Some mysteries are meant to be revealed, others not. And some are temporarily hidden, waiting for their moment.
“D’ya think that’s hell?” Elmore Young waved his slightly shaky right hand at the flaming pit at the bottom of the old quarry. We had been comparing our visions of damnation. In the pit, he saw his cultural enemies: liberals, progressives, feminists. In the smoldering brimstone I saw my violent uncle squirming in agony, surrounded by the laughing faces of those he’d made suffer, each holding a glass of Irish whiskey he could not reach.
“No. Its not hell.” I replied. “Its some kind of illusion. That’s why nothing is catching on fire even though the pit appears to be burning so hot.” With my left hand I traced a line through the ring of soldiers who surrounded Moab Haysan’s World Famous Brimstone Pit. From our perspective it looked like they were engulfed in flames.
Elmore would have none of it. “No way. I think that there is hell. Or at least a gateway to hell. It makes sense if you think ’bout it, hell being beside us. How many people y’know who are the devil’s right hand? You stand in a crowded place like an elevator or a county fair and there’s at least one a’ Satan’s minions rubbing yer elbows.”
He spat a wad of chewing tobacco out at my feet for emphasis, took a swig of his soda, and added, “But seeing hell right there don’t scare me none. Because think of what it means. If hell is by my left hand maybe heaven is to my right. Hah! Imagine being able to see paradise before you die. And we just might. After all, this is a time of miracles.”
He turned away from the pit, to face me. The burning rock behind his back turned him in to a limned shadow. He said, “Ya’ll aren’t a member of the James clan are ya?”
“I think its the federal government doing this, not God.” I dodged the old man’s question because I didn’t want to get involved in the local feud. As it turns out I am related to the the James clan on my mother’s side, and to their enemies, the Young clan on my father’s side. Elmore looked just like how my uncle Clay Young would have at sixty, if he hadn’t died racing on the back forty.
Elmore didn’t exactly take my bait to air his favorite conspiracy theory, but the dodge worked. He said, “If its the gubberment” – his gums blunted his pronunciation – “If its the gubberment, how come my visions are so specific to me? Only God can read my mind.”
I quietly replied, “Somehow something is triggering our visions. Maybe its electromagnetism. Maybe its drugs in the water. Or maybe something the farmers’ have sprayed has caused mutation.”
This got him riled, “You better stop talking like a James, replacing Christianity with conspiracies and evolution. All-Dudes is a Christian town.”
I took a long, calming breath and dodged bigger, “My money’s on Jed in the Tractor Race.”
Although Moab’s Portal was the reason most people visited All-Dudes Missouri, I was here for a tractor race. One could say the Tractor Race. It was a local tradition that went back to the Great Depression. The race itself was pretty normal, except that it had four stages, named for the four rivers that defined our country. You could see one of them now from where I stood, at the apex of gravel hill: the Axe, Flag, Cox and Sticks. The Bridge over the most famous part of the tractor race – ending at the foot of the hill on which I now stood – was Moab’s Portal to hell.
His laugh was uncomfortably close to a death rattle. “Bad choice but ya picked the right team. Watch out for Jed’s niece. My money is on her.”
Elmore Young leaned close and said conspiratorially, “How you know so much about ’round here?”
I replied, “It only took fifteen minutes of listening at Garth’s.” Garth is the proprietor of a shotgun shack situated just over the county line. He sells unbranded cigarettes and legal booze. All-Dudes is a dry county, and has been since the Young’s first settled it in 1847, after they were driven out of Nauvoo.
“How d’ya know it was fifteen minutes, not twelve or twenty. Why so exact? Ya counting? Like a spy?”
“I measure my time in cigarettes.”
“You smoke. Good. Not enough people smoke no more. Its all vaping now. Can you spare one? Or two?”
I gave him the rest of my pack, and a light. I was saved from further inquisition by the appearance of the Young clan’s two ringers: Jedid and Eloise Young. Although the number on Jed’s back, a large black 108 printed in a Gothic face, suggested something related to competitive sports, the rest of his outfit – jeans, t-shirt and dirty beige work boots – was more suitable for cleaning a barn. His niece, Eloise, was dressed in her idea of racing gear, which she had borrowed from Danica Patrick [Formula One]. She’d thrown in a few suburban touches, including bright yellow sneakers, a tight-fitting Lycra body suit, and a bat-belt of water bottles and cellphones.
[Conclusion of Chapter: As the protagonist chats with the Youngs, someone leaps into the pit. He rescues her and meets the town psychologist / cub reporter, who later turns into the protagonist’s love interest and/or partner in crime. The psychologist is a mystery, because she’s one of the few people who does not see anything in Moab’s Portal.]