DAY OF VENGEANCE
What if you escaped being sacrificed to the evil god Moloch and banished him from your town at a terrible price in blood and destruction... only to become prey to gods more powerful and ruthless still?
Teenage friends Suzie Mitchell, Amos Ross, and Vickie Riordan are plunged into this terrifying dilemma in the ruins of their hometown, Chatham's Forge, in a world devastated by nuclear war. Stumbling through the wreckage, they must confront the physically living but soul-dead remains of their friends and family, the vengeful victims of the old order in the Forge, the ascent of the powerful and seductive goddess Asherah, and worst of all... the deeds they themselves are tempted to commit in their rage and grief.
What’s the first thing you do after the world has ended, but you and your girlfriend and the girl you accidentally cheated on her with are somehow still alive? I stand leaning on Vickie’s right shoulder, the girl I had turned to for comfort when I thought Suzie was dead, while Suzie leans against her left shoulder. Together we watch in stunned silence as a fiery mushroom cloud spills into the dead black sky in the direction of the Chatham’s Forge Town Hall, where Moloch, the demonic god who has ruled our town since before we were born, has been immolated.
Suzie is the first to speak. “We did it,” she says hoarsely. “We killed Moloch! No more Virgin Sacrifices!” Which is excellent news for her. A few minutes ago she was bound to the hood of Jack Kolver’s 1963 Ford Thunderbird while Pastor Justin Bello, Moloch’s faithful servant, stood over her with his knife ready to slaughter her so that the demon could feast on her blood and guts. Now the pastor is as dead as his god, and the Cathedral where the annual All Souls Day Black Mass concluded barely an hour ago is a smoldering ruin.
But they’ve taken the entire town with them. We are the only survivors, or so it seems. “We’d better find shelter,” I say, only to double over coughing on the ash drifting down all around us. The back of my head explodes with pain where someone hit me hard enough to knock me out cold as I charged ahead, gun in hand, to try to rescue Suzie. Red and black spots dance like moths in my field of vision and I struggle to stay conscious as the girls help me to my feet. Some hero I am.
“Amos is right,” Vickie says, glancing at the sky. “My parents told me the ash and black rain that fell on the first All Souls Day was radioactive. It’s killing us a little more with every moment we stand here exposed.”
“As if you know anything about it,” Suzie snaps, flipping aside the tangles her long, light brown hair has become over her months of captivity in the Castle, the former National Guard Armory up on Boot Hill. Vickie and I look at each other out of the corners of our eyes. I’m sure she must be thinking the same thing I am: Suzie knows about us. Somehow she knows.
“The bombs in the War of Judgment were really huge, right?” Suzie says. “A single one of them flattened Philadelphia. If one of those had gone off here, there’d be nothing left of us but our shadows burned into that wall over there.” She points at a chest-high fragment of the Cathedral’s white clapboard wall. There’s a large lump of something resting against it. In the light of the burning T-Bird it looks like a seething mass of black snakes.
I blink but the strands aren’t moving; it was only a trick of the firelight. I take a step towards it. “What is that?” I say, nudging it with my foot. It rolls to one side and I see Rosie’s bone-white face staring up at me, the blue eyes wide open, the neckline ending in an almost straight red welt. The sight is so shocking and surreal I forget to be sick. “So there was a Sacrifice after all,” I breathe. She was the diner owner and secret leader of the Resistance to Moloch, along with her husband Rick. How awful that she was the demon-god’s final victim.
Vickie claps her hand over her mouth, stifling hysterical giggles. “What? No, Amos!” she says when she regains control. “She wasn’t sacrificed. She was killed in the explosion. And a good thing, too—Rosie was the one who hit you from behind, after you shot Rick.”
“You shot Rick?” Suzie echoes, her eyes wide.
“Only to stop him interfering while I saved you!” I say. “He didn’t care if you died—I think he wanted you to die—a final Sacrifice to distract Moloch, while they brought him down.”
Suzie stares, and I meet her gaze with pleading eyes. I slept with your best friend, but I also saved you, or anyway I tried… doesn’t the one make up for the other?
“We can talk about old times later, after we get to shelter,” Vickie says, glancing up at the sky again. “Even if the ash isn’t radioactive, it’s not doing us any good to breathe it in. And besides, I think it’s snowing.”
Snowing? It never snows this early in November. In exchange for his annual tribute of the prettiest and most popular high school senior girl, Moloch blesses us with long lazy Indian summers lasting till Thanksgiving or even later. But He’s gone now. We killed Him… or at least we drove Him away. We’re all alone in the ruin our grandparents made of the world, fighting a war with distant Russia over some no-account island called Cuba. We’re no better off than Mutants, the despised “Muties” who roam the forests dressed in rags. Except that we’ll actually be worse off because we know next to nothing about the world outside Chatham’s Forge… and the Mutants who escaped our so-called “army” will hate and fear anyone who comes from the Forge.
“Where,” I say, coughing, “where should we go, then?”
“The diner,” Vickie says immediately. “There’s all that food in the storage shed where we—where I lived for all those months.”
Suzie’s eyes burn hotter than Moloch’s detonation at the slip. But she says nothing, just follows behind me, Vickie taking the lead, as we set off down the cold, dark tunnel of Derby Road. The streetlights are all out, and the flames still pouring out of the T-Bird don’t illuminate anything once we get past the Cathouse, the home of Moloch’s Holy Hos. The roof of the low-slung stucco house has collapsed on all those churchgoers seeking release with the Hos after the long slog of Black Mass. My own father always fulfills his annual legal duty on All Souls Eve… so he must be here, now, in the rubble!
Suzie bumps into me and recoils. Vickie turns around, her eyes bulging. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
I explain about my father, and Suzie makes a face. It’s easy for you to judge, when you never even had a father. I don’t say that out loud, of course. “Please, we have to see if he’s alive in there!”
“Everyone’s dead. Everybody in this whole… damned… town,” Suzie grates out. “I mean it, Amos. This town is damned for what it did. For going along with the Virgin Sacrifice. For keeping Mutie slaves. For worshipping the demon Moloch for twenty years. You know how we were always taught that the Cuba War was really the War of the Judgment? Well, this is the true judgment. And good riddance to all of them!”
“But what about my dad?” I say, helpless to stop the tears pouring down my face. “You met him! He was nice to you! It’s not his fault that you, you ended up in the Castle!”
Suzie tenses up, and I suddenly notice she’s got a gleaming knife in her white-knuckled right hand. The knife that Pastor Justin was going to use to cut her throat. “Oh fine,” she says. “Let’s go check on your dad.”
The three of us silently pick our way through the rubble to the Cathouse. The place used to be an ordinary suburban split-level house, but the original structure was barely visible behind the ramshackle additions that were built over the years. Now it’s all in ruins. Suzie, Vickie and I step over toppled wooden beams, squashed aluminum siding, gray tarry remnants of roof shingles, and the heavy burgundy velvet curtains that were used as dividers for the Eros Rooms. The place was just as crowded as I expected, and my gorge rises as I stumble over one dead body after another, many only half-dressed or completely naked. Here’s a Ho who used to be a Slut only two years ahead of me in school—I think her name was Mary. I used to lust after her when she’d walk down the school hallways swinging her hips, her long straight golden hair swirling around her as she went. She caught me looking once and rather than sneer at me the way most of the other girls did, she gave me a wink. The right side of her face is all right but the left side is staved in by a support beam, and she’s wearing nothing but a pair of dust-covered scarlet panties. Lying next to her with his head turned to the side, the mouth with its underslung jaw wide open as if he’s getting ready to suck her exposed tits, is a much older former Jock whose name I don’t want to remember even if I could. He was on the General Labor Brigade and made a little money on the side doing odd jobs, which I know because I had to work alongside him in Ray Hall’s orchard and listen to his complaints. He’s wearing nothing at all and he still—no, that isn’t an erection… I force myself not to vomit, because how do I know when I’ll next have a chance to eat?
But it’s not easy keep my food down, not among all these severed limbs and bashed-in heads and faces and throats turned to so much bloody meat by flying shards of glass. Vickie is stumbling around gagging and retching, and even Suzie looks a little green. I feel so bad for them, I want to tell them to knock it off, I’ll look for Dad myself. Looking on the bright side, we probably won’t live long enough for me to have to worry about how to sort out our accidental love triangle. Vickie and I never meant to hurt you, Suzie! We thought you were killed that time you tried to escape the Castle! But won’t that just sound like whiny excuse-making? It’ll also remind Suzie of how I failed to rescue her from the Castle myself, which I would have figured out a way to do if only I loved her enough…
“Amos,” Vickie calls in a low voice. She’s only a few yards away, but it’s slow going through all this rubble if I don’t want to twist an ankle. By the time I reach her Suzie is there too, her mouth a thin line. For the first time I notice how gaunt her face is, even where she isn’t bruised or bleeding. She just spent five months locked up all alone in the Castle, waiting to be murdered like all the other Virgin Sacrifices. If she’s filled with rage, hasn’t she got every right to be?
But while I’m staring at her, she’s staring past me at what Vickie’s found. “Amos,” she says, taking hold of my shoulders, “don’t turn around.”
“Yeah. Let’s get out of here,” Vickie says, her voice quavering.
“It’s your dad, all right,” Suzie says, tugging at my hand. “He’s dead, but Amos, you really don’t want to see him.” But she only met him that one time, when she visited my house and got to see us secretly lighting Hanukkah candles in the attic… what if she’s wrong…?
I swivel my head quickly, straining to see over Vickie’s shoulder as she tries to block my view. Oh, yeah, that’s him. And Suzie was right.
I really would have been better off not looking.
Amos is still shaking and blubbering as Suzie leads him out onto the sidewalk of what used to be Derby Road, draping her arms around his bony shoulders and skinny neck as he buries his long face in his hands. And now it’s my turn to be jealous—which is ridiculous, right? I mean, first of all, I haven’t got any right, Suzie is Amos’s girlfriend, and I’ve always been her best friend—I should be crawling on the ash and snow covered sidewalk, begging her forgiveness. And second of all, Amos is a mess right now, he was like this when he thought Suzie had been killed, that’s how we got in trouble in the first place, me trying to comfort him and it becoming physical so fast, but even so it was a lot of work coaxing him into believing he had anything to live for. If that job’s got to be done all over again, it’s Suzie’s turn to do it.
These aren’t Nice thoughts. That old idiot of a school counselor Mr. Goff, Goff the Goof, sure fucked up when he made Suzie and me both Nice Girls back in seventh grade. We’re really tough old Punks at heart, and if he’d realized that and let us hang out with our own kind, maybe we’d have some clue now about how to survive in the ruins of our Moloch-cursed town. But Mom and Dad were so overjoyed when Suzie and I came home from school that day and told them we’d both made Nice. Then I went over to Suzie’s house with her and we told her mom, and even that horrible bitch was happy for once—so happy she gave us fifty cents to go out to the bakery and buy ourselves all the ginger snaps we wanted.
My eyes fill with tears remembering that day, one of the best of my life. Or maybe it’s just all this grit sifting endlessly down from the sky. If I’m right we are totally fucked; all three of us will soon be puking our guts out, and our hair will start falling out and we’ll die in agony within three days. I know all this from the Civil Defense manual my Gran had, one of many “inappropriate books” she kept hidden away. Less for fear of Punishers like Suzie’s mom and more so she didn’t have to listen to her son—my dad—scolding her for “upsetting the poor little girl.”
“He’s the one who gets so upset,” she’d say with a wink, in her broad, strange north-of-England accent. “So we shall just have to make sure he doesn’t find out, shan’t we?” I loved going into Gran’s room, even when she was wasting away from cancer. It was like visiting a whole other world, one filled with exotic things like those funny, heavy English pound coins that felt so warm in my hand. She told me what it was like growing up in Manchester, not just before the War of the Judgment but before what they quaintly called the Second World War. “You could speak your mind back then, Victoria,” she’d say with a sigh. “People might think you were a little bit eccentric, but they’d never force you to shut up. Here, they’ll cut your head off for smirking at their silly old heathen god.” I was always thrilled to hear her talk that way. I know my parents felt the same but were too frightened to say so—more frightened for my sake than their own. So what’s Suzie talking about? You can’t go around blaming people like my poor Mom and Dad just because they didn’t want to get thrown in jail or tortured to death on some horrible device like the Impaler Suzie’s mom invented. Though on the other hand, their caution didn’t save them in the end. Maybe they should have spoken up when they had the chance, before they all ended up dead like Amos’s father, who looked just like an older version of him except that his cheekbones were a bit less prominent and his eyes were set a bit closer together. His head had been sliced off and his brains were puddling all gray and red on the broken ground and he was lying on his side with his dick in his hand, poor guy probably didn’t even want to do his Duty with the Ho and so he was pleasuring himself instead when a piece of the T-Bird’s door came flying through the window and—
I’m going to have to get a hold of myself, I can’t go stumbling and retching up bile every few steps. Unless it’s the radiation sickness already taking hold and I’m going to have to ask Suzie if I can borrow her knife for a few seconds so I can do myself in before things get any worse. But no, it’s probably just me and my weakness, like how I always used to throw up every year when they made us file past the decapitated corpse of the Virgin Sacrifice. That’s why my parents were always trying to shield me, though you couldn’t protect anybody from anything, not in Chatham’s Forge you couldn’t, oh poor Mom and Dad…
As if my thought has resurrected them, I look up and there they are, standing side by side on the edge of the curb, completely unharmed! They’re still in their church clothes—Dad in a raggedy old gray suit and tie that would have gone into the trash fifteen years ago in a normal world, and Mom in her homespun blue dirndl and white blouse with the frilly neckline. I run up to them, shouting and laughing and crying: “Mommy Daddy Mommy Daddy,” and I throw myself on Dad, hugging him tight. But he doesn’t hug me back, doesn’t say my name, doesn’t move or twitch… and when I pull away, puzzled and hurt, he topples over backward into Mom, bowling her over, and they both collapse gracelessly to the pavement, their heads making two audible thumps. I’m too shocked even to scream, though I try to cram my fists into my mouth as Amos and Suzie come running up.
Amos kneels down and touches my father on the forehead. Dad’s eyes are open, as are Mom’s. I can see them blinking, hear them breathing, so I know they’re alive. “Mr. Riordan? Mrs. Riordan?” Amos says.
Suzie is kneeling too. “Harry? Nancy? Are you all right?” There’s no answer. They don’t look at Suzie or Amos or me. The just lie there on their backs, Dad sprawled on top of Mom, the whites of their eyes shining dimly in the reflected glow of the fires burning all over town.
“What’s the matter with them?” Amos says.
I tug on Dad’s left arm, trying to pull him off Mom. He doesn’t resist, but it’s like trying to move a sack of fertilizer, something I never did succeed in doing during our Agriculture Student Service Learning hours. Amos helps me roll Dad over onto his side. But we can’t just leave them here on the freezing, dark sidewalk, with the fat snowflakes falling fast, mingled with the ashes of Moloch and who knows how many people. “Come on,” I say to Amos, “help me put them on their feet.”
“But they aren’t—”
Instead of arguing I grab Dad under the armpits and try to haul him upright. Amos does his best to help me. I don’t really believe it will work, but to my amazement, once we set him on his feet he stays that way, gazing off blankly into the distance. Suzie helps me with Mom. “Okay, now what?” she says.
“If they can stand, maybe they can walk,” I say. “I’ll try nudging Dad forward. Amos, you catch him if he starts to fall.”
“This is crazy. They’re not even aware of what’s going on around them,” Amos objects, but he stands in front of Dad, hands out, as I give him a little push. My father steps toward Amos, who backs up until he reaches the end of the block. Standing on the crumbling curb, he licks his lips and stands his ground, hands out to stop Dad. Dad walks right into him, stops and stands there as placidly as when I first saw him.
“Guys,” Suzie says, her tone edgy. “It’s not just Mr. and Mrs. Riordan. Look around you.”
The light is a little stronger now, thanks to the flickering flames through the smoky haze, and a hot breath of wind brushes my cheek as I look up and see a ragged line of people stretching down Derby Road. Everyone’s dressed in their Cathedral best, just like Mom and Dad, and just like I would be if this was a normal All Souls Day. But they’re all standing still, staring vacantly into the distance, except for a few who must have bumped into each other or tripped over something and lie sprawling where they fell. Old people in their forties, new high school graduates like us, little kids… it makes no difference, they all look perfectly fine, look their best in fact, but they don’t move or speak or do anything but stand or lie still, breathing in and out evenly, eyes open, staring at nothing. “What is it?” I say, close to tears again. “What’s happened to everybody? We freed them from Moloch, and now this… this… what is it?”
“I think I know what it is,” Suzie says calmly. “And if I’m right, there’s no way to help them. They’re as good as dead. Or worse.”
Review by: deadaris, Charnel House Reviews
Is it ready yet? Is it ready yet? Is it ready yet?
Review by: San Francisco Review of Books, by Grady Harp
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