When Miracles End
Short Story Prize - Winner
The truck bumps up and down on the dusty, cracked road. It used to be a freeway, three lanes each way. Now it's a crumbled relic, fallen into disuse, and we have to crawl along at twenty miles per hour or risk breaking our teeth. Only the Godless had need for roads once the miracles started; same as money, or food, or medicine. I start to wonder what our driver did to anger God, but then I remember that we're all forsaken now and I let it be.
Our town’s last miracle was nearly a year ago. A yew tree had grown up overnight out of the old well in the town square. When we found it the next day we laughed at its gaiety. Later, after we ripped it from the ground, desperate for water, and found the well dry, we burned it where it lay. It was the last green thing in town.
Our driver coughs and hacks then spits out his window, which is always half-open. “Can’t roll it up, can’t roll it down,” he said when we boarded. He’s a Godless, which means he lived on the outside, away from the few chosen towns where the miracles came, away from God’s grace. He’s probably in his forties, younger than me, but he seems older. His face is weathered and lined and he has a thick scar on his throat that his mangy beard doesn’t quite hide. His frame is gaunt, but with a looseness of skin that suggests he was flabby once. He chews a toothpick incessantly.
Percy, my son, is in the back seat. He watches intently as the Godless jams the stubborn gearshift forward and explains that the “Clutch is almost shot.” When he was little I would sit him in the driver’s seat of my old Plymouth, already rusted to junk, and let him push the pedals. Maybe he remembers. Maybe he’s trying to learn.
Everything OK? I ask him in sign. We’ve been learning from an old book we found in the library once we realized that his voice wasn’t coming back, that it was a miracle he’d spoken at all for this first 30 years of his life. Other books say that it’s a defect in his vocal cords. They say there used to be a surgery.
I could do that he signs back. I could drive. He’s like this now. He wants to do everything himself, to rely on nobody. He nods towards Lily, asleep in the seat next to me. How is she?
Good. Sleeping. I brush a strand of hair from her face. “This is my granddaughter, Lily,” I say to the driver, and, because I can’t help myself, I also say “She’s a miracle. She was immaculately conceived.”
Maybe I expected piety, or awe, but the Godless just snorts. He doesn’t believe me, but he doesn’t understand that our world hasn’t been like his, hasn’t been as sordid. I believe my daughter’s story, even if he doesn’t. I believe that Lilly is a living miracle, that the fragments of her body are held together through God’s will. I believe she’s our sign that God will come back to us. But I also worry. I worry that, like Percy’s voice and all our miracles, she will someday disappear.
Thoughts like this sit like ice in my stomach, so I prattle on to the driver to keep my thoughts moving. “Her mother, my daughter, died recently. She caught the fever. Not sure how. Must have been one of the Godless that we let in.”
The driver grunts. He doesn’t seem like talking so I keep to myself. The Godless were always jealous of us, that’s why we built the walls. The miracles only came to certain towns, and each town, one-by-one, had to build walls to keep the flood of immigrants out. People who were not from there, who had not been chosen by God and did not deserve his gifts. For thirty years we stayed inside our walls, pretending not to hear the noises outside. Now I marvel at the violence the Godless wrought in that time. What wicked acts has our driver committed? I close my eyes and pray for help.
“So, where ya’ll headed?” the driver asks as he shifts idly in his seat.
I open my eyes and see that nothing has changed. “Mexico,” I say sadly.
“Yeah?” A curious note creeps into his voice.
His tone worries me. “Have there been a lot of people going that way?”
“Not that I know. Why?”
I feel a sharp tap on my shoulder and turn to see Percy staring at me with wide, serious eyes. He doesn’t want me to tell the Godless too much. There are rumors, still, of miracles happening, of prayers being answered. That's what we’re searching for; a town in Mexico, nobody agrees which, is supposedly still sacred. Our old neighbor, Lucas Brohm, caught word of it last month. He wanted to take his wife to be cured of the fever, but she died before he could arrange it and he slit his wrists the next day.
“Just curious,” I answer and the driver nods, his toothpick twirling circles in the air as he moves it with his tongue. We ride in silence for a time. I rest my head on the window and watch the alien world creep by. We come to a small town, one that I knew long ago when it was not so different from ours. Nothing moves on the streets or inside the broken buildings. The sidewalks are stained with russet patches that might be old blood. We pass the burned-out husk of a church of some denomination, I could never tell them apart, and I shake my head. I feel eyes on me, so I quickly turn and I think I catch the driver watching me out of the corner of his eyes, or maybe watching Lily. I sit up and look straight ahead, keeping the Godless in sight.
On the other side of town, the driver slows and pulls the truck into the shade of a decaying gas station and parks by the pumps. “Gotta fill her up,” he says as he opens his door, the springs below creaking as he shifts his weight out and down. He leaves his door open and the key in the ignition, then walks towards the service station and disappears around the corner.
The windows of the station are busted and boarded. Most of the proud white letters on the canopy over the pumps are missing, leaving only a tarnished pair that say ‘GO’. The glass facades on the pumps are smashed, their nozzles either lost or lolling from metal arms. Abandoned cars clutter the lot like rusty gravestones.
Lily stirs and sits up, looks around blearily. “Are we in Mexico?”
“Not yet,” I say.
Another tap on my shoulder. Percy gestures with his head for us to get out and meet him at the side of the truck. I climb out first, then help Lily, who is still groggy and slow. I move awkwardly because my father’s old revolver is tucked into the back of my pants. Before we left, I pulled it out of a locked trunk and loaded it with the five dirty bullets I found loose in the bottom. I don’t know if it shoots.
Percy climbs over the seatback and sits for a moment in the driver’s seat, holding the wheel. He looks at me and signs We could take it.
I shake my head. “We’re better than that.”
Percy sighs and nods, then climbs out and meets us on the other side. He looks in the direction we’re headed. It’s all arid land, distant horizons, emptiness. He looks at me, raises his eyebrows and shrugs. He makes the signs for lonely and dirt, shakes his head, begins to sign again, then drops his hands. The sign language book we found was for children, so our vocabulary is limited. He tries not to let his frustration show in these moments, but I can see it in his eyes and the way he forms with his mouth the words he wants. I think, foolishly, that he could talk if he tried and I want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him, to yell at him to speak again, but I let the feeling pass.
Lily tugs on my shirt. “I have to pee.”
I’ll go, signs Percy, and they head for the service station, Lily holding Percy’s hand. Lily loves her uncle, thinks he’s the funniest guy in the world. He used to make her laugh so hard that she would turn red and we would have to make him stop. We’re still teaching her to sign, so maybe the laughter will return, but each day it seems farther away.
The driver comes back, trailing a hose that leads back to the station, his thumb pressed over the spout. He inserts it into the gas tank, then wipes his hands on a greasy rag. “Be just a minute.” He leans against the side of the truck and stares at me. I return his stare until he turns away.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
He spits into the dirt in front of him then wipes it away with his foot. “Texas.”
I nod even though he’s not looking at me. “Do you still have family down there?”
He looks at me and stares, slackjawed, as if he can’t understand the question. He shakes his head then looks back into the distance and I know that’s all the answer I’ll get. I check for Percy and Lily, but they’re still somewhere in the station.
The Godless hooks his thumbs into his belt. His hands are as browned and wretched as his face, knobby and notched, the veins and tendons bulging even at rest. I examine my own hands, milk-white and uncalloused, nails trimmed and proper. The wrinkles are new. My body has aged terribly over the last year, like somebody is winding forward the hands of my clock. I squeeze my fingers into a fist, feel the joints ache, release them.
“It wasn’t fair,” the driver says as he gazes into the distance and chews his toothpick. He turns toward me, his head pitched back and to the side, exposing the scar on his throat. “You folks getting lucky like that with all them miracles, like striking oil.”
He waits for my reaction, but I’ve been expecting this and I keep my face blank.
“Then you closed up. Wouldn’t let none of us in. Treated us like we were filth. Only we weren’t bad people. Not all of us. I went to church every Sunday. Didn’t stop praying until after my family died. Was when I finally realized nobody was listening to my prayers, that I was never gonna get mine.” He thinks for a bit. “The way I figure it, you folks sucked all the luck out the world and left the rest of us to rot.”
I can no longer look him in the eye. I can’t explain exactly why our town was chosen. Was it luck? A guilt I haven’t felt for years creeps into my stomach. I tamp it down and remind myself that we were the godly ones. The violence committed by the Godless proves it. I glance back at the ghost town we passed through and I can make out the top of the steeple of the burned church. From here you would think it was whole.
A scream rends the air. I look in the direction of the sound, then at the driver, who’s staring at me, his toothpick pointed at me, for once still. I take off running towards the service station 20 yards away, rounding the corner, skidding on the loose gravel, and come upon a scene that is at once both garbled and clear.
Percy is on the ground, scrambling backwards towards where Lily is standing with her back to the building. The man standing above Percy, a Godless in dirty coveralls with lank, blonde hair falling to his shoulders, is holding a knife. The man next to him is cupping his nose as blood pours down his face, dripping from his chin onto the blue and white checkers of his plaid shirt. Another three men are standing in a half circle, just behind the first two, closing in. I feel the driver come around the corner behind me, so I move towards Percy and Lily, keeping my back towards the wall.
The man with the knife turns to the driver. “He attacked us, busted Zeke’s nose.” The man who must be Zeke nods, flinging droplets of blood into the dirt.
The driver holds his hands up. “Let’s all calm down,” he says and steps closer.
Percy is frantically signing, but I can’t make it out.
I back against the wall and feel the revolver pressed there. I draw it out and aim it at the man with the knife, then at the driver, then back at Zeke, who holds up both hands, revealing the crimson mess of his face.
The Godless freeze. Percy clambers to his feet.
“What happened?” I ask him.
He makes the sign for bathroom, then Her. Him. Something that might be hurt. He makes them again, then gives up and clenches a fist and points at Zeke.
I turn to the bloodied man. “Did you hurt my granddaughter?” I growl.
“What are you talking about? I didn’t do nothin’,” Zeke’s voice is nasally, choked with blood. “I was only askin’ her questions. Tell him,” he says to the man with the knife. “Tell him how I was just askin’ questions.”
I notice the man with the knife has started moving again, so I swing the pistol on him. He raises his hands, cocks his head. “Go ahead and drop the shooter, pal. By the looks of it, won’t work no-how.” He takes another step.
“Are you okay?” I ask Lily. She nods, but she’s pale and shaking. I bend down and grab her under her arms and lift her, holding her close against my side. I haven’t held her like this since she was little, but I’m surprised at how effortless it is, how little she seems to weigh in this moment.
Scanning the men in the approaching half circle, I see our way out is through the driver. I move the pistol to him. “Let us go.”
The Godless man stares at me, continuing to chew slowly on his toothpick, but he doesn’t budge. “Now look…” he starts to say.
The sound of the shot explodes in the calm air, shocking even me. The driver’s body is flung backwards. I don’t wait to make explanations or threats, I run, carrying Lily and hoping Percy is with us. He runs past and jumps into the driver’s seat of the truck. I jerk open the passenger side door and boost Lily onto the seat, then slide in and slam it shut. Percy throws the truck into gear, grinding and crunching, and peels out loudly, tires skidding on the gravel before they catch purchase on the cracked asphalt. We speed onto the highway, fishtailing wildly as he struggles to bring the truck under control. Percy checks the mirrors frantically and I turn over my shoulder to watch. Nobody comes out of the gas station; nobody follows.
“How much gas?” I ask.
He checks the gauge. Half.
Lily is crying softly. I put my arm around her and pull her close. She wipes her nose with the back of her hand and I notice that she’s staring at the pistol I’m still holding. “We should pray,” I say and Lily closes her eyes. I close mine as well. As Percy struggles with the clutch, revving the engine too high before shifting and huffing his anger, I try to find words of prayer, but my mind is blank. We ride in silence, my thoughts careening from our town to the gas station to whatever waits down this road. I finger the safety lever on the pistol, flicking it on and off with metallic clicks. On. Off. Safe. Unsafe.
Lily breaks the silence. “Maybe God is just resting.” I can feel her raise her head, angling up to see my reaction, checking for reassurance.
Percy steers us into another patch of jagged road that rattles the cab.
I do not open my eyes.