulate our auditory systems, maybe the nerves in our ears or even our brains, so we just assumed we had heard it. I’ll bet everyone within a certain radius, maybe even world-wide, heard it at the same volume. The idea of something as simple and primitive as a ship’s horn just doesn’t seem to fit.”

“We heard it, too,” Charlie said. “Right, Judge?”

“Yes. We had no idea what it was, but we haven’t seen any invaders since. Although, we just stayed put in our hiding place and really had no opportunity to see any of them.”

“Well,” Jason continued, “the kryls we captured said it was a signal to them as well as to humans, and it marked the end of their mission. We had to hold them here at gunpoint to stop ’em from just walking out.”

Erin took over the tale. “They told us they had come to cull the human population and to destroy our advanced civilizations. They said they do this on all the human worlds – oh, yeah, we aren’t the only ones. There’s – what’d they say? – only seven planets left, counting this one, where humans live. Used to be lots more, apparently.”

Nate held up his hand and said, “Hold on, you two. You’re jumping around so much you’ve even got me confused. Let me tell it.”

Matti hoped Nate’s version would be easier to follow. So far, they hadn’t said anything to make her believe anything other than what she already did.

Nate began, “We were holed up here, all right. We had just finished fighting for our lives – okay, that’s another story. Anyway, that’s when we saw the kryls come in the front door, so we began a game of cat and mouse, working our way around to a door where we could escape. We lost sight of the things and had just about to make our dash out the door when we heard that sound.

“Suddenly, they stepped out of the shadows and started to head for the door, like, okay, game’s over, we’re outa here. Not only that, but one of ’em, the big one, spoke to us in clear, perfect English. Its voice sounded like it was coming out of a ball of light floating above its head. The sounds didn’t sync with its mouth movements, though. Reminded me of a foreign movie dubbed in English, know what I mean? Erin threatened to blow its head off with a shotgun if they didn’t stay, so they stayed.

“According to them, the kryls control a good-sized empire. Out of all those worlds, seven of them are like Earth. You know, populated with humans. They use us for hunting, like deer, or maybe more like lions and tigers and bears since it’s just for sport, not food. I don’t think they eat us, but who knows? Anyway, we’re nothing to them but animals for sport hunting. And they visit these human worlds every so often to make sure we don’t advance too much. That way, they can harvest us, take choice specimens to other planets where they turn them loose and then hunt them.

“During our conversation, it let slip out that humans have these annoying abilities. It tried too much, I think, to discount its importance. I think we all got the impression that there was much more to it, but that information was not forthcoming from that one, the first one. It chose that moment to suddenly attack.”

“But, what do you mean by annoying abilities?” Matti was becoming even more confused.

“Oh, sorry. Got sidetracked. It mentioned powers of the mind, things like levitation, fire-starting, teleportation – oh, and telepathy.”

Now, Matti’s attention was assured. She also noticed Vonnie’s hands suddenly go to her mouth, then reach out to grasp Charlie’s hand.

“From the beginning,” Nate went on, “it insisted that the cull was over, and that they had to get back to their base because they were going to leave. Alas, as things turned out, poor fellow missed his flight.”

Jason took up the story. “After the first one was killed, the second, smaller one that hadn’t even tried to fight us said it wasn’t a kryl. It said the kryls conquered their planet and subjugated them for use like bloodhounds to track down humans because they can sense human magic.”

Matti sat stunned. Talking aliens hunting humans as prey and culling the earth, and humans using magic to levitate and stuff? Sure, she could talk to animals, but she had accepted that as her own deal with the devil. None of it was any easier to believe than what she already believed. And, then, there was Woody.

“So, you see,” Nate said, “Brother Morgan didn’t cast out any devil’s horde, and you are not a witch.”

“But … but, do you believe it just because that – that kryl thing said it was so? If the devil sent them like Brother Morgan said, the devil is the father of lies.”

“Like Jason asked, why they would lie to us? What would they have to gain? The kryl didn’t even see us as equal combatants in a war, or that our questioning was the interrogation of a prisoner of war. To its thinking, it’d be like if a U. S. Marine was captured by a group of talking, tool-using squirrels. It would’ve been more to its benefit to stress the kryls’ superiority to us, and that’s what it did, mostly. It claimed their invasion wasn’t an invasion, just a cull, and that they weren’t in a war with us because they are so superior. The stuff about mind-powers just slipped out.”

Nate paused his argument when the otherwise hollow silence of the place echoed with the sound of the door downstairs creaking open. As he slow-walked over to the railing, he pressed on with, “It tried to recover, claiming these powers were nothing more than an annoyance to them. But, like I said, it appeared to protest too much.” After glancing down at the entrance, he turned and headed back to his chair. “I guess I didn’t latch it good, but it’ll be okay. I’ll close it later.”

Jason looked over at Emmie, then at Nate and Erin. Matti could tell they were all considering something, and that they seemed to be debating it in their minds. Or are they reading each other’s thoughts, now? I’ll believe just about anything at this point.

Turning, then, to his daughter, Jason said, “Emmie, why don’t you pass that canteen to our guest. She’s probably thirsty. No, Honey,” he added when his daughter started to scoot across the six feet or so that separated her from Matti. “I mean, why don’t you pass it to her?”

Emmie looked at her dad with a blank stare for a moment. Then a big grin spread across her face.

The girl sat cross-legged and held her canteen in the palm of one hand above her lap. Without any perceptible movement of her hand, the canteen rose up a couple of inches and slowly floated toward Matti. Just before it touched her reaching hand it stopped for just a moment and made a full rotation before coming into her grasp. That little hesitation was enough to convince her that it had not merely been tossed.

Matti stared at the weighty, nearly full canteen in her hand. When she looked back up at Emmie, a grin and a wink greeted her.

Beside Emmie, Rachel’s grin was just as wide. It was the most animation she had seen from the quiet girl. But the words she spoke added more confusion than clarity. “And she can do wonders for a belly ache and a couple of bullet holes.”

When Emmie said, “And, I’m not a witch, either,” Matti managed to avoid bursting into tears as her belief in her own evilness lifted away like a heavy, stifling blanket that had been tightly wrapped about her, but she did hear sobbing and looked over at Vonnie.

Charlie’s arm was around his wife’s shoulders and he was hugging her and whispering to her.

Clearly distressed, The Judge half-rose. “Vonnie, dear, what is it?”

“Go ahead, honey. It’s okay, now,” Charlie said to his wife, but loud enough for everyone else to hear. “Show ’em.”

Vonnie remained seated, but with one hand still wiping her eyes, she extended the other towards the canteen. When Matti felt the weight of the thing lift from her hand, she made no attempt to catch it. She watched open mouthed, along with everyone else except Charlie, as it floated across the space between them, hovered for a moment above Vonnie’s hand where it made a full rotation, then gently settled into it.

“Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my.” Emmie’s parlor trick had shocked The Judge, but his years-long friend and neighbor duplicating the feat blew him away.

“I didn’t know how to tell anyone,” Vonnie began to explain. “Except Charlie. He knew.”

“I’ve been so unsure of myself, of what I am,” Matti said as she looked over at Vonnie who nodded in agreement, and then she went on. “I didn’t think I was bad. I’ve never felt evil. But when Brother Morgan began telling me and everyone how I have the mark of Cain, and how I had caused Ellie’s death by touching her, I started to think maybe he was right. And he didn’t even know about me talking with animals. I mean, I saw him cast out the demons. Anyway, that’s what it looked like. And I’m not the only one that thought it, either.”

The Judge said, “Yes, I’m sure those who saw it happen probably believe just as you did. Morgan, himself, must believe it pretty solidly for him to confront the kryls in their base. Pure faith can be a pretty strong motivator, even if it’s mistaken. That’s the thing about faith; it doesn’t have to be based on actual truth, only perceived.”

Charlie said, “I wonder what he’s been up to since then. By now he must be trying to walk on water.”

“I’ve come to know Ned Morgan over the years,” The Judge said with a slow nod. “Professionally, as I mentioned. He has always been a racial bigot. This charge of you being a marked descendant of Cain is simply a device for simple-minded fools to justify their unjustifiable intolerance. It may have been given rise in the Deep South a hundred and fifty years ago when folks were told they should no longer feel superior to their freed slaves. It’s not something openly voiced in recent years except perhaps at a gathering of hooded sheets.

“Morgan would almost certainly equate with evil any ability to perform unusual things that he is not able to do. And it is simply because he perceives himself as absolutely righteous regardless of any acts to the contrary he has done or may do. He is able to justify in his mind anything he does. In his mind, the disaster that his two youngest sons became as they were growing up was their fault, or their mother’s, or anyone’s but his. And so, if some inexplicable ability is withheld from him, it must be because it is for the unrighteous, bestowed in opposition to his version of God.

“And his apparent ability to face with impunity the invader that had proved invulnerable even to our military, must surely have reinforced in his mind his own righteousness and favor in the sight of God as well as his supremacy in his own, newly emerged power. He could very well see it as a mandate from the Almighty to rid the world of all evil. And, of course, he would be the one to decide who is evil.”

Erin stepped over to kneel next to Matti. As she wrapped an arm around Matti’s shoulders, she said, “Would you like to join our group? It must be very lonely out there all by yourself. And we’ve got lots of room here.”

Matti turned her head and peered into Erin’s eyes, searching for a hint of insincerity. Did she dare to hope this was not a build-up to a laughing put-down as they all sneered at her, harping on her un-cleanliness, and chasing her down the street? She had been so lonely all these past weeks. With a nod, Matti mumbled, “I … I’d like to. Can Satan stay, too?”

“Of course, he can,” Erin answered with a smile.

Nate said. “Hey, that is someone I want by my side next time I get into trouble.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” The Judge said. “Why don’t all of you, Satan included, move back up to my house? We’ve got plenty of room, and there is always the safety-in-numbers consideration.”

Jason, Erin, Rachel and Nate all exchanged nods, then Erin asked Matti, “How about it? It really is a very nice house.”

Matti was beginning to feel overwhelmed. The idea of moving into the museum with three other people was exciting, but to move into The Judge’s Victorian shared by a dozen or so others was downright exhilarating. All she could do was grin, nod, and wipe her eyes.

* * *

In the deeper shadows of the stairwell and away from the opening onto the mezzanine, Mickey turned and silently descended back to the first floor, confident that the tightly gathered group around the pioneer bed remained unaware of his presence. When the entrance door creaked again, he was unconcerned. Just another breeze. And, even if they saw him going out the door, they’d never catch him. What could they do, call the cops?

It had been no great trick to follow the old man and the black girl even though the devil dog was with them. The one time they had looked back towards him half a block away, he simply hunched over a pile of debris as though scavenging. He stayed too far back for them to recognize him, and he acted like just another wretched survivor trying to survive another day. Then, when they paused in front of the museum when the others joined them, he had simply slipped into a building ruin and waited until everyone went inside. After determining that the only way into the museum was through the main entrance, he took the chance and went in. When he heard talking from mezzanine, he ducked into the nearest hole, which just happened to be the stairway. He crept up the stairwell until he could just see the little gathering over the top step but stayed low and far back in the shadowy well. From there, he heard some stuff that made no sense, but, then, he watched the canteen move magically through the air and into the hands of the black bitch that had broken his nose. Then, it did the same thing with the Mexican bitch, just a couple of witches playing catch. After that, he didn’t have to stay to listen to what they might say; he couldn’t hear them well, anyway. And he had seen enough.

Besides the old judge, he also recognized the cop that had shot his old buddy, Eric Morgan. Mickey was there that day. He tried to encourage Eric to stand up to the cop, to not let the pig push him around. But Eric got himself blown away, anyway.

The dummy never did have much of a brain. Lots of muscle, but very little brain. What’ll his old man do when I tell him how his killer is now associating with the judge that threw him and Eric in jail more than once, and with a couple of witches … maybe even four. The black bitch is probably one, too, the way she controlled that devil-dog. She even called out “Satan” just before it came busting through the fence. And, that old man must have been using sorcery the way he killed my guys. Who knows what the two blonds can do, but, if either she one isn’t a witch, I’ll take her as payment?

He grinned as he thought of the reaction his told tale would receive.

I won’t even have to lie when I tell ol’ preacher-man Morgan. I’ll just tell him what I saw.

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