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She was lying sprawled across the threshold. Beyond the yellow glow of the porch light, the lawn was covered by a low hanging gray fog. The air was thick and moist. It smelled of gunpowder and burned flesh.
"Can you hear me?" I asked.
Bending down close to her, I could see that a section of her right side was missing. The massive wound was sealed over with hardened black ooze. Her dress seemed to have melted right into it.
I didn't want to move her, but I didn't want to leave her where she was. My cellphone still had no reception. I ran to her house phone and lifted it from the receiver. No dial tone.
Nothing in her medicine cabinet except pills, hydrogen peroxide, bandages and a bottle of cotton swabs. I shuffled through the contents of the bathroom closet and found a roll of wrap-around gauze bandage and a tube of antibacterial ointment that was nearly empty.
When I returned to the living room empty handed, she stared up at me through half-open eyes.
"Get me to the couch," she said.
Her voice was harsh with pain.
"I don't know if I should move you," I said.
But I did it anyway.
She weighed less than a big laundry basket. I held her as best I could without touching the place where her side was missing. When I lay her down on the couch, she gave a little cry and I thought I'd killed her.
"Emily?" I said.
"Gun. Close the door. Lock it."
Each word came out as painfully as if it was her last.
Looking at her side made me want to throw up.
I locked the door after taking a quick look outside. The fog prevented me from seeing anything except my projected fears. I picked the shotgun up, and immediately felt better even though it was the first gun I'd ever held.
"Do you think they're gone?" I asked as I knelt down next to her and laid the gun on the hardwood floor.
It didn't occur to me to wonder who "they" were.
"Light the lamp," she said, looking at the oil lamp on the small, round table next to the couch.
Badly injured people went into shock and could die. I didn't know how to tell if she was in shock. I didn't know what to do if she was.
I found matches in the drawer, removed the glass cone from the lamp and tried to light the wick. My hands were shaking so badly it took me three tries.
She appeared worse in the flickering light. Her skin, I realized, actually was light blue. Earlier I'd thought it was a trick of the lamp light, but one look at her face confirmed the truth.
"Take the Bible with you," she said, "page five hundred seventeen."
It took almost a full minute for her to finish that sentence.
I saw her worn leather covered Bible on the end table next to the oil lamp. King James Version. I don't know why I noticed that. It just jumped out at me.
"Don't talk," I said. "I can carry you to the car and we'll find a doctor."
Her head rolled to one side, then her eyes snapped open and she said, "No doctor. I'm dying. Do what I tell you. Take the lamp oil under the table, pour some on me and on the floor. Break the lamp on the floor and set fire to this place."
She was in such pain as she spoke that her jaw shuddered and I had to lean down to understand what she was saying.
"I can't. I can't start a fire. You'll burn to death."
"If I wasn't dying I'd kill you," she said.
"I'll take you to a doctor. Don't talk anymore, please. You need to be in a hospital."
"Too late. Don't let me die one of them."
Her eyes closed and I felt for a pulse. I couldn't find one but I didn't really know how to find a pulse anyway.
Don't let me die one of them, she'd said.
I must have gone into shock, too. I got the small bottle of oil and did it exactly as she said. I reasoned she was dead and I was fulfilling her last wishes. She seemed like she wouldn't make it much longer if she was just unconscious. But I could hardly think. What was that bright flash of light? Who or what had she been shooting at?
Running on auto-pilot, I picked up the Bible in one hand and the lamp in the other.
She looked dead.
I threw the lamp down on the wooden floor and ran back to the door. Flames rose like dancing demons and the worn fabric couch caught fire.
I saw her eyes pop open when her dress caught on fire and I screamed her name.
Fire engulfed the shotgun, and I turned and ran, carrying the Bible clasped tightly under one arm. Foggy tendrils clutched at me as I hunted for the car. Smoke suffused the suffocating mist. My mind was crowded with guilt and terror and I could not think. If not for the garish orange-red light of the burning house, I would not have found my car at all.
It started with the first turn of the key. Feeling it come to life while watching flames consume Emily's house and her with it was too much for my mind to handle. How could I have left her there dying or dead? What kind of a man was I?
Don't let me die one of them, she'd said.
I hope to God you're right, old woman.
The Bible lay next to me on the front seat where I'd dropped it. It was open, and I saw an envelope had fallen out. Saw the page number was five seventeen.
I found a color picture inside the envelope, wrapped in cellophane. When I saw what it was, I dropped it back on the seat, turned the dome light off, then put the car in reverse and drove down her driveway as fast as I could with the fog lights on. I was squeezing the steering wheel so tightly that my hands hurt.
It was a photo of a strange creature with large black eyes floating in a jar of bright blue liquid.