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Chapter 8.

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before

Father Smith was the last one out of the store, hindered in his attempt to escape by an unwillingness to jump into the fray and use his elbows. He still managed to get under the security gate before it was half closed and then stopped to watch it grind shut. When it closed completely the alarm switched off. The sound of the generator faded in to fill the gap, an objectionable rhythmic thump.

Behind him, gathered at a safe distance beneath the shade tree, the rest of Belgo stood looking back at the store in wonder.

"It's OK" he called over for lack of anything else to say, and far from sure that it was true. No one answered him. It was almost twelve and the heat had arrived. Silently they drifted away, back to the camps where there was a little shade and they could rest and talk over what had happened until the sun went down.

If anything more was going to happen it would wait until evening.

Father Smith peered through the wire grating to try and see if Mavis had reemerged, but all he could see was the wreckage of her store and some kind of purple fluid beginning to flow out the front door. It suddenly occurred to him that he hadn't washed or changed his clothes in days.

He drifted away like the rest of them, to sleep through the heat of the day.

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Inside the store, coated with sauce, half buried beneath an avalanche of sooty grunter, but somehow still intact, was the last cheesecake in Belgo.

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From a shallow sleep on his threadbare couch, Father Smith woke and heard the wind coming in from the floor of the forgotten sea, but that wasn't what had roused him. At this time of year, the beginning of the wet season before the rains, hot gales gusted in from desert almost every afternoon, and he was used to the clamor they caused as all the loose tin got blown about.

But this sound was different.

This had been an unambiguous wooden crack. There was only one thing it could have come from.

Even before he was fully awake the priest was up and at the door of his house, peering anxiously across at his church. That morning, in all its weirdness, was still fuzzy enough in his mind that it might have been a dream. The wind, when he stepped outside, felt like it was coming from an oven, it carried flecks of sand and discarded plastic.

The wind was doing strange things to the sound of the generator as he walked the hundred meters over to the church. The priest couldn't remember it sounding like that before. The way it would suddenly speed up then slow down as gusts caught the sound and let it go again made him think of a sick heart.

Father Smith saw what he expected when he got there. The heavy wooden door of the church had almost been completely wrenched off its hinges. Just inside he saw the boulder which had been used to do it. It was a huge rock, far too big, he would have thought, for anyone to pick up- but someone had. It lay improbably just inside the entrance and had gouged an ugly chunk out of the stone floor where it landed.

Somehow he already knew who he was going to find there. Standing in front of the altar, surreal and ghost like in the weird weakened light that filtered through the gathering storm clouds outside, was Amos Helicopter.

For forty years Amos had resisted wearing a T-Shirt, and no one had ever heard him speak English. He was unreformed and unpredictable- he had been known to put bricks through car windows and set fire to small buildings. None of it bothered the priest much, there was no malice in anything he did. Usually he couldn't have been any less frightened of him, but this time was different.

"White fella", said Amos in the unique way he had that was friendly and completely defiant at the same time. When the priest met his eyes he saw a fierce indefinable burning something that was enough to make him take a step back and set his heart pumping giddily for no rational reason at all. His grin was far too delighted to be anything but threatening. He tossed a small object across the church in the priest’s direction.

Father Smith caught it.

At first he thought he recognized it. It was the little statue of the Virgin Mary that one of the first priests to come out to Belgo had carved from a branch that had fallen off the shade tree near the store. Usually it stayed in a little alcove to the side of the altar. There didn’t seem to be anything at all strange about it.

Then he looked closer, and what he saw was impossible.

The little statue was no longer a statue of Mary but had, somehow, taken the shape of a frog! There could be no doubt about it. Father Smith held the thing in the palm of his hand and stared at it, fascinated and repelled. It seemed so real that he felt like it might jump up and hit him in the face. For him, the most incredible thing about it was its mouth, a grim line so full of intense froggy anger he could hardly look at it without trembling. Unlike the rest of the thing, which had kept the light brown color of the wood, its eyes had turned a vivid red. They stared at him sullenly.

Father Smith stepped back in shock and let the frog slip from his grasp. He thought he could hear Amos laughing at him as he stumbled outside where the clouds had now blocked out the last of the sun and night had almost fallen.

Termites, he thought weakly. It was one a million, one in a billion, but it was possible.

The priest stopped underneath the storm clouds, took three deep breaths, and said to himself out loud "it means nothing". On any other night he would have gone back to his house and thought about it more, but this was far from any other night. Father Smith pulled himself together and walked quickly towards the store.

more

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1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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