When God visits Shawnee, lives will be changed forever. One plumber tries hard to avoid a fate he doesn't know is coming.
God has given you one face, and you make yourself another
Hamlet. Act I, Scene 3
God came to Shawnee on Thursday.
It was the first thing the waitress said to Stan when he went to the Hickory Diner, "Mornin' Stan, hear the news? We got God came in this morning."
"That so?" Stan grunted back. "Who is it? One of the big ones? And can I get some coffee?"
"They say He's called Jack. Never heard of Him before. Coffee coming up," she said while hurrying off to her next customer.
Jack, thought Stan. Unusual name for a God. They usually went with classic mythological names or some multisyllabic nonsense that sounded impressive. He would not think about Ares. Or Divinitrice.
The TV news showed Him arriving at the temple in the early morning hours. Apparently Jack didn't like to be photographed, since a large black spot was all that appeared where He should have been. He arrived at the temple at 3:30 that morning.
That was the same time Stan got a call from Rosa Ramos about the burst pipes in her basement. It was probably just a coincidence, he thought. Twenty years ago he'd travelled in Ares' war host, and he knew that coincidences could be dangerous things when They were involved. He forced himself to stop thinking about Ares. It would lead to thoughts of lost friends. Stan added sugar to his coffee, thinking it through.
Rosa Ramos was a young widow managing her late husband's properties. She didn't try to fix things on her own; she called in experts when there were problems as soon as she knew about them. That looked bad to Stan, more of a coincidence than he liked when God was concerned. On the other hand, the basement was flooded when he got there. The pipes had clearly burst two or three hours earlier. It might have taken time for the tenants to notice, or maybe to waken Rosa since it was after midnight. Either way, whatever accident resulted in him getting up before dawn had taken place several hours before Jack's arrival.
Stan still distrusted the coincidence, but he'd satisfied himself that there was no likely relation between the events. Since there was nothing he could do about it anyway, he put it out of his mind.
A few seats down, a man he didn't know was talking to the waitress, Lita, about the last time a God visited Shawnee. Five years back, Ptah had come through and stopped for a few days at the temple to relax. That man had been there when Ptah roughly doubled the temple's size and put in the new marble front. He was hoping to see something equally amazing this time around.
Stan was hoping he'd see nothing. He expected to be disappointed.
Soon Lita came around to him to take his order. "You don't usually make the breakfast crowd, hon. What's up?"
"Early morning call, burst pipes in a basement," Stan answered. "Some new parent figured they could flush cloth diapers."
"And you make the call before breakfast?" she answered incredulously. "I'll give you a call next time I have plumbing problems."
He smiled back, "Sure thing, long as you're willing to pay my premium rates. Heard anything about the new God? Like, is He staying long, or here for a reason?"
Lita rested her elbows on the counter and leaned in closer, "Well, I heard from one of the cops who was there when God came. He's a boy, looks like a teenager they say. All black hair and black jacket and the like. But He walks a few inches off the ground, at least that's what I hear.
"He announces himself at the temple, and waits for the priests to welcome Him, that's when they got the footage you see up there," she said pointing at the television. "The priests come out and escort Him in, probably none too happy to wake up that early, not that they say anything with Him there. That's all anyone's heard. I'm sure we'll hear more soon."
He watched the news while eating his apple pancakes, but it turned out they didn't have anything to add. Stan reflected that he learned more by talking to a waitress than listening to people whose job was to find things out.
His day was already booked, so he finished breakfast, paid, and left. He figured he'd hear more in the evening.
Stan drove his old truck up his driveway that evening, after a long hard day. The light brown paint on his one-story, three bedroom house was faded in places, but he wouldn't have to repaint this year. Maybe next year. The light was on in the large front window.
Inside was his wife's domain, but the yard was his. He looked around before going inside. It was in good shape, well maintained and reasonably weed free. He had a white picket fence surrounding the house, freshly whitewashed so it looked clean and welcoming. His house was not the largest or even nicest in the neighborhood, but it was his and he was proud of it.
"Hi there Sweetie," he called out as he opened the door.
"Finally. You're back," answered his wife Ellen. Trouble.
At 44, Ellen remained a beautiful woman, especially in Stan's eyes. She was a tall woman, just a bit shorter than him. Her black hair reached to her shoulders, curled in front, a style Stan always found sexy. There were no grey hairs on her head, and by common agreement Stan never saw any of the hair color products in the bathroom. Her Chinese grandmother gave her upturned eyes that made her stand out in the Kansas heartland. If those eyes were always a touch too close to tears, that was also something Stan had learned to ignore.
"Do you know what your boy did today?" she accused as she stormed out of the kitchen.
He was right. Again. Trouble. Their son Luke was 'his boy' when he got in trouble, which was more and more recently.
Before she built up too much steam, he gave Ellen a hug and kiss. There may be trouble, but that's no reason to forego the necessities. "What did he do now?"
"He got into a fight in school and has detention for two weeks. He could have broken a bone, or the other kid could have had a knife. They could have kicked him out of school so he wouldn't graduate, and then where would he be? I grounded him, but he just ignored me and ran off with his friends. I tried to call you. Why was your phone off?" Her voice rose steadily through her tirade. Stan would soon be the target of her rage if he let her continue.
"Sorry, it wasn't off, I was in basements most of the day. Bad reception." He put his hands on her shoulders and looked right into her eyes, "You know I'd never ignore you. Hearing your voice always makes my day a little better."
Ellen was calming down, so he added, "Just let me say hello to Maria and I'll go find him." He paused briefly, grinned at her, and said, "She's not in trouble too, is she?"
Ellen smiled back briefly before putting on her angry face again. She waved him on and went back to the kitchen.
The family room had pale beige paint with a walnut chair rail and a Japanese ink print border near the ceiling. An old but serviceable black sofa and loveseat dominated the room, both pointing towards a 42" television mounted on the wall. The spinning ceiling fan cast moving shadows on a portrait of the family from three years ago on the side wall.
A small eight year old girl was sprawled on the textured carpet in front of the sofa, talking on her phone while an old Happy Days episode played on the television.
"Hey there Princess," Stan called. She put the phone down to give her father a hug.
"Hi Daddy," she chirped. "I got an A in spelling today."
"Good for you," he praised. "Don't let me keep you from your important conversations," Stan teased, pointing to the phone. "I'm going to go pick up your brother. Be good, OK?"
Five minutes, he thought to himself. A full day's work, and all he gets to spend at home is five minutes before he has to head off again.
"I'll be back with Luke," he called. He hoped he sounded more cheerful than he felt.
Stan suspected he'd be able to find his son at the Shawnee Skatepark. The concrete jungle was a popular hangout for teenagers because it was easy to find secluded spots. It had not been maintained, so you didn't even have to worry about sharing the park with bikers or skateboarders.
Stan had used the park to get away from his parents when he was a teenager. It was a slightly morose thought for him, as so many of the friends he'd go there with had not come back from the wars.
A yellow sign announced the park was condemned, but there was a large hole in the chain link fence right next to it. Numerous other holes had been cut for those teens too lazy to simply climb over the fence. Stan slipped in easily.
The park's concrete bowls and half pipes were cracked and crumbling. Benches were broken, and only the frames of the old picnic tables remained. It had decayed since Stan's youth, but it had been in bad shape even then. The graffiti that covered so many surfaces was new.
"Rape Dawn" was accompanied by a suitably vulgar drawing. "Scorpions Rising" was a traditional secular rallying cry, but one rarely voiced in public. "Screw God" or some variation was popular. A large "Z" was accompanied by the slogan, "Let 'em eat." Stan felt chilled. How far had things fallen? Were these the rantings of teenage showoffs, or was there a movement against the power of God? He was tired. He'd think about it some other time.
He looked in a few bowls without luck, but the sight of cigarette smoke from an old half-pipe gave his son away.
Stan was still in his work clothes, jeans, tee-shirt and work boots. He had his tool belt and weapons. His tee shirt left his burn scarred left arm visible, a constant reminder of his veteran status. His hair was thinner and greyer, and he had a slightly bigger paunch, but he knew he'd cut an imposing figure to a group of teenage boys.
"Young man," he yelled, "your mother grounded you."
Luke was sitting down smoking. He had just turned 18, had a growth spurt in the last year, and was now taller than his father. He had long sideburns and wore a black tee shirt showing off an anti-theist scorpion tattoo on his arm. He'd gotten the tattoo without permission last year, an early sign of his growing rebellion
Two of his friends were there with him, passing around the cigarette. Pete Campbell was an inch taller and more athletic than Luke. He had dark skin and close cropped hair. He had been friends with Luke since they were kids. They'd gone from playing together to getting in trouble together.
The other boy, Danny Clement, was a more recent addition to their circle. Dressed in his grandfather's army jacket, he was one of nature's natural hoodlums.
The three boys jumped up and started to run. Pete yelled "S' Mr. Overton. Scram."
Stan grabbed Luke before he could get up, letting the other two run. "Come with me. Now."
He had Luke's arm in a vise. Luke might be taller than him, but Stan was a grown man, a plumber and craftsman, and his teenage son had the same chance to get away as a mouse from Athena's owl.
They marched back to the truck. Luke complained along the way, "Let me go, I have my rights. I'm 18 and you can't do this to me. I'll call the cops. This is child abuse."
Stan didn't respond. He set his face in his best Dad-grimace and kept moving.
Once Stan had him in the truck, he opened up. "What do you think you're doing? Fighting in school! We raised you better than that. Dawn's Grace, you're going to kill your mother."
"You and Mom are such fascists," the teenage boy spat back.
Ah, Stan thought. We're on the fascist speech. Next he'll be complaining that I didn't ask for his side of the story.
"You just automatically assume the school is right, and don't even ask for my side. You take everyone's side against me. I thought family's supposed to stick together. Isn't that what you keep telling me, Dad?"
"Stop the excuses. I'm not in the mood. We're going home. You will apologize to your Mother for worrying her. Then you will do your homework." Luke started to say something, Stan stopped him before he even got going. "Don't even try it. You have homework to do."
The house looked less welcoming than it did the first time Stan came home tonight. The Sun was just setting, matching his dismal mood.
"Sorry for worrying you, Mom," Luke muttered sullenly. He noisily got his schoolbooks out and slammed them on the floor while sprawling out to study, or at least to pretend to.
It was all Stan could hope for while he ate a late supper.
Sunlight streamed through the windows when Stan took his first bite of applesauce. Seconds earlier the sun had been setting. They all turned in surprise. It was daylight.
Stan stood up to look outside. The moon shone and the stars sparkled in the night sky over a town that was lit by an absent noon sun. With barely suppressed panic, Ellen said, "God's in town."
Stan hoped it wasn't permanent.
"Daddy," asked Maria, "What was it like before the Gods came?"
Stan laughed a bit, "Daddy's not that old Princess. Anansi arrived five years before I was born."
Maria squeezed between Stan and the table to get on his lap. "Come on Daddy. Grandpa told you stories. I know he did. Tell me."
"I know when I'm beat," said Stan with exaggerated remorse. "But let's bring it to the sofa. It's a little more comfortable there when I've got little girl on my lap." He stood up abruptly, picking Maria up with him to squeals of delight.
"In the dark days before the Gods arrived to save us, the world was ravaged by Silverstorms," Stan started. He dropped his voice a bit, and used the singsong patterns he heard in the temples. "Those destructive bursts followed the Disaster of St. Petersburg and reigned unchecked for a generation. In their wake was death, for they destroyed whatever they touched."
"Like the dead lands in Florida," Maria piped in.
"That's right. The dead lands were one place a storm hit. Nothing lives there or grows there any more. A hundred mile long strip of dirt and mud. Anything that goes too far into it still dies."
"You didn't," she said.
"Well obviously, otherwise I couldn't do this." Stan started tickling the little girl in his lap, who laughed uproariously. "I just went out a few steps and started feeling sick. I shouldn't even have done that." He didn't like talking about his time in the war host, but he'd traveled more than most people because of it.
"So, where was I? The silverstorms destroyed whatever they touched. Except when they didn't. No one knows why," Stan slipped back into his storytelling voice, "but sometimes the storms changed things rather than destroying them. Wisps, mickets, and even brocken were all new things left behind in the wake of storms.
"Our ancestors were smart. Oh, a few tried to use the chaos in the storms' wake to their advantage, but most recognized the threat. The best among them worked out ways to predict the storms, and even to stop them and beat them back. It was the greatest achievement of mankind."
"That's the ticket all right," quipped Luke, "greatest achievement ever was to fail to do anything and hope God would save us."
"Don't interrupt your father like that," Ellen snapped at Luke. "Be nice. Daddy's telling your sister this story."
"It's OK," said Stan in peacemaker mode. "Luke is right, after all, that they failed. They didn't win. But they stopped a storm, something people thought was impossible. They were winning, if not for what happened next."
"The... zombies stopped it, right?" chirped Maria quietly. She looked around cautiously, like even saying the word might make one show up. Ellen put one hand over her mouth while crossing her heart with the other. Luke looked at the sunlight outside nervously, then covered his reaction by smiling and giving a quick fist pump.
"That's right Princess. A silverstorm hit Venice, Italy and left behind," Stan was surprised how hard it was for him to say the word, "the first zombies. They spread their plague, and soon they fanned out from Europe to all the corners of the world. All progress trying to stop the storms ended. They attacked, they infiltrated, and they sabotaged. Cooperation ended amid their assault. Maybe they manipulated us into attacking each other, or maybe they gave us an excuse, but the peace ended."
They were still out there. They all knew it. There was an army post in Shawnee. Its whole purpose was to watch Kansas City, to make sure the zombies didn't break out. Not that there'd be much the Army could do, but maybe they had a phone line to the Gods. And maybe if they called, the Gods wouldn't hang up.
He'd fought zombies when he was a young man in Ares' first war host. He'd learned to both hate and fear mankind's eternal foe. They called their enemies zombies, because that was the order. But they called their foe Victor. No matter what their orders were, they knew what they were fighting.
Ares was much more confusing. A brilliant leader, perhaps the greatest of all the Gods, but harsh, and more than willing to upend the lives of countless young men for his crusades. In some ways he'd rescued Stan, who was drifting after the Temple vetoed his application to attend college.
Maria was looking at him to get on with the story.
"The storms continued. God Himself stepped out of Heaven to save us. Our bodies could not contain His glory, so he entered into many. Anansi was the first. More followed. They had power beyond anything we'd ever seen," Stan said while vaguely pointing out the window, where sunlight fell without the annoyance of an actual sun. "They are many, and yet they are One. They contained the plague. They stopped the storms. In return, they ask for our worship.
"So we build the temples and we pray to them. They protect us, because that's what God does."
"Coyote crap," snapped Luke.
Whatever Luke was going to add, he never got the chance. Ellen jumped in, "Enough. Don't use language like that in the house. You're still grounded, so go to your room." She grabbed Luke's ear and pulled him back to his room.
Stan could have told Maria much more, but she was too young. Aside from protecting them with His near infinite power, God demanded absolute obedience. Their words were law. They didn't always agree with each other, they even fought each other on occasion. Mankind was left to figure out what to do when given contradictory orders.
It wasn't that bad here in the States, he thought. The Gods let us continue to govern ourselves except where They gave direct orders, and They'd used their miracles to let people maintain a semblance of modern life, at least in the cities.
The countryside was not so pleasant. Outside the protection of the cities people faced the ravages left behind by the storms. The infrastructure so lovingly built up over the last century or two was broken. The miracles that helped them bridge the gaps in the cities were sparser or nonexistent.
The cities still had problems. Miracles rarely required human intervention. As a result, people were often left with nothing to do. The city and the temple provided jobs for any who needed them, but they were little more than make-work positions.
Other countries had it worse. There was still news and communication from England, but there was a blackout from the rest of Europe. Stan had heard rumors about what happened in Germany and... He would never mention them to his daughter. There was a pantheon of Gods who took over the southern part of Africa. They called themselves the Lunatics. Stan wished there was a news blackout on what They did.
In comparison, their life here in Shawnee was pretty good. It helped if you told yourself that. Maria would learn the truth one day, but she didn't need to learn it yet.
Sunlight continued to shine over Shawnee until a few hours after midnight, when darkness returned.
The Sun came up the next morning and supplied its light in the usual manner, without any additional miracles. Stan and Ellen got the kids off to school. He reminded Luke that he was grounded, and was to come straight home from school. Luke sulked his way to the schoolbus.
Barely into the start of his day, Stan got a call from a local gym, Fitness World. "We've got a problem here Stan," said Bob Katsoulis, the gym manager, "All the hot water in the men's showers is out. Can you get over here for repairs?" Bob called Stan whenever he had plumbing problems, he'd been a customer for years.
Stan was already booked for the day, but the gym was a good customer, "I think I can get over there. You need me immediately?"
"If possible, yes."
"That's emergency rates, then. But yeah, I can make it within the hour." He ran through the day's jobs, and figured if he skipped lunch he could still get to all his customers today.
He got to the gym, checked in with the manager, and went right back to the men's room. The first thing he did was to turn on the showers and confirm there was no hot water. He'd gotten bad reports before.
The next thing he did was to check the sinks. They didn't have hot water either. The whole men's room was missing hot water. He'd hoped for an easy fix, changing the balancer or maybe some washers in a few showers.
"Bob," he called out to the gym manager, "Can I get in to the utility room? I want to check that no one shut off the hot water valve by mistake. Thanks." He'd learned long ago to always check the obvious problems first. User error was always an obvious problem.
The utility room was in back of the gym. A bunch of men were in the gym working out. Most of them had city jobs that were only part time, and this was one of the ways they filled in the rest of their day. He'd had to live that way for a few years before Ares, and vowed never to return to that life. He knew some of the men casually, so he waved before continuing.
He checked the valves in the utility room in a few moments, and unfortunately everything was hooked up properly.
Stan thought about the problem. This was a big, obvious issue. There was no hot water reaching the men's room at all. All the valves were open, and the water heater was working properly. If there was a leak, it was a big one. Something should be flooded, but nothing was. He had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, as he offered a quick prayer to Dawn and Ares that he was wrong about what he was thinking.
He made sure his pistol was loaded and ready, safety on. Among the dubious gifts of the silverstorms were a variety of creatures with a love for water pipes. Hot water disappearing without a leak was the main symptom here. Stan thought again, and checked that his portable welding torch was fully charged. He had to take some risks as part of his job, but he could minimize them.
He sought out Bob again to keep him up to date. "I'm going to have to check the pipes leading to the men's room. Might mean going into the walls. I'll try to avoid it."
"Whoa, hoss," answered the manager. "That's sounding like more'n I signed on for. What's the big problem here?"
"Don't know for sure," Stan answered, "but if I was taking a guess, I'd go with a water wisp."
The manager's eyes widened. He'd heard of them, of course. Wisps could cut through any barrier. Nothing could stop them. They could only live in water, but they could steer it, make solid tubes of water in the air.
"Yeah, OK," he stammered. "I'll be, well, I'll be up front. Sorry Stan."
"No worries," said Stan, "this is my job. Been here before. Only once, mind you, but I have done this before. Keep safe, and keep folks away from me. K?"
A flash of light.
A wall of sound.
Stan and Bob fell off their feet. When the ringing in his ears died, Stan heard sirens blaring outside. He and Bob went to look outside, following a crowd of exercisers doing the same thing.
A Shell gas station was hanging in the air near the lake, a hundred feet or more off the ground. The convenience store hovered in the air, with the nearby gas pumps attached to nothing but keeping their positions relative to the store.
"What do you think is going on?" Stan asked.
"God. Jack," answered the manager.
Stan nodded, though that much was obvious. He listened just in case someone else knew what was happening.
"What do you think? Zombies in the lake?" "What's He got against gas?" "This is gonna kill on the drive home."
A wag commented, "He's showing them how to really raise the prices," to general laughter.
A pillar of fire shot from the sky, pierced through the aerial gas station, and plunged to the ground beneath. The pillar stayed in place, while three small javelins of fire flew down alongside it to hit the ground. The pillar vanished.
The charred remnants of the gas station settled gently back to the ground. Sirens wailed as rescue crews headed towards the disaster. The crowd's laughter had vanished as soon as the fire began raining down. It dispersed as quickly as its earlier mirth faded. Few re-entered the gym, instead going off to more serious or at least more solitary pursuits.
The entire spectacle lasted less than five minutes.
Stan watched for a few more minutes, but when no more miracles manifested themselves, he went back inside to get to work. He decided that Jack had made his job easier, praise him and all that. The gym rats were scattering, so there would be fewer bystanders for his work.
The pipes ran through the ceiling, between the floors, so he was able to trace them easily enough. He found the problem, and sadly he'd had it right. There was a stream of water leading from the pipes floating in mid air like there was an invisible pipe leading away. It had been almost a decade since Stan had seen its like.
He panned over the pipes with a bright flashlight. Wisps hated light, one reason water pipes were a nice habitat for them. He had to concentrate on the job, but he kept thinking about Ellen and the kids. Wisps were dangerous. He scanned the entire area three times, until he was at last satisfied the wisp was no longer present, then he marked the section of pipe.
He turned off the hot water to the men's room and returned. The tunnel of water in the air got lower and lower. When there was only a bit of water left, the whole thing collapsed and the last bit fell down onto the ceiling tiles.
He swept the area with his flashlight again, and then once more to be sure. Finally convinced it was safe, he cut out the section of tube the snake went through and replaced it with a new one.
He turned the water back on, went back and checked the area one last time before finally checking that the men's room had hot water. It did.
"Bob," he called, "Got it fixed. The hot water's back on in the men's. It was a wisp, but from the trail it's already out of the building."
"A water wisp, damn," replied Bob. "Thanks for fixing it up. I don't envy you this one."
"Let me know if you have any more problems the next few days. They don't usually double back or anything, but you never know."
When Stan got back to his truck, he collapsed in his seat. He was sweating and nervous. The front he'd put on in the gym was gone, he was exhausted. Worse still, it wasn't over.
He had to find it. A wisp could go through any barrier, including human skin. If it got inside you, it would rearrange the blood pumping through your veins, a particularly vicious way to die. Plumbing was a dangerous job now, but that's why he went prepared. He didn't have to do it alone.
He started calling the other plumbers in town. He knew them all, and they had to know. The hunt was on.
When his family was at the dinner table, Stan told them the news. "It seems we've got a small problem here, other than whatever Jack is up to," he started, hoping to make the whole subject seem light. "They weren't getting hot water at the gym today. Turned out to be a water wisp, so it seems we've got a hunt on our hands." He hoped his casual delivery would keep Ellen calm.
It didn't work. She paled. Her eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened to a pencil thin line. Stan knew the look. She was building up to an explosion.
While she smoldered, Luke threw gasoline on the fire. "What a tool. You risk your life to support the crypto-fascist town elders." He laughed.
"Don't you dare talk to your father that way," yelled Ellen, her fire directed at Luke for the moment. Maria fled from the table to her room and shut the door tight.
Stan watched his son. Luke had to know how his mother would react. He didn't like drawing Ellen's rage any more than Stan did. Luke was up to something. Stan was pretty sure he knew what.
Luke and Ellen argued. Stan let it run its course, knowing that Ellen would get back to him in due time. Luke reached the end first, standing up with both hands on the table, sideburns flaring, and yelling, "Fine, be that way. I'm out of here."
That was Stan's cue. He'd figured out the plan early on. He grabbed Luke's arm. "You're still grounded. Your room."
He stared down his son. Luke was angry, but then gave a wan grin when he realized his father was onto him. He slumped to his room.
Now it was his turn. Ellen went from anger to tears as soon as she heard Luke's door slam shut. Her dark eyes were dripping, her cheeks stained with tears. "You can't do this," she sobbed quietly. "Let some one else... Not again."
Stan held her hand softly. "I already let everyone else know it's out there. And I'll be careful, I've got all the tools for it. It'll be OK." He stroked her hand gently.
He understood her fear. They once had another child, Charlie, a wonderful boy who was taken from them when he was just four years old. Divinitrice's Waltz, ten years ago, destroyed every child in Shawnee five years old or younger. Ellen never recovered. She tried to destroy all traces that Charlie ever existed. Stan's few photographs of his second son were well hidden. He thought she was over it when Maria was born, and for a few years she was, but the fear came back. It never left her.
Once she calmed down enough to let him, Stan held her close and murmured reassurances. He reminded her there were other plumbers looking, and most likely one of them would find the wisp. He told her he'd always come back to her, and eventually he just kept repeating that he loved her.
When Ellen finally calmed down, Stan went to Maria's bedroom to talk to her. His precious little girl claimed she wasn't upset, she just didn't like it when Mommy yelled. Stan told her everything would be all right, and hoped he was telling her the truth.
Finally he went to check on Luke. To Stan's surprise, his son was in his room. He'd expected Luke to have sneaked out through the window, instead he was talking to one of his friends on the phone. Luke glared at him and gestured his father away. It was enough to see he was still there, so Stan left.
It wasn't quite family togetherness, but Stan had done the best he could. He settled down to do the books for the evening.
The wisp kept Stan busy over the weekend. Water was going out across town, in houses, apartments, businesses, and parks. He was getting emergency calls in the middle of the night and working through sunset.
Ellen had set up a dinner date for Saturday. They were meeting an old high school friend of hers and her husband. Stan got along with him well enough, so Ellen counted them as one of their couple friends. Stan was swamped with work, but he knew Ellen was panicked over the wisp. If he cancelled dinner, he knew what she'd think. He made sure to meet them, but was not pleasant company. He kept thinking about the wisp and all the trouble it might cause.
After dinner, Ellen confronted him, "You were rude in there. You didn't say ten words all night. What do you think Ed thinks of you now?"
"Sorry sweetie. Early job this morning, I was just tired. I'm sure Ed understands."He had to be cautious. He had another job to do that evening, and he didn't want to set her off.
"It's the wisp, isn't it? Risking your life and your family and now worrying our friends too."
"Shhh," he interrupted. "We're trying to keep it quiet, avoid worrying people." Catching himself, he switched to flattery. "You're strong enough to deal with it, but I don't want to worry others. We tell each person that they're the first to be hit."
Enough places had been hit that all the plumbers were starting to worry it was a small nest. He wasn't even going to hint at that to Ellen.
"Please," she sobbed, "let someone else find it. Don't let it be you. Think of us."
He always did. "All of us are looking. I'm sure one of the others will find it." He'd been the first to report the wisp, so all the other plumbers were relying on him to plot its movements. Again, there was no reason to worry Ellen further.
He took her home and went to fix one more pipe that night. He was getting tired. He couldn't work late every night like he once could.
Jack kept things busy too. While driving to a job on Sunday, Stan's truck stopped dead in the road. He couldn't get it started, then noticed everyone else had stopped too. All traffic in Shawnee came to a stop. People got out and wondered what was going on. About 20 minutes later the cars started moving again.
He never learned why traffic stopped. He heard the newscasters discuss the traffic outage, but they only said the Temple had no comment. Jack was not big on explaining Himself.
Stan finally caught a break after an early start on Monday. Between the call he had just made, and one from another plumber, he understood the wisp's movement. It was travelling some copper pipes he'd just laid last fall.
He knew where the wisp would be next. It was going to a dentist office, Bright Smiles Dentistry. He called Ellen while driving over. She did clerical work Mondays and had to leave her phone off, so he left a message.
"Ellen, it's me. I've got it, I know where the wisp is going. I'm on my way now. I know you're going to be worried, but it'll all be over by the time you get the message. I'll be fine, don't worry. I love you, and give my love to Luke and Maria. I'll see you tonight, everything'll be fine."
It was a mixed message. He didn't want her to panic, but he also knew the worst could happen. Reassurance that he'd be fine mixed with possible goodbyes. He couldn't dwell on it. It was time to concentrate.
Jane Krispin was the receptionist at Bright Smiles Dentistry. She was working the desk when Stan came through the door. He had a miner's hat on, a big yellow hardhat with a light on it. "Do you have an appointment?" startled but professional.
"No," he answered, "I'm not here for an appointment. Can I talk to Dr. Isaacs?"
There was a water wisp loose, and it was probably headed right here. He asked the doctor if he could access their plumbing to try to kill the snake. Dr. Isaacs knew the plumber, and gave permission, "If you're right, and kill it, I'll give a free checkup to your whole family."
"What do I owe if I'm wrong?" asked Stan. Jane wasn't sure whether or not he was joking.
The doctor chuckled, "Oh, let's just call it even if you buy me a beer some time. Go ahead. You know where everything is. Jane, make sure Stan gets anything he needs and keep people out of his way."
"Keep the lights on," Stan called as he headed downstairs to the basement.
One of the patients decided to cancel his appointment after overhearing the conversation. She rescheduled him while loud metal banging echoed from below. Stan was either noisily checking the pipes, or trying to attract the wisp with noise. She wasn't sure which.
She checked paperwork distractedly while paying ever more attention to sounds from the basement. She heard water spray for almost a minute, then it stopped. A steady drip followed, water on water. He'd opened one of the pipes, let it flood the basement. Then he closed it off, but let it drip into the puddle he'd made. More trapping, maybe, like cheese for a rat.
Drips continued to fall while she went over the same insurance claim form six times. Dr. Isaacs stepped back out front to see what was happening, took a few steps towards the basement, then turned back to his office. He looked ruefully at Jane but didn't say a word.
She jumped out of her chair.
A shot, a flash of light from a small explosion came from below. Stan's screams of pain were followed by a hiss of flame. There was a fight, and Stan had lit his blowtorch. Shadows from below shifted oddly as the light and torch moved. She could not have taken a step towards it if her life depended on it.
"It's OK. Got it," came a call from below.
The door opened and Stan came up the stairs. He was covered in blood, his right hand clasped securely over his left arm. Blood gushed beneath his hand, flowing wetly down. But he smiled broadly, borne aloft on an adrenaline high. In his left hand he held a tiny greyish blue worm. The wisp was barely 5" long and charred black. Stan held it by the tail, and kept it away from his body.
"Think I can get a bandage?" he asked cheerfully.
"That's it?" Jane asked incredulously. "Sorry, I jut thought a water wisp would be, well, bigger." She was babbling, and Stan was bleeding. "Sorry again, let me get the first aid kit."
Dr. Isaacs came back out while Jane tied up Stan's arm. He had her call an ambulance, since Stan would need a few stitches on his arm. "Then call the temple. They need to dispose of the wisp." Like Jane, he had a hard time looking away from the tiny worm.
Jane looked forward to seeing her girlfriends that evening. She could get free drinks for at least a week retelling this story.
The next day Stan rested. Ellen picked him up at the hospital. She cried in rage and relief. She yelled at him with passion, and just as passionately made love to him that night. Stan clung to her in joy, both at her passion and his own continued existence. The pain didn't return until morning.
At the joint orders of his doctor and wife, Stan took the day off. He relaxed and caught up on the news. The ringing phone woke him from a nap he'd never intended to start. Luke was in trouble at school, Stan had to go in.
Luke was waiting with his friend Peter. The secretary sent Stan and Luke into the office, where the principal waited behind his desk.
"Mr. Overton," he started, "I'm afraid your son Luke was drinking beer on school grounds. This is not his first offense."
"I'm sorry. His mother and I are very angry at him. I don't know what he's thinking anymore." Stan glared a warning at his son. "He will be punished for this."
"Well and good. Remember, Mr. Overton, it is illegal for students to have alcohol at school. I do not want to bring the police in on this, and I hope I don't have to." Stan had heard on the news that the police were being co-opted by God at the moment, but he understood and appreciated the sentiment.
The principal continued, "Graduation is coming up, and Luke can still complete his schooling. If I suspend him, he would have to delay his graduation. I am willing to have him serve detention for the remainder of the year. However, if there are any further incidents or if he misses any of his detentions, I will follow through with suspension, even if that means he does not graduate. Am I clear?"
"Yes," muttered Luke.
Stan prodded his son, "Say it again, and nicer."
"Yes sir. Thank you." Luke was no more gracious, but at least louder.
"Let's go," Stan said to Luke. Then to the principal, "Sorry to take up your time with this." He dragged Luke out to the truck and just stopped himself from throwing the young man in through the door.
In the truck, he exploded at his son, "What were you thinking? Are you trying not to graduate? Do you want to kill your mother?"
"Get off it," Luke retorted, "You're the one chasing wisps. What do you think Mom gets from that? That good for her?" He was working up his own head of steam, "Jack's swinging cock, is this pissant town more important than Mom? Than me?"
A God's visit almost always resulted in a new blessing and a new curse. Invariably, the curse came first.
"Language," Stan cautioned. "At least wait until He's gone," he added in a whisper. "This isn't about me and you know it, don't try to change the subject. We do what we have to." Stan wanted to scratch the stitches beneath his bandage. They itched. It wouldn't be the right time.
"You're going to graduate next month," Stan continued. "What are you going to do? City job? They don't pay much, just enough to stay alive. It's a miserable life. I know, believe me. I was there. And it was still better than being in the war host. Ptah's Left B..." Stan stopped himself. "I want better for you."
"Oh please," snarked Luke. "Just because you haven't seen through the facade of this society doesn't mean I have to play the patsy too. We don't matter. Nothing you've done, nothing I'll ever do, it just doesn't matter. Give it to God, sure, just have fun in the meantime."
Stan pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine, but didn't get out of the car. "Luke." He spoke clearly and calmly, no trace of yelling.
"You're not the first, but you're wrong. It does matter. What we do matters. Did you know that the wisp killed two people before I got to it? A man and a little girl. Big Tony found both of them. Jack wouldn't stoop to stopping a wisp, it's just not big enough, not important enough. We have to do it. Two people died, but at least it's not going to be more. We make a little difference. If we do, maybe..."
His son wasn't listening. The teenager was already getting the blank look he got when tuning out a lecture.
"Look, forget it. Think of this. You're right, the wisp could've killed me. That would make you the man of the house. How would you take care of your Mom and Maria?
He stopped. Luke jerked his head around and stared at Stan incredulously. Stan had hit a nerve. Maybe Luke cared more about his family than he'd let on. Stan hoped so, he liked to believe it. Luke stammered, but had no answer.
"Screw it." Luke got out of the truck and ran to his room.
Luke went to his room and stayed there. Stan returned to studying boiler repair. Knowing how to fix things was ever more important, as replacements were not always available. Even repairs could be problematic when spare parts were sparse.
Ellen and Maria came home together, and Stan hugged them both happily. He whispered to Ellen, "Luke got in trouble again. We need to talk later."
Ellen backed up, eyes and mouth narrowing to slits in anger. Maria stepped back against the wall trembling. Ellen relaxed for her daughter's sake. She quietly nodded at Stan and let Maria tell him what she'd done in school that day. Stan listened distractedly until she said, "Look. It's snowing."
"In May, Princess?" he started, then looked. "Oh, no, it is, isn't it? Sweetie," he called to Ellen, "come look."
The windows were icing over, but it was not actually snowing. Frost spread over the lawn like a blanket. The leaves on the trees turned white from the tips, with spiderweb traces onto their bodies. Stan felt his leg seize up with the cold. Getting old, he thought, followed by minor curses at God for bringing winter back.
"Looks really cold out there," said Ellen. "If it keeps up we just might have to make cocoa. But you," she pointed at Maria, "are staying inside."
The little girl turned away. She tried to avoid her mother's attention until she noticed Ellen was smiling. A second later she burst out laughing.
"Wait, what's that?" Stan said pointing down the street. "Look. That's not snow, what is it?"
A large black cloud barely higher than the rooftops moved towards them. Heavy sleet poured out of the cloud, leaving a trail of ice behind it as it moved into position. It stopped at the entrance to their street and continued to pour out ice.
It turned from a mound to a heap to a wall. Within minutes it was the height of a grown man, and within half an hour, their street was blocked completely. It shone like ice, a solid wall taller than a man.
"I think," said Stan, "that we're staying in tonight." He held his leg against the pain from the cold.
"Since it's cold outside," Ellen announced, "we're having pot pie tonight. Maria, come help me chop vegetables." It was an obvious ploy to keep their daughter inside.
Maria gave her mother a suspicious glance but nodded agreement. Ellen didn't usually let her use the sharp knives and she didn't want to miss her chance. "Are you OK, Daddy?" she asked first.
"Of course, Princess. Cold's just hurting Daddy's leg. I'll just sit down here and watch my favorite girls cook me dinner." He smiled while she ran back to help her mother.
Maria enjoyed working in the kitchen while Stan watched. He noticed that she didn't look to her mother for approval, Ellen's constant fears were driving her daughter away. "Are we going away for vacation again this summer?" she asked while peeling the carrots. "I liked Texas last year. Corpus Christi was fun, the ocean was big."
"So it turns to winter outside and you start thinking about the beach." Stan started to stand, but his leg had nearly gone numb from the weather, so he stayed where he was. "We haven't really talked about it yet, and we'll have to see what roads are open, but I was thinking you kids have never seen New Orleans."
"No." Ellen turned sharply.
"Or maybe we could go west," Stan tried to continue smoothly. "I hear Phoenix is nice." It hurt him to see Maria inch away from her mother, afraid of what she might do next.
"We can go back to Corpus Christi," said Ellen in something between a question and an order.
Stan shared an exasperated glance with his daughter before saying "That would be nice. Let's see what happens."
Luke came out of his room for dinner but was quiet. No point antagonizing anyone when they were bound to be discussing punishments. Maria carried the conversation, excited by the frosty weather outside. There were several ice walls within view of the house, one of them just across the street in front of their neighbor's driveway. The trees were covered by ice, and the loud snap of breaking branches punctuated dinner.
After dinner Luke slouched back to his room, while Maria wrapped herself in a blanket and settled in to watch television. Stan helped clear the table after a meaningful cough from Ellen. His leg ached from the cold, and his arm from the wisp, but he refused to worry Ellen by complaining. "So, what did he do now?"
"Beer in school," Stan answered. "Him and Peter. They used to be such good boys. I don't know what we did wrong."
"So what are we going to do with him?" Her tone was a bit too sharp.
"We can ground him, but that's not going to hold much longer. He's almost done with school. I don't know what more we can do but hope he learns to behave on his own." Stan saw a bleak future of city jobs and making do for his son. He'd gone through that life himself after the temple vetoed his college application, until Ares impressed him into the war host.
"No. We have to do something." Louder still.
"I talked to him. I'll try again. I'm not sure, but I think I might have gotten through to him this time." He really did. He'd talked to Luke about his future many times, and knew all the blank looks he got in return. When he talked about the family, about taking care of Ellen and Maria, he saw something different. It made him feel better about his boy.
By morning the frost had fled and the ice was melting. Stan was ready to get back to work after a day of recuperation. He had a full day with all the pipes that had burst from the cold. Since the roads were still icy, he got to have breakfast with Ellen while the kids slept in.
He was just cutting into his egg when the kitchen suddenly brightened. "What's He up to now?" Stan complained automatically as he looked out the window.
Ellen jumped back and screamed. "Stan!" An edge of hysteria crept into her voice, "it's you."
Stan leapt out of his chair. A shining yellow halo surrounded him. A thread of brilliant gold led from his aura to somewhere outside the home.
Luke and Maria ran out of their rooms, Luke in jeans and t-shirt, Maria still in a pink nightie with a puppy dog picture. "What happened?" Maria cried, while Luke said, "What's up with Dad?"
"Stan," cried Ellen, "your leg."
Stan looked down. You could see through his leg. Blood, muscle, and bone were visible to the eye. Bright blue lines snaked through his leg. Maria saw it, exclaimed, "That's gross," and hid her eyes.
Stan stammered. He wanted to say something, to explain any part of this, but he didn't know what was going on. Ellen looked on with growing panic.
"What's going on Stan? What is this? Why us?" Stan knew she didn't really expect answers. He also knew he had to calm her down.
"Ellen, I don't know, but I think I need to follow the yellow line. I'm sure it'll be fine." He wasn't sure of anything of the sort.
He knew it might worry her, but he had to say something to the kids too, "You be good, Princess, and remember Daddy loves you. Luke, listen to your mother and behave. I know I can count on you." He was trying to keep his voice from breaking, fearing he was telling his family goodbye. The hardest was yet to come. "I love you sweetie." He took her in his arms and kissed her hard.
His vision blurry with suppressed tears, Stan got in his truck and followed the golden line. A few other yellow lines led through town. Everyone was avoiding them. He didn't pass a single car on the road his whole way in. He didn't even see pedestrians, though there were people peering at him from inside windows.
It didn't surprise him that his path led to the temple. He'd expected it since he realized it was a summons. He touched the statue of Dawn for luck before going in.
The golden thread led through familiar areas of the temple. Like most people, he went there every week. He saw other people in the temple, but they stayed resolutely out of his way. Stan recognized one of the monks who oversaw the orchards, "Do you know what's going on? Am I supposed to follow this?"
"Keep following it," the monk replied tersely. The priests might be more comfortable around miracles than the townsfolk, but they had no more desire to interfere with God's design.
Stan walked through the administrative areas of the temple into the private quarters, the area of the temple where God stays when He visits. Stan had never seen the private quarters before. Few mortals had. Even the priests were not permitted in this section of the temple without permission.
The living quarters were lavish. The entrance, presumably a reception area, had a fireplace, hardwood floors, and sumptuous furniture. A silver platter and half empty bottle of wine was on one end table. Portraits of all the Gods that had visited Shawnee decorated the walls. Dawn, Raven, and Baron Samedhi, the three who fought the Battle of Kansas City, held pride of place. Ares stood tall in front of a faceless army. The portrait of Divinitrice still hung on the wall, but covered artfully with white cloth, so none would gaze on the Mad God by accident. Ptah's portrait was the most recent, standing in front of the temple as he changed it.
Stan's path led through the room.
It ended in a dining hall. A long rectangular walnut table dominated, a crystal chandelier lit the room. Stan's attention focused on the God at the head of the table.
Jack was there. He was thin and young, a year or two younger than Luke. He had crew cut black hair, an intense expression on his tightly drawn face. He wore jeans and a loose tee shirt with a picture of a dragon on it. A young woman lay on the table in front of him. His hand glowed brightly just a few inches above her. Stan recognized her an instant later.
It was Rosa Ramos, lying there asleep or unconscious. Stan hadn't seen her since he fixed a broken pipe in one of her basements a week ago, the same day Jack arrived in town. She was a good looking young widow. With sharp facial features and dark olive skin, she looked like an Incan statue come to life. Her thick black hair hung straight down her back, accenting her almost dark black eyes. She'd moved into town when she married Ollie Ramos, but he died a year later. Ollie was the last survivor of his family, so Rosa took over managing his properties. A wealthy, beautiful, 21 year old widow, everyone assumed she'd remarry soon.
Now she lay supine on the table. God stood over her, his painfully bright hand a few inches above her skin. Sometimes he'd pause, and the light from his hand extended to touch her. She never reacted.
"Sit down." A hand touched Stan's elbow. A priest, Brother Jose, had approached him unnoticed. He was a pock-marked Mexican, tall and muscular. He was a good speaker, one of the more popular priests. Stan wordlessly followed his command, eyes locked on God and Rosa.
Jack took no notice of Stan or any of his attendant priests. Stan finally blinked and noticed for the first time that there were other people seated at the table. He knew some of them, but not all. Everyone seated at the table had the same halo Stan had, and some part of their body was transparent.
He knew Jeff Chen, a security guard at Gardez Shipping. They were in the same bowling league. Jeff's right shoulder was showing. He also knew Anna Lopez, a nine year old orphan and temple ward, who they'd hosted for the holidays two years ago. A year older than Maria, the two had become good friends. Anna's neck and upper chest were transparent.
The light from God's hand went out. "Finally. Done," He said. He had a reedy voice that filled the whole of the hall. He looked at those seated at the table and paced twice, "No way. A dozen more. Forget it. Not happening."
Stan looked. There were twelve people at the table. "What's going on?" he whispered to the person sitting next to him, an old woman he didn't know.
"I don't know. It can't be good," she whispered back.
Jeff had more nerve than Stan could muster, calling directly to God, "Why did You bring us all here? What's going on?"
A black man Stan didn't know turned to one of the priests, "I gotta call back to the base. How long is He keeping us?"
"Quiet." A single word from the head of the table, the thin voice of the teenage God overwhelmed all the burgeoning conversations. They stopped. Instantly. Stan didn't know if this was a miracle or not, he didn't want to test God's patience.
Jack sat down, Rosa still immobile on the table in front of Him, and gestured impatiently at one of the priests. The priests were accustomed to receiving deference, not commands. He was visibly surprised for the barest instant before he stated, "You have been summoned by Lord Jack. You have been infected by an agent from Kansas City. He has summoned you here to decide your fate. You life, your very souls, rest in His hands."
"Give it a rest," Jack interjected. "I'm sure they're worried enough already." Jack stood back up impatiently while the priest scurried away.
"This has taken too long already, and there's no way I'm going through and fixing each of them. I'll just copy her pattern," he said with a gesture towards Rosa. Stan wasn't clear who He was talking to, maybe to Himself? No one dared interrupt.
Jack's hands fired up, glowing so brightly everyone was forced to look away. He put his hands on Rosa's shoulders. She was soon glowing white. Jack lifted his hands, and beams of light shot from Rosa.
Stan felt it hit him like a freight train. He expected to fly backwards into the wall and be crushed in a painful death. That didn't happen. He didn't move or feel any pain. The light filled his world, blinding him to everything else.
It faded. Rosa was now sitting across the table from him, where Jeff had been a moment ago. To his right, where the old woman sat, was Rosa. Same appearance, same hair, same clothing.
A sinking feeling, Stan looked down. He was wearing a white blouse, a silver necklace nestled in his just visible cleavage showed clearly against his dark olive skin. He saw long black hair in his peripheral vision. Everyone else was coming to the same conclusion, he could see.
"Fine. They're cured," said Jack. His voice carried through the hall. Nascent panic was cut off by His presence. "I'm taking her," he pointed to Rosa. To the original Rosa. "The rest are your problem. Take care of them. Something good."
Jack and Rosa floated rapidly and noiselessly to the ceiling. In a flash of light they vanished.
Stan and eleven other copies of Rosa Ramos sat stunned in their seats.
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