From the author: Ray Morningstar wanted nothing to do with the old ways of his ancestors... until his sister's life was on the line.
Grandfather was a rock for so long, he forgot what being human feels like. He rose stiffly, stretched, and brushed dirt from his pants. It was good to have legs again.
Headlights swept the desert. Tiny bats flitted through pinyon and juniper. A javelina rummaged in the underbrush.
Grandfather walked to the house. Ray was asleep on the front porch, an open can of Bud on the railing beside him. Grandfather shook him by the shoulder.
Ray opened his eyes. He wasn’t surprised to see Grandfather standing on his porch. Grandfather pointed to the car pulling up to the house. It was Elaine’s Ford Fiesta with the bent aerial, caked in red dirt. The door squeaked as she got out.
“Raymo,” she said, his old nickname.
“You drove from Albuquerque.”
“I quit my job.”
“You sucked at your job,” Ray said mildly.
“It paid my rent and pills.”
“You need a place to stay?”
“No,” she said. “I’m sick.”
Her face was hard to see in the twilight.
“Come up,” said Ray.
Ray reached inside the screen door and flipped a switch. Light from the kitchen spilled over porch and desert, throwing sharp yucca shadows.
“You got the electricity back,” said Elaine.
“I did some drywall down in Flag last week.”
Elaine climbed the porch steps and fell into a chair. Ray sat on a cooler. Grandfather perched on the railing.
Elaine was in the light now. Ray saw something in her eyes, like she’d looked down the barrel of a shotgun and found a shell in the chamber.
“What is it?”
“Ovarian cancer,” she said. “Doctor told me two weeks ago. I should’ve called you.”
“Stage four,” she said, her eyes on purple hills in the west. “I don’t have long.”
“That’s hard,” he said.
Grandfather walked over and and placed his hand on Elaine’s belly. She shivered.
“Grandpa’s here, isn’t he?”
“He touched you.”
Elaine’s eyes sparked.
“Can he heal me?”
Grandfather shook his head and returned to the shadows.
“No,” said Ray.
“There’s a guy in Show Low who can,” she said. “He channels an angel. Maybe an archangel, I don’t remember.”
“Since when do you believe in angels?”
“Teri Ann at work told me about it,” she said. “The angel healed her arthritis.”
“New Age bullshit,” said Ray.
“Probably,” Elaine agreed, looking Ray in the eye. “But I’m going, and I want you to come with me.”
“Why me?” Ray asked. “I don’t believe in aliens or Atlantis. You need chemo, not archangels.”
“Raymo,” she whispered, “you see things nobody else can.”
Ray glanced at Grandfather.
“If the angel is real, I reckon you’ll see it,” Elaine reasoned. “And if you don’t, we’ll know this guy is a New Age quack.”
“Then I’ll start chemo next week.”
Venus blazed on a distant ridge, then faded as east turned pink. Ray went indoors. Elaine was on the sofa, wrapped in a tan blanket like a sleepy tortilla.
He put Elaine’s sneakers on her feet, lifted her from the sofa, and carried her out to her car. She was lighter than he remembered. He placed her gently in the passenger seat and buckled her in. She stirred, looked at Ray, then closed her eyes again.
Except for a few semis, the highway was empty at this hour. Ray drove past desert scrub and red hills. Bottles rattled in the back seat.
Elaine woke and looked around.
“Show Low?” she asked.
“Want me to drive?”
“No. I like driving.”
Elaine pulled the blanket around her shoulders and watched the desert.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have called before I showed up and dumped all my shit on your doorstep. You didn’t seem surprised though.”
“I knew you were coming,” said Ray.
“I saw a doe that morning, eating prickly pear cactus.”
“I knew I was going to see you too,” she said.
“I saw an asshole that morning.”
Ray laughed and Elaine cackled. For a moment the light was back in her eyes.
Elaine lit a cigarette and put her feet on the dash. A few miles went by.
“The angel has a name,” she said. “Metachron. Means ‘beyond time’ or something. Teri Ann told me.”
“What if I don’t see it?”
“Then I’ll go back to Albuquerque and get chemo,” Elaine promised. “But it won’t work.”
“Even if I see your angel, that doesn’t mean it’s a good angel.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Elaine scolded. “All angels are good. And Metachron is an Archangel. That’s even better.”
“Crazy white man magic.”
“We’d still have our own magic,” Elaine said, “if you learned the old ways like the elders wanted.”
“Those elders are gone,” Ray said. “We’re the elders now.”
“Ancestors can still teach you things,” Elaine guessed, stubbing out her cigarette. “Right?”
Ray glanced at the back seat. Grandfather was sleeping.
“He made things harder for us,” Ray ventured.
“No,” said Elaine. “I own my shit. So should you.”
Angel Keepers Camp dead-ended a dirt road far from the highway. A white ranch house by a dry wash, surrounded by campers and tents. A Private Property sign, lashed to a weathered fence, was pocked with bullet holes.
A tan man in a cowboy hat stopped them in the driveway. He wore a pistol on his belt. Ray rolled down the window.
“Howdy,” Ray tried, the only word of cowboy he knew.
“Can I help you folks?”
“We’re here to see, uh, Gary?”
“What’s your business?”
Elaine leaned across the seat.
“We’re beseechers,” she said. “We beseech Metachron a boon.”
The cowboy relaxed.
“Go up to the house,” he said. “The Navajo housemaid will let you in. She’s called Zeepee. Tell her Brother Edward sent you.”
Ray nodded. He drove past campers and tents festooned with prayer flags. Children kicked a ball in the wash.
“What the hell was that?” Ray asked. “A boon?”
“Teri Ann taught me the words,” Elaine said. “She says it’s like Open Sesame around here.”
Ray pulled up to the house and killed the engine. Elaine made a bee line to the front door and knocked. Inside a vacuum cleaner switched off.
A small brown woman opened the door and peered up at them. Her nose was a fierce beak, her hair tied in a bun. She didn’t look Navajo to Ray.
“Zeepee?” Elaine asked.
“The fella at the gate sent us?” Elaine said. “Brother Edward?”
“Open Sesame,” Ray whispered.
“We beseech a boon of Metachron,” tried Elaine.
Xipil stepped back, her eyes in shadow. She returned to vacuuming the front hall. Elaine, Ray, and Grandfather came inside.
“Is Gary here?” Elaine shouted over the vacuum.
Xipil ignored her.
“Who’s asking?” boomed a voice down the hall.
A tall white man approached, right hand extended. He wore khaki pants with a turquoise belt buckle, tan dress shirt with a pearl buttons, a bolo tie, and big rings on his fingers.
“Welcome!” he said. “I’m Pastor Gary.”
Gary shook Ray’s hand then turned his attention to Elaine.
“You’re not well,” he observed.
Gary clucked sympathetically.
“I’m truly sorry.”
“Can you help me?” asked Elaine. “I’ll give you anything.”
“I can’t heal anybody,” said Gary, “but the Archangel can. I’m just his flawed vessel.”
Xipil glanced at them. Elaine was trembling. Ray felt embarrassed.
“Please,” Elaine whispered. “Now?”
“All right,” Gary agreed. “Follow me into the temple.”
Gary led them to a closed door at the back of the house. Elaine and Ray followed him inside. Grandfather stayed with Xipil.
The “temple” was a spare bedroom. The bed had been removed. Magic squares and sigils decorated the walls. Clocks ticked on a vanity table. In a corner sat a fat Navajo pot. Cushions were scattered on the floor.
Gary motioned for them to sit. He lit four red candles, one in each corner. Then he stood over Elaine, eyes closed, swaying and muttering. Ray watched closely.
The candle in the west guttered and went out. Something was in the shadows there. A smell of Jimson weed filled the room.
The clocks stopped ticking.
Ray saw the “angel” unfold from shadows. It rose up behind Gary, tall, thorax arched, wings folded. The angel stepped into Gary.
Gary’s eyes flew open. Tears ran down his cheeks. He raised his hands over Elaine. On each palm a Hebrew letter appeared. Ray recognized Mem on the right hand, Samekh on the left. Water and fire.
Gary bent over Elaine. He placed his right hand on her belly and inhaled. Smoke swirled in her womb then flowed into Gary. He exhaled and smoke streamed from his mouth.
Ray knew the cancer was gone.
Gary placed his left hand on Elaine’s head, whispered, and stepped away. A fiery serpent sigil shone on her forehead, then faded.
The angel stepped out of Gary. It seemed to look at Ray, then return to the west and shrink back into shadows. The clocks began to tick again.
Elaine jumped up and threw her arms around Ray.
“I feel amazing!”
Then she collapsed.
Ray slept in Elaine’s car, doors locked. The camp was quiet. At first light he went back to the ranch house and knocked.
Xipil opened the door with a watering can in her hand. Ray followed her to the living room. Clocks ticked. Native flute music played somewhere.
Grandfather was in the living room, gazing at the clocks with a little smile on his face. He glanced up at Ray.
“Your esposa she is resting,” Xipil said in halting Spanish. “Muy cansada.”
Grandfather caught Ray’s eye and nodded at Xipil.
Ray was puzzled. He regarded Xipil.
“Háadish nitsʼééʼ łeeʼ sitą́?” he inquired in Navajo.
Xipil’s face was blank.
“They told us you’re Navajo,” he said. “But I don’t think you’re Dinè?”
“No,” she said. “I am Nahua. Azteca. White people don’t know the difference.”
Ray was unsure what to do. Grandfather pointed to the hallway.
“I’d like to see the temple again?” Ray guessed.
“No one is allowed there without Pastor Gary,” said Xipil. “He protects the Indian pot.”
“The Navajo pot I saw in the corner?” asked Ray. “What’s special about it?”
“It is the root of Pastor Gary’s power.”
Grandfather laid a finger on his nose. He liked charades.
Xipil finished watering plants.
“I’ll bring you to your wife,” she said.
They followed Xipil to another bedroom. Elaine was asleep in bed. Gary was there, watching her.
“She needs rest,” Gary whispered. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Gary opened sliding doors to the back yard. It was cool outside. They crossed brown dirt, avoiding decorative stones and ornamental cactus, till they reached the dry wash. A lizard watched them pass, motionless on a flat rock. Grandfather stopped to talk to it.
“You saw something, didn’t you?” said Gary.
“Last night in the temple,” said Gary. “You witnessed the Archangel. You know Metachron is real.”
Ray glanced back at Grandfather and the lizard. They were having an earnest discussion.
“Does seeing something make it real?” he wondered.
“Of course,” said Gary. “Tell the others what you saw. It’s the least you can do since I cured your ex-wife.”
“I thought the angel healed people,” said Ray, “and you are just a humble vessel.”
“Touché!” Gary laughed. “Yes, verily, Metachron does the work. But I have the power to summon him.”
Gary recounted his tale for the thousandth time:
“I was a network TV producer,” he began. “I was here on vacation from LA, although I called it location scouting on my expense report!
“I wanted to clear my head. A friend gave me three peyote buttons. I went out in the desert and ate them. Thought I was Jim Morrison or some such foolishness. I puked for an hour, then wandered around lost. The sun was getting low.
“I sat on a rock without looking. A scorpion stung me. Big as a lobster! I began to swell and turn red. Allergic reaction. I couldn’t breathe. I was going to die.
“I prayed for help. More animal noises than words, honestly. But Metachron heard my plea in the wilderness and took pity on me. He descended on a beam of sunshine, touched me, and I was healed. From that day on, I’ve been able to call on him.”
“That’s quite a story,” said Ray. “Kind of like Spiderman and the radioactive spider.”
“You’re skeptical,” Gary said. “Yet you saw Metachron with your own eyes.”
“I saw something,” Ray admitted.
Gary leaned against the dry wash, fished out a cigarette, and offered another to Ray. To his surprise, Ray accepted the cigarette, tore it open, and sprinkled tobacco on the ground.
“Indian thing,” Ray explained.
Gary shrugged and lit up.
“Elaine will want to stay here,” Gary predicted. “Serve the community. Pay back her karmic debt.”
“I can’t tell Elaine what to do,” said Ray. “But I don’t like the idea much.”
Gary clapped Ray on the back.
“I like you,” he said. “Tell you what. Let’s go inside and discuss it with Elaine.”
They walked back to the house. Grandfather and the lizard were gone.
Elaine was sitting up in bed, eating a bowl of Xipil’s white pozole. She squealed when she saw Ray.
“Raymo, I think I’m cured!” she exclaimed. “I feel better anyway. Did you see the angel? Is it real?”
Ray and Gary exchanged glances. Ray hesitated.
“Yes,” he said. “I saw it.”
Elaine’s face lit up. Was there a faint mark on her forehead? She turned to Gary.
“You saved my life,” she said. “Let me stay here. I want to help. I want to serve Metachron.”
A month later, Ray called the number they gave him. It rang for a long time.
Xipil’s voice. Grandfather drew closer to listen.
“Hola,” said Ray. “Can I speak to Elaine?”
“Tu esposa she won’t come to the teléfono,” Xipil said.
“Why?” Ray asked. “Is she okay?”
“I think she is forgetting,” said Xipil. “Forgetting you. Forgetting her old life.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
“You should come,” Xipil whispered. “Bring your friend.”
Ray grabbed keys, sunglasses, water, and jogged to his pickup truck. Grandfather was already in the shotgun seat.
The pickup’s Check Engine light came on. Ray didn’t slow down. Grandfather frowned at the passing desert.
“I’m driving as fast as I can,” Ray said.
Grandfather did not dispute it.
“Why do you have to have to ride with me in the car?” Ray asked. “Can’t you just beam yourself to Show Low?”
Grandfather had no answer.
Ray ignored people’s dark looks at the Angel Keepers compound. He drove to the white ranch house, jumped out, and knocked on the door. Two men in cowboy hats and boots started walking over, eyes hard. Ray knocked louder.
“Hurry,” she said.
Ray stepped inside and Xipil closed the door quickly.
“Your esposa is in danger,” she whispered.
“Take me to her.”
Ray and Grandfather followed Xipil to the kitchen. Elaine was washing dishes. She wore a blue gingham dress.
Elaine turned, a wet plate in her hand. Her eyes were empty.
“It’s me, Raymo. Are you okay?”
Elaine pursed her lips.
“Of course,” she said. She returned to the dishes.
From another part of the house Ray heard flute music.
Two cowboys burst into the room. Ray recognized the younger one.
“Sister Elaine!” the cowboy hollered. “Is this man bothering you?”
Elaine glanced over her shoulder.
“No, Brother Edward.”
Ray tugged Elaine’s arm.
“You paid your debt to these people,” he said. “Let me take you home.”
Elaine pulled away.
“Don’t be silly,” she replied. “This is home.”
Brother Edward grabbed Ray roughly.
“You’re intruding in a house of god,” he warned.
“Fuck your god,” said Ray.
The other cowboy turned pale.
“I’ll get Pastor Gary,” he said, leaving the kitchen.
Ray pulled away from Brother Edward.
“Let me go.”
Elaine watched the confrontation, confused, dripping water. Xipil quietly fetched a mop and pail.
The kitchen turned quiet.
The clocks weren’t ticking.
“Ye mohuicatz,” whispered Xipil.
Brother Edward grew fearful.
“Pray for mercy,” he said, hands clasped. “The Archangel draws near.”
Edward and Elaine fell to their knees. The wet plate slipped from her fingers and shattered on the tile.
A door banged open somewhere in the house. Gary stormed into the kitchen, eyes wild. He pointed a finger at Ray.
“You bring evil to this holy place!” he accused.
They were in the temple. Gary was furious.
“You brought a demon into our midst,” he said. “Its presence disturbs the pilgrims.”
“Pilgrims!” Gary thundered, fade reddening. “Seekers of truth, come to a sacred place to encounter God.”
“I’ve seen your god,” Ray said. “How would your pilgrims feel if I told them exactly what I saw that day?”
A shadow quivered behind Gary. Ray smelled Jimson weed.
“Recant your heresy,” Gary commanded.
“Cut the bullshit,” Ray replied. “Your pet monster put poison in Elaine’s mind. Get it out.”
Ray glimpsed something. It had thunderstorm eyes. It was bigger than mountains. It folded itself smaller, squeezing down to human size. Then it walked into Gary, like stepping through a door.
Gary’s eyes turned charcoal. Hebrew letters blazed on his upturned palms. He raised the left hand of Samekh to smite Ray.
Grandfather stepped forward, ripped open a cigarette, and scattered tobacco in a circle on the floor. He stepped inside and looked expectantly at Ray.
Ray jumped into the circle with Grandfather.
Gary / Metachron howled. A swarm of thorns raged through the room. Thorns whirled and ripped, but couldn’t enter Grandfather’s circle.
Gary emerged from the cyclone wearing a cactus crown. Thorns cut into his temples. Blood coursed down his cheeks. His voice was hoarse.
“Coloti! Seigo! עקרב!” he called. “Who stands beside you? A kindly old man? The demon deceives you!”
Grandfather seemed unperturbed.
“This parasite feeds on your soul,” warned Gary.
“Fuck off,” said Ray.
Gary kicked Grandfather’s tobacco with his foot, making a small opening in the circle. Grandfather was sucked into the roaring whirlwind of thorns, his face crisscrossed with bloody cuts before it swallowed him.
“Fool,” Gary sneered.
The cyclone tore at Ray. Cactus thorns cut his skin and clothes. Gary laughed. The world turned dark. Only Samekh remained, a flaming serpent at the eye of the storm.
The bedroom door flung open. Xipil entered with a pail of water, fierce determination on her face. She strode to the Navajo pot in the corner and lifted out a giant scorpion.
Xipil shoved the scorpion into the pail. It thrashed and twisted, splashing, stinging Xipil over and over, but she didn’t let go. After a last spasm, it stopped moving.
Samekh disappeared. The whirlwind stopped.
Gary collapsed to the floor, mouth opening and closing, trying to hide his bloody face with flapping hands. Then he grew still. A dead scorpion floated in Xipil’s pail.
Elaine ran in.
“Raymo!” she cried.
Somewhere a clock ticked.
“Raymo,” Elaine whispered. “Look.”
Ray turned. Xipil stood holding her bucket, face shining with unearthly light.
Xipil set the bucket down and knelt beside Gary. She touched his neck.
Xipil stood. Her arm was red and swollen. A scorpion still floated in her bucket.
“Are you okay?” Ray asked.
“Sí,” said Xipil. “Go find your friend.”
“You know about him?”
Ray and Elaine went outside. People wandered the camp in a daze.
“They’re lost,” said Elaine.
They found Grandfather down in the dry wash, sitting with a lizard. Both had their eyes closed, enjoying sunshine.
“You’re not hurt, grandfather?”
Grandfather and the lizard smiled.
“I want to learn the old ways,” said Ray.
“I must return to the spirit world,” Grandfather said. “Ask her to teach you.”
Ray turned to see Xipil coming down the dry wash.
“Living teachers are better than ghosts,” said Grandfather.
Grandfather hugged Elaine and Ray.
“Walk in sunshine, my children.”
Elaine smiled. “I felt him.”
This story originally appeared in MCSI: Magical Crime Scene Investigation (anthology).