For excerpt week, I’m sharing the opening scene from my short story “Burned Bright”, which is part of Random House’s new FORETOLD collection (edited by Carrie Ryan). It’s a prophecy-themed collection, and contains all kinds of stories from a group of incredibly talented authors like Laini Taylor, Heather Brewer, Kami Garcia, Margaret Stohl, Malinda Lo, and Richelle Mead. The stories run the gamut from fantasy (Saundra Mitchell’s high fantasy story “The Chosen One” is an awesome surprise) to science fiction (the inimitable Meg Cabot’s “Out of the Blue” is a fun take on aliens), to… well, I’ll let you decide about mine for yourself. “Burned Bright” is a bit of a departure for me, as you will soon see:
By Diana Peterfreund
Tonight, the lodge will shake off its foundation by the power of our prayers. Tonight, it will glow with our devotion and burn with the strength of our love. Tonight, the souls of the faithful will rise from our bodies and enter the kingdom of heaven. We will be free from illness, from death, from the suffering that will befall the billions of unbelievers on this sad, sorry Earth when they’re left behind. Tonight, everything I’ve been waiting for my entire life will come to pass.
The air in the lodge wavers before my eyes, thrumming in time to the rhythm of the hymns in the air. Around me, the righteous sit with their families, hands clasped together, faces turned toward the rafters. Others stand, swaying to the beat of the music that’s been playing ceaselessly since sunset. At least two of my sisters lie prostrate on the ground, overcome by the spirit. Earlier, they spoke with the voice of angels, but now they’re spent. I’m sorry for them, sorry they’ll be asleep and miss feeling the moment when we’re all swept away into the firmament, to glow forever among the ranks of the blessed.
“Any hour, any minute, any moment,” my father croaks into the megaphone. “Judgment will come.” His voice is beginning to fail him at last. In sixteen years, I’ve never known my father to lose his voice, and he’s preached for longer than this many times. I wonder if it’s a sign. Perhaps his voice will go first, and then his soul. “And then… we will be vin… dicated.”
He pauses, trying to summon enough moisture in his mouth to continue. He’s been fasting all day — the whole family has, since hunger brings clarity to our righteous purpose. It burns within me now, shining like a spotlight to illuminate my father and the faithful, dimming at the edges of my vision so as not to distract me from my focus.
I look around the room, shining this supernatural focus on the faces of each of the faithful, one by one. I know them all so well. I love them all and am grateful they’re joining us in the kingdom of heaven. There is Bethany, who cared for me in the nursery. There’s Sam, who always smiles at me in prayer circles, and little Erin, who never regained her sight after the illness that swept through the compound when she was a baby. I look at them all in turn, old and young, sick and well, happy, sad, anxious, joyful. Their faces shimmer with sweat, their hair hangs in wet snakes on their brows or frizzes up around them like the halos they’ll soon wear. Tonight, they’ll all be saved, and I’m so ecstatic with it I could burst. Spirit rises within me and I feel the need to cry out. I hold up my arms and my father gestures to me from the across the stage. Of all his children, he knows I am the most holy, the most committed to his cause.
“Come here, Bright.” His voice, ragged as it is, envelops me like a hug, carries me aloft to his side. “You have something to say?”
The words pour from my mouth into the microphone, but they’re not coming from me. They’re coming through me, filling my lungs and rushing forth through the mercy of a might not my own. My tongue is not equipped to shape the language of the angels and it comes out gibberish, but the meaning is clear in my mind:
“It’s coming. Can you feel it? Can you feel it coming? Judgment, coming, sweeping over this earth. We few, we here, we present now, we’re the only ones who have seen the light. Come to us now, and you will be saved. Join us, and you will be spared. This is the last day of Last Days, this is the night that will never give way to a day. The hour is near. The time is now. Declare your faith and live forever among the blessed!”
Hands are there to catch me as I fall, and the spotlight narrows, blackness closing in. Is it time? Is it now? Were those the last words I’ll ever speak? My limbs are shaking as the spirit gushes through me. I try to fight it, but it’s like fighting the current of a river.
No! I wanted to be awake. I wanted to be awake to witness the end.
The spotlight vanishes and I’m plunged into black…
My skull feels like it’s been cracked with a hammer. I reach my hand to my head and try to sit, but the pounding increases as I change position. A wan, uncertain light comes from gaps in the wooden walls, and the slits beneath the eaves. I’m still on the floor of the lodge.
I’m still here. On Earth. Alive.
The hammer moves down from my head, slams into my stomach with enough force to shatter my spine. I retch, hunched over, but there’s nothing to bring up, not even bile.
I’m still here. I’m still here. This can’t be happening.
I lift my head again and look around. There are a few other unconscious people scattered about the floor of the lodge, but the building is otherwise empty. The others must have gone to heaven, body and soul. And left me behind.
With effort, I push to my feet and stagger toward the door of the lodge, hands pressed to my head to reduce the pain of each jarring step. Outside, everything is white with mist. It must be dawn, if there’s still a dawn. I shuffle through the dust toward the creek — or where the creek used to be. Who knows anymore? My throat is desert-dry. If the water hasn’t turned to blood, I’ll drink. I’ll drink, then figure out what to do next.
I wasn’t supposed to be here, to watch the world end. I was supposed to be saved. My father promised we’d all go to heaven together.
What did I do wrong?
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