And the name of the star is called Wormwood…
Pus star Wormwood glowered ceaselessly in the cigarette sky. Although it was only midday, Wormwood pulled long shadows from the sour crabapple trees, whose fruit not even the crows will eat. Embittered little trees, Scotch broom, feral blackberries and scrub grass are all that grow in the brief ridges and ravines and knolls that serve as the community “backyard” throughout the valley. During wildfire season the broom pods burst and the smoky wind disperses their dusty spore. During wildfire season it’s easy to believe in hell.
At sixteen, Claire has spent her entire life at one of the sturdy white farmhouses so dominant in the valley. Unless you count the people who grow weed under artificial Wormwoods in their attics and basements, there isn’t a single farmer in the valley, yet everybody lives in a farmhouse nonetheless. Local farming began its long dwindle into obsolescence when the interstate arrived in the 1960s; money could be made easier elsewhere then brought home. Times change.
Still, the few hundred residents of the valley and the nearby village are reluctant to let go of the past. This is mainly due to the influence of the Evangelical Christian Church on the citizenry. Currently, Pastor Mentor Trout III guides the flock, as had his father and grandfather before him. Despite his haughty name, the modern day Trout is a slight and bespectacled comb-over of a man married to a silly tanning-booth addict with cornbread colored skin.
Claire’s home is by far the most secluded in the valley. There isn’t a neighbor within a mile in any direction. Her father owns ninety acres of rough, topsy-turvy land that has never been suitable for farming and is unfit for anything other than allowing him to truthfully state “I own ninety acres of land.” Any image sent home by the Mars Rovers resembles any one of several “bald spots” in her father’s land–where not even the Scotch broom can take root. For the record the land had been sold to Claire’s great grandfather by the original Pastor Mentor Trout.
Yet it seems if you must live someplace long enough you will find something special about it, no matter how useless it may be otherwise. Sudden high banks of clay terminating table top-flat stretches of a couple hundred yards or more make Claire’s father’s land an excellent shooting range. That’s Father’s Big Dream: “When I retire I’m gonna sell her for a shooting range.” He used to say that to Mom who in turn gently scoffed at the notion because he had said it just to get her to gently scoff at the notion. Father no longer says anything to Mom because she died eighteen months back from ovarian cancer. And Claire would be a poor substitute for her mother’s part for she has come to hate her father.
Yesterday, Claire exited the farmhouse and walked purposefully under Wormwood carrying a metal briefcase in one hand and a large plaster statue of Jesus Christ in the other. Upon arriving at a spot three-hundred yards behind the house, where, in happier times, she and her father often blasted various objects into smithereens, Claire lay the statue on a stump and walked to a small wood table, about a hundred feet from the stump. She lay the case on the table, turned to face the image of Christ she had purchased online because the Church frowned on anything that smacked of idolatry.
Claire is five-five, blonde and blue-eyed. She used to be a skinny tomboy, but since her mother’s death she has “bloomed” as far as the common standards of sexual attractiveness go; let’s just say she has nothing where nothing is best and plenty where she ought, and let it go at that, save for she’s the kind of girl who turns boys into fools and men into creeps.
Claire has a peculiar voice. It’s somewhat high and small, yet there’s a comely raspy hitch to be found in it. Her voice began to sound that way after a routine tonsillectomy when she was twelve, and has changed little since. Although she speaks the modern tongue in which phrases that could be taken wrong are seemingly vocally italicized–as to lay a distance between the speaker and the potentially objectionable idea spoken–and partakes in the annoying habit of saying “Nice” and “Right” and “Okay” when she should be silently listening, she has not only her own distinct sound, but has also developed her own private idiom to match it.
She smiled at the statue of Christ and began to sing: “‘In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,’ Know that one, Jesus? My father does. It’s his dumbass pin for everything. Computer, ATM, VISA, library card, and this lockbox. In fact 1492 showed up three times when I placed my order in for you. I suppose there was a chance he would have been here for your delivery, but I knew, we as in you and I knew that wouldn’t happen.” She opened the lid and extracted a .38 Colt snub-nosed revolver, which she set carefully on the table. “There’s no such thing as an unloaded gun,” she said as she walked toward the statue. “You’re not supposed to leave one lying around on a table, either, but I think it will be okay this time.”
Patio chairs have always had a way of migrating to the little shooting range, even when Claire’s tidy mother had been alive. Claire made a half-assed effort to dust one off, shrugged “oh well,” carried it over to the stump and sat down in front of the representation of the Savior.
“Chipped,” she growled upon seeing a ding in the foot of the image. “Guess that what’s sixteen bucks will getcha anymore.”
She looked away and glanced briefly at Wormwood then back at Jesus. “What’s that fucking thing about, Jesus?” Claire asked, pointing at the pus star. “It took over the sun’s job before Mama died and hasn’t gone away since. Only I know the difference. Yet everything that has happened since tells of it.”
“Know what a dum-dum round is, Jesus? I bet the Romans would have used them if they had them. There’s one in the gun on the table. Just one. That leaves five empty chambers. Hollow point bullets are as illegal as marrying your sister in this state…if you had a sister, that is…But we got a dum-dum. And with it you or I will be going away and taking that evil black star with us. Only you or I will be here in a couple of minutes. Wormwood will be finished no matter what.”
Claire rose and strode back to the table. She reached for the weapon but hesitated. “It hardly seems fair to do this before explaining the whole thing to you,” she said, her rasp seemed to have the power to carry throughout the valley. “You see it all began with all that goddam praying that a-hole Trout and his weird looking wife arranged for Mama. The fuckers convinced her that a prayer circle could do more for her than one more round of chemo. Mama was probably already as good as dead at the time, but who’s to say. Not God, sure as fuck not Trout. I don’t recall seeing you comin round, either.”
Her blue gaze measured the statue, she smiled and continued. “Mama and Daddy–when he was ‘Daddy”–were so good to me. I remember loving it here…never wanting to go. Then I got tits and a butt after Mama died…I catch him leering at me when he thinks I can’t see him. It’s the kind of look that makes me lock the bathroom door whenever I take a shower.
“He hasn’t done anything much yet–unless you count holding on too long after a hug–back when we did that–and coming up from behind and stroking my hair and ‘accidentally’ brushing his hard on against my butt in the kitchen–no big ticket items–yet. Know how it feels to have your Daddy want to fuck you?” Then she laughed, it was an ironic, cynical laugh that should never come out of a sixteen-year-old’s mouth. “Sorry about that, boss, I guess your old man kinda sorta fucked you over pretty good atop Calvary Hill.
“Here’s another big secret–one which would put me at the center of a fucking prayer circle if it gets out. I’m a virgin–that isn’t the secret, by the way–I don’t like guys, I want girls, the way my father wants me. That’s the killer part. Round here homos are sick in the head and need to be saved.”
For a moment, tears threatened to well in Claire’s eyes. But she pushed that mood aside. “I don’t have anybody to talk to about any of this,” she said, her voice small and lost. “Except Aunt Rae, Mama’s big sister–but she lives in the city and never comes round because she and my father hate each other’s guts. Still, I think she’d understand, ‘All you gotta do is call,’ she has told me on social more than once. She seems to know but is waiting for me to say it…Maybe, maybe not. Maybe wishful thinking.”
Claire reached for the gun, this time without hesitation. She kept it pointed at the ground as she had been taught, years ago when the world was safe and Wormwood but a Biblical metaphor. “Trout was right about one thing, even though he had meant it the wrong way,” she said. “He said that you’ve got to take control of your relationship with you, the Lord. Of course he had meant that in the ass-kissy way people speak to you and God around here. Gotta think good thoughts around Jesus or else, sort of thing.”
Claire fell silent, her head bowed for a long moment. She saw the shadow of an overhead circling crow on the ground. It was a distorted and sickening shadow, as were all caused by Wormwood.
Then with startling clarity the moment arrived. Claire whirled the revolver and fired and vaporized the graven image of Jesus Christ in one motion. The gunshot echoed throughout the valley, and when it died out it was replaced by Claire’s joyous laughter.
“OH!!! OH MY GOD!!! YOU BLEW UP REAL GOOD, JESUS, REAL GOOD!!!” Claire yelled between body shaking spasms of laughter. The “blew up real good” thing was something her father used to say back when things were good. Claire had always assumed that he had got it off one old time TV show or another.
She managed to return the weapon to its case and tucked it in. Then she fell to her knees laughing, tears streaming down her cheeks. Upon composing herself to some degree, she went to the stump and found that the chipped base had somehow remained in place, but nothing else. She imagined that the base must have become airborne and had landed where it had been before. Instead of interpreting that as an omen, Claire began to laugh even harder. When she finally gathered herself, she figured that she owed the departed Lord an explanation.
“I had to break up with you, Jesus,” she said. “Sorry I made it sound like we were playing Russian roulette, but I figured I owed you that for all the shit you’ve put me through. The dum-dum was in the breech, right where I placed it while in the house. To be fair, I did think about turning it on myself, but I got over that when I realized that the only part of this situation that is my fault is letting it continue without my saying anything about it.”
“I don’t know what do do,” she said. “Sometimes, I guess, the smartest thing to do is to admit that you’re not smart enough to know what to do. Guess, I’ll go in and call Aunt Rae. Can’t stay here anymore. Don’t want to stay here anymore.”
Claire visored her eyes with her hand and watched the sun, the one true sun, emerge from behind the diminishing shadow of dying Wormwood.