Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Religious · #1760732
A nonconformist brings the truth
On a crisp Sunday morning, a man rode into town on his horse, coming from nowhere in particular. He donned a dark brown Gatsby cap and a denim jacket, faded black shoes fastened by a buckle, and a stiff white shirt. The horse he sat upon trotted slowly and looked straight ahead, hooves clicking along the yellow line in the middle of the road. It had a white coat with small, faint, grayish-black spots, as if someone had rubbed in a box of Oreos as a beauty treatment. Its eyes were, like all horses', dark and unrevealing. They were just like the man's, you noticed, once you were able to look past his awful mismatching. His face was sallow and droopy, though he couldn't have been much older than thirty. He had uncharacteristic stubble: a bit overgrown but still neat, spotty in some places but thick in others. He, like the horse, stared straight ahead as he bounced lithely down the street. He fit in preposterously.
In another time, another place, he might have been able to get away as a sadly misinformed professional. Maybe, if he'd lived in another century, he'd have heard denim was popular and brown caps were in style, but didn't think he had to change his hand-me-down shoes in order to look normal. Maybe he was from a town where that sort of thing is popular; it is a rather small world. Or maybe it was all he had, and wearing it with less than pride. In any case, this was the twenty-first century. People didn't ride white horses down Broad Street dressed like this without getting strange looks. Especially when Broad Street was a little out of the way itself.
Broad Street was of course the main street in that small seaside village, and connected to County Road 28 a mile or two out of town. Out there the town stopped and started sort of abruptly; the houses which belonged to the village really belonged there, and the rest was part of the mainland. It was easily divided because Broad Street met up with CR28 at the point where the land started to taper into a cape, and indeed that's where the village was situated, on that very little cape. You'd have to have a good reason to turn onto that street, with the intention of visiting someone in the village. Another reason it was so odd to see the man on the horse.
In that quiet, sea foam-sprayed village, population seven hundred and now seven thanks to young Mrs. Schmidt who just gave birth to twin boys, there's only one thing every resident must do during the week, and that's go to church on Sunday. There's one church there, with two worship times, and it's high church, proper church, church you have to dress up for real nice, but certainly not the kind of church whose members stick their noses in politics. This church was a pleasant little place, removed from the problems of homosexual bishops and pedophilic priests, nonpartisan on the incendiary issues of creationism versus evolution. Probably they all had their opinions, but no one talked about it with respect to the church, out of respect for the church. It didn't seem worth dividing a happy people in their happy tradition to talk about such unhappy matters. Feuds should be solved in the boxing ring, said Pastor Wright. The analogy wasn't perfect, but his heart was in the right place.
So naturally, on that Sunday morning when the glove-faced man trotted into town, everyone was at church, or getting ready for church, or en route to church, and it was this latter group who saw him first. A few people were walking there: little girls with angel dresses and cotton candy bows prancing down the sidewalk; mothers carefully warning them not to get dirty; an eremitic teenage boy ambling behind them, too cool to be caught with his hands outside his pockets. Most people drove, slowing down as they approached the equine obstacle in the road, then slowing down further to get a good look. Kids pointed fingers with recently cleaned nails and adults cast puzzled looks in the direction of the man's yellow leather skin. Others missed the man and his horse entirely, having come in too far behind him or having taken the other road in town to church.
The horse turned off to the right without a visible signal from the man, and stopped in front of Chet's Gas Station. The man dismounted and then, seeing the station was closed, peered through the window at the Budweiser digital clock: 10:16. The “We'll be back at...” sign proudly declared 1:00 the Sunday opening time. The man clicked his buckle-shoes on the pavement with his heels one at a time, like he was preparing for a tap dancing jig, then floated expressionlessly to the side of his horse, rest his back on it, and waited. He pat the horse's flank twice with his left hand and it promptly shat.
November mornings in most parts of the world can be any variety of weather. In mild seaside climate it wasn't surprising that that day was chilly but showed strong signs of T-shirt weather by midday. The man never showed he was uncomfortable, never took off his jacket or tugged at his shirt collar. Occasionally he'd take off his cap and scratch his hair, a bit overgrown but still neat like his stubble. Otherwise he stared straight ahead with his back against the horse. At exactly noon he wordlessly shooed his horse away to graze in the field opposite the gas station, then sat against the wall near the ancient pay phones.
It might have been a seaside town, but it wasn't at all a beach town. It's the kind of place you might imagine the Pilgrims first arrived at, and if you took a photo, the kind that would hang with a peach-colored frame on the wall of a doctor's office or a Best Western. Calm waters lapped against a rocky shore. A decommissioned lighthouse could be seen from most parts of the coast, jutting out at the point where the cape ended. A hodgepodge of sea birds made their homes on the sharp, dark rocks, feeding on the crabs and other crustaceans that skittered amongst them. The wind was almost always pleasant if the day was sunny: constant, gentle, thought-provoking. It blew through the white picket fences and throughout the rest of town, where it found the dozing man with his hat pulled down over his eyebrows, stroking his rough sideburns and aerating the ravines of his face. There the man rested for a quarter of an hour or so, letting the town he'd never been to welcome his presence with the breeze.
Shortly after, church began to let out, releasing the masses newly free of sin. Handshakes abounded, women exchanged bits of gossip, kids chased one another on the lawn. Some women talked about the horse they'd seen on the way to church; others didn't seem to care too much. Stranger things have happened, they said. Cars started up, children scrambled in, old ladies made their final kisses and the people dispersed. Chet Marshall rounded up his kids, too, and let his oldest boy get in the driver's seat. His son drove about a quarter mile and dropped his father off at the family business, then sped away with barely a second look at the cookie crumb stallion on one side and the poorly dressed man on the other.
Chet, on the other hand, took a couple of looks, not without an urge to call back his son and have him wait at least until he got inside. He peremptorily but not fearlessly walked up to his Mini-Mart, eying carefully both the doors and the yellow-faced man. The latter stood up and took off his cap respectfully, moving towards the door. Chet's heart fluttered a bit as he unlocked the doors.
“Sorry, we don't open 'til 1:00,” Chet said, clearing an impending hiccup his throat.
The man stopped but kept his facial expression.
“That's all right.” He turned back with the same speed with which he came and sat again with his back against the wall.
Chet locked the doors from the inside with a suspicious glare. He spotted the clock at 12:25 and did his opening duties. Sundays were easy; no food delivery, no gas delivery, no paperwork unless you made some. He'd do some cleaning after lunch, when Sue came in to run the register, but other than that Sundays were a piece of cake. They even closed early, and he'd be home in time for dinner if all went smoothly closing up.
All through counting the money drawer and turning on the frozen smoothie machine, Chet eyed the man out front. In that thirty minutes he didn't seem to have moved at all. Three minutes 'til, Chet unlocked the doors, but the man still didn't move. Right then Don Harding's truck pulled in to the first pump, which eased Chet's nerves a bit. He gave Don a stiff but cheery wave and watched from behind the counter as Don filled up his tank. The clock struck one (so to speak, anyhow, Budweiser digital clocks don't strike) and the strange man promptly stood up and entered the Mini-Mart.
The man took off his cap and began meandering through the aisles, perusing them interestedly. To Chet it seemed he was looking for something in particular, as he kept stopping to examine things more closely. Chet wondered if he should ask him if he needed anything, as he would for a normal customer, but Don interrupted his train of thought.
“Hey Chet, how'd you like the sermon today?”
“Good, real fine,” Chet answered honestly. “Great message.”
“I thought so, too.” Don began to pull out his wallet.
“Twenty oh-one. Missed the mark again, eh?”
“Maybe I meant to do that,” Don smirked, handing over a bill plus a coin from the “Give a Penny, Take a Penny” tray. Don noticed the stranger for the first time as he glided smoothly toward the counter.
“Yeah, I'll bet,” Chet replied. Don moved aside a bit and leaned his elbow on the counter. He was going to make small talk for a bit. Chet didn't mind. It was awfully slow on Sundays, anyway.
The stranger approached politely and put a bag of sunflower seeds on the counter.
“Fifty-three cents, with tax,” Chet said, suddenly no longer apprehensive now that Don was making two heads better than one.
“I was wondering, do you have anything that makes fire?”, asked the man.
“You mean like a candle?”
“No, like things to start fire.”
“Matchsticks?” Chet reached under the counter and tossed a box onto the counter. The man's dark eyes lit up.
“Yes, I think so,” he said, smiling. “Where I'm from we just call 'em sticks.”
“Makes a dollar even.” Chet paused a bit. “Where you from?”
“You probably haven't heard of it,” said the man, pausing to wait for a follow-up question. “Some place down South.”
“Well, how'd you manage to get yourself here?” asked Don, a toothpick now loosely between his teeth.
The man gave a seconds-long puzzled look, then pointed out across the field to the stallion breezily whiffing its tail left and right.
“No, I mean, why are you around these parts, if you don't mind my asking?” Don asked.
“Ah,” said the man with a small smile, “How and why are two very different questions, you see.”
Don ground his toothpick and said nothing, appearing thoroughly unimpressed with the man's street philosophy.
“I guess I just wandered here accidentally,” the man said after another pause. He gave Chet a dollar. If Chet had looked more closely, he might have noticed a small difference between the two symbols on the back of the bill and those on one already in the cash drawer, but instead he put it in the register without a thought.
“It's kinda hard to wander here accidentally, if you know what I mean,” Don answered with a polite chuckle. “We're kind of an out of the way place.”
“Yes, I know what you mean,” said the man.
“Plannin' on staying long?” Chet asked, again a little nervous.
“No, I don't think so. I don't know this place very well.”
“'Ts a shame, nice couple days we're about to have, I can feel it,” added Don cheerily.
“Yes, the weather is rather nice,” the man said. He clicked a heel on the floor.
“I'm Chet. Nice to meet ya.” Chet extended a hand, half surprising himself with his rediscovered forwardness.
“Thomas,” said the stranger, giving a firm shake to Chet and then to Don.
“Don Harding. Good to meet you, Tom.”
Thomas smiled at them both but it was clear he was a bit taken aback at the unwelcomed abbreviating of his name, letting his narrow gaze linger a little too long on Don's face. He tore a corner off the package of sunflower seeds and poured a few out into his hand.
“Well, nice to meet you all,” Thomas said, and made for the exit. Don resumed his conversation with Chet.
“Pastor Wright threw a few jokes in there too, now, didn't he?”
Chet was uninterested. “Yep,” he said absently. “A knee-slapper today.” He watched as their new friend popped a handful of seeds into his mouth, left them there for a few seconds, then violently spit them out with a noise of disgust. Don followed Chet's eyes in time to see Thomas inspect his new purchase more closely and turn back inside.
“Excuse me,” Thomas said in a tone nothing but polite, “are these sunflower seeds?”
“Yep, David's sunflower seeds, the best kind if you ask me,” replied Chet.
“Why are they so salty?”
“That's just they way they made, I guess.” Chet was beginning to view the man as less strange and more stupid.
Thomas licked his lips and said, “Do you have a faucet?”
“Men's room's over there.”
“Thanks.” Thomas emerged a minute later with a packet full of wet seeds, and without saying anything left the store again.
Don and Chet tried unsuccessfully not to stare through it all. Thomas let out a machine gun of short, high whistles before popping a new batch of seeds into his mouth. His horse came galloping across the street and Thomas hopped on. He began heading down the road in the same direction he had been going before, the animal's hooves clicking on the solid yellow line, and they disappeared from sight.
Chet broke the long silence with Don.
“Strange fellow, eh?”
The next day on which the yellow-faced man visited the village by the seashore happened to have nearly the opposite weather as the time before. It was foggy in the morning and it was going to be cloudy and miserable all day. It wasn't entirely unexpected, now that it was a full month later and drab December was in full force. The sea was too choppy for pleasant boating, and most houses had switched from sweaters indoors to lighting the gas. Halls were holly-decked, gay apparel was donned, and holiday lights flashed quietly throughout the nights. Nativity scenes were of course ubiquitous, prominently displayed on lawns or cozily placed in living room windows. Bright colors livened the otherwise foggy gray atmosphere. All of this Thomas saw, his gaze still not straying much, atop his white horse which clicked its hooves down the road's hazy yellow line. He rode in just the same as he had before, from the same direction and at about the same time. Again, it was Sunday.
More people noticed Thomas this time, since he rode past the church closer to the start of the service. Again the kids pointed and the adults gawked. Chet Marshall was pulling his sedan into the wide driveway of the church when he noticed people staring toward the street, then with a hiccup of his heart both nervous and excited, saw Thomas in his black hat and proper posture. Chet had the irrepressible urge to greet the stranger – a full one eighty of his attitude a month ago – and excused himself from his wife to catch up with him. He ran to the end of the church's driveway just as Thomas and his horse had passed it.
“Hey there, partner!” called Chet. Thomas wordlessly turned the horse around to face Chet. “You liked our town so much you came back, eh?”
Thomas smiled faintly. “Yes, I suppose so.”
“How are ya?” Chet's incongruous eagerness was showing.
“Well. And you?”
“Doing just fine. We're just about to head into church.”
Thomas's eyes narrowed and Chet got the feeling he was looking right through him. Thomas said nothing.
“You're, uh, you're welcome to join us if you have the time,” offered Chet nervously.
Thomas was silent for a full five seconds.
“Yes, perhaps I will,” he said, not dropping his gaze from beyond Chet's chest.
He led his horse to the side of the church building. Chet waved his family on in while he waited for Thomas to dismount. When he did, Chet noticed the man was remarkably tall. My goodness, he must have been at least six and a half feet. How did he not notice this back at the gas station? Maybe the lighting was different, or maybe he had been too busy concentrating on the oddity of the chap the last time to notice his height. Thomas towered over the shorter-than-average Chet, making him feel almost embarrassed to walk with the giant of a man.
Thomas took off his black leather cap, worn generously over time, and scratched his peach-fuzz head. He held the cap in both hands and massaged its wrinkles gently, as if it were aching from a hard workout. He patted his horse on its left flank and again the horse understood its privilege to relieve its bowels. Chet was mildly impressed with this act, though he wasn't sure it was really purposeful, so he settled for a half-smile. A beautiful horse, he remarked to himself, bright white with a dark brown mane and a matching tail. Its eyes were dark and sad, and it looked at its master as a sheepish boy looks at his mother in an uncomfortable situation: relieved he's not alone but pleading for comfort. Its coat was thick and spotless, as if it had just been covered with a layer of fresh snow. Funny, Chet, thought. He didn't remember being so captivated by the beauty of the horse the last time. Unless it was a different horse. That was entirely possible. If you have one horse to ride down the main street of a foreign village, why not two?
Chet and his acquaintance entered the church and the ushers greeted them with courteous hellos and light green bulletins explaining the order of the service. Thomas took the bulletin like a precious gift, delicately fingering its edges and opening it slowly as if it were the Gutenberg Bible. In fact, he met everything with ginger curiosity. He surveyed the interior architecture with wonder on the inside, frown on the outside. The steep, pointed rafters and the stained glass windows, the neat, upholstered pews with thick green and red books behind each one, the symmetry of the whole place awed him. People sat there staring straight ahead, dressed to the nines, doing nothing. An organ played low, constant, unimpressive music, accompanied by the bristling of whispered chatter. But Thomas barely noticed this; he was moonstruck by the large piece of wood in the shape of a man nailed to a cross. An altogether inappropriate look of compassion and sadness beset the crucified man's face. Chet noticed Thomas, in total disbelief, blink his eyes and squint at each of the cross's four corners. As if shaking himself out of a trance, Thomas closed his eyes for a full two seconds and then looked wide-eyed at Chet. Chet motioned for Thomas to enter in front of him, and Thomas returned the gesture. They sat near the back with Chet's family, and as the service went on for the next hour, Thomas remained completely silent.
The benediction was given, the organ began to emit an energetic postlude, and people began filing out, shaking hands with the minister as they went. Thomas shook the pastor's hand firmly and without word, then immediately headed for the door. Chet stopped him.
“Hey, don't leave without some coffee,” he said, almost pleadingly.
“No, thanks,” said Thomas skittishly. “I don't drink coffee.”
“All right, then. Well, let me walk you out.” Chet followed the exceedingly tall man out the doors and around the corner. Thomas's horse nodded his head and shook his mane in acknowledgment of his master's coming. Thomas mounted quickly and gracefully.
“Let me ask you a quick something,” he said, now with a confidence which made Chet uneasy. “All this talk you just had in there. Is it... it it real?”
“Well, I'm not quite sure what you mean,” said Chet after a thoughtful pause, “of course it's real. We're all people sittin' in there, aren't we?”
“Yes, of course. I mean, all this talk about a god, do all those people sitting in there believe it's a real thing?”
“You mean, is God real?” He waited for confirmation, but Thomas said nothing, so he continued. “Well I believe in my heart He's real, He comforts me at sad times and I rejoice in Him at happy times,” said Chet, with a dose of unabashed pomp.
“And God is a... a deity, right? Will you explain a bit more?”
To Chet it didn't look like Thomas was interested in hearing a bit more, his hands on the reins and his eyes looking into the distance every few seconds. But he entertained his question all the same. “Yes, well, we believe in a Creator. He created the universe and our little planet, and a few thousand years ago He sent His Son in human form to deliver man from his sins,” Chet explained, feeling as if he were patronizing. “How mucha this do you know?”
“I see. Well, we praise our God for giving us what we ask of Him, and we fear Him for his power, and we celebrate His benevolence. We... owe Him for the good things that happen to us in life. And we recognize that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God and that He will come again to judge humans based on their faith in Him. Those who believe will go to Heaven, a place of eternal happiness, and those who refuse to believe go to Hell, a place of eternal torment.”
Chet took a breath and stopped to decide if he should go on. He was doing pretty good for an amateur, he thought. But Thomas was blinking an awful lot. It must be an overload if this was the first time he'd heard about the Word of God. Not to mention that the whole scene of a gas station owner staring up at and telling a man in a black hat and brown leather jacket with heavy-laced boots on a star-bright horse about theology was worth a cartoon or two in the Sunday paper.
“You know, we've got a pastor in there who can tell you all about it,” he said finally.
Thomas didn't reply.
“I take it you're not a God-fearing man, then,” Chet said, trying his best not to sound condescending.
“You've taken it correct, sir,” replied Thomas. “If I may be frank, I find the whole thing astounding. There must be half the village in there right now.”
Chet chuckled. “Well, there must be, certainly. Not a soul in this town I know would skip a Sunday service unless they're at the hospital or something, knock on wood.”
“How fascinating,” Thomas remarked, though his tone sounded less fascinated than professorial.
“May I ask,” Chet began, clearing his throat, “how you've never heard of Christianity before? You did say you're from the South, didn't you?”
“Yes.” It looked as though Thomas were finished speaking. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a handful of small black seeds, popped them into his mouth, and dug at them ruminatively with his tongue. Then, rearranging the seeds in his mouth and spitting out a few shells, spoke again. “But I'm not, as you say, a God-fearing man, because there's no such thing as a god where I'm from.”
Chet understood this line of speech. It was called atheism, and it was what happened to teenagers and misguided adults before they realized what the world was about. They read Sartre and Dawkins and heard all about evolution and the explainable mysteries of the cosmos and thought it too ridiculous to be true that there be a God. Chet may have been running a mini-mart as a job, but he was no idiot. He'd attended a respectable university in Boston long ago and he still subscribed to Scientific American. He believed that evolution was real, just like any reasonable person, and he knew that almost everything was explainable by science, even if humans haven't come to all the conclusions yet in this here century. But none of that even came close to damaging his belief in God. He felt it in his soul at all times and the scientific and secular world were peripheral to what he knew in his heart was true. And he wasn't ashamed to admit it.
“Sir, there's such a thing as God everywhere. Where you're from can't be different than what we are here.”
“It surprisingly isn't, and is at the same time,” said Thomas, and spat another seed. “I don't mean to sound mysterious, it's just... well, now that I know such places like this exist, I'm a bit more knowledgeable about reality, if you know what I mean.”
“I don't, actually.”
“I never realized there were places where whole communities believed in a God. I thought that... I thought individuals who entertained the idea for a joke or a fancy were fringe enough.”
Chet was regaining the thought that the man was too strange for the town, and felt a bit violated, though he knew that wasn't the right emotion to be having.
“Well, sir, I can see you're an atheist, and a fr--” Chet started.
“A what?” Chet interrupted.
“You're an atheist.”
“That's right. Isn't that how you'd call yourself? Maybe an agnostic?”
“Agnostic...” Thomas mulled the words over, and spat another few seeds.
“Well, you're a friend to the town, anyhow, anyway,” said Chet, not really believing what he was saying. “Atheist or not, mini-mart still opens at one o'clock if you want to get yourself some sunflower seeds.”
Thomas smiled genuinely. “No, I brought my own this time,” he said, holding out a handful of what looked like tiny, black, oval stones. Chet waved his hand in refusal.
People began coming out of the church more quickly now, their five-minute coffees drunk and gossip exchanged. They cast a few looks toward the odd couple but none of them stopped by to introduce themselves. Thomas began to look anxious and the horse nodded his head up and down again as if to say “let's go, already!”
“Stop on by the town some time again, will ya?”
“Surely,” said Thomas, and with an impressive start of energy from the stallion, bolted out from the shade of the church's eaves and into the sea mist. He rode down the highway in the same direction he'd been heading before, at an impressive gallop. All the churchgoers, a sort of disbelieving Chet included, quizzically watched him disappear.
Not much interesting had gone on during the winter. The O'Briens announced that their oldest son was going to serve in the Air Force; the Rileys welcomed their third little girl, making the total population seven oh seven again (poor Rita Worthington had died of a heart attack just after Christmas); Seth Franklin was caught with marijuana at school and everyone talked dirty about the good-hearted Franklins anyway. A few of the older couples at church were gone, down to Florida to play their part as snowbirds. The weather had been dreary, like every winter, but spring wasn't shy about coming this year and they had some really spectacular picnic days in early March. Church was always more fun when the air conditioning was going instead of the heat, and even better when both were turned off. So those fine days in March were certainly appreciated by the townspeople, when you could sit in comfortable clothes and hear pastor's sermon loud and clear.
On the last Sunday in March, pastor's sermon was loud and clear, but so was the event that cut it in half. Around 11:30, after reading John 8, pastor was hinting at poor, unfortunate Seth and the judgment that should not be passed on him, when there was a loud, low grumbling, as if the Earth were expressing millennia of hunger. It lasted a long and terrifying forty seconds. The whole church shook and the people gasped and cried. Jesus trembled in his wooden frame, the organ pipes played notes they shouldn't have, and the choir director took an ungraceful fall off her small raised platform. One of the lights hanging overhead went out with a bright flash. But when the dust cleared, so to speak, the church was just fine and so was everyone in it. Half a dozen men got up and went outside to see what was the matter. A few ran to see if the choir director was okay. The rest calmed the babies, laughed nervously at their well-being, chatted about bombs and earthquakes and joked about World War III, knock on Jesus. Pastor collected the attention of the congregation with aplomb, and when the men returned with news that everything looked normal, he resumed his sermon.
Those six surveyors of the scene who couldn't immediately find anything wrong outside sent one man out up toward the highway to see if anything had gone wrong up there. That man, driven by curiosity more than heroism, was Chet Marshall. He drove calmly in his sedan up the road, excited about the possibility of being the first to hear or see big news. Once he passed Fred's Lumber, almost out of town already, things started to look strange. Several hundred yards up the road he saw a lone car, faced towards him with its headlights on, and a woman standing next to it with her arms akimbo. Chet looked to his left toward the sea and saw nothing unusual. But as he got closer he noticed the woman was stopped because she had to. Chet approached the point at which he could go no further and stopped the car. County Road 28 was only a few yards behind the woman on the other side, stretching in either direction like the horizon, and equally as unreachable. The woman greeted Chet with a wave, but Chet didn't notice. He was looking at the road in front of him. It was split in half.
Not only was the road split in half, but so was the land next to it, in a line extending in either direction as far as Chet could see. The distance between himself and the woman across the way was about twenty feet. Down the chasm was rock and dirt all the way, and at the bottom a current of water brought in by the sea, quick and frothy, creating a new river in a very unusual way. Chet stood at the edge for many minutes, drowned in disbelief. On the other side, his mirror did the same.
All of a sudden the tone of Chet's inner voice changed from incredulity to panic. If there was water coming from the sea in one direction, where would it end? Surely the chasm couldn't extend all the way inland to the next body of water. If it did, they'd still be a cape. If they didn't, well, the new river would flush right back into the sea. He had to see where it went.
Flustered, he hustled back to the car and jerked it into reverse. Then flying in drive, he followed the chasm through the cape's unused fields of grass. The ground was muddy but Chet kept the car going constantly and fast enough that he wouldn't get stuck. On the other side of the winding, jagged river, CR28 followed stick straight, at times looking like it would intersect with the gap. What a disaster that would be, Chet thought. But it never did. The gorge followed the route almost perfectly. For the next few miles Chet didn't blink at all. He never thought about the beating his sedan was getting on the bumpy ride, nor about the possibility that the ground under him might be loose, and especially not about church. What pastor was now saying about absolution and judgment was far away. His mind concentrated only on where the guerrilla river would go, and he chased it like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
Chet encountered a row of trees the car would not fit through. He dashed out without closing the door behind him. When he emerged on the other side of the trees he recognized immediately what to him was the glory of God. He saw what powers God had to change the Earth and make it still harmonious. The sea was in front of him, white-crested waves sparkling with the midday sun, the surface calm as ever, the coast oblivious to the effects of this curious earthquake. The gorge he had followed did indeed run right back into the sea. Eventually it would fill up and be a full-blown river, and pretty darn soon. So his little seaside town, the one he'd grown up in and gone to church in almost every Sunday for fifty-one years, would no longer be a seaside town. It'd be an island.
Engulfed by a fistful of conflicting emotions, Chet staggered a few steps to the edge of the cliff and looked down to the water, which was barely flowing at this point. Water gushed in from both directions here and met in a frothy boil. The gap was narrower at this end, almost narrow enough for him to make a leaping jump across, if he were thirty years younger and more agile. In any case, a bridge would have to be built somewhere along it. Just a dozen yards across the gap Chet saw CR28, gently curving along the edge of the sea. There were no cars in sight. But there was a horse.
Chet first heard its loud clacks, coming up the road from the South in a fast gallop. Then he saw it, following the single yellow line in the middle of the road, and there was no doubt it belonged to his two-time acquaintance. The horse, what a horse! It was impossibly white, with a cream-colored mane and still, obsidian eyes. The reins and saddle were silver. Its platinum tail waved rhythmically with the gallop. It was sublime, only outshone by its owner atop him. Thomas, his posture erect and majestic, came rounding the curve with temerity and fervor. He was wearing a crow-black felt homburg and a three-button suit jacket to match. A white vest with gold buttons graced his front, a red cummerbund across his waist. He wore fitted gloves, perfectly shined black shoes, and ankle-high trousers with pronounced pleats. But nothing could make him look more royal than his face. He glowed. His eyes were onyx and audacious. No trace of stubble on his face, and sideburns cut clean with a knife. He held his head high and straight in front of him. He commanded the road in front of him and nature to his sides. He commanded the sky above and the earth below. It was impossible not to love Thomas in his radiance.
He galloped by in a few seconds, his head too straight ahead to look at the poor stranded man whose home had now become isolated from the world. Just before he became eclipsed by the trees, Thomas looked back and saw Chet, looked at him with very intentional eyes. Something in them spoke the truth. He gave a kind and knowing smile, then continued riding. Among his many sensations Chet felt released, safe, and oxygenated. He felt like he was breathing clouds left in the horse's wake, fresh, life-giving air. And in a moment of clarity provided by this clean zephyr, Chet thought. The man who didn't fit in intended to be that way. He was a harbinger of nonconformity, and he was going to save them all.