When It Was Ripe by Evan Dicken [sci-fi/horror]

When It Was Ripe by Evan Dicken

Trina was listening to the radio when the stars disappeared. She was out of her cabin in a flash, the dew-covered grass cool on her bare feet as she sprinted past the woodpile. Other Brethren stood outside their cabins, smiling as the Moon guttered overhead in a sky gone flat as a sheet of tempered glass.

She found Russell in the sanctuary, ministering to one of the younger girls. He had his shirt off, his skin slicked with sweat as he caressed tonight’s chosen bride. Even excited as she was, Trina knew better than to interrupt Russell while the spirit of God moved him. She stood at the back of the room, fingers working the hem of her cotton shift, remembering the feel of his hands, the rough scratch of his beard on her neck as his whispered benedictions tapered off into hoarse breathing.

He’d said he needed her, that she was special, but how long had it been since she’d last been chosen?

“Sister Trina, I told you not to come in here again. You must move past your jealousy.”

Russell stood, pulling on his shirt as he walked toward her. For a moment, Trina thought she saw grey amidst the patchy tangle of hair on his chest, but it must have been a trick of the light. Russell didn’t age like normal men, he’d said so himself.

A bead of sweat tickled its way down her back. She bowed her head, almost unable to believe the words that slipped from her mouth.

“It’s started. Just like you said it would.”

***

They all gathered around the radio, listening as panic crept across the announcer’s voice like ice on a winter pond. Sea levels had fallen by a hundred feet or more. Europe and Africa were gone, scooped from the bedrock as if by some massive hand. Scientists were baffled, politicians gnashed their teeth, and priests conjured names like Judgment Day and Armageddon.

Finally, unable to contain themselves, the Brethren burst into song. Hands raised to the darkening sky, they danced through the compound. Joy made a warm bubble in Trina’s chest, so pure and light it seemed she would float away. Only Russell remained silent, face pale beneath his dark beard.

Drunk with excitement, Trina touched his arm. Russell’s skin was fever hot under her fingertips, his muscles tense and trembling. She drew her hand back.

“It can’t be.” He gave a quick shake, as if freeing himself from the grip of a chill.

Trina stepped back as he snatched the radio from the table and smashed it on the ground.

The dancing stopped.

“My children, do not believe these lies.” Russell climbed onto the table. “They are but tools of the great deceiver, sent to trick us from the path of righteousness.”

“But it’s just as you foretold.” Trina spoke into the silence of his indrawn breath, her tone flattening into catechism. “…and lo, shall the skies grow dark and the oceans run dry as the lands of the unrighteous are devoured. So then shall the Prophet be staked upon the mount and—”

“No!” Russell’s lips drew back from his teeth, his eyes shining with something Trina would’ve almost mistaken for hate had she not known him incapable of that emotion. “I have seen the end, but it is not today. Not yet.”

The ground gave an ominous rumble.

Trina fell to her knees, her fingers working into the thick, wet loam of the field. She looked up at Russell, saw his gaze dart around the compound, hands outstretched, pleading. He looked just as he had the night when she was chosen, when he’d first said he needed her.

In that moment, Trina knew what she had to do.

“We believe in you, Russell.” She pushed herself up from the ground. “Believe in yourself.”

A heartbeat of silence, then a girl’s high voice echoed Trina’s words. “We believe.”

Others took up the call.

Someone pressed a coil of rope into Trina’s hands, still heavy from the shed’s damp. The world was about to end, and only Russell could fling the doors of Heaven wide for the Brethren.

We believe.

He shouted as they pulled him from the table, but his words were lost amidst the rising chorus. He was the chosen of God, the one true path. He’d said so himself.

We believe.

They carried him to the woodpile, held him against the stake as he thrashed and kicked. Some of the Brethren flinched at the blows, but Trina suffered the bruises gladly. This was meant to be. They’d given themselves to Russell so that one day he could give himself to them.

We believe.

The smell of kerosene was sharp in Trina’s nose as she threaded the rope around Russell’s chest, feeling his beard against her cheek, the warmth of his breath as she leaned in to kiss him on the forehead.

“I love you.” She slipped from the woodpile to join hands with the others. They sang and prayed as the fire eclipsed the waning moon. Its heat washed over them, carrying away their sins.

It wouldn’t be long now. Although God had needed six days to create the world, it would take Him far less time to eat it.

The ground shook and split, but Trina wasn’t afraid. Her place in Heaven was secure. She looked into the flames—saw Russell twist and fall, his wordless screams transmuted into a swirling column of sparks. A few drifted down, like hot kisses on her face and neck.

The heat snatched away Trina’s grateful tears. Russell was right—Russell had always been right.

In the end, he had needed her.

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