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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

When The Trumpet Sounds

I sneezed. My daddy held his hand over my mouth. "Hush, son, hush, all right?" He buried my face against his shirt, which smelled stale and faintly of rice, beans, and collard greens. "I love you. Try not to sneeze for a while, ok? Not 'til we're up there and then it's ok." His big hand pressed me tighter to his chest.
My memory of walking through the doors is just those few moments. I don't remember standing in line.
A fat, white nurse took me from my father. I cried and reached for him. "Don't be afraid," he said, and then he was somewhere else and the nurse put me on crinkly paper and stuck a thermometer in my mouth and then wrapped a cuff around my arm. After she'd taken away her cold stethoscope from my chest, read the thermometer and noted all this on a piece of paper, she pulled out a needle and a tourniquet. She said, "Do you know what this is for?"
I nodded. "Uh huh. My daddy told me all about it. You're gonna wrap that around my arm and that's gonna hurt, and then you're gonna stick that to take blood. He said not to be afraid 'cause Jesus had big, fat nails banged through his bones. I shouldn't be afraid of a little needle like that."
"He did, huh?"
I didn't know if she meant my dad or Jesus.
"Did he tell you what you should be afraid of?"
She did the first thing my dad said she would only it hurt a lot more than he said it would. "Lot of things."
"Well, if I need to, there are two very big men who will come in and hold you still. Most kids are really afraid and have to be held down. I don't like doing that. But if I stick you and you move, well, those big, bad men will come in here. You should be afraid of them."
I said okay, I wouldn't move.
After, she said, "That was very good. Very, very good. Another ten minutes and you'll be back with your dad and mom. Do you have any siblings? Brothers or sisters?"
"Twin sister."
She raised her eyebrows. "That happen a lot in your family? Twins, I mean."
I shrugged.
"If it does, that's a bonus. Okay, be right back."
She was gone for a while. I kicked my legs and looked around and thought this wasn't like any doctor's office I'd ever seen. Which wasn't many. When she came back she looked very concerned. "The doctor's gonna talk to your parents for a few minutes, then they'll come in."
The two men who put me out like a mangy cat were surprisingly gentle. I would like to remember that the black one looked sad when he did, but I think this is only a dream.
I did not see the doors when I went in or came out. Going in, I had my face buried in my father's shirt. Coming out, I was crying so that I couldn't really see anything. I ran and ran and ran until I couldn't run anymore and then I walked until I fell down and fell asleep. That's where Moses found me, curled around a group of weeds that had pushed through the broken concrete and refused to die.
Moses was like those weeds. He could bend without breaking whichever way the wind blew, and he could always find a crack to live in. He said he used to sell drugs--not the kind like mine, the bad kind, the kind that people on the line won't buy--and he would steal and worse. He wouldn't say what worse was, only that he found a crack in jail too, a way that he could survive.
He said that was where the metaphor ended. A weed didn't care if it died. It didn't care if it hurt people it loved or hurt people it didn't care about.
He was nothing like my preacher daddy. To him, heaven was where he wasn't and hell was always where he was. He wasn't concerned about saving my soul or anyone else's. He was concerned with saving my life, and to do that, he taught me how to survive on the line. He taught me that the people on the line shouldn't be conned, because the white scientists had already conned them. He said they sold them a dream like Rock Candy Mountain or equality or justice or that anyone could be anything they wanted, even a poor black boy from the ghetto. He said it was a lie. Sure, a black boy could be a doctor or lawyer or president, but you had to have enough money to paper over your skin, like hiding a water stain with wallpaper.
He sold food. Him talking about selling drugs was where I got my idea, 'cause I didn't want to step on his toes.
Somewhere along the line, a child sneezed.
It didn't take long for me to find the family. The other families had moved apart from the sick child, shielding their own children with their arms or bodies.
It was a mother and an aunt, a father, a boy about six, a girl about six months. The boy's nose dribbled snot. The girl didn't look sick but her mother's hand stroked her curly hair absently, feeling her forehead for warmth.
I said, "They won't let you on if he's sick. Or her either."
The father was on the smallish side, his clothes neat but worn. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to show dark, muscled arms. The sort of man they wanted on the ship. "We know that." It was clear he wanted to cry but wouldn't. I liked that. No one who's on the line or services it has it easy.
"I have antivirals."
"Don't bullshit me," the father said. "If you have any medicine, it's aspirin. But probably you haven't got anything."
"I won't say you're a smart man, 'cause that sounds like sales patter, and I'm not a salesman. " I held up his hand to stop the father's protest. "Not a shyster, anyway. Some of the peddlers are. You probably got robbed more than once. Promises of antivirals. A meal to feed a family of four only to give away your money and find it's not enough for all of you, so you gave it to the kids first, then your wife. I'd bet you'd even insisted despite her protests."
The father snorted. "You could have seen that. It's not like there's anything to hide us." He gestured towards the sky.
"I didn't, but that's your second smart thought. I'm not looking for money."
That caught the father's attention. "No?"
"No. I would prefer to barter. I want her engagement ring. Not her wedding ring. That's cruel."
The father laughed. The woman gasped. "Leroi..."
"Of course not, baby. Thanks, but we'll take our chances."
I said, "It's two days to the front of the line from here. Maybe his flu will go away. It's not just a cold. I know 'cause I see the worried way your wife keeps touching his forehead. But I wouldn't bet on it. If he's not well, they might not let any of you on. So you'd have your diamond and your pride and no job, no home, nothing. Or they might ask you to leave him."
The mother said, "They wouldn't do that."
"No? Why do you think they have all these families, all these people, stand out in the elements like this? They could just do a lottery. That ark that they've got, they only want the strong. You're Christians?" When the mother nodded, Clark said, "Suppose you were Noah. Would you take your chances on any two of the same species and pray that they aren't sick? Maybe you would, but maybe you'd have a little doubt and maybe you'd hedge your bets and make sure they were healthy and fertile. They've demanded only families. No singles, no childless couples. Why do you think that is?"
I was talking to the mother now, not the father. "They might take you and leave your little boy behind. I will give you the antivirals and not claim my prize unless and until he's healthy. Which would be twenty-four hours after the first dose."
The mother chewed her bottom lip. "I don't know."
"I'm trusting you. You could say yes, wait that time period, say it didn't work and then give it to him when I left."
The father said, "But we're trusting you that it's two days from here to the doors. Maybe it's three and you've already counted on that fact so you can take what isn't yours."
I nodded.
"It's a diamond, Leroi. This is our family we're talking about."
"But I saved for months, baby."
She touched his cheek gently, with the hand not holding the sick child. "I know, but that's the important thing, isn't it? That you cared that much. Now you care about your children, too." To me she said, "Deal."
She shook my hand.
I hoped the boy made it. I really did, 'cause I wasn't kidding about the impossible choice they would face if he didn't. The antivirals were real. I get them from my friend Martha way, way up the line. I give her the treasures I get and that's how it goes.
Once upon a time, I was in, not on, the line. That boy? That was me a few years ago. Those steel doors are closed to me forever. Pneumonia.
Having made my nut for the day, I headed on up the line. My antivirals weren't worth as much down, and up they weren't worth anything. But I could sell Pepto and Xanax for the anxious, prenatal vitamins and Pitocin for the moms-to-be. The scientists wanted pregnant women quite a bit. They had all sorts of theories about babies. Maybe an inhaler and then a diuretic to hide the steroids. Didn't always work but sometimes it did.
Moses came on down and met me halfway. "Hungry?"
"Always," I said. He sold sandwiches and water, coffee, sometimes packaged cupcakes or cookies.
"Fresh ham and cheese today. There's something going on at the doors."
"Yeah? Maybe they're getting ready to actually leave." An old joke, not really laughed at, as we didn't really believe they'd ever launch. "Amazing," I said around a mouthful of meat, cheese, and bread.
Whenever he was asked where it came from, "Not down the line," was all he ever said. "No, I mean it this time."
Another shuttle left. It happened every day, taking people up to the ship overhead where they'd eventually fill up and fly far, far away. The grandchildren of the grandchildren of the grandchildren of today's parents wouldn't live to see wherever they stopped but it would take some of the stress off Earth. But this time, something about Moses's voice, I looked at atmosphere-blackened shuttle flying through the cloudless sky and wondered if it would come back. When I slept, I dreamt my parents and sister returned for me. Sometimes they took me to the ship and showed me Heaven and other times they just stayed.
"I want to go see," I said.
"They won't let you in."
Moses had never been past the doors. He'd never been that close to Heaven, never had needles poke him in a dozen places while he cried, never struggled not to cough or sneeze for hours. He'd never been forced to spit into a cup and see his chances of escape captured in a cup and discarded, never watched the backs of his mother and father, never seen his twin sister cry and nearly wriggle over out of their father's iron grip.
"Do you think it's true?"
He paused for a long moment. "I don't know. It's nothing I can put my finger on, you know? But there's something different."
I thought about that. Those doors were like a black hole. People went in and didn't come out, except people like me. Even black holes released radiation. But if they stopped taking anyone in.... So, yes, they'd take off without telling anyone, but that wouldn't stop the riot.
Moses was the one that kept me alive. Fed me, clothed me, kept the rain and snow off best as he could. Taught me how to work the line. That my life was worth something.
I could sense it too. The line was agitated, rumbling like a distant thundercloud.
"A'ight. Let's go then."
I don't go any closer to the doors than two days walk 'cause you can't see them, you know?
"Been a while," he said after some time.
"What you been up to? Saved anyone else?"
"That reminds me. Your dad was a preacher, right?" When I nodded, he said, "What do you think they wanted a preacher for? I've been a thinking a lot about that 'cause, you know, they're going to the heavens.
I said quietly, "Heaven."
"They only take what they need. Doctors and farmers and scientists and big guys to do the hard work and young women to make the babies. But a preacher? I always figured the kind of guys and girls who'd make a new world wouldn't want to take an old god with 'em."
I shrugged. "He was a Baptist. Maybe the scientists are Baptist."
"Naw. Don't make sense. A scientist like that might be a Presbyterian or Methodist or even Catholic, but they think Baptists are opposed to science." He laughed. "Well, they'd be right, wouldn't they?"
"I wouldn't know."
He gave me a sharp, smart look. "You don't know what he was thinking. You don't know what she was either. I know, I know it's an old argument but it ain't one you're ever gonna win. Your sister needed a new home too. Eh. Like I said, it's an old argument. Like me."
"I'm getting up there too," I said.
"No, you ain't. And yes, I've saved a few. Make up for the things I done."
He'd never tell me the things he'd done but I'd heard stories. Murder, rape, a long stretch in prison. True? I didn't know.
I couldn't see the doors but I could feel them the way you could feel rain coming. I remember the way they sounded when they closed behind me, the way the family right behind me looked at me and shrank back. I remember running away. It was a day like today, blue sky. Cloudless. Because I was running fast and because I was crying, I saw the line of men and women and children as a flat rainbow of color, God's promise writ large and then broken.
When I said this to Moses, it was more a series of fragmented images. "How did you see them yesterday? How do you see them now?"
I thought for a moment. "It was the same. But now I see them all clearly. This must be how it felt to be the third and fourth and last of whatever species when the skies opened up, huh?"
He laughed. "Animals don't know. They don't sell or trade or barter. They don't remember or fear."
"Or desire. Or regret."
"Do you think that's how your parents feel? Do you think they regret it, up there in a carved out, upside-down world?"
"At Christmas, my dad would take the whole congregation outside at night. He'd make us all go outside in the goddamned cold, so cold you were shivering before five minutes had passed. He'd do his sermon about the star that led the wise men to Christ."
Moses said, "People do lots of things for lots of different reasons."
"Sometimes," I said, "They don't even know why they do the things they do."
The shuttle came down, bright as a star, a supersonic boom trailing behind. It landed far behind the concrete walls, fences, razor wire, and armed guards.
Nearest to us was a family of two women--maybe two moms, maybe a mom and aunt, maybe two sisters--and two girls, plus a stroller with a crying baby wrapped in dull blanket. When she bent down to pick up the baby, the older woman's gray dreads hung over her face. The baby reached for the gold bracelets spangling her wrists.
I said, "Hold up."
He eyed them. "None of 'em seem sick to me."
I ignored him and approached the women. The woman without the baby lifted a steak knife. I held up my hands. "You're half a day away from getting on. What'll you do if it's done before you get there?"
She said, "What do you mean? The shuttle came back down, right? So at least one more load is going up and if I count right, we'll be on it. Besides, what do you care?"
I said, "They don't let families on without a man. Don't look at me like that. Something that ain't right don't mean it ain't true."
She laughed. "Why ain't you say that before, huh, back when you sold us those antibotics? You think those doors are gonna close before you get a chance?"
"I had mine. I was sick when I got past the doors, and they threw me back out. My fingerprints will tell them everything they want to know. But it's true, what I said. So, I want you to consider taking my friend Moses with you." I wrapped an arm around his shoulders and moved him forward. He fought me.
To the woman, I said, "Look. It's not always true. But look at what you're offering. An old woman, probably all dried up. Yourself, and that's good, and then three little ones. That's a big upfront burden that won't pay off for a long while."
Moses look at me as if I were crazy. "You crazy?"
The woman laughed and held up her knife that she'd let drop while I'd been talking. "What you sold us worked, so I'll give you one chance to walk away. I've already stabbed more men than I need to count trying to talk their way into the line or into our pants. One even said they wouldn't even take more than four, so if I gave him one of the girls... Him I made sure I killed."
"It's not always true. The decisions they make, you and me don't always know why. But I've seen a lot of families go forward and some come back, and I didn't put it together till Moses here was talking about decisions. You got a chance without him, but you got a better chance with him. See what I'm saying?"
She crossed her arms under her breasts. The knife was sharp and she was ready to use it. "I can see the sense in what you're saying. But maybe you sold us good drugs so we think you ok and then you convince us that your friend is a good man, and when we're asleep or whatever, he steals what we got or rapes us or kills us?"
Moses said, "I don't wanna go with you. I don't wanna go, Terrell." He pushed me away, towards the woman, who unhooked her arms and held up her knife again.
"Why not? What're you afraid of, huh?" I said to the woman, "You've said you're a killer. So's Moses. At least, I think he was, though he won't tell me and probably won't tell you. But he saw that I was thrown out and he coulda just left me alone but he took me in and taught me how to work the line and so forth. Think about this: he could've taught me to sell sugar that don't do nothing for sicknesses, but he told me that the people on the line, people like you, people like I was, had even less than I did. Sure, we ain't a charity. We don't give stuff away for free and sure, we take things that people cry over when we do 'cause it means more than money, but when you've got no money and you need a sandwich or a coat or a medicine, you've got to pay a different price."
"That's a good speech, but what's it to do with me?" she said.
Moses said, "Or me?"
"All this time you been watching people walk and go up and you never thought about it? I don't believe that."
The woman said, "We don't--"
I said, "What did you sell me for your meds?"
A tear rolled down the crease beside her nose. "My grandfather's Bible."
Of course I knew that. I never forgot anything anyone gave me, especially if it wasn't worth anything. A Bible? But if you gave what you had for free, then people never believed you had anything worth giving. "I remember now." I found it in my bag.
"It has all the names of my family, from three generations back."
It would be all she had of this life, this world. I held it out. "Take Moses. Please. You can have the Bible whether you take him or not. He's going to argue, but there's nothing here for him."
He pointed up. "There's nothing up there for me, either."
I said, "You took a boy in who didn't have nothin'. You could've let him die. Do you know where I learned to think that people don't know why they do what they do? My daddy thought if you give people a reason to do good, they will. But if they only take people like him, people that think in the old ways up there, then the way this world is damaged will be damaged up there and damaged whenever they get to where they're going. You asked why they took him. I think that's why. What's that got to do with you?" I put a finger in his chest. "'Cause they're taking the wrong people, Moses."
I watched the doors close behind him. He never looked back. Maybe he'd thought he'd turn into a pillar of salt. Maybe he thought he'd change his mind. Maybe he thought I'd tell him not to, to come back, I needed him. Maybe he thought I wouldn't tell him that, I'd tell him to keep going, and that would be worse.
But when the doors closed, I knew this was the last time. The shuttle would go up and it wouldn't come down. The line would no longer be a line. The big fence and barbed wire walls would fall.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 5th, 2013
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