“We can only appreciate the miracle of a sunrise if we have waited in the darkness.”
Polly Prater died when no one was looking. Sitting in her favorite rocking chair on her back porch, watching the sunrise while sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea with a touch of honey. Her husband had returned to the kitchen to cook her breakfast. Though largely devoid of culinary skill, scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast adorned with homemade raspberry preserves was just this side of doable for him. Besides, it was the least he could do to honor fifty years of marriage.
When he returned with a plate of food, Polly’s rocker sat still. Tea dripped from the cup that dangled from her lifeless, bony fingers. A look of peaceful serenity adorned her face.
That’s how she’d gone. Peacefully. Quietly. Without regrets.
Seth’s stomach churned at the memory. How long had it been now? Seventy? Eighty years? With the setting sun nearly below the horizon, the looming twilight didn’t make it easy to read Polly’s tombstone. He squinted. The year of her death was still discernable chiseled into the pink granite: 1937.
Seth’s colleagues loitered nearby. He draped his black leather jacket over his shoulder and strolled down the row of gravestones through the partially withered grass, recalling the manner of death of each person. Natural causes. Pneumonia. Stroke. Heart attack. Lung cancer – though Mr. Johnston Pettigrew was well into his seventies before a lifetime of smoking finally caught up to him.
Each fatality was a testament to the common, simplistic life of the residents of Briar Ridge. A town where nothing changed – not even diets or opinions. A community of folks who clung with fierce tenacity to words like “tradition” and “family values.” A place so removed from the reaches of the world that it reveled in a cocoon of isolation, far from the maddening and corrupt ways of the modern, fast-paced world.
One side of his mouth curled up. That was an illusion.
What the residents of Briar Ridge did not know was that they weren’t as untouchable as they thought. They could be forever affected by events – especially by those in their own backyard.
Seth stopped and looked toward the gates of the cemetery, past his companions whose long shadows were now swallowed up by the arrival of darkness. Sure, there had been minor successes over the years as the theory was tested. But the small town in Connecticut proved what could happen if things were well planned and executed – and brought to the very doorstep of unsuspecting and ill-prepared souls.
The twinkling lights of the innocent town danced in the distance. Time to open a new battlefront in the war. Time to remind the enemy what it was like to hurt.
“Seth, we might have a problem.”
Trajan’s comment just over his shoulder jarred Seth from his thoughts. He turned and studied his colleague as if to ask: What problem could there possibly be?
Trajan nodded his head in the opposite direction. Three figures loomed in the darkness, weaving their way past the silent graves. The figure in front was not one of the crew as the shoving and prodding of the other two clearly indicated.
Seth brought down his jacket and draped it over his arm. The lead figure was thrown down in front of Seth and landed with a thud and muffled groan, bound hands prevented any chance of the prisoner breaking his own fall.
“They found him in town,” Trajan said with a trace of nervousness not usually present in his voice. “Maybe there are others. Maybe they know?”
Curious, Seth squatted next to the man, though careful not to let his jacket touch the ground, and helped him sit up against a marble grave. He slid his fingers under the captive’s chin and gently raised his head so they were face to face. “Hello, Yaris.”
Yaris’ eyes widened in recognition and his shoulders sagged as though his body deflated from a sudden loss of air.
A smile was hard to resist, and Seth fought it only for a moment. Grinning, he said, “It’s been a long time. Let’s see … when did Constantinople fall?”
Yaris looked away. Though the duct tape prevented him from speaking, he really didn’t have to – the look in his eyes and his slack face said it all. Defeat.
Struggling to break free made no difference. Seth studied the gold halo firmly fixed to the top of Yaris’ head and relished the irony. A device once used to capture and expel Seth and the others from paradise could also be used on its own kind. The beauty of the halo was that it also worked when they were in human form, confining the captive to the primitive, earthly body and depriving the celestial being of the ability to return home.
“That’s okay, Yaris. I know you don’t feel like reminiscing. Nor will I rub your capture in your face and make fun of your hopeless situation. All I ask is that you answer me honestly. Do that and I’ll let you go. Understand?”
Yaris turned and cast a leery expression, dripping with doubt and defiance.
Seth leaned forward and slowly caressed Yaris’ cheek with his index finger. “Make no mistake. You will leave scarred.” A soft red glow emanated from Seth’s finger, scorching Yaris’ flesh with intense heat.
The prisoner threw his head back against the tombstone amidst a muffled scream. The odor of burning skin wafted between them. Tears of pain dripped from Yaris’ eyes.
“I don’t like hurting you. But I promise, you will live and still get to roam Creation if you tell me the truth. Deal?”
Yaris’ chest heaved in search of breath, and Seth waited for him to collect himself. After a moment, a pair of sad, forlorn eyes closed as Yaris nodded in agreement.
Seth ripped off the duct tape with a quick tug. “Now, do any guardians know I’m here?”
Yaris lifted his bound hands and wiped his mouth. “No.”
“Are any guardians alerted to our presence?”
“So, if I send my colleagues into town, they won’t run into any surprises. Will they?”
Yaris shook his head.
“No, all right? No other guardians are out. Why would they be? I mean, what are you thugs doing here anyway?” Yaris cast a nervous look at the large group forming around Seth.
“You’ll see soon enough.” Seth slid a hand under Yaris’ arm and helped him to his feet. He guided him to a seat on the tombstone behind him and replaced the duct tape. “Trajan, Zyro. Sweep the town. See if there are any guardians waiting for us or anything at all that looks like we’re heading into a trap. I’ve spent the past three years working for this, and I’m not about to have it spoiled at the last second.”
The two lieutenants nodded and disappeared into the darkness.
A cold gust of wind swept through the cemetery, stirring up the few autumn leaves that littered the dry ground. Seth put on his leather jacket and lit a cigarette. Though bitter cold was a permanent condition, inhaling the warm, toxic fumes provided a feeble but temporary respite.
After an hour passed and nearly half a pack of cigarettes smoked, the two scouts returned.
“We’ve walked the streets of Briar Ridge, Seth. No guardians are out. None.”
“Have our two heroes made it into town?”
“And they’re with the pill popper?”
“As we speak.”
So Yaris had told the truth, as expected. The grin couldn’t be suppressed. Three years of work was about to pay off. And even though that small amount of time hardly registered as a blink of an eye, it still took great effort to manipulate lives and get all the pieces into place, especially while under constant scrutiny from the guardians. But if they hadn’t caught on to what was happening yet, there was no way they could stop what was coming.
There was only one thing left to do. He stood in front of Yaris, still perched on the edge of the marbled tombstone. “Thank you for telling me the truth. Like I said, if you were honest with me, I’ll let you go.”
He moved closer to Yaris until no more than a foot separated them. “The only problem is – I lied.” With a sudden thrust of both hands, jets of red light struck Yaris in the chest. He tumbled backwards off the grave and fell to the ground, muffled screams emanating through the duct tape.
Seth walked around the marble slab and threw bolt after bolt of hot light into Yaris until the writhing, screaming guardian caught fire from head to toe.
The flames cast an ominous flicker of light around the crowd that closed in to watch. Smoke danced upward into the cold, night air, carrying with it the stench of burning flesh.
The onlookers watched the burning of Yaris’ corpse in silent enjoyment until Trajan finally stepped forward. “What are your orders?”
It was time. Seth stepped away from the small fire and observed, with quiet satisfaction, the unsuspecting town one last time. Its last night of ignorance, its last night of living and believing in the illusion.
“Let it begin.”