by Elizabeth Burton
I was thirteen when my preacher uncle drew up obsessed with the blood moon. He yapped about it all the time, how Jesus was coming back when the last one showed its face. Some radio preacher wrote a book telling all the details, and Uncle Jeb pored over it the same way he pored over the Bible, underlining it with a red pencil to the point it looked like a red letter edition sanctioned by Jesus himself. He even wrote a letter to the man and wouldn’t you know, that preacher wrote back to him, said he was glad there were patriots like Uncle Jeb in Kentucky. That was all the encouragement he needed. Before long, he was going to meetings every Tuesday at the town hall, telling people about all he’d learned. He came to be something of a local celebrity.
Now I wasn’t much for the blood moon or any of the people who started to hang around Uncle Jeb. It seemed wrong to me to worry about Jesus coming back when there were things like Sally Andrewsen’s boobs to moon over. But given my mama and I lived in Uncle Jeb’s house, my daddy having been sent to Eastern States Hospital for the insane, I couldn’t help but hear more and more about that ol’ moon and how it meant the end of the world. Hearing that kind of talk breakfast, lunch, and dinner does something to a fella. It makes you stop thinking so much about Sally Andrewsen and more about your eternal soul. And my eternal soul was a worry.
It wasn’t just what I thought about Sally. It was the afternoons down past Johnson’s farm drinking moonshine with my friends and the mornings where I sneaked out from church to smoke the cigarettes Clive Thomas offered.
Now, I hadn’t done any of this before my daddy was sent away. For one thing, he would’ve whipped me, no matter that I was nigh on a man. But for another, it just seemed like there was no point in trying to be good no more, with no one there to notice.
Oh, my mama was still there. And she still yelled at me when she caught me doing something, let me know she cared. But by and large she didn’t catch me anymore. Didn’t even try, if truth be told. It was as if she’d gone into that hospital with my dad, curled right up around his sick head and laid up in the corner with him. That’s where we found him every Sunday afternoon when Uncle Jeb loaded us up in his old 1954 pickup truck to take us to visit. “Families stay together,” he’d say sometimes, his voice accusing like Mama and I were the ones who left, who’d been found standing naked in the creek with a gun shouting at the moon to “come try it again.” Nobody’d ever been able to figure out what he was talking about. Best anyone could tell, his brain had just decided the moon was Old Man Johnson, who’d shut down the mill, putting everybody out of work. A lot of families moved away to look for jobs, but Daddy said we couldn’t leave the ground where his ancestors were buried. Uncle Jeb grumbled about that, said a man ought to do whatever it took to feed his family. But when Daddy was taken away, Uncle Jeb took us in without too much complaining. He tried to keep on me, make sure I was in church and doing my homework, but the blood moon sucked up most of his time. He wanted everyone ready to meet Jesus.
He even took his blood moon stuff to the hospital in Lexington where Daddy was, saying his madness was a sign from God that even church people could be out of God’s will and needed to get right. That made me mad, him impuning my daddy and all, but what could I do without being rude?
It was the first time we’d been allowed to see Daddy since he’d been shut up, and Mama and I had sat in the cab of Uncle Jeb’s truck squeezed together for the whole hour of the trip. I didn’t get to Lexington very often, so I was more excited to see the sights than I was scared of how Daddy would be.
I can’t believe all the traffic there. Even Mama and Uncle Jeb got ruffled by it. Where we have two stop lights back home, they have a stop light every few feet. By the time we pulled into the parking lot of the hospital, all three of us were right about ready to go back home if we hadn’t needed to see Daddy.
First off, Eastern State doesn’t look like a hospital from the outside. It looks more like what I would imagine a college campus would look like, with pretty red brick buildings and landscaped yards. It’s only once you get inside that you start to feel like you’re never going to get out. They got guards everywhere, even though they’re dressed like everybody else in the hospital. You can tell they’re guards because they’re just a bit bigger, just a bit more attentive to everyone’s movements. You’d think it would only apply to the patients, but they watch everyone.
The common room where we met with Daddy looked pretty much like a high school classroom in some fancy county. There were stations all around the room: painting near the window, puzzles closer to the door. Daddy was sitting in a chair in front of the television, staring at some program about the flight pattern of the robin. He looked up when we came in, but his face didn’t show any signs of being happy to see us.
“Go on; it’s just the medicine,” Mama said as she gave me a little push forward.
“Daddy,” I nodded at him. It took him a minute, but he nodded back.
“You look good, Dwayne,” Mama told him. I don’t know how she could’ve said that, him looking like a ghost who hadn’t had the good sense to die first. But said it she did, and Uncle Jeb and I pretended it was truth.
Daddy fixed his eyes on her like it had been years since he’d seen a woman and he reached out and took her hand. He never said a word, though.
Our whole visit went like that, with Mama starting a conversation, cheery-like and all, Daddy watching, and Uncle Jeb and me pretending everything was fine. We’d even break in with the occasional “Yep” or laugh to try to sound as if things were normal. Maybe that’s as normal as it gets when you’re talking to a drugged out man in a room that’s got a woman talking to herself over finger paints in the corner.
Mama tried not to, but she burst into tears as soon as Uncle Jeb started the truck up to go home. I could tell Uncle Jeb didn’t approve, but for once he kept his trap shut and let her cry. I couldn’t think of anything to do but pat her hand, and for some reason, I noticed it was the one without the wedding ring. I wondered if Daddy would ever get better. When Uncle Jeb started up his talk about the blood moon, Jesus, and how Daddy’s madness was a harbinger during the drive, it was all I could do not to tell him to shut up. The only thing’s kept me from it was knowing what it would do to Mama.
It was a Friday night in September. The air was just starting to feel chilly, like winter was hanging out at the edges of the wind. Everyone at the high school football game was bundled up, though, the way people do when they’re used to summer. I was sitting there shivering without a jacket, and Billy Morten’s little sister, Lindsey, teased me that I was trying to look macho. Truth was, though, I didn’t have a jacket. Money had been tight since Daddy lost his job and it only got tighter after he went in the hospital. You’d think something like that would make people rally around Mama an’ me, but her boss at the diner said she started missing too much work and fired her. Mama’d been taking odd jobs, but it seemed like all her money went to paying rent to Uncle Jeb and none was left over for me.
I thought it was bad form of Uncle Jeb to charge rent to his only sister, especially when he had such a big house all to himself cause Grandpa gave it to him, hoping he’d get married and give him lots of grandchildren before Grandpa died. But Mama got on me anytime I said something about it, said we’d disrupted his life and he deserved to have some kind of recompense. But to my eyes his life looked kind of empty before us and the blood moon came into it.
I’d tried to get a job myself, but the only place hiring, the Bee Tee Buster, said I had to be at least sixteen, and when I lied and said I was, the old lady running the place looked me up and down until my face turned red and said, “You’re the freshest sixteen I ever seen.” Then she laughed, told me not even the most desperate girl would believe me. I could still hear her laughing as I rode off on my bike.
There had been a blood moon the night before, the third out of the four that was supposed to come. The town was abuzz with excitement over it: last night, Uncle Jeb and his blood mooners met to talk about how the introduction of people to Jesus was going and how they’d ensure that the whole town got right before the last blood moon happened. They didn’t want anyone to go to hell and be separated from God forever, but like Old Lady Sutton, whose husband had been mayor until he died, said at the meeting they had at Uncle Jeb’s house a couple of nights ago: “Some people deserve to feel the flames of hellfire.” There was a lot of agreement to that idea.
Uncle Jeb called me into the living room where they were meeting when I went to the kitchen to get a sandwich. “Nate,” he said (he always called me “Nate,” even though my given name’s Nathan), “are you ready to meet Jesus?”
I looked down at the holes in my t-shirt. I told him I reckoned I’d like to change clothes before I met anybody. He hauled off and slapped me, hard across the face, so hard my eyes watered. But I was able to keep the tears from falling; I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
“That’ll teach you to disrespect the Lord!” Uncle Jeb called out as I tried to walk away with my shoulders back.
“Insolent boy,” Old Lady Sutton hissed. “He’ll think jokes when he’s standing before the Judgement Seat.” A balding man I’d never seen before nodded his agreement with a smirk. I guessed he was the outside preacher Uncle Jeb had called in for their special service on Sunday, the last blood moon coming up so soon and all. Just looking at the preacher’s face right then, his crooked grin showing he was proud of what Uncle Jeb had done, made me shiver and want to be somewhere else.
Thing was, I hadn’t been trying to be funny. I genuinely didn’t want to meet Jesus or anybody else with holes in my shirt. But when I thought about it, I wondered if God had a sense of humor. He’d be a lot more pleasant to spend eternity with if He did.
Of course, that assumes I’d have the opportunity to meet the Big Man himself, that I wouldn’t be thrown into the Lake of Fire right off. Mama and Daddy always taught God is love, not anger, but who’s right, them or Uncle Jeb? Does God condemn me for having the same thoughts all the boys I know have about Sally? I don’t rightly know.
Speaking of Sally, she was there and she looked mighty fine that night. Her cheerleading uniform showed off long, tanned legs that would have had chill bumps all over them if she hadn’t been moving so much: clapping, waving her arms, tossing those legs up into the air to show off her school-green panties. And every time she jumped, her boobs bounced up and down like they were excited all on their own. I’d bet money I wasn’t the only one in the stands drooling.
The blood moon people were there protesting, as usual. They held up signs that said “Don’t Waste Time: Get Right with God,” and “Football is the Devil’s Pastime.” One woman, who I recognized immediately as Old Lady Sutton, stood right in front of the cheerleaders with a bull horn yelling “Put some clothes on!” until the stands cheered her out and she huffed off mad. I have to say I felt some satisfaction watching her leave; I had to stop myself from putting my hand up to my face where Uncle Jeb slapped me when I saw her. I guess my cheek remembered hurting or something. So did my pride.
I’d been thinking about that day ever since the slap, wondering if I should give Uncle Jeb a piece of my mind, or tell Mama what he’d done. I knew if I told her, it might mean us getting thrown out of his house and having nowhere else to live, but I just couldn’t let the slap go. It wasn’t that Daddy’d never hit me—he had, though never on the face—but I’d always felt Daddy’s spankings were just. What Uncle Jeb did seemed more out of spite and to impress the other blood mooners than anything.
The blood mooners had been at every school function since the year started. It probably would have been weird in any other town, but here in Bald Lick, there honestly wasn’t much else to protest. I guess they could’ve gone to the mountains and shouted at them to move, see how big their faith was, but protesting the school seemed to give them more bang for their buck. And after all, I bet to hear them tell it, teenagers were the ones driving the world to hell in a handbasket.
But I don’t want you to get the impression that all the blood mooners did was protest the high school. They did things for the town, too; things like going to the shut-ins and reading God’s Word to them and making sure the Mexicans in town to work tobacco had Mexican copies of the Bible. And they probably would have liked to protest other things, but since the vocational college branch in the next town over had shut down when the mill did, the high school was the best they had.
On her bad days, my mama would grumble about the blood moon people taking over everything. When she went to interview at the hardware store, she was asked if she was ready to meet Jesus and when she said she wasn’t sure, the interview went south really fast. “All I had to do was lie my way into a job,” she’d said. “But I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t lie about something as important as Jesus.”
I asked Mama what she thought about the blood mooners and Jesus’ return. “I don’t know much about the Bible besides what I read,” she told me, “but I do know there’s something in there about no man knowing the exact day or hour of His return. Heck, Jesus himself don’t even know! So why would God go about telling the likes of your Uncle Jeb?”
After that, even though I still wondered about what Jesus thought of my eternal soul and all, I didn’t think about what was going to happen at the last blood moon. If Mama wasn’t worried about it, why should I be?
So that Friday night in September, I wasn’t too hard on myself for drooling over Sally. Truth be told, Jesus wasn’t on my mind much at all. I was thinking about winning the game, because if we won, Mr. Garrison had promised we wouldn’t have to take the quiz in geometry Monday morning. Things like that even make someone like me get right up in the school spirit.
It was late in the third quarter. We were leading 32-21. A win seemed so inevitable that the cheerleaders were shouting louder than ever before and the band was playing in tune for once. It was one of those moments that everybody in the stands feels a part of, despite the fact that only eleven big guys are out there at any given time. I felt like I was on that football field, that every touchdown was something I’d done myself. For the first time since Daddy took sick, I knew what it was like to belong to something. People cheered all over: one girl with a particularly shrieky voice yelled out, “Praise the Lord!” and everyone smiled and nodded at the sentiment.
That did it, I guess. Everybody was feeling great, forgetting their troubles, but they also forgot about the blood mooners. I noticed the balding preacher guy who’d smirked when Uncle Jeb hit me standing down in front of the cheerleader where Old Lady Sutton had been. His hair, which had been under a “God is my Co-Pilot” hat before, was dirty blonde and he had on a blue jean jacket.
He threw down his “Jesus is Coming Soon” sign and headed to the parking lot, and I remember thinking that maybe he, too, had seen the football light. Maybe he wanted to quit the protesting and just go home to be with his family. That was what I thought, anyways, and not for very long because Jim Andrewsen, Sally’s big brother and the school quarterback, ran for another touchdown right then.
The stands erupted. We all screamed with one voice, a wave of happiness so loud we didn’t hear any protesters. Football was all that mattered for the moment: I didn’t even notice my hot chocolate spilling all over me when I jumped up.
That’s why at first nobody heard the shooting. It wasn’t until people who were hit started falling back onto the stands that the victory cheers turned into something else, some wild animal cry like you might hear in the middle of a forest fire they all knew they couldn’t escape. People who had been united in happiness just seconds before were suddenly crawling on top of one another to get out of the way.
But there was no means to get to a safe place, as far as I could tell. I threw myself face down on the bleachers and hoped no one would notice me. I put my arms around my head and pushed through all the feet until I was lying flat. Didn’t think anything except “Down. Stay down,” and maybe not even that—the actual words I mean. Tennis shoes and boots dug into my back, and I still didn’t move or scream out.
Mr. Garrison, the geometry teacher, used to talk about the noise of war and how you couldn’t hear yourself think over it. He was in Korea with the Army. That popped into my mind while I lay there, my balls smashed into the bleachers from footsteps and the air almost gone out of my lungs, and I remember thinking that Mr. Garrison was wrong. There was a noise so loud all you could hear was your own mind. That and the bang, pause, bang of the gun, like the noise of one shot was just hanging in the air, waiting for someone to admire it before the next one followed on.
My mind kept saying that this wasn’t real, that a voice was going to break in with “Cut!” or some other Hollywood phrase that meant we were being fooled, that it was all going to be over in a second. My mind said that until something fell right in front of my head and I automatically looked up to see what it was. Turned out it wasn’t an it after all; it was Lindsey Morten, who’d teased me about being macho earlier. She was looking right at me, but I could tell by her eyes that she wasn’t seeing anything at all. Blood trickled out her mouth and while I was watching, a fly landed on it. All I could think was how grossed out Lindsey would be to have a fly on her face. She was never a girl who liked bugs. And then, honest to God, her body was knocked over in my direction and I could actually smell the sour bite of her blood.
“Jesus, help me!” I don’t know if I cried out the words inside or outside my head, but I cried them out. I’d always believed, mind you, and even prayed a time or two, especially once Daddy went away, but I’d never prayed like that before. I was surrendering everything I was and coming to the Lord naked of all pretense.
It was as if all of a sudden the noise stopped. Or maybe I just became unaware of it as I stared at Lindsey’s face. It was so close to mine our lips were almost kissing, and I tried not to think about the fact that my first kiss would be with a dead girl.
Right then, a quiet feeling came down around me and I knew I was going to be all right. Like a voice said to me, “All you have to do is stay down.” After that, no matter how much I was hurting from being the carpet everybody stomped on or how hard it got to be there against Lindsey’s dead face that had teased me only a couple of hours before, I did as I was told.
I wondered if this was the calm that had come over Daddy that night he’d had his tussle with the moon. Like he knew how everything was going to change and all he had to do was wait for it. If maybe everybody in the Crazy House knew what the rest of us don’t know; maybe they’ve all tussled with something bigger than they are and come out with the same kind of limp Jacob in the Bible had when he became Israel.
If I got outta this alive, I knew I’d have a limp of some kind, too.
From the quiet, I heard a voice I figured had to have been the shooter yell out, “In the name of the Lord God Almighty, get on to Judgement, you heathens!” He said more, but it was all drowned out by the new layer of screams.
I heard another bang. This time, a different voice yelled out, “All clear!” I didn’t trust it at first, but after awhile of just lying there with no more bullet sounds, I pushed Lindsey back and raised my head, a turtle risking a look out of its shell.
I couldn’t believe the chaos. In addition to Lindsey, I counted eight bodies all over the stands. People were still moving back and forth like they didn’t know where to go, but it was slower now, not as panicked as before. Mr. Henry, who owned the grocery store, shuffled toward me and raised his foot as if to step where my hand was, but I moved as fast as I could to sit up. He looked at me like he hadn’t seen me before and couldn’t take me in.
His eyes fell on Lindsey and he started to cry, tears rolling down his face. He made no effort to wipe them away. Blood came out of his lower right side; it dripped down steady and fast like water from a faucet. The smell of blood-copper from him and Lindsey made me sick to my stomach. Mr. Henry didn’t say anything, but his breathing was jagged, the way Grandpa sounded when he was dying. Until today, that was the worst sound I’d ever heard.
I remembered Mr. Henry was Lindsey’s uncle and I felt like I ought to comfort him somehow, tell him that even though she was dead, they still had Billy, but I didn’t know if it was true. I looked around, trying to find anything to make him stop his death-breathing, and I spotted Sally Andrewsen.
She was down where the cheerleaders had been before all the shooting started, but she was squatting on the sidelines, her arms still up in surrender pose. Her snow-white uniform that had seemed so perfect before looked wrong. She shouted out, “Jim!” for her brother, but no one answered.
Just beyond where Sally was stood a policeman with his gun pointed at a guy on the ground with his head turned toward me. Blood was coming out of his mouth and his eyes were fixed like Lindsey’s. Even from a distance, his cap and blue jean jacket told me he was the blood moon preacher from Uncle Jeb’s house. His gun was on the ground beside him. I couldn’t help but think that the blood mooners had been right in a way, that God had come for at least one of them. I just couldn’t figure out why He’d taken so many others along for the ride.
Uncle Jeb was on sitting on the sidelines where they had been protesting earlier, his backside on the football field not far from where the shooter lay. His hands were on his face and while I couldn’t hear him, I could tell by his shoulders he was crying. His sign was face down on the grass.
I stood up, pushing my way past Lindsey and Mr. Henry and I picked my way through the flowing crowd until I got to Sally. She made eye contact, but kept her arms up. “Jim?”
Not sure if she thought I was him or was asking about him, I shook my head. She put her arms down to her side, never taking her eyes off me. “You’re hurt,” she said.
I glanced down and saw blood all over my shirt and jeans. I hurt everywhere, but I knew I hadn’t been hit. The blood had to have been from Lindsey and Mr. Henry.
Sally kept staring at me. “You’re hurt.” This time, she reached out and grabbed my arm, hard, and I winced from the bruising that was already starting to turn black.
I watched as blood seeped into the wrist of her uniform. I put my hand over Sally’s and she looked up, not at me, but into the night sky and the full moon.