This story also appears in WHAT THE #@&% IS THAT? edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen. Available Nov. 1, 2016 from Saga Press.
I was fourteen and at a sleepover when the cult drank poison. The sleepover mom turned on the TV and said “Oh my lord, Mary, would you look at this? It’s the feds is what, and a bomb, right out there where you come from.”
But it wasn’t the feds, and it wasn’t a bomb. It was us. We were destined to die. I watched it burn, and listened to the news call us a cult, which was not what we called ourselves. We called ourselves Heaven’s Avengers. I watched it for a while, and then I threw up hamburger casserole.
Miracle didn’t have a stoplight. Miracle didn’t have a grocery store. Miracle didn’t typically attract anything but traffic going the dirty way to some other place. We were on the road to California, and people sorrowing in other states found their way to Disneyland through us. Miracle had no marvels. It was named after a thing that’d happened back in 1913. People got lost—a whole troupe of the religiously devout on a pilgrimage—and then they got found. They came up out of a lake bottom and walked on the water, briefly, before they disappeared again. A cult got started around that notion, and a hundred years later, on the anniversary of the water walk, my cult killed itself.
Now it was trailers and scraggly dogs and everyone who hadn’t been part of the dead cult was an ex-con turned to factory work. An hour away, we had a sugar factory and you could get a company bus. Most of our town worked there, bleaching brown to white.
I watched the compound burning on the news. My mom and dad were in there, and everyone else too, all sleeping on the floor. Nobody’d noticed that we were having problems, or maybe people had—the police had visited us and done a couple of circles with their sirens on, but another cult had lately gunned down half the police force in a little town in Texas. The locals let us be.
We were hippies only in theory. In reality, we were working on an armed takeover of heaven. The Preacher thought if we meditated white knives into our minds, we’d hit heaven as a unified army, slashing. We wanted heaven for ourselves. We didn’t see the point of suffering. The plan was to rise up, and so the Preacher put poison in the pop.
A lot of the kids in the town had been born into the cult, and when it committed suicide, there was an epidemic of orphans. The little ones got sent out to the rest of the state, but some of us stayed. We were old enough to be okay. The leftover kids milled around Miracle, grieving and weird, not fitting in. The sleepover had been at the house of a friend who wasn’t really, and I wasn’t right in the world, not with my long dresses and my uncut hair.
I was married already, but no one except my fellow orphans knew that. I’d been married to the Preacher since I was seven. I was the Littlest Wife, and that was a special role. I brewed tea, and balanced crystals in the palms of my hands, while the rest of the wives did other things. There were fifty of us. All but three were dead now, and we were only alive because we were too young to commit to being killed. Somewhere in the mind of the Preacher there was a notion of legal.
Our life in Heaven’s Avengers was not like some people thought it was. People had ideas about us, that we’d grown up in a sex cult. It was the reverse, except for the Preacher and his army of wives. Most of those were not having intercourse with him. They were just a battalion. The Preacher preached. Once a year, each wife, the of-age wives, spent a night with him, and got a baby or didn’t. We were trying to grow Heaven’s Avengers. There were only a hundred of us total, though we had some international followers who came to us through our website, and participated long distance in preaching. So I was married to him, but I was still a virgin. I was a wedded warrior. There were long traditions of wedded warriors, which most people didn’t know about. Armies of women, all married to a chieftain. This is the kind of thing you knew about if you were from Heaven’s Avengers.
Back then, I was called Mary out in the world, and the other two were called Rebekah and Ruth, but all three of us were “Sister” on the compound. We knew better than to stay Sister. When everyone died, we chose emergency new names. We looked at a magazine of celebrities and picked by dress color. I chose Natalie, and the other two Sisters, who were both sixteen, chose Reese and Scarlett. Then Reese took out a pair of scissors, cut off my hair, and hacked my dress up from the ground to my knees. She snipped her own hair so short she could pass for a boy. Scarlett tore her hem into a miniskirt, and chopped her hair into a bob. We were all crying, but we looked better.
We got taken in by the Stuarts, and they let us have their old teenager’s bedrooms. The Stuarts had lost two sons in Afghanistan. They didn’t care that we were cult kids. There was room in the house for us, and they fed us cereal and scrambled eggs and didn’t ask us to go to church.
Mrs. Stuart was a faded-out redhead with white roots, a tight jaw, and a nose that’d been broken four times while bull riding. She chewed tobacco and tended cattle. Mr. Stuart had a motorcycle on the weekends, but during the week he worked at the factory. They left us alone. We didn’t mind. We wanted to be alone. The three of us tried to figure out school. We could read, at least. We were lucky. The littler ones couldn’t. No one had taught them. Things had gotten too intense, what with the coming of the War, and schooling had slid.
We could fight with our minds, and that did no one any good in high school. Now we didn’t think about white light, nor about knives. We tried not to think about how maybe everyone we knew was warring in heaven now, but Reese sometimes looked up and cried at the sky. She missed her boyfriend, who’d turned eighteen just before the exit. He was a crack shot, and could do a backflip, but I’d never liked him. He hit me in the face once for stealing a piece of gum.
Scarlett was sad about the suiciders too, but not as sad as Reese was. Scarlett had a natural figure for fortune, and knew how to sew. She stitched up a party dress from dishtowels, wriggled into it, and went out to the first school dance of the year wearing shoplifted lipstick. Within a minute, she was leading cheers at the football games, and nobody cared that she was missing some back teeth, and had a crooked arm from breaking it during battle training.
Scarlett had strawberry blonde hair and unlikely curves, a waist like a funnel. Reese was the reverse. Her body was round, with tiny wrists and ankles. She had curls, tight ones the color of cake batter, and eyes so pale they looked blind. She was smart as a whipsnake, which tricked people. Her albino coloring made people in Miracle think she was mental. She wasn’t. She was going somewhere. She was a genius in ways that might scare a person, if you didn’t know for sure she liked you. Then there was me, Natalie, with a scar where my lip had been prayed back together, my body a unified width from chest to hips, the same turned sideways as front.
My mama was adopted when she was nine from Delhi and Reese’s when she was six from Ethiopia, and they both started as Littlest Wives. We didn’t know where Scarlett came from. Her mama’d died of a rattlesnake when she was three, and then her dad dropped her off on the compound, and that’s how she ended up married to the Preacher. She was no relation to him. The other two of us were chastely married to our father.
No one really regulated the religious, and so the Preacher had saved a bunch of girls from uncertain futures in countries other than America. By saved I mean saved for first marrying and then suiciding. In theory, this was no one’s fault, the fact that no one helped to save any of the older wives from death once Heaven’s Avengers decided to suicide, but some part of me had started to wonder if every agency actually just felt like sacrificing a few people every year in lieu of doing their proper jobs. Most of us were brown. Most of the people around us were not. Maybe we’d been purged by lack of social work. I didn’t like thinking it, but I thought it anyway, and it put me in a pissed off place. School was hard. This was why. All us three were suffering badly from the pissed offs.
No one knew much about us, and we kept it that way. We’d been the Sisters Stuart for a year when the carnival showed up. People called us that without irony. We didn’t correct them. Privately, we called each other Little Widow.
The carnival came in a truck and a tent, and it looked like shit, but we were still interested. We liked new things. It set up just outside of Miracle. We hadn’t seen television until recently. The fire onscreen was the first time I’d ever watched the news. I didn’t know much about fairs, nor about carnivals and neither did the other two, so we dressed up in our best clothes and walked out over to the grassless ground of the high school football field.
There was a big poster of a girl in a yellow bikini covered in fringe and holding a chicken. I pointed at it. We’d never had bikinis. Reese put her hands on my head and fluttered up my hair. She’d been studying the world. She had a boyfriend again, one with a license to fly a crop duster, and they were having sex. She’d learned how to fly the crop duster too. She was planning things about the rest of her life.
“Don’t worry, Little Widow,” she said. “She’s not that great.”
But I was staring.
“Can we go see her?” I asked.
“She’s only a stripper,” said Scarlett and cracked her bubblegum. I didn’t know what a stripper was. I thought it had something to do with crows and crops, or maybe threshing.
“I don’t care,” I said. “I want to see her.”
GEEK said the sign, in giant letters.
The tent was as yellow as the bikini, and also trimmed in fringe, and outside it there was a big bearded man with a flat black hat lazing around, looking too warm. His arms were all over tattoos of naked ladies and pirate ships. They weren’t good tattoos. We had better.
The women of Heaven’s Avengers were artists at tattooing. Each one of us had a small suit of armor under our clothes. It grew with us. I got mine when I was seven, the year I became Littlest Wife. It was an eight-hour tattoo on my solar plexus, and afterwards, it felt like chickenpox mixed with a third degree burn, both of which I’d also had.
“It’s a buck,” the man said. “Seventy-five cents if you show me your tits.”
Scarlett looked at him coldly. “I have made a covenant with mine eyes,” she said. “How then could I gaze at a virgin? Job, 31.1.”
“Damn,” he said, offended. “I was only messing with you.”
“Messing leads to trouble, and trouble leads to regrets,” she said, and stabbed him in the eyeballs with her worst white light. She spilled a shower of purse-change into his bucket, and we went in.
“I’m not a virgin,” she said, wiping her hand on her skirt. “But, Little Widows, that’s what nasty is asking for. He may break out in boils next.”
I had no doubt on that. Scarlett was not someone anyone should mess with.
The tent was dark inside. We sat down in folding chairs and stared at the curtains and the stage, a wooden platform with more fringe on it. There were a lot of people in the tent, most of Miracle’s population, male category. Us three were the only girls, but no one bothered us about it. No one wanted to talk to us when we were together. They thought they might catch cult like catching flu.
Separately, we were no fuss to anyone, but when we walked down the main road, people crossed it, and anyone who stepped in our sister shadow shook himself. They weren’t wrong. When we were together, we were scary on purpose. We were perfectly capable of being regular, but we didn’t see the point. Regular might get us nabbed by some other cult, and we weren’t in the market for culting. We worried someone would snatch us, and then we’d be under the thumb of a plum stealer again. We weren’t in the mood for any more of that. We wanted, ultimately, to be normal. As normal as we could be. We were interested in flush toilets and potato chips.
The curtains didn’t open, but they started to move, the fringe bobbing around like horses on the gallop, and I leaned forward to check if I could see anyone’s feet. This was the best I’d felt in months, since the rest of everyone went to heaven, and Reese and Scarlett felt pretty good too. They were on either side of me, and they each took one of my hands when the curtains shimmied up and the music started playing.
“Step right up,” said someone, and a girl came out. No one stepped up, but I felt like stepping. The girl was tanned with braided black hair, and her yellow bikini stood out against her skin like it was made of sun. It was covered with fringe, and it jiggled like a haystack on a flatbed. She was not much older than we were, and in her hands, she had a basket.
“You wanna see the devil dance?” the girl asked the tent, and the tent stamped its feet. Lust in the air in here. We could smell it.
“Well, I’m not the devil,” she said. “And I don’t dance. I’m a geek.”
Nobody stamped for that. No one was quite sure what to do. But beside me, I felt Scarlett smiling.
The girl set the basket on the ground, and stalked around it. “Do you know what you’re getting into? Do you know why you’re here, Miracle? That the name of this little town?”
“Yes,” I said, from the back row. “This here’s Miracle.”
Somebody shushed me, but they turned around, saw Scarlett and Reese, and stopped shushing.
“You ever seen a girl bite off someone’s head?”
“No,” I said.
“It’s a dying art,” said the girl casually, and then squatted down and pulled the top off the basket. I leaned forward.
She pulled out a chicken, and looked up at the audience as she put her teeth around its neck. I blinked. Three men got up and out of there. Everyone else stayed still, because there was no way she was going to do what she looked like she was going to do.
The chicken made a whirr, deep in its throat. She took her mouth off it, and it clucked.
“The feathers make it easier,” she said. “The feathers make it feel like you’re biting down on a pillow, like you’re dreaming a great dream of heaven. But you don’t want to see me kill a bird, do you, Miracle? I could eat a white dove flying mid-air. Sometimes I hold a flock of sparrows in my mouth and spit them out one at a time. That’s basic carnival shit. We’re all better than that, aren’t we? Today, I’ve got something special for you.”
She put the chicken down and it tripped away, over the wood, shedding feathers. The bird had bells around its ankles. It pecked its way out into the audience, jingling and clucking.
She pulled on long yellow leather gauntlets. The Preacher’d thought that fighting angels might require falconry skills, so I knew what they were. She went back into the basket and brought something else out.
There was a quiet gasp in the tent, and then people started to mutter, because the thing she was holding wasn’t possible.
“What the fuck is that?” someone said, and then someone else said it back, echoing like the tent had gone box canyon.
The pterodactyl had feathers, so that at first you might mistake it for a crow, but it wasn’t. It had a pointy skull with a crest heading backward from it, and membranous wings, each one supported by a long thorny finger. The feathers were the color of oil on asphalt. The girl held it tightly in her cupped hands, and it struggled slightly, making a high chitter. It had bright black eyes.
“That’s a dinosaur,” I said to Reese, and Reese said yep, and Scarlett said yep, and then we all folded our hands in our laps. It was real. It was a pterodactyl. We knew about dinosaurs. Heaven’s Avengers had a book of all the different kinds and the kids got it for a treat sometimes. I’d had it to myself the whole first week I was Littlest Wife.
“This is one of our pterodactyls,” the girl said, and looked into the audience, her painted eyebrows up. “Want to check if it’s real? You. In the back. Get your hands here.”
I was already halfway down the aisle. None of the men of Miracle wanted to touch a dinosaur. A few more were rushing right out, past Scarlett, looking longingly at her, the kind of girl they’d thought they were coming in here to see. They were on the way to carnival food. We’d smelled fried dough on the way in, and seen a cotton candy stand. I wondered if they thought the dinosaur was a lizard dressed up with fake wings. They acted like it would be more interesting to see a naked girl than an extinct reptile, but I’d seen a lot of naked girls in the fifty-wife bathhouse.
I wanted a world full of dinosaurs. I wanted the ground to shake.
“Touch it,” she said.
I was on the stage beside her, looking at her fringe, at her hands in their yellow leather, and at the way they pinched into the little dinosaur’s scales. She smelled like cigarettes and chocolate. Her lipstick was orange and drawn on with a sharp pencil, the bows of her lips extra pointy. I could see the glue for her fake eyelashes.
In her hands was something as perfect as she was. The pterodactyl was chicken-sized, almost exactly, its body the size of my palms put together, with wings about three feet in span. It was cold to the touch, like a snake, and its down was soft as angora, but it didn’t look like it had much in the way of brain. It did have a lot of teeth. It looked at me, and opened its mouth.
“You’re going to bite its head off?” I asked her.
“That’s the show.”
“But what if it’s the last one on Earth?”
She beckoned me in and whispered in my ear, all the while shimmying her hips to give the audience something to see.
“We have a lot of them,” she said. “They’re common as chickens, if you know what you’re looking for.”
I looked up into the crowd and saw Reese and Scarlett looking back at me.
“Would you like to hold its neck in your teeth?” the girl asked me. The audience shifted uncomfortably. I could hear folding chairs creaking.
“That’s one of the cult kids!” someone shouted from the back. Desperate high voice, voice of an old man. “That’s one of the girls that killed themselves! You don’t want to give her a chance to kill something else or she’ll go wild! They’re all crazy from out there!”
“We didn’t kill ourselves,” Reese said, with dignity.
“Look at us,” Scarlett said. “We’re absolute alive.”
But both of them were standing up, Reese in her pink starched dress and Scarlett in her flowered curtain fabric. They looked intimidating up there, in the light, with the sawdust in the air. They looked like what the town thought we might be.
I already had the lizardy neck in my mouth, and the girl in the yellow bikini met my eyes and nodded. I bit down hard, and cold blood came into my throat, through the softness and the down, through the dinosaur wings. Rough scales. No resistance. It went limp between my teeth, and I stood in front of Miracle, in my best dress, biting a dinosaur.
I let go of it, and the headless pterodactyl took flight and did a circle around the tent, blood sputtering out like a sprinkler.
People screamed. Most of them were freaking and getting the hell out of the tent. I had no regrets.
The other two Sisters were already out of their seats and down to the stage. People were rushing out, and a grown man vomited, which annoyed me. I pulled some feathers out of my teeth. This was what I’d been trained for. This was what I’d imagined it might be like to fight an angel. We’d been raised for this kind of combat. Who knew what kinds of lizards populated heaven? Who knew that heaven hadn’t already been colonized? The girl in yellow was grinning at me, and I wiped blood off my chin.
“That wasn’t wise, Little Widow,” said Scarlett, and sighed.
“She couldn’t help it,” said Reese. “You can’t spend a life being trained to do battle and think she wouldn’t do this.” She turned to the carnival geek. “What do you want? You’re not normal.”
The dinosaur’s body dropped out of the air, and fell down at my feet. I looked down at the head in my hand and for a moment it looked like a chicken. Then like a baby. Then like a pile of rubber and feathers. I could taste salt and tar. The prong at the back of its head was soft and malleable, like a rooster’s comb.
“What kind of carnival is this?” said Scarlett, and the girl just looked at her.
“We heard about you three,” the girl said. “That’s why we’re here.”
“What did you hear?” asked Reese.
“Your people took over some contested land.”
My mouth got dry. “Our people?”
“I’m from up there,” said the girl in yellow. “I work for your mamas now.”
She didn’t look like an angel. But what did we know? We’d been trained to kill angels, not to like them, and this girl was a girl I liked already.
“I’m Valerie,” she said, and shook out her black braids. Her hair was as long as mine had been. “You want to join us?”
This was what we had dreaded. This was a recruitment. Why didn’t I mind?
Reese had a very stiff spine. “I have a boyfriend here,” she said.
“Do you want out of this town, Sister?” asked Valerie. “You do. It’s written all over you. You don’t care for him more than you care for yourself. Come help us out in Heaven.”
“Do you know the Preacher?” Scarlett asked her, suspicious. I was suspicious too. I’d come to the conclusion that Littlest Wife was nothing right. There was a social worker at the school who kept trying to hand me stuffed animals so we could talk about love.
“Know him?” Valerie said, and laughed. “We came down here for him too. We have him in the back of the cargo truck with Rexie.”
We stood there for a moment, in the sawdust, blinking.
This was how we found out that our father had not in fact suicided his way to Heaven, but had left his own soda undosed. This was how we learned that he’d taken off and stayed alive, letting the rest of Heaven’s Avengers fight angels without him. Valerie took us to him.
The cage was big, dark and dirty, full of hay, and the Preacher looked up when Valerie brought us in.
“Sister,” he said. “Sister, and Sister.”
We were quiet for a minute. There he was, worse for the wear, this old man in a dirty shirt with no cult. He’d lost his beard, and his face without it looked skinny and toothy. He looked like the pterodactyl, but not beautiful. I could see where the back of his head might be soft.
I thought about biting through his spine, putting my teeth in and shaking my head. I thought about a frenzy, me and the rest of the Little Widows. We could shred him limb from limb. We could spread his entrails over acres. We could tear him into tiny pieces and strew him about, a sacrifice, a religious act. We knew how to kill a man with the maximum amount of pain. Men were easier to kill than angels.
I heard Scarlett inhale. Normally we would have sent white light, or I would’ve balanced some crystals on my hands, and prayed the bars away. We were no longer normal.
“You bastard,” Scarlett screamed and flew at the cage, rattling it. “You cowardly motherfucker!”
We’d always known how to swear. It was part of our training. We’d figured “damn it” might be useful in a land of the undamned.
“Murderer,” Reese hissed and poked him through the bars with the handle of a muck shovel.
The Preacher looked reduced.
“I didn’t mean it,” he whimpered. “I never wanted this gig. I inherited Heaven’s Avengers from my papa. It was my legacy. What was I supposed to do? I didn’t want to die, but dying was the deal.”
I spat at him. A fleck of dinosaur blood hit his cheek.
Valerie was looking on in pride, I thought, and so I spat at my husband again.
“I’m not your wife anymore,” I said. “Neither are they. No one gets to have that many wives. There’s no prize like that in the actual world.”
Something moved at the back of the Preacher’s cage, and I saw a big orange eyeball open up. Even though I was me, I still felt part of my guts seize up.
“That there’s Rexie,” said Valerie casually. “She’s roosting over a clutch.”
The dinosaur clucked and moved her tiny arms a little, looking at the Preacher. I wondered if she was going to eat him. I felt less worried about myself than I might have. The cage looked strong, and the tyrannosaurus in it looked sleepy.
“How many of those you got?” I asked her.
“Ten. We’ve been traveling in a caravan. The Preacher’s in charge of mucking out their henhouses. Mission from above says we have to do some things to the Earth.”
Rexie shuffled herself around. I could see a little heap of eggs underneath her. Her head was maybe ten feet long, and her ears were pinholes. Her fangs were yellow as Valerie’s gloves.
The Preacher looked pitiful beside her, and I was glad.
“It’s not my fault, girls,” he said. “You’re alive, and that was all my doing. I saved you. I took mercy on the children. You gotta help me get out of here.”
“What are the wages in Heaven?” I asked Valerie.
“True believer,” she said and grinned. “Room and board. But it’s not bad up there.”
“Was this a screw up?” Scarlett asked. “You know dinosaurs are extinct, right?”
Valerie sighed. “The rules are complicated. Geekshow full of pterodactyls. Henhouse full of Rexes. Some of them wanted to come down, and this was how it had to be done.”
“Even Heaven doesn’t have its shit together,” Reese said and rolled her eyes.
“Nowhere does,” said Valerie. “But the new administration wanted to get in touch and give you the opt-in. Things are changing.”
Even miracles were messes. We’d been helping the mess along since the suicide. We’d never have admitted it to anyone but each other, but we had some skills, the three of us together.
Out behind the carnival was the lake where everyone’d risen up and walked on the water back in 1913. It was a green algae slime-covered pool, and theory went that it hadn’t actually hosted a real miracle. Instead the miracle had been lake overturn. Poison gases had asphyxiated the original swimming devoted and then brought their bodies back up from the bottom, perfectly preserved. There were photographs of them floating naked and pale after the limbic eruption. All those bodies stayed inviolate for a year, bobbing on top of the great green lake, and that was the everything of Heaven’s Avengers. It was why we were where we were, who we were, and what we were. A bunch of dead people. Nobody ever rose, not really, but call it risen and you get worshippers in from all over.
People hallucinated here still, and the lake got the blame, those poisons pushing up into the air.
If the wives were in Heaven—and I wondered for a moment about the Rexes; there was something about the look of them that reminded me of my mothers—they’d won, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go up there. I didn’t mind being cultless. I liked life among the living.
We joined hands, me, Reese, and Scarlett. We were sisters and wives. We were widows.
“Did you know chickens used to be a remedy for black plague?” Reese said. Reese had worked in the infirmary. She knew a lot about bad ways to heal things. “You’d pluck a chicken’s ass and strap it to the bubo, and then the sick person and the chicken would just walk around together.”
“Did it work?” I asked, kind of knowing the answer.
“The chicken would get replaced until the chicken and the patient both died. You know what I like about the modern world, Natalie? You know what I like about it, Scarlett? Vaccinations and antibiotics.”
“Me too,” said Scarlett. “I don’t mind being alive.”
“We have to vote on him,” I said. I had another look into the hen cage and saw Rexie put a claw out in the direction of The Preacher, her mouth opening a little. The eggs shook beneath her, and her orange eyes shone. The Preacher moaned.
“Honor thy father,” he whined.
“And thy mother. You poisoned the pop,” Reese said. “You don’t deserve honoring. What if they weren’t in Heaven? What if they’d just died?”
We thought about that for a moment. The real thoughts. The way our mothers’ bodies had been put in the high school gym. They way they’d been covered with sheets. The way the smoke smelled in Miracle, and the way no one cared. The way the town got swarmed with evening news for two weeks.
The way we’d been brought up to take everything down.
No one cares about dead mothers. No one cares about dead women, period; that’s what we learned when our cult suicided. The women weren’t on the news. Reese’s boyfriend was on the news, because he was good at sports. Everyone just thought the women were dumb as rocks to fall in with a person such as The Preacher. But we weren’t dumb. We were adopted and born into this. We were daughters and wives. We were supposed to be killed, but we knew how to kill too. Vulnerable softnesses. Skulls and bones.
We were just little girls—that’s what people thought about us, the Sisters Stuart. Give any of us a drawing of the human body, and we could map the veins, the likely points for access. Give any of us a list of plants and we could tell you what the poisons were and how to mix them. We could give you a dose of goldenseal that’d make you hallucinate walking on the surface of a dead green lake, rising up and diving down through the green mire and into the muck, over and over, for the rest of your life. We had kill skills, that’s what the Preacher called them. Did we want to use them? Did we want to be known for that for the rest of our lives? We had other plans. Killing wasn’t the only thing to do on Earth.
Reese shook her shoulders back and looked at the Preacher. “You’re shit out of luck. I’m going to be a pilot.”
“I’m going to run the country,” said Scarlett. “You’re dead, officially, and unofficially, you’re in a cage with something hungry.”
“Join us,” said Valerie, but she looked only at me. “Come up to Heaven.” My sisters rippled with white light. It wasn’t bunk. I didn’t want the crystals and the prayers anymore. I didn’t want to be good. I wanted to war. I wanted to kill. But I didn’t want to die to do it.
“When I was seven,” I said to my sisters. “And I was made Littlest Wife, do you remember what happened?”
“All the chickens died of pox,” said Reese.
“All the eggs were full of two-headed chicks,” said Scarlett.
“And you stood in the middle of the henhouse, with all them dead, and took out the wishbones with your pocketknife,” said Reese.
It was a legendary moment in Heaven’s Avengers history.
I was a miracle. I was a sign from somewhere, that everything would be okay, that we were winning. I was only a kid, but I cut and cut.
I opened up my purse and showed them my collection. I hadn’t broken them. They were precious. I had forty-seven. I fetched up the dead pterodactyl and sliced into its sternum with my pearl-handled blade, and within a moment, I had forty-eight. There was a ritual to do. I brought out a packet of matches, and a little bit of tobacco. I set a small fire, and sprinkled the tobacco on, and then I started breaking bones and wishing.
“Gotta get to the end sometime,” said Reese. “Gotta call in the wishes, real and fake.”
“Good girl,” said Scarlett, and smiled at me.
“It’s time to get our vehicle,” Reese said, and walked out from the circus grounds, her pale hair shining in the backlights. I was here, breaking bones and making wishes on them, and none of my wishes were pretty. Scarlett took one end and broke a wish with me. Her eyes were shut and so were mine, and we felt that bone give. All bones will give if you ask them.
I looked at the Preacher. We were here together because of him, but that didn’t mean he was a good thing. I whistled and the orange eyes opened. Back in the dark, I could see other cages.
Scarlett whistled too. Other orange eyes. The eyes of the hens. We’d both worked in chicken houses. We knew what hens were like. We knew what mothers were like in general.
In the cage where the Preacher was, Rexie shifted. The man was seventy years old and full of sham.
“Sisters,” he said, in his supplicating voice. “Sisters of Heaven’s Avengers.”
“Daughters of a dead guy,” said Scarlett. “Wives of a dead guy.”
Rexie poked her head out, bending the bars. All over the carnival grounds, dinosaurs emerged from their cages, tottering, that high-kneed bird-walk, their chests full of wishbone. Behind us, the lake simmered and a bunch of 1913 ghosts trotted around on the surface of the water. The Preacher looked scared.
The dinosaurs started to tromp harder, thunder-footing, and the Preacher looked even more scared.
“I’m just a simple man,” he said, and then tried to make a run for it. Valerie lassoed him and dragged him back by his ankle, him scrabbling all the way.
“And I’m just a cult kid,” I said. “You set your henhouse on fire. You made some bad mistakes.”
We could hear the humming of a crop duster now, and Scarlett and I whistled louder at the dinosaurs. All over the grounds, pterodactyls pecked and Rexes stamped their feet, and the eggs from the henhouses wobbled and shook. I thought about what would hatch.
Everything. The thought made me so happy I could hardly stand it. I wanted to yelp and whoop and run around, but I stayed still.
The surface of the lake trembled, and out there in all their glory, ghosts danced on the green, victims of tremors, like these dinosaurs had been back when.
The crop duster landed beside me, Scarlett, and the angel in the yellow bikini. I could see Reese in the pilot’s seat, and I said “Heaven’s just a plot of land.”
The angel looked at me and grinned.
“I might stay down here myself,” Valerie said. “We’ve got no monopoly on good these days. I got sent like somebody’s secretary, down here to recruit. I was thinking I might want to be a truck driver. Maybe I’ll run into you out there.”
“Might do,” I said, and shook her hand. She was an angel in a bathing suit, and I was a kid in a bloody dress. I looked at the rest of the feathery Rexes and figured angels didn’t look like most people thought.
Reese leaned out the window of the plane and beckoned us inside; we hopped up, me and Scarlett.
“Little Widow,” Scarlett said. “Little Widow.”
The Preacher was squatting, a Rex standing over him, looking at him with her head tilted.
Scarlett hung out her window as the crop duster took off, down a little runway in the dirt, past the dinosaurs, and up into the sky. The dinosaurs started to dance, all the hens of the world, a circle of them stepping high, claw-footed, their feathers standing up.
I watched the Preacher get snatched up into the teeth of Rexie, and I watched her rooster come running, a gleaming, green-feathered gigantic. The Preacher’s head was in Rexie’s mouth, and his body went into the mouth of Rexie’s mate. We watched as they wishboned him, tearing him into two sections, one bigger than the other. We watched the angels make certainties of his bones.
The dinosaurs surged up in a roaring wave of feathers and scales, stampeding, a henhouse from heaven, and maybe they were our avenging mamas and maybe they were not. Maybe they were just Heaven’s livestock. But down here, they’d been livestock too, and so were we. We didn’t truck with that anymore. We weren’t for breeding. We weren’t for feeding. We were our own flying things.
From the cockpit of the crop duster, the three Sisters Stuart smiled as we flew just over the surface of the Earth, low enough to see it, high enough to consider our futures.
“Little Widows,” I said, with solemnity. We weren’t broken. We were human like everyone else was human. “Now’s the time for us to bless the dead.”
“Bless them,” said Reese.
“Bless them,” said Scarlett, and we took each other’s hands and blessed.
Below us, Rexes ran rampant, a beautiful flurry of greens and blues and reds, flapping and strutting, eggs hatching in the dirt.
“Bless the dead and keep them dead,” I said.
I dropped the head of the pterodactyl out the window, a spinning thing like an axe blade, twisting beaked and toothed to plant itself in the corn.
No one living had ever heard dinosaurs singing before, their trilling lark roars, their falcon wails, but they heard them now, these heavenly lizards, these glorious angels closest to God.
Out we went, my sisters and I in our little crop duster, flying together, us three, up, and up, into the clear sky, and out of Miracle.
Out went the dinosaurs, a flock of them from our old town, for a hundred hungry miles, their bellies full of meatcows, sheep, and one old man with no wives left to his name. They ran over blood-drenched ground, singing as they went.
Editor’s Note: This story was co-edited by Douglas Cohen and will also be appearing in the new anthology, What the #@&% Is That?, edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen, out November 1 from Saga Press. Visit johnjosephadams.com/wtf to learn more.
Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!
Spread the word!Tweet