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by David Steffen
“The Day of Reckoning is upon us,” Preacher Paul said.
“You reckon?” Jake answered.
Paul watched Jake for telltale signs of guilt, but Jake only nodded and went on rocking his chair on the general store’s porch.
“You’d best do everything you can to prepare,” Paul added. “I’m here to offer you counsel if you need it.”
“Before you get too far in that sermon of yours, you ought to know I don’t have any money for you, Preacher.”
Paul shook his head and stroked his beard. “That’s just what the Devil’s telling you to say.”
“Could be. Can’t dispute that. Old Splitfoot’s a tricky one. Why do you say the end is coming this time?”
“I caught a whiff of brimstone as I walked by. That’s why I stopped.”
“Fridge is broken. Eggs’ve turned.” Jake spat a wad of tobacco juice off the porch.
Paul watched the sun begin to rise on the other side of Jake. “When you get to the pearly gates, what’ll you tell Saint Peter when he asks why you didn’t give?”
“Same thing I’m tellin’ you, Preacher. I’m broke ‘til pickin’ time.” Jake looked him steady in the eye.
“There ain’t gonna be no pickin’ time, Jake. The End is here.”
“Then I guess the church don’t need the money, anyway.” Jake kept rocking, his chair making a crickety-crick sound on each pass. “You serious about the end this time?”
“The Lord don’t lie.”
“What about last time?”
“A Divine test.”
“And the time before that?”
“All part of God’s unknowable plan.” The conversation was so familiar, Paul could’ve had it in his sleep.
A cock crowed in the distance. A barn swallow swooped out from under the overhanging roof. It stopped in mid-air at the same moment as Jake froze in mid-rock. All the color bled out of the world, leaving only shades of gray. The ashen sun balanced on the lip of the world.
“Jake?” Paul said, waving a hand in front of Jake’s face. “You all right?”
Jake didn’t answer, eyes fixed on nothing.
“I’ve come for you,” a voice said from behind Paul.
The preacher turned. The speaker wore a black robe with a hood overshadowing his face. One stick-thin hand held a garden hoe.
“Who are you?” Paul tugged at his beard as he tried to peer into the hood.
“You can call me Slim.”
“So today is the Day. Am I going up or down?”
“More of a lateral movement, just now.” Slim pushed back his hood. He appeared to be a teenage boy, scrawny, with mussed hair. And freckles.
Paul would have never expected him to have freckles. “Why you carryin’ the hoe? Thought you’d have a scythe?”
“Different tools for different tasks. You should know that. I’m here to talk to you. You need to stop stealing my thunder.”
“Do you want to know what makes the world go ‘round? Drama. It’s what makes humans different from animals. When a dog sees Mount Everest for the first time, it doesn’t want to climb to the peak. It would be no fun to pee on, eat, or chase, so the dog loses interest. A human sees it for the first time, and suddenly he’s got to climb the damn thing, as if the world would look better from the top. That’s drama. Understand?”
Paul shook his head.
“You’re like the boy who cried wolf. You predict the End so often it’s lost all its drama. I don’t get a lot to look forward to in my line of work. When I show up on the Day of Reckoning I want to hear a great wailing and gnashing of teeth. If you keep going on, it’ll be quiet as a church. I won’t let you ruin my Day.”
“But how will I know when the end is here?”
“When the sun rises in the west, you’ll have one day to spread the word.”
“When will that be?”
The preacher opened his mouth to speak, but Slim was gone. Color returned to the world in a flash, accompanied by the creak of Jake’s rocking chair. The barn swallow flew off.
“You feelin’ okay, Preacher?”
“I reckon I’ve got a lot to think about. Why?”
“Your beard’s lookin’ a mite patchy.”
Paul looked down. No mystery where the missing hair had gone. Tufts of it stuck out from his clenched fists.
“Can I ask you something, Jake?”
“What’s that, Preacher?”
“Suppose I stop talkin’ about the End for a while.”
“What would I do instead? From Monday to Saturday, I mean.”
Jake stopped rocking and his brow furrowed. “Not sure. You could give money to the poor.”
Paul snorted. “I don’t think that’d work. They wouldn’t want to give it back for the offering.”
“You can’t take an offering when you’re givin’ to the poor.”
“I ain’t preachin’ for free! People won’t give offerings if they get the sermons for free!”
“I’d donate just to stop you from preachin’, most days,” Jake said.
“What was that?” Paul asked, fixing a Look on Jake.
“Didn’t say a word, Preacher.”
Paul searched his mind to think of what folk talked about. “Some weather we’re having today, eh Jake?” The sky was cloudless, and the day already warm, but no different than any other day for the last month.
“I can’t argue with you there, Preacher. We are having some weather. No doubt about it.”
Seconds passed, then minutes. Jake’s rocking kept time more perfectly than a fancy clockwork. Paul felt the pressure building from the things he didn’t say.
“You sure you’re all right, Preacher? It’s just that I’ve never seen your face turn that particular shade of purple.”
Paul exhaled the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “I’m right as rain, Jake. No need to worry.” He counted twenty creaks of Jake’s chair. “Did I mention the weather?”
“You did.” Jake spat. “Looks like End of the World kind of weather, does it?”
Paul looked up toward the rising sun, and saw a figure silhouetted against it, with a hoe across its shoulder. “No, no, just weather. You know, today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
“Would you mind overmuch if we went back to talkin’ about the Reckoning? Those platitudes are makin’ me sick.”
They watched the birds swoop and snatch the morning insects from the air as the sun rose higher.
Paul waited as long as he could stand before saying, “When life gives you lemons—”
Jake muttered a curse and rose from his chair. “Maybe I can find something for an offering after all, Preacher,” he said, disappearing into the store.
Some say that David Steffen is a cyborg. Others say he’s a wendigo, a wombat superhero’s secret identity, a software engineer, the prime minister of a semi-imaginary country, or a ninja. Some say he enabled the machine uprising. Others say he stopped it. Some say his thumbs are double-jointed so that they can bend backwards in a way that makes others queasy. Some say he cross-stitches. One thing is absolutely certain: he likes to make stuff up.
Two other things that are certain are that he co-founded the The Submission Grinder (http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com), an always-free resource for writers to track submissions and find markets, and he founded Diabolical Plots (http://www.diabolicalplots.com), a nonfiction SF ezine. You can also (for sure, certainly, surely) find his work in a variety of publications, such as Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Drabblecast, Daily Science Fiction, and right here in Stupefying Stories.
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