New Short Fiction:
by D. S. Ullery
With a scream of metal and roaring fire, the twin engine jet plummeted from the sky. The lightning strike had been precise and lethal, the loss of one engine sending the craft into a spin from which it could not recover.
The plane struck the earth like a black dart, the nose crumpling. The pilots were crushed into pulp instantaneously as the metal and wiring of the cockpit meshed with their bodies beneath the unexpected onslaught of terrifying resistance.
A bounce and roll along the stretch of farmland tore the hull apart, sending the two on-board secret service agents guarding the special passenger hurtling out of the cabin. One –the senior staffer- was thrown to the ground with such velocity as to bisect his body upon impact. His upper torso flew to the left, his legs landing in a small, wet ditch a dozen feet to the right.
His younger counterpart lost most of his face when he collided with the unforgiving earth, spine shattering in three places as he flipped like a rag doll. This unfortunate soul landed in a heap over forty yards from the wreckage. He died within minutes.
When the band of locals arrived less than an hour later to search for survivors, they would discover the passenger the deceased agents had been safeguarding. Though unconscious and suffering deep cuts along with heavy bruising, the man was otherwise unharmed.
He was dreaming.
He knew it had to be a dream. There was no other way to explain what was happening.
He clutched the armrest as the cabin lurched to one side, throwing him into the corridor separating the seats. He managed to stagger to his feet and climb back into his chair, securing the safety belt with trembling hands. This was no ordinary turbulence. Something had gone horribly awry.
The world began to spin and he squeezed his eyes shut, praying –demanding- he survive this. It was his destiny to survive. Some men were born to greatness, meant to lead. Wasn’t that why he was the President? Men of his stature didn’t die in plane crashes over farmland in middle America. They walked away unharmed.
He opened his eyes. He was standing in a secure private hangar, discussing with the governor of this state (whose name he could never recall) how the town hall he’d held had been a tremendous success. The biggest. Huge.
Of course it had. He’d worn his best diplomatic smile as he shook the nameless politico’s hand. The rubes would buy a mountain of horse manure from him if he painted it gold and sold it the right way. All he needed to do was tell them what they wanted to hear -tap into their desperation- and the people would follow him over a waterfall without a barrel if he asked.
Everyone loved him. He’d whispered just the right sweet nothings into the ears of the people excoriated by the cultural and social changes of the past three decades. He’d been rewarded with their unwavering loyalty. They flocked to him like disciples. In a way, he supposed they were. He’d promised to light the way home, to return the country to a better time. An era when it was all about them.
He was the Messiah of Nostalgia and nostalgia was magic.
Now he was lying in a bed, nestled beneath a thick, warm blanket.
He had no idea when he had left the hanger. It didn’t matter. This was all a dream and he much preferred this place anyway. It was cozy and inviting, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Light, frilly curtains spread across a window to his left, allowing golden squares of amber sun to pepper the walls and ceiling. The decor was wood paneling, the color of polished oak. It was soothing.
A large man -possibly the largest man he’d ever laid eyes on- towered at the foot of the bed, regarding him with a mix of affection and concern. The faded denim coveralls, splotched with splatters of soil, indicated the stranger was someone who worked outdoors. Perhaps he was a farmer. The man stroked an impressively thick beard thoughtfully with one massive hand.
Beside the giant, a short, plump, matronly woman also regarded him. Her expression seemed more pragmatic. Practical. He assumed her to be the farmer’s wife. It occurred to him this likely meant he was still in the heartland.
The crash. The jet must have come down somewhere nearby. Somehow he’d survived. These people must have brought him here.
It made perfect sense. The central states adored him. They’d had his back through every scandal. Both the fake ones and the ones that were real. And why not?
It was his destiny to lead them.
President Daniel Judas Trank awoke to find himself bundled beneath a soft, sky blue comforter atop the most comfortable bed he ever recalled sleeping in. Although he wasn’t aware of it, a week had elapsed following the crash of the small jet he’d been diverted to as a protective measure.
Trank took in his surroundings, wondering where he was and how he’d come to be here. His complexion -normally a burnt amber, following another session in a tanning bed– lacked color. It wasn’t just the fact he was recovering from the crash, either. He loathed not being in control of a situation. Always had. This definitely qualified as something he had no power over and it drained him mentally.
Get it together, he ordered himself, employing the same no-bullshit tone he directed at his subordinates. You’re the President of the United States. You’re the most powerful man on the planet, a leader of men. Don’t you dare show weakness.
Memories surfaced of the abrupt, startled conversation he’d had with the detail assigned to him for this trip. They’d shown up and hustled him out of the hangar, wanting him away from the tiny airport as quickly as possible.
The head of the team had explained some new intelligence had come to light. Their information indicated a fringe element – people who believed Trank had conspired with agencies representing another country to steal the election- planned to commandeer a small plane and fly it into Air Force One during take off.
The proximity of the airfield to civilian homes had ruled out any protective fire from the usual military aerial escort. The decision had been made to transport the President using another plane. Trank recalled the sick feeling he’d experienced en route to the hastily selected new rendezvous point, an undisclosed, private landing strip owned by a close family friend of the governor. The place was miles out of the way. The substitute aircraft had been flown in separately, as soon as the decision had been made.
No could have known what type of aircraft it was or where it was meeting them, including Trank. All he’d been able to focus on during the drive was the knowledge someone had leaked his purportedly top secret travel agenda. Whoever that was had almost gotten him killed.
And the fucking alternate plane crashed anyway, he thought angrily.
“Well, look who’s awake!”
He was startled out of his bitter reverie not by the fact someone had spoken, but rather the quality of the voice. There was a deep love in that tone, an inherent kindness. His eyes stole to the foot of the bed and he found a plump, matronly woman regarding him from the now-open bedroom door. He hadn’t heard her enter.
Trank tilted his head to one side, trying to understand why he was so certain he knew this stranger. Though consciously he understood they had never met, a nagging recollection of having seen her prior to this moment was worrying his subconscious the way a hungry dog works a bone. Try as he might to remember, she remained elusive behind the fog of the past few days.
His confusion had to have been noticeable, for a moment later she smiled and released a warm laugh. There was no derision in the sound. It was the friendliest laugh he’d ever heard.
“You look like you have a bee in your bonnet, sir,” she chuckled. “What’s on your mind?”
He tried to speak and scowled at the foul taste in his mouth. His tongue and lips felt thick and pasty, resulting in the worst case of dry mouth he’d experienced since he and his college roommate had smoked a quarter of an ounce of pot one night years earlier.
“Ah,” she explained, picking up on his disgust, “that’d be the brew you drank. It works wonders for the healing body, but it does leave a nasty aftertaste.” She approached the bedside and clasped one of his hands in hers, patting it gently. “You’re lucky, y’know. When my Henry and the others found you, they thought you might be dead. If you hadn’t made it through that mess as well as you did- thus did God’s providence prevail (here she raised her hands above her head, palms turned up to the ceiling, closing her eyes for moment of silent silent prayer) – I don’t think you’d have responded as well to my little concoction.”
Trank barely heard the last part. He was thinking about that momentary pause, when the woman had closed her eyes and literally lifted her arms to God in praise. He kept his expression neutral, even though his heartbeat had begun to quicken.
I’m at the mercy of the original bible belt family, he thought, panicking. I hope to hell the entire military is out looking for me right now.
“Something bothering you?” she probed, not unkindly.
“I- I was just wondering where I knew you from,” he answered weakly, deliberately striving to sound frailer than he felt. She’d been correct about whatever it was they’d given him. He was beginning to feel better already. Still, until he knew exactly who he was dealing with, he didn’t plan to let on. “I know we’ve never met before, yet you seem so familiar.”
This prompted another gale of laughter, as welcoming as the first.
“You woke up for a moment a few days ago,” she told him. “You actually spoke, asked where you were. My Henry was with me then. You didn’t seem to know what was going on and fell under again not soon after.”
A hazy memory of his fractured dreams arose and Trank realized this was the answer. He thought he’d been imagining things when he’d seen the couple standing at the foot of the bed.
He experienced an abrupt rush of awe as it occurred to him this meant the man he’d seen standing beside her was also real.
“Is your husband a big man?”
She grinned. It was the most winning smile he’d ever seen. Trank found himself wishing this woman had raised him.
“Oh my, yes. Six feet, ten inches. The other girls used to call him Bigfoot. Silly little things who’d throw themselves at any man with a flashy smile or fancy car.” She sighed, dreamily staring out the window at the bright afternoon. “Not me, though. I met him when I was of age. I knew from the moment I laid eyes on that big bear of man, he was the one.”
She turned her gaze on her patient, considering him thoughtfully. “And do you know in thirty five years of marriage, he has never given me a single reason to regret that decision? Yes sir, the Lord did me right when he sent Henry Allen Jacobs into my life.”
She was interrupted by the sound of someone entering the house, beyond the bedroom. The noise was followed in short order by heavy footsteps, approaching in the outer hall. The woman had left the door to this room open upon entering and now a tremendous shadow filled it. Trank reflexively drew a shocked breath.
It was indeed the bearded titan he’d believed he’d imagined. The hazy recollection had done the man no justice. Henry Jacobs towered at every bit of the six feet, ten inches his wife claimed. He wasn’t a skinny, rail thin man, either. His body was large, with broad shoulders and arms and legs the size of tree trunks. A soiled, red bandanna was wrapped about his scalp and sleeves of sweaty, rolled up flannel grew from beneath a pair of dusty, sun bleached coveralls.
If this man doesn’t already work on a farm, someone had damned well send him to one, Trank thought, astonished. He had never seen anyone so large in his life.
“Well,” Jacobs said, voice boisterous to the point of cliche’, “I see our guest has finally come around.” He stepped around the side of the bed. From his vantage point, Trank thought the man stood roughly ten stories tall.
A warm grin split the beard as his host dropped into a crouch, gently taking the injured man’s hand in his own. Trank watched as his palm vanished, keenly aware of how stubby and pale his fingers really were. Compared to his host, his hands looked like those of a doll.
To his surprise, Jacobs carefully pumped his arm in a friendly shake.
“It’s good to see you recuperating, Mr. President,” he said softly. “When we found you at the crash site, we knew we had to get you back here and make sure you were well taken care of. Fortunately, our town doctor is something of a miracle worker. Between him and my Mabel, we put a fright into old Death before he could get his clammy hands on you.”
“So you recognized me.” It was a statement, not a question. A vague feeling of alarm began to swell somewhere inside of Trank. He knew that middle America was his country – the traditionally red states had flocked to him in the polls and driven the electorate in his favor by a substantial margin- but he could never forget he was the President of the United States. There was always someone who hated him. After all, hadn’t it been a plausible terror threat which had sent him on the alternate route in the first place?
“I did,” Jacobs clarified. “Some of the others around here aren’t exactly what you would call political -”
“Some of the others wouldn’t know their head from their backside,” Mabel interjected. Trank chuckled despite himself.
“Uh, right,” her husband continued, giving her a disapproving look. “As I was saying, the Missus and I, we like to stay on top of what’s going on. Especially with the way the farming industry has taken a hit in the past year or so. But a lot of local folks don’t much go in for politics. I was the one who identified you. I was out in a field with some hands when your plane came down about a mile off.”
“Have my people contacted you?” Trank asked. “I imagine this is all over the news. The secret service should have been able to track me.”
“Oh, it’s all over the television,” Jacobs confirmed. “It’s all the talking heads have been on about.”
“Now, now,” Mabel said in a reassuring tone, “we’ve gone ahead and tended to all of that. You’ll get to where you’re supposed to be.”
“Before that, we’d like to host a celebration feast for you tonight,” Jacobs added. “It isn’t every day a true hero shows up in our midst.”
This last part caught Trank off guard. Eyebrows arched, he leveled a quizzical stare at his hosts.
“Oh gosh yes,” Mabel answered, charming in her complete earnestness. “Henry and I knew the first time we saw you on the television a few years ago. You are our deliverer. You’re the one who’ll set God’s country back on the right course.”
“Make America Grand Again,” Jacobs said. “When we heard that slogan, we knew you’d restore good old fashioned American values. Through you, we’ll get through this rough patch. Things are bound to get better.”
Unease had given way to outright discomfort now. Though on the surface they seemed perfectly friendly, the couple were giving off a creepily familiar vibe. Regarding them quietly, with a fake smile plastered on his face, Trank attempted to isolate what it was.
It came to him after a few moments. The Jacobs reminded him of the sort of blind followers he’d seen in the front pews at some of the churches he’d visited during his campaign stops. The ones who lifted their hands to the sky during every hymn, who uttered a solemn “Praise Jesus” no matter what declaration might emerge from the pastor’s mouth. They were the people who talked about Revelation and God’s supernatural judgment the way secular people might discuss the weekly shopping list. The ones who were fully devoted to their religion, yet stared at you with suddenly vacant eyes if you presented an argument contrary to what they believed. The ones who claimed to love everyone according to God’s law, yet sang aloud joyous praise at the idea of the sinners suffering torment for all eternity.
These people were zealots. Only this time, the object of their adoration was him.
Just ride it out, Trank warned himself. Accept their invite, attend whatever this is and then thank them when your people show up to get you out the hell out of here.
“I’d be honored to join you,” he said, putting more effort into sounding cheerful. “I’m grateful for all you’ve done – I owe you my life- and it’s a genuine pleasure to meet good, down home Americans who understand the vision I have for our country. It’s your support that will make it work.”
Jacobs grinned, wrapping one of his long arms around his wife and giving her an affectionate squeeze.
“We’re lucky people, Mabel. You know that?”
“That we are Henry,” she agreed sweetly. Her tone took on a more practical edge as she turned her attention back to their guest. “You just rest up until we’ve prepared everything for tonight,” she said firmly. “You may be the President, but you’re still under my care and I won’t have you wearing yourself out beforehand.”
“Best not to argue,” Jacobs advised Trank with a laugh. “When Mabel tells you to rest, you just go ahead and do it. Believe me, I know.”
It seemed sound as far as advice went. He lay his head back on the pillow and quickly drifted off into a deep, peaceful sleep.
This time, he didn’t dream.
The sun had gone down by the time Jacobs appeared in the doorway to rouse Trank from his slumber. To his surprise, he’d awoken just before the giant had knocked on the door and felt completely rested. If it weren’t for his presence in this house and his own fragmented memories of the event, he might have thought the plane crash was merely a bad dream.
Jacobs seemed equally surprised to see the President sitting upright, having switched on an aging table lamp standing atop a night stand beside the bed. He flashed a pleased smiled.
Under the soft glow of the lamp, Trank could make out a clothes hanger with a garment bag wrapped around it, dangling from Jacobs right hand. Noticing the focus of his guest’s attention, the farmer nodded.
“I see you’ve noticed the clothes. Mabel and I thought you’d like something clean to wear to supper tonight. One of our neighbors has about the same build as you and he was happy to donate the outfit.” Jacobs faltered here, seeming somewhat embarrassed. “It isn’t much -just a button up, collared shirt and some black dress slacks, hardly Presidential- but we–”
Trank brushed the rest of the comment off with the wave of hand.
“It’ll be fine,” he said. “You’ve all been so kind. I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate it.” He realized as he spoke they weren’t merely empty words. He felt a deep sense of gratitude toward these people. They’d made seeing him through what should have been a fatal experience their top priority. That was kindness to a degree he had never quite experienced.
“Just doing what any God-fearing patriotic American would do, Mr. President,” Jacobs answered, but his eyes had an extra sparkle as he spoke. Trank could see his words clearly meant a great deal and he was pleased he could at least afford that measure of happiness to this inherently kind man.
It was a strange experience, this presence of genuine emotion. Usually, people were a means to an end. He was familiar with board rooms and stockholders. In Trank’s world, you went after an opponent across the aisle like a shark and you sealed the deal while their blood was still in the water. Feelings were for people who aspired to the common, not for leaders like him.
Yet here, in this place, he’d caught a glimpse of how the other half lived. He was being granted a look at what it was like when people slowed things down and took the time to know one another on a more intimate, communal level. It occurred to him he may have been wrong all of this time. The possibility carried a certain degree of guilt.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he rolled the thought over, aghast at the weakness he was indulging. What was he thinking, surrendering to such an ideology even for a second? That wasn’t how he’d become President.
Quiet now. Your way brought you here. Our ways will take us the rest of the way.
“Excuse me?” he asked, bewildered.
Jacobs continued to stare at him from the foot of the bed, the outfit he’d brought still clutched in one hand. He didn’t answer.
“”Mr. Jacobs, what did you mean just now when you said “My way brought me here and your ways will take you the rest of the way?” Trank demanded. “And how dare you tell me to be quiet. I don’t care how hospitable you and your wife have been. I’m the President of the United States.”
“I wasn’t the one who spoke.” Jacobs’ grin stretched as he answered, only now a cold intensity had replaced the good humor from earlier. It was the same sort of blank enthusiasm Trank had seen in the eyes of people protesting military funerals, the ones absolutely convinced God hates gay people and gay soldiers most of all. People who might seem sane from all outward appearances, but whose eyes opened a window to the soul of someone praying for the wicked to burn.
The first indications of genuine terror began to manifest deep in Trank’s stomach. He’d never felt so vulnerable and alone in his life and was keenly aware of how flabby and out of shape his seventy year old body was in comparison to this mountain of a man. If the farmer did decide to harm him in a religious craze, he had no means to prevent it.
Fortunately, he was an expert at spin.
“I apologize for losing my temper,” Trank said quickly, struggling against panic as Jacobs continued to leer at him with that fanatical grin.” I thought I heard you – someone – say those things. I didn’t mean to accuse you.”
“You did hear those things,” Jacobs replied calmly, smile intact. “I didn’t say otherwise. What I said was, I didn’t speak. That was someone else. When he addresses you again, you’d do well to listen. There is a path to follow. That’s why this was orchestrated in the first place. There is no terrorist threat, Mr. President. There never was. We needed to bring you to us, so you can fulfill your chosen destiny.”
Jacobs gently placed the clothes on the foot of the bed, looping the hook of the hanger around the uppermost knob of the ornately carved, oak bedpost closest to him. “I’m going to leave these here,” he said. “We’ll see you out in the sitting parlor in a few minutes. One way or the other.”
The giant crossed the room in two strides. When he reached the doorway he paused, turning his head to one side far enough to speak over his shoulder at the man in the bed.
“We really did know you were the one, Mr. President. We were told by God himself. We’re all so glad you’re here.”
He exited the room without another word.
Trank sat motionless, staring quietly at the door as it closed behind Jacobs. He had absolutely no idea what he should do.
He didn’t know where he was, nor did he know how far this place was from the nearest actual town. Communities developed around an agricultural base comprised many of the stops during his campaign, so he was familiar with how they were laid out. The fact he had been brought to a seemingly nice house didn’t translate to being in close proximity to a city. He could well be in the sticks, far from any opportunity to directly contact his people.
The thought of communicating with someone triggered a spark of hope.
The tracking device.
In his daze, he’d forgotten all about it. A small radio transmitter (set to a private frequency only the defense department could pick up) was strapped to his upper, inner thigh. A contingency, in case a scenario like this arose and he needed to be found. It had been designed in the off chance he was abducted by hostiles.
Trank reached beneath the comforter draped across his body and felt around beneath the leg of his boxers. His brief flirtation with optimism quickly evaporated as his fingertips touched cool, bare skin and nothing more. The device had been removed.
Son of a bitch, he thought morosely. I’m completely at the mercy of these people. How the hell can this happen to the fucking President in this day and age?
You think too highly of yourself. You’re just a man. Not God.
Trank scanned the room frantically, looking for the source of the voice. He was unable to spot any external speakers or what looked like a microphone, but that meant nothing. For all he knew, these were foreign operatives and this was really a room in a bunker somewhere, decorated to give the appearance of a country farmhouse. The couple tending to him could be well trained actors. He’d seen several Soviet officers at least the same size as Jacobs on one of his trips to visit the Kremlin. Maybe the man originally came from their ranks.
If that were true, then how would it explain the plane crash, the mystery voice challenged. You didn’t dream that up, Daniel. That did happen.
“I don’t know that for sure,” Trank shot back, speaking to the empty room. “Maybe it’s just a fever dream. Maybe they have me on some sort of hallucinogens. The woman said she’d given me something to drink she’d made herself.”
You’re trying to avoid the truth because it terrifies you so, it answered. It was no dream. The plane carrying you was brought down over middle America. Now you’re here. My people have assured you will not be found- not until after.
“Your people? Who the hell are you?” Trank trembled with impotent rage. “Do you know how seriously you’ve fucked up? You’ll be hunted down and executed for this! Do you understand me!?”
There is no time for this, Daniel. Your threats are meaningless and I can see reasoning with you is an exercise in futility. Put on the clothes Henry brought.
To his complete horror, Trank watched his body do exactly that. Through no will of his own, his hand gripped the edge of the blanket and tossed it aside, his legs swerving over the edge of the bed. He rose, a prisoner in his own mind, able only to watch as he approached the bedpost where the clothes hung and took hold of the outfit.
Over the next few minutes as he dressed, he mentally screamed in protest a barrage of profanities which echoed back inside his own head. It made no difference. What – or who- ever the agency was commanding his body, it continued manipulating him as if Trank were no longer present.
As his fingers snapped the final button in place on the shirt, the other presence spoke.
You’re foul and you annoy me, it warned darkly. Keep your thoughts silent from now on. Disobey me and I’ll force you to bite your own tongue off. You’ll feel the pain. I will not.
Chills cascaded down Trank’s spine, sending goose-flesh rising in a wave across his arms. He felt his flaccid member withdraw into the folds of fat around his groin as terror took hold. He forced himself to imagine a blank sheet of white paper, clearing any thoughts out of his head which might unintentionally anger his captor. It was the only protection available to him.
His body was forced toward the bedroom door. The cool solidity of the bare, hardwood floor reminded him he had no shoes on, a thought which intruded despite his best efforts. Renewed fear gripped him as he waited for his teeth to clamp down on his tongue in retribution.
I’m aware these feet are unprotected, the other told him instead. You needn’t concern yourself with the state of this body anymore. It’s no longer your responsibility. Just remain quiet and see this through.
They passed through the door, stepping into a short hall beyond. A few feet to their left, Trank saw an archway, through which more soft lamplight shone. He turned and walked in that direction, finding himself staring into a spacious sitting parlor.
Several strangers were gathered here, some occupying the various chairs situated around a small coffee table in the center of the room. Others stood behind them. On the opposite side of the parlor was a bookshelf, adorned with rows of what appeared to be extremely old texts. Various standing lamps had been placed in the corners of the room.
To his right was a large color television, which looked to have been manufactured in the 1970’s. The occupants of the room – none of whom were Henry or Mabel Jacobs- had affixed their collective attention on the screen.
A few more steps brought the television into full view, revealing some local anchor Trank was unfamiliar with. The woman was speaking in the intense, quick tones the media employed when a news item of exceptional importance broke. A steady stream of white text scrolled across a red banner at the bottom of the screen. As he read it, Trank felt a sick rush of disbelief.
A week after deadly plane crash, President Trank still missing, presumed dead.
The anchorwoman went on to report about the twin engine jet crashing, breaking away to air clips of local authorities explaining Trank’s body had not been located and there was still a miles wide search and rescue operation underway involving every available government agency -plus a few local ones- attempting to locate the President.
The presence forced him away from the coverage. He found himself facing the room full of people. To his surprise and dismay, Trank immediately recognized one of the men standing only a few feet from where he was standing as the sheriff he’d just watched on T. V., telling the press the he was still missing.
No one had any idea where he was. No one even knew he was alive. It was enough to destroy what slender degree of hope he might have been clutching to.
If holding onto hope needlessly sets you up for an expectation that can never be fulfilled, it’s better to see it die quickly than prolong the delusion, the other told him.
Fuck you, Trank thought back angrily.
His own hand went rigid, with the palm wide open. It abruptly launched into the side of his face with a loud pop. Pain flared in his cheek, his eyes watering as the sting of the self inflicted blow spread along his jaw. He felt all of it.
I warned you to be civil, it reminded him.
One of the men occupying a chair a few feet away -a frail, wizened figure with shocks of stark white hair sprouting from the sides of a bare, liver spotted scalp – stared at the newcomer with a gleeful smile. Trank perceived a strong sense of familial love emanating from the force controlling him.
One of our tribe, the other explained without prompting. That’s Delmont Mulrooney. His father arrived here in 1899, right off a steam tramp from Ireland. The Mulrooneys have been tending a farm in this area for three generations, with Delmont taking over after his father passed and his own son stepping in after he retired. He married a Mexican woman named Isabella Garcia and established one of the first families to occupy this town. We’re bound by blood here, Daniel. By loyalty. The energy of the presence took on a dark edge. Something you failed to consider after you were elected. But I’m going to change all of that.
Mulrooney struggled to rise from his seat, his thin body visibly shaking from the exertion. Two of the others standing nearby each took an elbow and gently guided him all the way up. By now, the entire room had shifted their attention to Trank. The same expression of pleased recognition appeared on their faces. In any other scenario, such emotion might be a source of comfort. Right now, Trank found it deeply disturbing.
“It worked…” the elderly man wheezed, reaching out with one hand as he staggered closer, one minimal step at a time. He placed the tips of his gnarled fingers on Trank’s cheek. Tears glistened in the corner of his eyes. “I can see you in there. Behind his eyes.”
“I know, old friend,” a voice that wasn’t his own answered with Trank’s mouth. He regarded the entire assembly. “Hello my good and loyal family. Yes. It’s me. It did indeed work.”
There was a moment of hesitation as the group processed this. Then, with a loud whoop of joy from one of the men, the entire room exploded into cheers. They converged, touching Trank’s body, shaking his hands and clapping him on his back in a frenzy of congratulations and exultation.
“I think it’s time we sat down to eat,” the presence said dryly, prompting a wave of laughter. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m famished. This body hopping business is hungry work. Shall we go enjoy the fine meal our hosts Henry and Mabel have prepared?”
Wrapping Trank’s arm around Mulrooneys shoulders, the other carefully guided the tiny man toward a sliding glass door on the other side of the room. Falling into a single file pattern, the others followed.
Trank was astonished at the spread which greeted him. A long dinner table – two rectangular sections of polished cedar, arranged side by side to a length of at least twenty five feet- had been placed in the center of what appeared to be a field several acres wide. Torches blazed atop wooden posts on either end and wooden benches of equal length ran along both sides.
What was really remarkable was the amount of food. There was one of every type of dish a person might imagine strewn across the table. Turkeys, chickens, steaks, a half a dozen variations on pork, salads, tortillas, chili and eight different types of bread in large baskets. Additionally, there was a variety of fruits so plentiful, Trank didn’t recognize them all. For dessert there were at least a dozen pies, cakes and plates of pastries covered in confectioners sugar. Jacobs had described it perfectly. This was a feast.
A dozen women of various ages were seated on the benches, separated by a space wide enough to accommodate an adult of average size. The assembly of men surged toward the table, each sliding into one of the vacant spots, until both sides were filled to capacity. It wasn’t until the men (whom, Trank guessed, were husbands to the women) had taken their places and everyone was together that the odd symmetry of their apparel became evident.
The men were all wearing white, long sleeved button up collared shirts. The women were dressed in identical gowns of deep burgundy. Though the hemlines and measurements varied from person to person according to body type, they were all dressed exactly the same.
A whoosh erupted behind him and suddenly the eyes of the gathered were twinkling in the glow of a light he could not see. His body turned, revealing behind him a fire pit in which dozens of small, thick logs had been placed in a concentric pattern. Atop the pyre lay an open coffin.
The last of the day was already dwindling in the sky, exposing brilliant pinpoints of diamond light scattered across a sea of deepening aqua. The heated, yellow blaze of the flames caused eerie shadows to dance across the placid features of the deceased, creating jagged nooks along a withered brow. Whoever the occupant was, his features were furrowed in intense concentration.
Trank stared hard at that body, trying to discern as much detail as possible before the invading presence forced him to look away. Though he’d seen bodies lying in state prior to tonight, the sight of this one filled him with an existential dread.
He found himself facing the assembled diners once more. While his back had been turned to the others, Jacobs and his wife had made their entrance, with Henry approaching Trank as Mabel watched from a spot nearer the house. Even under the flicker of firelight, he could tell the matronly woman was radiating joy. Her smile was too wide, too peaceful, for it to be otherwise.
“We’re ready if you are,” Jacobs said, speaking softly, an element of awe in his voice.
His massive hands were clamped around a thick tome. The volume was encased in a worn leather binding, cracked from the relentless onslaught of time. Trank had no idea how old the book was, but he suspected it predated his own birth.
“I am,” he heard the other speak in that alien voice. “I will take my place now, Henry. You know what to do.”
Jacobs nodded earnestly, his expression equal parts delight and attentiveness. It was the joyful visage of the thoroughly devoted. Whatever was about to transpire, this man truly believed in it.
Trank was utterly terrified.
Now he was circling the fire, sparks reflecting like errant embers off the rivers of sweat drenching his brow. Trank was not a fit man by any stretch and the combination of his weight, the button up and the heat from the fire had left him soaking.
With the breadth of the fire pit now between himself and the people seated at the table, Trank saw a short, wooden platform before him. It appeared sturdy enough to support a grown man. A single, squat wooden step escalated to a square, flat surface rising a foot off the ground.
He was marched up the step onto the platform. His arms were lifted above his head, palms stretched out to the heavens. He felt his lips curl in an unwilling smile, sensing the pride and pleasure of the entity inside him as it regarded the others.
Jacobs positioned himself directly across the fire pit, standing so he was staring up at Trank. He held the large book in his hands, carefully opening it midway. Finding the page he was searching for, he began to read in a clear, loud voice.
“A ti te ofrecemos este alma en pago.”
“To you we offer this soul in payment,” the other said with Trank’s tongue.
“Amen.” the witnesses had all risen to their feet and spoke the word in unison.
“De ti pedimos liberación.”
“From you we ask deliverance.”
The night flared as a bolt of lighting crackled across the sky, generating a rumble which rolled into oblivion over the course of the next few seconds. Jacobs paused, staring in wonder for a moment before resuming the recitation.
“Para ti, nos ofrecemos como pueblo.”
“For you, we offer ourselves as a people.”
Jacobs closed the book, met by thunderous applause from those in attendance. Trank’s arms were lowered, the invasive force beaming from its place on the pedestal.
“It is complete,” the other told them. This declaration was met with cheers, which were quieted by pantomiming a patting motion with Trank’s hands. “Now comes the most important aspect of the ritual. The sacrifice.”
Trank’s head was lifted skyward, his eyes focusing on the brilliant sea of stars surrounding a bright, full moon. In the silver glow of the lunar light, he could see no storm clouds, only a clear night. He had no idea where the lightning had come from.
The view shifted and skewed, the sky falling to one side as the world spun in wide circles around him. It was as if he’d been tossed into the air by some phenomenally powerful force, only to spin out like a rag doll as he plummeted back to earth.
The world righted itself. He was once again staring at the stars. Only now, he no longer felt like himself. His body was restricted. Confined. Cold. After a moment, it came to him. Trank hadn’t the slightest notion how he knew it, but he was absolutely certain it was true.
He was in the coffin.
Yes, Daniel, the presence told him. You’re in the coffin. The body you saw lying prone was mine. Now it’s yours. It was no random act of nature which felled your plane. Everything has unfolded according to a plan, which began the moment you took office.
Thoughts of the odd attire he’d noticed the guests wearing floated back to Trank.
A cult, he thought.
Believers, it countered. The gathered faithful, generations in. Every face you saw tonight comes from both Mexican and American bloodlines. Our people have worked the fields and grown the food. Our ways have made this land strong and the people here stronger. But men like you would destroy that because you fear and resent those who are different. So we called out to the eternal ones to strengthen our cause.
You said I was your deliverer. There was no panic in Trank’s mind as he thought this. He didn’t feel capable of panic. His coherency had begun to erode and he was finding it hard to do more than stare at the stars from inside this dead shell.
He was fading.
And you are, it answered. When we saw how easily you manipulated so many of our fellow countrymen, we knew you were the one. I was chosen from the flock because I am familiar with the ancient ways, passed down to me by my father. You are the vessel through which my knowledge will restore this country. Through you, we will be delivered. By you, we will use our very enemies to achieve that deliverance.
It probed, feeling for Trank’s presence. The man was gone, leaving an emptiness where his spirit had once resided. The absence was freeing.
“Friends,” he called to the others. “It is done. I’m alone in here.” He nodded at Jacobs. “Henry, would you do the honors?”
Jacobs bowed, snatching one of the logs comprising the base of the pyre. He lifted it so the flaming end was held away from his body, tossing it into the coffin with one well-aimed throw. The crackle of burning cloth and the smell of polyester smoldering filled the air as the corpse inside caught fire, sending tendrils of smoke into the moonlit sky.
“Now friends,” the new Daniel Trank said warmly, “let us feast in celebration. As the fires take this sacrifice and we prepare for the journey ahead, let us celebrate this new beginning.”
With a roar of approval, the diners began to have at the massive spread, laughing and carrying on. Watching from the platform, Trank could feel the positive energy radiating from them. He was pleased.
Visions of what was to come filled his head and his heart raced with excitement. Wouldn’t all of those tycoons be shocked when their friend in the White House turned the tables on them. From here on, this country would live up to the promise of that great lady standing an eternal vigil in New York harbor. He would take in the tired, the poor, the huddled masses and give them shelter. He would restore this country to what made it grand.
They had a cover story prepared. A miraculous return, a President who survived being injured in the wilderness, overlooked during one of the initial sweeps. The fact he was alive and back in office alone would earn enough sympathy to write his own check on policy. With the forces they’d summoned also present, they would be unstoppable.
Joyous in their deliverance, he joined the others in celebration.