The Peculiar Incident at Otter Creek
Fiction by Gavin Broom
That morning, Momma announced that Heaven had opened up the skies above Otter Creek and had given us due notice of the impending judgment from the Lord Our God. So important a day was this, she declared from the porch swing, that by means of comparison, the afternoon of May 22nd, 1880 — when the first railroad passed through town — had assumed all the workaday significance of Abby Altman’s continued attempts to recreate her mother’s secret recipe for apfelstrudel. But if Momma embraced the strange developments over our homestead, I must confess to facing them with caution and distrust.
Certainly, it was a sight to behold. In an otherwise overcast sky, a perfect circle had cleared in the clouds and had been filled with a hovering plate or dish. To assign it such a name was to do it a disservice, however, for while these descriptions conjure the correct shape, they also suggest a size comfortably manageable on an unremarkable kitchen table, perhaps sufficient to accommodate a number of Miss Altman’s indefatigable attempts at bakery.
In actual fact, I estimated that this plate could quite easily contain the entirety of Otter Creek safe within its perimeter and leave room around the edges for the remainder of Midland County. The idea that human eyes had previously happened upon anything within competing measure, or would do so at any point in the forthcoming hundred years, seemed a preposterous notion. Furthermore, around the rim of the plate, danced lights that would put the most ostentatious firefly to shame, casting all manner of colors and hues onto the surrounding clouds, projecting a show that would surely be visible all the way over to the extremes of Cleghorn County in the North and beyond the banks of the Garrison River to the South. Make no bones about it; I was wary and more than a little afraid. Poppa, on the other hand, chose to defer his involvement in this supposed rapture and remained in the kitchen.
“Come, Junior,” Momma said. “Come sit by me on the porch swing, and let us await the tribulation together in glorious praise to the Almighty. Let us sing with such spirit that Christ Himself may be beckoned down from Heaven and that even your father may be coaxed from the remains of his breakfast to join us.”
At fourteen years of age, under usual circumstances, I would shy to be seen outdoors in such affectionate surroundings with my mother. I had garnered a reputation as something of a petty troublemaker on Main Street — stealing apples from Jenkins’ Store and kisses from his daughter, Emma, to boot — but on that morning, my need for comfort outweighed any desire to keep my standing intact. I joined Momma on the porch swing, rested my head upon her shoulder, and as she sang as sweetly as a nightingale to the plate in the sky, I glared at it, silently cursed it, and wished it would disappear.
Momma was some way through her second rendition of “Amazing Grace” when Poppa finally emerged onto the porch, napkin still tucked down the neck of his shirt and a furious scowl on his face. He managed to summon the words to make half a complaint to Momma about the lack of coffee in the pot when his eyes must have been dazzled by the shimmering plate, and he was rendered mute. He adopted the appearance of a dog who had been kicked once and was now unsure if he were about to be kicked again. Then, without a word, he untucked his napkin, dabbed at his whiskers, and disappeared back indoors. Momma reacted by singing with more zest, as though twice the volume would make compensation to God for this apparent indifference. When Poppa reappeared moments later, armed with his old Civil War Henry rifle, Momma was forced to put her breath to an alternate use.
“Walter Tyler Spencer!” she exclaimed. “Cease this blasphemy immediately!”
Poppa paid no heed, took aim, and fired a round at the plate. Momma screeched — further muffling my already stinging ears — and launched herself from the porch swing, her hands clamped to the sides of her face in horror.
Given the distance, I estimated that the Henry would no more deter the plate in the sky than a pellet from the slingshot residing in my back pocket would trouble the moon, but while Momma shrieked and Poppa continued to fire, I was astonished to note that the light dance around the rim of the plate had ended, and each light now crawled to the center of the plate’s underbelly. When they converged, the colors merged and formed a dazzling red which then drew a line, straight and true, down beyond the trees toward Main Street, accompanied by a ghastly fzzzzz that startled the nearby wildlife into silence.
Momma and Poppa ceased their feuding and stood frozen like horses on a silent carousel. Then, all our faces glowed from the globe of fire that burned and tumbled in the sky above the tree line. Moments later, a tremulous boom and a boiling wind swept over us, pushing Momma and Poppa onto their rear ends and sending the swing into a violent loop that toppled me belly-first onto the porch boards. As I lay out, the noise could be felt in my throat long after it had passed, and the heat from the wind still pricked my skin.
As one, we rediscovered our legs and retreated into the house. Poppa began blocking the door with heavy furniture. Momma started singing “Psalm 23.” I whimpered at the window and watched black smoke rob color from the sky. When another fizzing line was drawn from the plate to the ground, we all took cover behind an upturned table.
“Momma,” said I. “Momma, I’m scared of the rapture.” Perhaps the act of hearing myself utter these words provided some affirmation, and within seconds, tears burst from my eyes and left clean tracks down my otherwise dusted face.
“Toughen up, son,” Poppa said in a growl. “This ain’t no rapture.”
I thought of my reputation, of disappointing Poppa, sniffed my tears away and nodded.
Momma took pause from singing to say, “And he shall speak words against the Most High and shall wear out the saints, and he shall think to change the times and the law, and they shall be given into his hand until a time and a times and half a time.”
I did not understand and looked to Poppa. He seemed to be no better placed than I and simply repeated his assertion, which was met by a further fizz and boom from outside, this time from the rear of the house, in the direction of Cotton Bridge.
“Once the saints have been raptured,” Momma explained, “then the outpouring of God’s wrath shall be felt upon the earth.”
“But Momma, I thought we were saintly.”
Momma glared at Poppa. “We were doing just fine and dandy, Junior, until someone thought he could hunt a host of angels from the sky as though they were nothing more than a flock of common geese.”
“Woman, show me the passage in the Bible where it gives mention to rapture being delivered in a fizzing red line from an oversized pie tin.”
“Outrageous blasphemy!” Momma covered her ears with her hands.
“If we were looking up there to find horses in the sky, I would have fallen to my knees next to you, repented every secret sin I had been counting, as maybe, and given praise to God until He had it coming out of His ears. I say again: this is no rapture.”
While the sun crept toward noon, this back and forth between Momma and Poppa continued and, to my mind, never once navigated to the region of the point: something had sent balls of fire from Main Street, Cotton Bridge, and goodness knew where else, and now the sky was peppered with smoke from a score of locations. The specifics of the cause were almost inconsequential. These were regrettable developments whichever way you addressed it. I took solace from the fact that while the plate remained in its position in the clearing of the clouds, the wanton destruction had come to a halt. This quiet respite forced me to ponder on whether I was likely to meet my fifteenth birthday, steal another apple from Jenkins’ Store, or once more allow my eyes to feast on the delightful Emma.
Emma. Even the thought of the word caused my heart to soar, only to plummet when I considered the jeopardy in which she may now find herself.
Whether Jenkins’ Store lay in flames or in rubble or intact I could not say, but I stole gumption from somewhere, and while the debate continued, I snuck out of the back door and made my way to Main Street to find out. It took me ten minutes to traverse the path through the woods. With each odd step, I acknowledged the folly of the idea but each even step strengthened my resolve. Above me, the plate remained visible through breaks in the canopy, and as ridiculous as it must seem, it now pulsed a sound I could only feel rather than hear. The likelihood that Momma had correctly recognized the rapture now seemed slender, but supposing she were right, it gladdened me to think that my concern for my fellow man (albeit specifically and exclusively for a girl named Emma Jenkins) would stand me in good stead when I had my audience with the Almighty.
When I finally left the shaded sanctuary and stepped onto Main Street, it took me a moment even to recognize it as such. Wooden structures lay broken like twigs, and even the stronger builds, such as the brownstone imposition of the bank, bore the scars of heated battle. People lay strewn in the dirt in all manner of impossible postures. Tethered horses whinnied and bucked at their hitching posts, while others galloped through town, and others still lay dead where they had fallen.
I staggered along the street and surveyed the carnage, surely appearing to any eyes following me as though I suffered from the same bewildered, faraway nostalgia as that brought home by those poor, injured fellows from the Civil War. My assessment of the scene remained incomplete when the plate began a low-pitched whine, and then a voice, male and desperate, called from my side.
“Walter Junior!” It was Jenkins, hissing loudly from the open cellar door at the side of his fractured premises. “What absurd display of foolhardiness is this? Get your britches over here this instant, boy!”
I recalled no other occasion that left me as pleased to see the cantankerous old buffoon as the one that now presented itself, nor one where my natural urge was to run toward him rather than away.
“Of all the ruffians to collar on this end of days, it should be Walter Spencer Junior,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Proof, if needed, that the Lord works in mysterious ways if his likes should be spared amongst all these good dead folks.”
“Papa!” This was Emma’s outrage coming from the cellar. Lord above, she was alive!
Buoyed by sweet Emma’s defense, I insisted with pride from my spot in the middle of Main Street, “My poppa says the rapture requires horses in the sky, sir, not plates.”
“Well, it truly warms my heart to hear that in these troubling times, your poppa should contemplate anything beyond the end of his kitchen table.”
“Randall!” It was Emma’s momma’s turn to chide her husband.
Jenkins angrily drew breath to respond, but his own thunder was stolen by a louder instance from above. Where once I stood with boyish defiance, terror now tarred my boots to the spot, and the only motion I could find was from my head and eyes as my gaze rose to the source of this new intrusion. Whether due to the bright sky or to the sheer incongruity of the scene isn’t for me to confirm, but no sooner had my eyes adjusted to the lighter conditions than I begged to be struck blind.
The plate had disappeared and left a circle of blue on the overcast sky. The relief was short-lived, as falling from the empty sky was a human-shaped contraption, although its shape was the first and last quality that could be described in such terms. As it neared the ground a hundred paces ahead of me, I estimated its size to be in excess of twenty feet tall. Its entirety appeared to be made from the same shiny material as the plate from which it had presumably fallen. Plumes of blue flame roared from the soles of its boots until the tips tickled the dust on Main Street, whereupon the fire died and the monstrous construction landed with a crushing thud that sent me staggering back a step or two. Once on land, I noticed that its head appeared to be a glass globe, and within the globe sat another creature; this one small and gray with almond eyes as black as night, its spindly arms pulling all manner of levers. A creature within a creature? What devilish witchcraft was this?
“Walter!” Emma cried.
When I turned, I could see her cherub face poking out of the cellar, but before I would discover my capacity to respond, the creature regained my full attention when its arms buzzed like a thousand hives of fractious bees as they stretched to point at me. The little gray creature in the globe frowned, a slithery tongue poking out the corner of its lipless mouth, giving the world a mighty fine impression of concentration.
I sensed something was amiss. If my ill-gotten gains from Jenkins’ Store had given me anything, it was the attribute of light-footedness. I feigned toward Jenkins’ cellar, then dashed in the opposite direction, diving for shelter behind the old jailhouse, just as the mother, father, great-granddaddy, and second cousin twice removed of all gunfire burst from the end of the larger creature’s arms. It was relentless, and as I sat and felt bullets tear up the brownstone at my back, I speculated that this weaponry could be filled at Easter and fired until Christmas before requiring a reload. Poppa’s Henry once more adopted all the comparative muscle and bluster of the slingshot in my back pocket.
Of course! It was a longshot, but when you possess only one hope, that hope develops potential. I hooked the slingshot from my pocket. Thanks to the assault on the jailhouse, I was spoiled for choice with regard to rocks and stones. I remained calm — or as calm as could be — and rather than reach out into the line of fire, I pinched a fist-sized rock that had bounced near my foot and loaded it into the sling. For the next few moments, I closed my eyes and prayed for the almighty fire to stop and to offer me my one chance.
It was Poppa! Poppa screaming to be heard over the gunfire! Where in tarnation had he cropped up from? He and Momma stood crouched at the entrance to Jenkins’ cellar, where old Jenkins himself was ushering them in.
By accident or design, Poppa’s exclamation was enough to distract the machine. The gunfire halted, and the buzzing returned. I presumed it was turning to take out the remains of its anger on Jenkins’ cellar door.
I grasped my chance, and as agile as a mountain goat, I dived and rolled into the center of Main Street, stretched back the pocket of the slingshot, whispered Amen, and let the rock fly. Walter Tyler Spencer raised no fool, and I aimed for the little gray creature in the globe who I was sure assumed control over its giant slave.
It took an inordinately long time for the rock to complete its trajectory, and for what felt like days, I was sure I had missed. My aim had been too high. The rock was surely going to miss the top by a good foot. At the last second, just as the buzzing ceased and the guns readied, the rock dived and smashed through the glass globe, right at the little one’s head.
Well, sir, if the creature had mimicked concentration earlier, right then it was the very picture of surprise. Its spindly arms abandoned the levers, and its hands wrapped around its own throat as though strangling the life out of itself. Now out of control, the enormous gun machine swayed backward a degree or two, and then tipped forward. The gentlest of breezes at its back pushed it beyond the point of no return, and the whole monstrosity crashed to the ground, causing the world to shudder. The sorry little fellow toppled out from his globe onto the dusty street and came to rest perhaps six feet from where I lay.
There followed whoops of delight from every hidey-hole along Main Street. The Jenkins family were the first to emerge, followed by my own. Then Miss Altman, then the McCallums, then the Franklins, then the others. By no means did this represent the entire population of Otter Creek — far from it — but it was more than I think anyone dared expect. They joined me and pulled me to my feet, patted my back, shook my hand, offered congratulations, and even old Jenkins told me I was welcome to a lifetime of free apples from his store if I so desired. Best of all, though, was the sweet kiss delivered to my lips from my Emma.
And after that? Well, sir, the good folks of Otter Creek proceeded to kick any lingering dregs of life out of that gray little devil, and Abby Altman never went near a pie tin for as long as she lived.
The 2014 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
We are pleased to announce this story as a finalist for the 2014 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
Gavin Broom, originally from Central Scotland, now lives and writes in Michigan. He’s been published over sixty times both online and in print and, in a very focused world tour, has read at Dire Literary Series in Boston, at Last Monday at Rio in Glasgow, Scotland, and at the Michigan State University Creative Writing Open Mic. He edits fiction for The Waterhouse Review.
This story was originally published on Go Read Your Lunch on 6/24/13.