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Have you ever wondered why people eat ice on hot summer days? Peculiar; those great, wet chunks. Sliding, cold and slippery like raw meat, down your throat.
Michael shook his glass, watched the ice jump round, melting into the bottom; and pondered this fact. His brows drew closed and his hand tightened round the glass. He pondered well; everybody thought so. His mother always said he was a most intelligent child and destined for great things. Mrs. Vanders, who gave him the ice in the glass, thought so too and bit her lips to make them redder. And Rebecca, the girl looking through the pale lace curtains from the second story window across the heat-melted street, knew it as well.
Michael grabbed the cup and took a big gulp of ice. Using his canines; he remembered winter lectures on how those teeth were made for ripping raw meat; he crushed the ice. Ah. The cool dribble of ice-guts down his throat. He swallowed, wincing at the sharp, cold pain in his stomach.
“Silly boy!” Mrs. Vanders cuffed his shaven head. “You’ll kill yourself, you will. Eating ice raw. It’s bad for the-”
But Michael ignored her. He loved ice. He loved how the pain of the chill globules made him forget the more pressing matters on hand. It froze his thoughts, cryogenically preserving them for later. Later. When he would-
Michael swigged the last ice chunk and stood up. The morning sun was leaden and hot upon the bleached town of Paradise. Far beyond the bedazzled collection of buildings, the burning Desert was already losing the cold, red blush of night. Gradually, in the far east, would come a cold tongue of pink fire, frustrated at its nightly embalmment. One by one gentle, round hills would sear away into souring towers of white. Cactus, green and filled with sweet juice, would arch in agony, their spines stretching out to the sun in supplication for relief from the pain. And then the town with its flies and its humans would suffer the burning red rays.
Michael had seen it all before. He glared at the sun in weary defiance as he filled his cup with more ice. The frozen water made hard, plunking sounds against the cherry-colored cup.
He stepped away from Mrs. Vander’s porch and walked down the street.
“Where are you going?”
He made no reply to her. His bare feet were silent in the glazed sands. He paced like an Indian through the snow-ridden town, and his feet burned with the frost. Burned. And Michael had another idea. He did not have many, for he was of the mindset that fewer ideas made for better quality. He wondered why intense heat equaled intense cold in the feelings they produced on the human nervous system. He took the idea and played with it, adding a smiley face and a dangling, broken nose. Then he laughed and released it to the flies buzzing in the steaming compost heap behind the church.
Later, Michael arrived at the house of his mother and father.
They were in the Desert along with Mr. Bibelor. The other people who had created their fresh, new world in the form of a handful of sand-blasted buildings in the midst of the searing winds, were in the church. They would be there for a long while. He had made sure of that. Michael gulped more ice. The cubes were melting fast. A nasty, slow trickle of water ran down his throat like blood from a wound.
He climbed the creaking steps of the house, jerked open the door, and entered the stifling interior. It was barren save for two musty beds. A large, terribly frightening picture of a bloody god stabbed many times in the gut with thin knives glowered from the wall. Michael glanced at it, remembering the terror of praying for hours under that picture. He walked to the fridge.
Its small freezer supplied him with more ice. Michael sucked the glassy particles and stepped outside again. The solitary street that defined Paradise from the melting desert was empty and silent. Every now and then a musical, moaning sound came from the broken windmill in the corner of the yard. The metal slices, that rotated in the wind-sanded blasts that swept over them like a perpetual judgment day, were twisted and broken…more than half were missing.
He gazed up at the metal structure now and the emotion of sadness trickled into his heated heart. The windmill seemed so forlorn. A mere skeleton hanging in the winds. Surely a terrible ghost would result from such desecration of industry. And it was his fault. But then, a lot of things were his fault. He could still see her face and the pink flowers in her hair.
A terrible wind blast seared across the plains, slamming him back to the wall. Michael spat out sand and glared. He hated this place. It was unfair of life to make him come here. They had all seemed so brave and sure of themselves. So eager to purge from their veins the thick, strangling vines of rotting civilization. And so, over a year ago, in the early, fresh days of May, the twelve pilgrims sold all their possessions for gold coins. Then they set forth in three automobiles…no; thirteen. For he was sure they took the devil along with the piles of religious statues and hymn books they gibbered to. How else to explain the terrors that followed?
His mother and father, the King and Queen, led the way through the sands. Sometimes their car would choke on hot fumes and seeping sands. Then they’d dismount, and beat the beast of iron, raking out the insides of the engine with hurrying fingers, cursing and praying. Then the beast would come back to life and spring forth from their burning white hands to crawl across the vastness once more like a wounded fly.
They traveled for two months. Their faces blistered. Their hands grew rough and hard. The heat seared their brains, dulling the fires of imagination into a cold, hard desire for survival.
There were opportunities to turn back. Tree-shaded towns offered them shelter, church ladies gave them warm, wet brownies and smiled them to earthly heaven. He had tried to stay, of course. His parents burnt with a zeal that left him ice-cold. At the first opportunity he ran away, his bare feet bleeding from the terribly hot sands. Back to the town, to a kind old lady; dear Mrs. Borne. She wore pink flowers in her hair. She welcomed him with a bowl of juicy strawberries and flannel pajamas. How sweet and cool his sleep had been that night.
But his father found him, following his bloody footprints, straight to her door. They burst into her house and tore him from his bed. She cried and they hit her. Again and again. He had never seen his father so angry, with his righteous zeal making his hair stand up like cactus prickles, and a darkly flushed face spitting into her frightened eyes. She was an old woman and her heart was feeble. Michael, caught in their arms, watched her die.
Suddenly they were afraid at their crime and dragged him away into the swirling darkness. Lights flared up in the streets at the sound of their roaring automobiles. Overhead the moon leered like a white skull.
They escaped back into the madness of the shifting sands. We gave chase, of course, our entire police department of five men. But, the desert was large and they got away. We contented ourselves with waiting for their return for how could they survive the Desert? But they never came back.
Michael suffered much for his lack of faith. Each day, while the others panted in the shade of the cars and drank berry juice and prayed; he suffered. They would bury him in the white sands, sometimes only his feet, other times over his waist. At first he thought he would die from the pain. But then he learned to quench his thoughts, focusing on the mundane. It was a trick he found. And they could do nothing about it. His father would pray with him, pushing sand onto his reddened body to drive the devil away. His mother cried and wept over her fallen angel boy. Even pretty Mrs. Vanders entreated that his heart melt before such wickedness burnt his flesh forever in hell.
Seven days and seven nights later, Michael broke. He kissed their god’s image, and swore to be their Prince. And Oh! What rose-colored joy smote their brave band. They prayed beside the silent automobiles, their eyes cast upwards so that the crescent-shaped white eyeballs glared down to the bleached sands below.
The next day Paradise was found. A pile of scrubby trees surrounding a shallow pond. They cut down the trees, built a squat, little church, and surrounded it with a splattering of houses. The smell of cut wood and smoke was thick upon the flat desert air. When all was finished, there was a celebration in the church. The King splashed tepid water across their white-gloried brows.
It was early dusk when they retired to their houses and slept. He had wandered forth, back to the church. Sitting there, he stared up at the crimson-robed god. He pondered the murder of Mrs. Borne who had been so kind to him. Mrs. Vanders found him there and kissed him. Their secret affair lasted as the long months crept into stormy winter.
Soon, need of water drove them to demand help from the settled areas of the world. With some of the gold coins, the King bought a windmill from iron factories in the north. They settled it in the hot ground, gouged out the earth so that a fountain of water shot from the rocks and flowed through the town down to the church’s front door.
Other comforts of civilization joined them; fridges, toasters, street lights, all powered by electricity stolen from a line running past thirteen miles off. The King was mad at first. But there was no denying such small luxuries made heaven a little less like hell. And so he declared that the smaller sins helped prevent larger ones. And so the material devils stayed.
Two more people entered Paradise. They arrived one hot, burning morning; a silver automobile rattled into town from the grey-packed highway that cut the Desert. A very old man drove it. He had pallid skin and his sunken eyes blinked and winked as he kissed the King‘s hand. His daughter climbed out wearily and stared around at the pale houses shivering in the hot wind. Her dress was blue like the sky and matched her eyes. Eyes that sparked with interest when they met his. Michael studied her with fascination. She was like a butterfly trapped in shadows. And that was how he met Rebecca Bibelot.
That evening there was another celebration. Mr. Bibelot had brought a freezer, full of glittering water chunks, with him. They shared the treasured ice out in careful rations. Their fingers became red and sticky with the dripping-cold diamonds.
Michael had nearly forgotten what the cold was like. The first taste…that freezing-frosting of his throat….! It made him ponder a new thought. A completely original thought. A thought that spread its wings like a black crow, and flapped away to the windmill. He studied the thin blades of metal quivering like daggers against the breeze with scientific interest.
He remembered how he had climbed up there and snapped off half of them, collecting their silver light in a box behind the shivering freezer. The sun above shone down with molten fire, melting the golden sands into glass. He turned and saw Rebecca watching from her clouded curtains, waiting for him.
And that was what I found out after questioning the sole survivor. Mrs. Vanders was extremely upset. She couldn’t understand how such a pure young man had killed seven people…or where he had gotten such terribly sharp knives from. After all, the unfortunate accident of Mrs. Borne could hardly have turned the dear boy into such a devil. She shuddered, remembering how close she had been to his sin. But he had saved her from his wrath. He told her to remain at home; that he would ‘visit’ her while the others worshipped. Later, when she wondered at the silence, she walked to the church. A rivulet of crimson painted the wooden steps. She entered to see seven red things buzzing with flies; flashing metal quivering in their sodden flesh. She fell to her knees in horror. Outside, she heard an automobile spring to action and roar away.
We led her away for her mug shot.
We drove out to Paradise. There we took down the transfixed worshippers and buried them in the molten sands. We laid stones over their graves, to keep away coyotes. But we all knew that one day their skeletons would burn under the sun’s fire. But no one ventured to suggest a better burial. They were murderers. Let their empty Paradise rot away and the flies eat their flesh. We drove away.
Over the following days two other residents of Paradise were found. One was a man we found swinging from a rope tied to the old, broken windmill. He had been out in the desert with two others during the massacre and returned too late. Mrs. Vanders told us he was the King. The other was an old man, a Mr. Bibelot, from his tobacco case, who had died in the desert from a heat stroke. The Queen was never found. As for the fate of Michael and Rebecca, I only know this much.
Seven days after that Sunday massacre, a service boy at a lone gas station on the edge of the Desert, witnessed a strange sight. In the cold, stormy night, a silver automobile roared down the black tarmac road and glided to a stop in front of the station. A young man in a faded clothes got out, walked inside, and paid for twelve gallons with three gold coins. The service boy remembered seeing a girl too; a pale, smiling face behind the glass window. They left moments later. However, when we questioned him, he was little help. He couldn’t remember their faces well. He blamed it on the freezing cold. But their eyes, he spoke of much.
He said hers were the color of forget-me-nots, but his were like chips of silver ice, melting under a swift sunrise.