The massacre of fifty-eight Mexicans near Heater, Arizona is tied to a secret atmospheric geoengineering project hijacked to precipitate a sudden die off.
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Fifty-eight illegal immigrants are ritualistically murdered in the desert near the town of Heater, Arizona.
Sheriff Pierce finds the massacre is connected to nearby Ridgepoint AFB, Deputy Director of Homeland Security Martin Ross, and Project Rise and Shine.
Kevin Howell witnessed the massacre and is now fleeing for his life. His grandfather, Zach McCready, is preparing for a showdown with Homeland Security.
A delusional preacher leads his congregation to prepare for the end times, as signaled by the corruption of the sky.
Meanwhile, Connie Blain is worried about a series of paintings produced by her autistic son Delbert, horrific paintings of an atmospheric cataclysm that are proving prophetic.
Father Albert Hayne is renouncing his religion as he reawakens his magical talent as a fiddler and recalls long suppressed memories of his youth, his ambitions, the love of his life, and the nemesis that robbed him of everything and left him hiding in the Church.
And young, pregnant, illegal immigrant, Maria Diaz, the only survivor of the massacre, holds the key to saving the world from a very tragic fate.
All of this takes place under ulcerated skies awash in gore.
Complete manuscripts available on request.
Under Shattered Skies
Book 1: Murderer's Sky
The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is a certain reverence for the sociopath as a major cultural type in American society, along with the frontiersman, the puritan and the outlaw.
Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.
Part One — Prophecy
The culture as a whole and most of its members are insane.
The culture is driven by a death urge,
an urge to destroy life.
1. Venturing Out
The Testament of Albert Hayne, bard and former priest
Others would start this story on the day the sky shattered, or the night those Mexicans were executed outside of town, or years ago when our civilization began to crumble. But I am writing this account, and I choose to begin my story on the day when Connie Blain called and asked if I could pay her a visit as soon as possible. She was upset, worried about her son Delbert. I told her I would be right over.
Her call saved me from working on Sunday's sermon. In truth, I was staring at a few half-hearted notes, fighting my desire to take a drink so early in the day. At times like this, I wondered if I even deserved the position of priest at Saint John's Catholic Church. Maybe I should take off the collar, pour myself that brandy and become Albert Hayne, town drunk.
Connie's plea not only elicited my compassion, it gave me an excuse to put away my scribblings, and a task to distract me from my desire for a drink. Leaving the study, I told Lucinda Morales, the housekeeper at the rectory, that I intended to call on the Blain residence.
"You should take a parasol with you, Padre." Lucinda drew an umbrella from the stand by the door.
"Lucinda, it hasn't rained in weeks and shows no sign of doing so now. And while it may be hot, the sun won't bake me."
"There is something wrong with the sky," Lucinda argued as she tried to force the umbrella on me. "You should not expose yourself to it for long. I don't trust it."
"You let your boys play outside."
"Iye, those boys! I am lucky to get them to wear sun screen."
"Lucinda, I'll be fine. I'm only going a few blocks. Don't worry about me. Find out about your sister."
Lucinda's sister, Maria, was supposed to join her from Mexico on the previous day. Pregnant and approaching full term, Maria wanted the child to be born in the United States. Lucinda arranged the illegal border crossing, and would not discuss the details with me. Her sister did not arrive yesterday as intended, and Lucinda feared for her.
"I hear they found many bodies outside of town."
The story was circulating. According to rumor, more than twenty Mexicans had been murdered in a ravine. "I heard."
"Do you think my Maria might be one of them?"
"You trust the people bringing her over?"
"Yes, but you never know what might happen. No one answers when I try to call."
"Then keep trying."
"Yes, Padre." She held the door for me as I stepped out into the surreal summer landscape.
Lucinda had good reason to worry about venturing into the open air. The sky was disquieting to say the least, and a good many people were worried about exposing themselves to it, though news reports assured the public nobody had been struck ill because of the heavens. Yet, as an overcast sky can leave a person brooding and depressed, so this malignant ceiling left everyone who saw it feeling ill inside, as though the planet was diseased, and the whole world would soon suffer for it.
Had someone sliced open the heavens and spilled their blood into the nebula overhead, the result would have been no less grotesque. Yet the discoloration was murkier than blood could ever be, giving it the appearance of infection. The firmament was imbued with a most horrific shade of scarlet from horizon to horizon, punctuated here and there with a trace of orange, yellow and even green. Nowhere could a hint of blue be seen. An uninterrupted haze blanketed the upper atmosphere. What few clouds formed in the summer Arizona sky looked like bloated pockets of pus floating through a sluggish blood vessel. A red sun glared down by day, and by night the stars bled while the moon glowered.
While I did not agree with Reverend Chassey over at the Holy Redeemer Pentecostal Church that the end-times were here, it was clear we were heading for trouble. A storm was forming, brooding a time of fearful waiting, punctuated by outbreaks of panic and self-recrimination.
This atmospheric phenomenon began over a year ago. It started in a localized and temporary fashion. Crimson blossoms were first witnessed along the Arctic Circle, in Alaska, Norway and Siberia. They spread around the globe, becoming more common and growing in size until the whole sky became suffused with the sickly red glow. Even at that point, the phenomenon rarely lasted for more than a day, until now. This latest development began over a week ago, and there was no sign of it letting up.
Had researchers determined the cause of this disturbance, the knowledge remained secret. No one talked about it much, either in person or on the internet. When people did mention it, they spoke indirectly in hushed tones, as though not wishing to disturb a sick relative. They were afraid to discuss it, just as they were afraid to stare up at the sky for too long.
I had seen others make darting glances at the heavens, just enough to assure themselves the disturbance continued without change. And I made suchg glances myself, as when I stepped out of the rectory to visit the Blain household. Behind me, Lucinda peeked at the sky and quickly made the sign of the cross as she shut the door.
We did not want to look at what was going on overhead because we knew it was too late to do anything about it. Those who obsessed tended to give up hope and become suicidal. As for the rest of us, we either hid away and waited for the worst or we went on with our daily lives, trying to ignore what was happening all around us.
That is how I handled the situation, even though at confession I was confided everyone's worst fears for the future. I could only reassure them, grant absolution, and then ply myself with brandy until I either forgot or no longer cared. In truth, the sky gave me another excuse to drink — until that day I went to call on the Blain residence.
Ignoring the horror impending overhead, I walked down crumbling sidewalks, past cracked streets and sun-baked yards, empty houses and abandoned cars. Heater was a ghost of the town it had once been. The only section that increased its population in the last few years was the barrio, which most people referred to as Little Mexico. St. John's bordered on the barrio, and Latinos made up the majority of my congregation. Today I left that section of town to venture into the abandoned suburbs, where the collapse of civilization was much more obvious.
Along the way, I met Sheriff Elliot Pierce cruising in his patrol car. He stopped and asked, "Everything all right, Father Hayne?"
"That I don't know yet."
"Where you goin in such a hurry?"
I stepped over to the patrol car and told him, "Connie Blain called me. Something about Delbert. She's worried and she wants me to come over immediately."
"Hm," Sheriff Pierce pondered. Elliot had grown up with Connie. They were something of an item before Elliot went off to school and Connie married Roger Blain. "Is Roger at it again?"
"I think he's at work right now. I believe she just wants to talk."
"That's all?" Sheriff Pierce eyed me. I nodded my head. "Well, you let me know if I can be of any assistance."
"Don't worry, Elliot. You'll be the first person I'll call."
"I wish she'd press charges against him. I don't like to hear of any man abusing his wife and children. Definitely not in my town."
"I'm not trying to absolve Roger, but Connie says he wasn't always like this. It's the hard times, and that job of his."
"I don't buy that, Father. We've all had it hard, but most of us don't take it out on women and children."
I wanted to answer, oh, don't we, but chose not to broach the subject of how the powerless are treated in our society. Instead, I stuck to the topic at hand. "Connie doesn't want to see Roger locked up. The man needs help. He needs to see what he's doing to his family. And he needs to find better ways to manage his stress."
"Well, maybe this sort of problem is more in your line than mine. But I'll tell you, if he puts Connie or one of them kids in the hospital, he'll have to deal with me."
"Hopefully it won't come to that."
"I hope not," Elliot agreed.
Sheriff Pierce pulled away from the curb and resumed his patrol. I continued on my way to the Blain house. Someone who had not known the Sheriff as long as I did would think his concern strictly professional. And they would be partially correct. Sheriff Pierce could have joined the state police or even the FBI when he graduated from the police academy. Yet he returned to Heater. He cared about this community, and it was difficult for him to watch it die.
Connie thought Roger would be good to her and their children, and she saw him as a way to escape from her family. Now she accepted his cruelty as her penance for putting on airs. She would keep the whole thing to herself, but for Delbert, who seemed to be the target of his wrath next to Connie herself.
Delbert was a handful, no doubt about it. The boy was autistic and non-responsive. But once in a while those inscrutable brown eyes would fix you with a penetrating look, and he would say something that struck you to the core. He came to life only when painting.
Stand him in front of an easel with some paints and stick a brush in his hand, and Delbert would be busy for hours. His talent with the paintbrush bordered on genius. He blended color and brushstrokes with an instinct that never faltered. His paintings were detailed in a primitive, impressionistic sort of way. They had a real impact at a visceral level, a brooding quality. He painted a lot of barren landscapes, stormy skies and bleak homes. Many of his pictures were disturbing.
The Blains lived in a neat but simple ranch house with a brick façade. I hardly had time to knock before Connie Blain answered the front door. She must have been waiting for my arrival. Connie was of average height and slender build, with wheat-colored hair styled to hold a slight wave. In her early thirties, she was attractive in a soft, unassuming sort of way. But now her face was lined with worry.
"Hello Father," she ushered me in. "Thank you for coming." The house was lived in, though well-cared for. A recliner, an easy chair and a couch were arranged around the television in the living room. A coffee table sat in front of the couch, cluttered with Lego building blocks. At one end of the table, a plastic cup partially filled with water sat in a small puddle of the same. There were a few toys strewn around the floor as well. Five-year-old Ellen, with the soft blond hair and easy good looks she inherited from her mother, sat in front of the television, taking advantage of one of the infrequent periods when we had power to watch cartoons.
"Ellen, I told you to turn the TV down!"
The child pointed the remote and turned down the volume without taking her eyes from the TV.
"Hello, Ellen," I said.
"Hello," Ellen hazarded a glance at me. She had been crying. The house was full of sadness, melancholy thick in the air. Beyond that, the atmosphere inside the house held a palpable fear.
"What's wrong, Connie?" Even as I asked this question, over the television I could hear a pitiful howling and whining. It carried down the hall leading to the bedrooms.
"It's Delbert." As Connie spoke, her face clouded over with pain and worry. "He's never been this bad before." She led me to Delbert's room as she spoke. "I can't get him to stop."
We halted before the closed door. Connie confided in a fearful whisper, "This is the most frightening painting he has ever done. I tried taking it away from him, but he just started again from scratch."
She announced our presence, "Del, Father Hayne's here. He's come to pay you a visit."
The sobbing, punctuated by mournful howls, went on uninterrupted as Connie opened the door and we entered the room. It was a typical kid's room, with a small bed, a chest of drawers, a Lego activity table, a half-empty toy chest, and a floor littered with toys and rumpled clothes. In the midst of it all, Delbert stood painting on a piece of poster board attached to an easel. He faced the door with the easel in front of him, so we could not see what he was working on as we entered. There was a stand to his left that held a tray of paints.
Delbert was a fair-sized lad of ten, pudgy but not grossly overweight, dressed in a white artist's smock covered in a profusion of smeared paint. His brown hair was cut bristle short, and his skin had a pale, pasty look to it. He had a rounded face with full cheeks, and wild brown eyes that appeared deeply sunken. Despite the normal dark circles that made his eyes look recessed, I could detect a fading bruise around his right eye.
Our entry went unacknowledged. Delbert dabbed his brush in the paints and applied it, absorbed in his creative outlet. He whined and blubbered the whole time, working frantically as though he was painting a talisman to keep the dæmons at bay.
We walked around the easel to stand beside Delbert, stepping over the toys blocking our way. Though aware of Delbert's artistic genius, I was not prepared for his current project, nor the impact it would have on me.
It was a night scene, illuminated by a sky full of bright, shining stars. The stars cried foul tears colored bloody red and suppurating yellow. These corrupt tears rained down upon a landscape awash in gore. In the background were the remains of bombed or burned out buildings.
In the foreground, from the middle to the left side of the painting were naked people covered with star gore. Some were on their knees praying. Others prostrated themselves face down with arms extended in the muddy gruel. And some looked upward, reaching for the heavens. To the right, several men held a woman while another man beheaded her with an axe. A ring of spectators bore witness to the butchery, all holding lit candles. Behind them, towards the center of the painting, a smaller group of people gathered around the body of a child. A man with a butcher's knife carved meat from the dead child and passed it to the others, some already eating.
While we stood aghast, staring at this horrible scene, Delbert added the finishing touches, crying with unforgivable remorse as though he shared with these people some irredeemable sin. We stood transfixed for what seemed an eternity, though it could only have been a few seconds, as the ghastly images in the painting drove themselves home, sending a tremor into our very souls. The painting evoked a sort of inexplicable recognition, as though these events were familiar to our deepest subconscious, known to our marrow and to our souls.
Having finished, Delbert set his paintbrush down. He stood limply before us, staring blankly at his finished work. His whining slowly died down, until he fell silent and passive. His silence shook me free of my own shock.
"My God," I muttered. I reached by Delbert to take the infernal painting from the easel. I wanted to rip it up and burn the pieces, but before I touched it, Delbert let out a piercing cry. Connie grabbed my sleeve and pulled me back.
"We can't leave it!"
"If you take it now, Del will have a screaming fit," Connie explained. "And then he'll get out another piece of poster board and start again."
Delbert subsided to a quiet sobbing as he stood before the easel.
I tried not to look at the painting, but my eyes were drawn to it. Each viewing brought fresh shock. Shaking my head to break the spell, I stepped around the side of the easel, where I could no longer see the horrid thing.
"How could he do this? How could any child…." I wondered if this might be a case of dæmonic possession.
"I don't know," Connie hugged Delbert with love and sympathy. "Certainly, Del has had his share of sorrows, as have we all." She was lost for a moment in the painting, and then she left her son in front of his easel and crossed over to the sliding closet doors. "I have more to show you."
It was a typically crowded and conglomerated kid's closet. Connie had to root around on the overhead shelves. Standing on tiptoe, she dug out a brown portfolio folder. Backing away from the closet, she cleared the top of the chest of drawers, pushing Delbert's piggy bank and Spiderman action figures to the back; other toys fell off the side. Laying the portfolio atop the dresser, she unwound the string tie and opened it. "I've never shown these to anyone. Not even Roger. When Del finishes one, as soon as I can get it away from him, I pack it in here."
Though I did not want to see any more work such as that standing fresh on the easel, I stepped over beside her as she pulled out the paintings for me to view.
"Del started creating these about two years ago. I know when he's working on another, because it's the only time he cries while he's painting. Here's the first one."
It was a night scene. Though eerie enough in itself, it was not nearly as disturbing as the painting on the easel. The landscape lay in darkness, with shadowed treetops outlining the horizon. The sky took up most of the image, and this sky was full of the same bloated, discolored stars as the latest painting, minus the tears. The stars brooded, preparing to purge themselves of some poison.
The next two canvases were basically the same as the first. The second featured the stars reflecting in the calm waters of a lake. Something malignant dwelt deep below the surface, biding its time. In the third painting, the same unnatural night sky shone down upon a town much like Heater. The town appeared to be empty or sleeping, or possibly the residents were hiding.
The following painting depicted a daylight scene, and the image had an impact at which the previous three only hinted. Sunlight revealed a highway in the desert. A ghostly red hue from the sky tinted the entire scene. Revealed by daylight, this was the sky outside, the sky that loomed overhead as I journeyed to the Blain house. The portrayal was so accurate I felt the same sense of foreboding and grief that haunted me outside. Delbert must have painted it in the last week, looking through his bedroom window.
"When did he do this?"
"These first four were done in quick succession a little over two years ago. At the time, I simply tossed them in a box. Later, when I saw what was happening to the sky, I went back and dug them out."
"Two years ago."
"Yeah, looking at them back then," Connie weighed her words cautiously, " I knew we would someday find ourselves in the world pictured here."
I thought for a moment of Delbert's latest creation, drying on the easel.
The next painting showed the sky over forested mountains. There was a change in the firmament. It had developed an oily sheen and seemed to be on the move, flowing like a river. In a couple places there were swirling eddies that suggested turbulence.
On the following canvas, numerous funnel clouds dipped out of the sickly sky. The funnels seemed to concentrate the contaminants into a dark purple stew, nearly impenetrable. None of the funnels touched down. They loomed over a farm that could have been the home where I grew up in Kansas. The image featured a two-story house, along with a large barn, pig pens, and a chicken coop. Stretching out around the farm were barren fields with a few scraggly corn stalks, and over to one end was a rising dust cloud. Looking at the scene, I could not help but think, we're not in Kansas anymore.
Part of me did not want to go on, but I slid the painting aside to view the next. Here were the same funnels over a mesa out on the desert. I knew this mesa. You could see it from the highway heading north towards Phoenix. Charges of lightning arced from funnel to funnel. One large and particularly dark spout glowed in the foreground. Lightning filled it with small charges of electricity. It looked ready to explode.
I was holding my breath by this time, and when we viewed the next painting I gasped involuntarily. We were back in Heater, and the entire sky overhead erupted into billowing flames. The fires of Hell enveloped the Earth. Everywhere overhead was an exploding inferno of roiling fire. I thought surely these flames must reach down to cauterize the surface of the planet, wiping it clean of all life. I felt tears forming in my eyes.
In the next canvas, we saw the starry night sky of Delbert's most recent painting. Only now I understood this was not a night sky. The sun shone alongside the stars. Somehow the fire opened the atmosphere to the darkness of space, and this is what we were looking at — the view from an alien planet. Except the stars and sun were discolored, blighted by whatever disease befouled the sky.
In the next painting, the stars were purging themselves, flooding the desert in unhealthy rains that would never produce a desert bloom. After this, there was a scene of tainted rain falling in a city. Sky gore washed the sides of buildings, dripped from awnings, glistened on sidewalks and streets and pooled in gutters. This was the first painting to feature people. A man lay sprawled out on the street, after skidding out on a bicycle that crashed nearby. He lay in a puddle of star magma, injured or dead. Crowded together under an awning, a group of people watched him with concern, though none gave any indication of going to his aid. One young man off to the side, instead of looking at the cyclist, stared up at the sky with fear in his eyes. Another man with an umbrella ran down the sidewalk, away from the scene.
There were only two more paintings left in the series. Connie's hands shook as she drew them from the portfolio. I had no desire to see more, though I could not tear my eyes away from them. Each painting intensified my anxiety, until my heart pounded and adrenalin surged through my body. The final two paintings brought me near to panic.
The first held another urban scene, only now the city had erupted. Even as the insidious rain continued to fall, crowds of people were looting and burning, fighting with police and with each other. The city was aflame in the background. A large crowd stormed a broken line of riot police and soldiers. A tank sat in flames. There were several bodies lying about, rioters and policemen both. It was obvious at a glance the police had lost this battle. And judging from the flames on the horizon, it appeared the entire city had fallen to the madness.
The last painting showed people mad with despair. They were tearing off their clothes, pulling at their hair and clawing at their flesh as the star venom rained down upon them. Some prayed and implored. Some cried or screamed in uncontrollable fits of panic. All were beside themselves with woe and grief. In the background were ruins much like those in Delbert's latest painting. It was a scene of unremitting despair, devoid of hope.
As I looked at this last painting, something inside gave up. The desperation and horror in these paintings overwhelmed me, and I fought to reestablish control over my emotions. As Connie gathered the canvases and packed them away, I worked at distancing myself from what I had just seen, thinking about the paintings instead of reacting to them.
"Well, Father." Connie's voice quivered. "What's happening to my boy?"
"I don't know, Connie. I've never seen anything like this."
"Father, what I worry about… what I wonder…." Connie made several false starts before she braced herself to voice her fears. "What is he going to paint next? Where's all this taking him?"
"Now, now, Connie. You know your son isn't capable of evil."
"Yes." She eyed the portfolio. "But these paintings…."
"Are an expression of an inner conflict beyond his comprehension." I drew out this logical explanation as much for my own comfort as for hers. "I may not be a psychiatrist, but I can tell you that much. You need to show them to someone better trained to interpret them."
"But, Father, didn't you feel it. I know they touched you. It's like they call up some distant memory, something beyond your worst nightmares. And they are coming true."
"Some of them are." I tried to make light of the precognitive aspect of Delbert's paintings, though my words rang false even to me. "But that doesn't mean they all will. Delbert is a very sensitive child. He may have picked up on something already happening in the atmosphere. Then he embroidered upon it, using it to express his own inner turmoil. Delbert is a very powerful painter." I denied the impact of the paintings to Connie, and to myself, "That is all."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." No. "Delbert is a great artist and a sensitive child, but he is a troubled soul."
Connie looked downcast, a conflicting mixture of relief and sorrow doing battle within her.
"Connie, how long after Roger started drinking was it that Delbert began painting these scenes?"
"Roger's a good man. He loves Delbert! He loves all of us very dearly!"
"I didn't say he doesn't. But sometimes people take things out on those they love the most."
"It's that job!" Connie asserted. "He should never have gone to work at S&K. He wasn't like my father and my brothers, not until he started working there. They corrupted him."
"Connie, what goes on at S&K Imports? If they're involved in border running couldn't they have something to do with what happened outside of town?"
"He won't talk about it. He's been even worse the last couple days. I don't know how much more I can take." Connie fought against the tears, but a few managed to escape. "It would be better if he could get out of there. We need to leave this town."
"Where would you go? Do either of you have family elsewhere?"
"No." Connie looked trapped and troubled. "But he can't stay at S&K or…." She would not finish the thought.
"Or he will continue to take it out on Delbert, and Ellen and you," I said it for her. "Connie, you have to think of the children."
"I am. My family won't help. The way things are, I could never take care of the kids by myself, even if I was lucky enough to find work. I can't handle the kids — I can't handle Del, and keep a roof over our heads and food on our table."
I hugged her as she cried. "It will work out. I'll see what sort of help I can find for you. The Church does not favor divorce, but sometimes it is the only way out of an abusive marriage."
Connie stifled her tears and pushed herself away from my shoulder. "But I love Roger. We need him, and he needs us."
"Okay, then he must realize what he is doing to his loved ones, and he must find a way out of this. You have to talk to him sometime when he is not drinking."
Connie cringed at the suggestion.
"Maybe out in public."
"I couldn't," she backed down.
"He hasn't seen these paintings?" I tapped the portfolio.
"Then maybe you should show them to him."
"No," more emphatically.
"If he saw them, he would have to admit there was something wrong here."
"He would say it was Del." Meaning he would take it out on Del.
"Well then, can you persuade him to come and see me at the church?"
"Maybe." She sounded doubtful.
"You're going to have to work on it. Tell him you need marriage counseling. Connie, you have to do this for your children's sake."
"Okay, I'll try."
"Good. Now, about these paintings," I gestured again to the portfolio. "I could show them to some analysts."
"No. I don't want anyone else to see them. They don't leave this house."
"All right." I let it go. To be honest, I had no wish to take the paintings with me. "But you must work on Roger," I reiterated, "for Ellen's sake, and for the sake of your little artist here."
Turning from the dresser, we found Delbert facing us, regarding me. Looking at him, standing by the side of his easel, I felt the need to bolster all of our spirits. "You should try to make it to church a little more often. As I recall you have a pleasant voice, Connie. You should join our choir."
"You have no faith. You're no priest. You're hiding in the church."
I was taken aback.
"Del!" His mother was aghast that he should address me thus. She knelt before him and grasped his arm to stop him from turning away. "How could you say such a thing?"
Del hardly acknowledged her presence. He looked down at the floor. Then he gasped for joy. Bending over, he used his free hand to snatch up a model jet fighter.
"Aiwplane!" he exclaimed as he held the treasured toy aloft. Connie let go of his arm and he raced about the room, flying his model plane and making engine noises.
"I'm sorry, Father. I don't know what would make him say a thing like that. Everyone knows how dedicated you are to the Church."
"Never mind, child," I brushed away her concern. "Whatever was troubling him, it seems to have passed."
Connie sighed as we watched Delbert racing around, displaying exuberant good spirits. "This is how it always is. After he completes a painting he's quiet. Then he takes off like nothing ever happened."
"If he's using the paintings to work out his fears and anxieties, he would feel relieved once he was done." I was still trying to recover from the double impact of the artwork and what Delbert said to me.
Connie stepped over to the easel and took down the painting, which she laid atop the dresser with the portfolio.
I could not help looking at the canvas again as she laid it aside. The sight of it hit me with renewed impact, magnified by what Delbert said to me. He blew away the fallacy that had been my crutch and my protection for most of my adult life, and his paintings touched me with a horror akin to that I had been running from all these years. Instead of bringing salvation to the Blain family, this visit would result in the renunciation of my vows — though I was not fully aware of it at the time. Outwardly, I tried not to show how deeply I had been affected by either the artwork or by Delbert's words.
Delbert raced out of the room, flying his toy jet.
"How does he feel about these paintings afterwards?"
"He acts like they never existed. But I don't leave them out. As soon as they dry, I pack them away. You're the only other person who has ever seen them."
"He's holding a lot of pain in there." I paused for a moment before repeating, "You've got to work on Roger. Get him to come in for marriage counseling."
"Mom!" Ellen called out. "Mom! Del's bugging me!"
We returned to the living room to find Delbert circling with his airplane in front of the television, blocking his sister's view.
"Mom, I can't see the TV!"
"Delbert," Connie demanded, "not in front of the TV."
To settle both of the kids down, she said, "After I say goodbye to Father Hayne, let's go into the kitchen and fix a treat."
As Ellen voiced her approval and Delbert quieted, Connie led me to the front door. "Thank you for coming."
"Don't worry, Connie. We can work this out, so long as you don't back down."
"I won't, Father." She sounded more resigned than determined.
After Connie showed me out of the house, I paused on the sidewalk to look back and gather my wits. My life would change as a result of this visit. In ways of which I was not yet fully cognizant, I knew the world was soon to take an unspeakable turn.
I trod through the hellish shadow, footsteps heavy with dread and fear, and my own inner pain, which had lain buried all these years. Delbert's words cut through decades of denial to slice at nerves that had never healed. Inside, I focused on Connie and Delbert to avoid reacting to the paintings and Delbert's words. By myself, walking back to the rectory, memories and doubts forced their way to the surface. Though I knew they would eventually win out, I strove to hold them at bay by contemplating what happened at the Blain residence.
Those paintings haunted me. I told Connie they were Delbert's creative attempt to express pain and fear beyond his comprehension. She accepted my attempt to rationalize, and so avoid broaching any more consequential explanation. But we had, both of us, known there was much more to those paintings than just a personal expression of confused feelings. Delbert's artwork boded an ominous experience all would share, some apocalypse preparing to unfold. Yet I fought this realization.
How could little, autistic Delbert Blain receive such a terrible prophetic vision? We were talking about a major prophecy. This was on a par with the revelations of Saint John. It was a vision that maintained continuity while developing in detail over the course of two years. Though I already lamented this a true prophecy, I still refused to believe it.
There was no evidence these paintings were anything more than the confused creative expression of a terrorized child with a neurological disorder. Even as I struggled with denial, I looked up at a sky disturbed in a fashion no one would have conceived two years ago, and yet this boy foresaw it in his paintings. This boy who saw through me as though he knew all of my doubts and hidden past. He knew why I joined the priesthood; he knew what I was trying to escape. And he knew I was a failure as a priest, a realization I still could not admit to myself.
"Anything wrong, Father?"
As Sheriff Pierce's voice interrupted my thoughts, I realized I had stopped walking and was staring blindly into the distance.
"No," I stepped over to the patrol car. "Just lost in my own thoughts, I guess."
"You look worried. Anything wrong?"
"No, sheriff." His presence just now fully sank in. "Have you been waiting out here?"
"I circled the area, just in case you needed help. You wanna ride?"
"Yes, I do," Elliot popped the lock on the passenger side door and I climbed in.
Pulling away from the curb, he said, "Back to the church?"
"Yes, thank you."
Elliot looked at me, noting how disturbed I was. "Father, if you don't mind my asking, what's going on back there?"
"Delbert is upset, and Connie's worried about him."
"Given what goes on in that house, it's no wonder."
"I told Connie she's got to do something or it's only going to get worse."
"You think she will?" Elliot turned a corner.
"I hope so." To change the subject, I said, "So, how are things with you?"
"I've had better days." I waited for him to elaborate, but he did not.
We drove through residential neighborhoods. Not so long ago, this was an upper middle class suburb. Now half the homes stood empty, and many that were occupied fell into disrepair. All over there were cars in various stages of obsolescence, parked at curbs, in driveways, in back yards. Few appeared to be in running condition. Elliot's cruiser was one of the few vehicles in the entire town less than ten-years-old.
"The town is falling apart," I lamented.
"Ah, the whole damn world's falling apart." Elliot caught himself too late. "Pardon me, Father."
"Never mind. Watching this place slide into ruin is enough to make anyone curse. Especially anyone with a front seat view."
"That's the truth."
"How are things in town, from your perspective?"
Elliot sighed. "People are getting desperate. That's all there is to it. I spend my days tryin to catch thieves and derelicts, spottin fires before they get too big, and chasin neighborhood kids."
"They don't have any future."
"Yeah, I know," Elliot's voice filled with hard regret. "Mostly, they're trying to get a little food. But I can't let it go at that. You know one thing leads to another."
Heater was a dying town, left nearly stranded by the withering economy and the social collapse. If not for nearby Ridgepoint Air Force Base, it would be a ghost town by now, outside of a few Latinos, and some of the hardcore residents such as the McCready's.
The collapse of civilization — and with it the collapse of Heater, Arizona — began long ago. It would be difficult to pinpoint exactly when that malaise first manifest itself. Perhaps it was endemic to our civilization, a world in no way sustainable or even sane. For twenty long years I was a mute witness to the decay of our town, and the world around us.
To my mind, it began with a grumble — the grumble of disgruntled motorists filling their gas tanks at the pump. Gas prices climbed irreversibly. Four dollars, five dollars, seven dollars per gallon and up. Some said it was terrorists, others blamed the wars in the Middle East, many spoke of greed on the part of the oil companies. A few tried to explain we had used all the cheap oil. I don't know what it was, but I suspect they were all correct. All I can say for certain is that within five years, oil and natural gas pushed our economy over a cliff.
Higher energy prices were soon followed by higher prices for everything else. Economists stood around scratching their heads as none of their proposals seemed to make a dent in the inflation rate. Crippled by the collapse of real estate, the credit failure and the weakening of the US dollar, the economy could not survive this latest crisis.
Trillions of dollars disappeared from the economy, given to banksters and other rich croneys. We never saw any of it.
Instead, we saw the dollar crash. We saw social security go belly up. We saw bankruptcies and foreclosures by the score. We saw banks fail. And we suffered through shortages of gas, food, and just about every other commodity. We learned what it meant to be jobless, hungry and homeless. We learned what it means to be desperate.
The Amero was established as the new currency for the North American Union. Unfortunately, those who held their savings in US dollars took a major loss. The wealthy had long ago moved their fortunes into other currencies. Now they were able to meander around the newly formed North American Union and buy property and small companies for amero pennies on the US dollar.
US workers were locked into debt servitude. While indebted US workers were interred into work camps and made to work off their debts, illegal Mexican immigrants were given low paying jobs within the US that required a certain amount of freedom — trucking, migrant farm work and so on.
Everyone knew it was over in 2016, the year when both GM and Ford folded. No one thought corporations that large could really close their doors, but it happened. The owners and the CEO's quietly liquidated and plundered all of the remaining company assets, and then fled the country before the collapse went public. Walmart was the next empire to crumble. The following years saw the failure of one major corporation after another.
Also in 2016, a terrorist attack took out the New York Stock Exchange, leaving nothing but a burned out crater on Wall Street. Though the government blamed it on Islamic fundamentalists, it was openly viewed as a mercy killing. The stock exchange had long since become a hall of woe and pauperization. The bombing served the corporate world by helping to cover up their misdeeds. It was rumored that in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere, there was a celebration on the day of the attack.
For most Americans, the corporate looting and collapse was devastating. We were the victims — we were the ones who were looted. Overnight, millions found themselves without jobs, without pensions, without social security, holding worthless stock portfolios and worthless bank accounts with grossly devalued dollars. What we did have was enormous personal debt we could not crawl out from under as had our corporate counterparts.
For over a decade, the federal government had been rewriting the bankruptcy laws, making it increasingly difficult for private citizens to find a way out of debt. Now, when someone was overwhelmed by debt they could not hope to pay off, he or she lost all titles and deeds, and the victim must enter a program of debt servitude. They and their families moved to "shelters" more aptly named debtor's prisons, where they worked off their debt. The only other option was to simply walk away from everything, joining the legions of vagabonds roaming the countryside or squatting in abandoned buildings in the inner city, forever struggling to find their next meal and stay out of the hands of the law.
In Heater, the fast food chains that lined the highway winked out one by one, like failing lights on a Christmas tree. The major gas stations did likewise, leaving only the old pumps at Heater Automotive for those who could afford the price. The Chase Manhattan Bank closed its doors after the CEO of the bank fled the country, taking most of the company's assets. The local bank president, Orin Reese, put a bullet in his head. The Star Theaters closed in 2017, followed within the year by the Heater Club and Driving Range — which could no longer afford the fertilizer and irrigation necessary to keep a golf course lush in the desert.
Delmarr's General Store and Pauling's Hardware were just about the only thing keeping the town alive. Alvin Pauling and William Delmarr long ago made commitments to the community, and neither was about to give up so long as they could keep their doors open. Each accepted barter, and they gave more credit than they should have. Long waits between shipments meant their shelves would be almost bare by the time they received new stock, but they refused to close shop — even for a few days.
Many local businesses went belly up, but the closing that hurt the community most of all was Kerry's Bowling Pins. The family-owned factory manufactured bowling pins and other bowling accessories for nearly one hundred years. Now they could no longer afford to keep the place operating. Richard Kerry resisted the streamlining and outsourcing craze of the 80s and 90s. He staunchly refused to lay off workers, or reduce wages and benefits. But he simply could not stay ahead of the rising cost of energy. Kerry's Bowling Pins provided the livelihood of seven hundred workers. Now all seven hundred were out of a job.
Roger Blain was one of the lucky ones, though you would never convince him of that. His in-laws pulled strings to get him into S&K after he lost his job at Kerry's Pins. But Roger showed them no gratitude. Instead, he started beating his wife and son.
Lost in these thoughts as I was, I missed part of what Sheriff Pierce was saying.
"….things worse than thieving."
"What's that?" I tried to catch up with the conversation.
"Those drifters that a been turnin up the last couple years."
Over the past two years, we had a number of solitary vagabonds murdered in the town and the surrounding countryside. The first few were thought to be accidents or suicides. They were burned in abandoned buildings. Doc Ainsley determined the drifters were killed prior to burning. Elliot thought it might be the work of vigilantes, trying to clear the area of undesirables. There was a lot of animosity among townsfolk towards the homeless and the Mexicans. However, he could never find any solid leads as to who committed the murders, and no one had information to share.
"We found a bunch of dead Mexicans yesterday, out on the desert. All shot, thrown into a gulch out at Swanson Creek, doused with gasoline and set on fire."
"I heard. Over twenty bodies."
"More than twice that number."
"Lucinda's worried her sister may be among the victims."
"I'm sorry to hear that. I hope not."
Elliot shrugged. "Because they were wetbacks, the Border Patrol claims jurisdiction. They took over the case, but they don't seem to be working it too hard."
"You think someone in this community is capable of that?"
"I'm afraid so. Here in town or somewhere in this area. The MO is too close to the other killings we've had over the last couple years. I'm afraid we have a mass murderer somewhere around here, if not more than one."
"What's this world coming to?"
"That's probably a question for you to answer rather than me." Elliot pulled up in front of the church. "All I can tell you is that desperate men do desperate things. Here you go, Father."
We said our goodbyes and Elliot drove away. I made my way into the rectory. Lucinda met me at the door. She seemed even more agitated than she was when I left. Yet she held herself in check and enquired, "Did everything go well, Padre?"
"As well as could be expected. Are you alright?"
"I can't reach anyone. I saw you drive up with the sheriff. Did he say anything?"
The sheriff spoke in confidence. I told Lucinda what I could. "He's off the case. The Border Patrol took over."
"What happened to Maria?" Lucinda fretted.
I made up my mind, "I'm going over there with you."
"No, Padre, that would not be good."
I had an urge to console her with a hug, but something stopped me.
"Go. Find out what's up with your sister."
"First I must fix dinner."
"That can wait."
"My sister must wait. I cannot reach anyone right now."
"Well, after dinner I want you to go."
"Yes, Padre. After I fix your dinner."
"Very well, then. I'll be in my study, should you need me."
Lucinda went into the kitchen and I entered the study. Stepping over to the window, I gazed outside at the church, the churchyard and the street. The angry red tint the discolored sky lent to the entire scene suited my frame of mind as I contemplated the savagery of mankind. It took only a slight nudge from unfortunate circumstance to unlock our baser, inhumane tendencies. The town of Heater was a case in point.
The people of Heater grew up together for several generations. Yet they turned on each other at the first hint of adversity. Slight differences of opinion and belief were transformed into battle lines, across which neighbor viewed neighbor with a smoldering hatred. The Latinos in Little Mexico were reviled by all. Animosity and rivalry replaced any hint of brotherhood or solidarity. Everyone was fully prepared — and even eager — to trample their former friends if it would give them an advantage. We stole from each other and took out our frustrations on anyone weaker, even our own families. We were even willing to murder.
It was easy to see how Delbert came by the notions of inhumanity he expressed in his paintings. We were not so far from open rioting and violence at that. We were already preying upon each other.
Leaving the window, I crossed the room and closed the doors. Then I opened the cabinet where I kept a stereo and recordings. Perhaps a little opera would improve my mood. I chose Verdi's Don Carlos because I thought the noble aspirations of the hero and heroine might lift my spirits. As the opera began, I sat down at my desk, drew a key out of my pocket and opened the drawer where I kept a bottle of Brandy and a glass. I drank with a mixture of relief, guilt and remorse. It was a relief to have the drink I had struggled to deny myself all day. Yet this relief was tempered with guilt that I needed a drink — needed it far too much; turning to alcohol when I should have turned to God. Remorse came from the memories stirred up by Delbert's words, and the knowledge his words hammered home: knowledge that I did not believe in God, at least not the God of the church and the bible.