Part One — Prophecy
Others would start this story on the day the sky shattered, or the night all those poor Hispanics 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 Connie Blain called and asked if I could pay her a visit as soon as possible. She was worried about her son Delbert. I told her I would be right over.
I was working on Sunday's sermon when she called. In reality, I was staring at a few half-hearted notes, trying not to think about taking 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 was going to call on the Blain residence.
"You should take a parasol, Padre." Lucinda drew an umbrella from the stand by the door and offered it to me.
"It hasn't rained in weeks."
"There is something loco with the sky. 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 pushed away the offered umbrella. "I will be fine. I'm only going a few blocks. Don't worry about me. Perhaps you should make some more calls and see if you can find out about your sister."
Lucinda's sister, Maria, was supposed to join her from Mexico on the previous day. She was due to have a baby soon and she wanted the child to be born in the United States. Lucinda had helped arrange the illegal border crossing, and would not discuss the details with me. She was very upset that her sister had not arrived as scheduled.
Now she knitted up her brow in concern. "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 southeast of town.
"Do you think my Maria might be one of them?"
"You trust the people who were bringing her over?"
"Si, but you never know. No one answers when I try to call."
"Then keep trying."
"Si, Padre." She held the door for me as I stepped out into the surreal summer landscape.
It was not without reason that Lucinda was worried about me venturing out into the open air. The sky overhead 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 sky. Yet, as an overcast sky can leave a person brooding and depressed, so this sky left everyone who saw it feeling ill inside, as though there was something terribly wrong in you and in the world around you, and everyone would soon suffer for it.
Had someone sliced open the heavens and spilled their blood into the sky 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. If adjectives such as sore and inflamed could apply to the air, they fit this sky.
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 was there a hint of blue. What few clouds formed in a summer Arizona sky looked like bloated pockets of reddened pus. A red sun glared down by day, and by night the stars bled mournfully while the moon glowered.
The sky was like this the entire world round. Everyone had seen the images on television — the sky over the EiffelTower, over Moscow, over the Forbidden City, over the Himalayas, over Antarctica, over Machu Pichu. There were massive protests around the globe, verging on riots. Environmentalists converged with religious fanatics to proclaim the end was at hand. There was no disputing that humans had made a mess of things. Even the President of Exxon-Mobile had to admit some responsibility for the phenomenon.
While I did not agree with Reverend Chassey over at the HolyRedeemerChurch that the end-times were here, it was quite clear we were heading for trouble. One look at the sky was enough to assure you that a storm was forming, and humanity would be very lucky if it survived once this tempest passed. It was a time of fearful waiting, punctuated by outbreaks of panic and self-recrimination.
This atmospheric phenomenon first began nearly a year ago. It started in a very localized and temporary fashion. Crimson blossoms were first witnessed along the Arctic Circle, in Alaska, Norway and Siberia. Then 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. If anything, it intensified.
If researchers had determined the cause of this disturbance, the knowledge was not shared with the general public. No one wanted to talk about it . When people did mention it, they spoke 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 know that I made those darting glances myself, as when I stepped out of the rectory to visit the Blain household. Behind me, Lucinda glanced up at the sky and 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 with it 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, plying myself with brandy until I either forgot what was happening or no longer cared. In truth, the sky only gave me another excuse to drink — until that day when I went to call on the Blain residence.
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