She glanced from face to face. Most were fearful, some confused, a few seemed angry–at her, at the invader–whoever he might be–at the world that was so unfair. She understood and sympathized with each and every one of them.
“Why don’t you just come out and say it?” shouted Elizabeth Crowley from the front row. “It was an Angel.”
Ashley glanced at Marie, not surprised to see the girl cringe.
“We don’t know that,” said Emery Tyson, shaking his gray head.
Murmurs sounded again then grew to an uproar before Ralph slammed his gavel down again.
“We don’t have enough information to go saying that,” shouted Ralph. “Each and every one of you has a right to speak, and you’ll all get your turn if you want one. But right now Ashley still has the floor.”
Paulie nodded his encouragement, and Ashley drew strength from the old man.
“Maxie was whining tonight. He never does that. He’s a good dog, and not afraid of much.”
Paulie smiled at her and shook his head. A few people chuckled. She stared into Maxie’s trusting face, glad he didn’t understand the implied insult to his dogship.
She repeated the story, trying not to omit anything. There was nothing for her to hide from these people. They had all shared far too much for subterfuge. If some of them thought she was crazy or overcome with fear and seeing things, so be it. They all knew what it meant if the Angels had invaded the valley.
“Maybe you and Maxie was both just overwrought,” said Pete Bell. His face said that he was hoping that was all it was. She liked Pete almost as much as she did Paulie. “You might have just scared yourself into believing it.”
She shrugged, not wasting her breath on further argument.
“This figure you witnessed,” said Ralph, clearly passing over naming it, “didn’t speak to you, then?”
She shook her head, shivering. The last thing she wanted to think about was having a conversation with an Angel. She bit her lip so hard she tasted salty blood on her tongue.
“All right, all right,” said Ralph as people started muttering again. “We aren’t going to get anywhere with everybody gabbing at once. We have two things to think about. Who or what it was that Ashley saw and what the heck it or he was doing there. Who wants to go first?”
People looked all around, but no one stepped up. That was usually the way of it. Most monthly meetings were nothing more than Ralph notifying the group about stocks of supplies, the financial situation–which didn’t really change that much–or discussing this or that person who might have gotten ill since the last meeting. Over the past five years there had been a couple of other times when someone thought they saw something strange or came into contact with an outsider, but tonight no one had much else to add. So, it surprised Ashley when Paulie climbed slowly to his feet.
She stared into his eyes, wondering for the thousandth time what it would have been like to know him in his youth. That was one thing she had always envied Clara for, the life the two of them had shared. Even now the old man’s back was straight and stiff as a gun barrel, and his broad hands–calloused and scarred by a thousand hard climbs in his mountaineering past–gripped the back of the pew like the talons of predatory bird without the slightest trace of a quiver.
“I’m not going to argue with any of you whether or not Angels are in the valley,” he said, in a booming voice that carried their past with it like a tidal wave of memories, “or just about to be. And you can sit here all night if you like and discuss whether or not Ashley’s having some kind of hallucinations. All I have to say is this. We need to stay prepared. I don’t like the fact that you all put so much faith in me. I’ve done everything I can, and I go to bed every night hoping that it’s enough. But you need to stay ready.”
“Amen,” Ralph muttered, and people stared at him as though he had blasphemed.