Philip leans against the trunk of a tree. He is a big man, made bigger by the hopes and dreams of the brethren. He is the chosen of god which adds an extra few inches to his already considerable height. He walks with the lord, and his footfalls are strong and sure and without hesitation. He has heard about Jessica which is why he is here now. Jessica’s mother is nervous. She tucks her hair behind her ear and smooths down her simple cotton smock, small signs of vanity. Why doesn’t he see this? He is always talking about the evils of vanity, the evils of greed, the evils of selfishness and yet when the women primp and preen around him he seems to swell up with their undivided attention. He is adored as God Himself should be adored. He is the son of God on earth and he will save them all if they follow him closely enough.
She has stopped believing. Philip is a man, and as a man he is fallible. Every time he predicts a new date for the apocalypse, once a year, more frequently lately, every time they all walk up the mountain with their crosses, Jessica follows them but she does so knowing that they will soon trudge down the hill once more. Jessica still joins the women in the cooking and preserving, putting food away for the end-times, but now she knows that they are just storing food for winter. There will be no end times. Not now. Not soon. Certainly not in Philip’s mortal lifetime.
He nods and this is a sign that Jessica should raise her gun. She should be as nervous as her mother is but strangely, she isn’t. Philip rarely bother’s himself with women’s business. Still he has heard about her, how she, a child, has a God-given sure hand and an unerring eye. He has come to see for himself. Jessica raises the rifle, braces it against her shoulder. It is all about breath. Breathe out. Sight. Shoot. The can leaps into the air, tumbles. The bullet will have pierced it at the centre of the label. It isn’t hard. She wonders what all the fuss is about. She feels the pulse of her blood. Even this thudding will change the direction of the bullet. The shot must be timed to the breath and to the heart. She lines up the second can, sights, breathes out, pulse, shoot. Another can down. Philip nods. Jessica raises the rifle and he holds up his hand to stop her. The women are all lined up waiting. They know what he wants of them. Her mother walks out onto the range. She replaces the next can with the bundle that she is hiding under her smock. When she steps away from the log Jessica can see that she has placed a kitten there. The thing mews, stares at her, licks his black face with a rough pink tongue. Another woman picks up the next can and in its place there is an owl, almost the exact same colour as the log, an owl made of bark, it ruffles it’s feathers. Its eyes are big and yellow and wise. Another can removed, a puppy, a labrador, sandy brown, velvety, wrinkled with all it’s extra skin just waiting for a growth spurt. The women step back, out of the line of fire. Philip lowers his hand. She is supposed to shoot. They are waiting for her. She glances up towards her mother and the woman narrows her eyes. She wants her daughter to do it. She is angry at Jessica for hesitating. She wants her to shoot, this time to kill. She shakes her head. Jessica’s mother raises her hand and there is a pistol in it. She is aiming the pistol at her daughter. Her aim has never been accurate. Jessica can see that her line of sight is off. She is pointing the gun at her shoulder. She will wing her daughter. She will hurt her but she will be alive, bleeding out slowly. Jessica raises her rifle. Philip’s eyes are on her and the hair is rising up on the back of the girl’s neck. His eyes are dark and unwavering. She can smell a reek off him like a cave full of bats. Wild thing, wild creature of god. She takes aim. She breathes out, she waits for the pulse. She sights. The wide, innocent kitten is all eyes. She fires.
The blood hits Jessica full-force. Someone has thrown a bucket of blood and it has slapped her in the face. She feels the warmth of it dripping down her neck, crawling across her chest under the plain modest smock. She can taste the metallic edge of it as she opens her mouth and lets out a strangled scream, a sob. She has hit the kitten right in the head, above the eyes which were flat and yellow and trusting. Now there are no eyes, or what is left of them has been flung forward and onto her skin. The blood should have sprayed back, away from the force of the bullet. This is a direct contradiction of the laws of physics. She has betrayed science. It is worse than her guilt at betraying God. Philip nods, satisfied. Philip has taken the basic principles of action and reaction and bent the physics against her. Philip is the son of god on earth. They were right and Jessica was wrong. He nods to the second target, an owl. She can’t kill an owl. An owl is a portent of fate. An owl is a symbol of all that is true and old and wise. Jessica doesn’t believe in all that of course. She is a scientist. She knows that it is just a bird, a protected bird. Protected by the government, still, she can’t seem to raise the rifle. Her mother’s gun is still pointed at her, this time closer to her heart, wavering. Her finger is tight against the trigger. She lifts her rifle, closing her eyes, her heart beating wildly and she doesn’t wait for it to calm. She shoots. There is too much blood for a creature so small. She is covered in it, rocked backward by the force of it. It winds her. Jessica can’t breathe, she is drowning in blood. Then it is over and she is still here, still alive. Still expected to prove her marksmanship one last time. The puppy. She must shoot the puppy, the thing is so soft, big paws, head cocked to one side. She has it in her sights. It pounds it’s oversised paws playfully on the branch as if it wants her to throw a stick. She breathes out. She swings the rifle. She points it at her mother. Her mother’s eyes widen. Her mother shifts her gun till it is in line with Jessica’s left eye. With a small shift of her shoulders Jessica swings the weapon wide of her mother’s head. She is aiming at Philip. The son of god, the chosen one, the saviour. He stares back at her unafraid. His lips are moving. He is mouthing words. What are they? She has no time to make sense of them. She squeezes the trigger, feels the kick of the rifle pressing her shoulder back. The bullet hits, all of this in slow motion, the hole drilling slowly through skin and bone, the force of the blood inside him like a tidal wave approaching. Jessica falls back, the blood rushes over her. There is nothing in the world except blood, gallons of blood. The sky is obliterated by a wall of it. What was it he said? Her mind clutches at the last movement of his lips, the soundless words: You’re Dead. You’re Dead. And then his head exploded.
Jessica gasped. She had been holding her breath under a river of blood. She woke and there was blood or perhaps it was not blood, but sweat, damp on her forehead. She was panting. She was sitting up. She thought she might have screamed in her sleep. She woke to find herself alone in the bed and someone was dead. Matthew. Yes. Mathew was dead. The grief hit her fresh and heavy, but more, something new. Something terrible.
And then she remembered.