Doug was messing up again, thinking he was right. Why'd he always think he was right?
I was so intent on Doug I didn't notice Archie until his fist clattered my cheek. The pain...
There was no time to think how unusual this was because Archie came at me again, all fists and tears, face contorted. Bracing myself against his onslaught, driven backwards by the hammering of his fists, I felt nothing as I coldly examined his face, trying to decide if it showed anger or fear.
And still I heard the woods screaming their anger. Our anger.
As Archie turned to stand I kicked him hard between the shoulders and he fell heavily onto the ground.
"Now!" I yelled to Doug.
Doug pushed me away.
"Not yet, you idiot!" he shouted into my face.
I don't know if it was the noise of his shouting or the fact that in that moment he looked like he hated me, but I felt my insides thicken, harden and become totally rigid. Behind me I heard the trees of Lastwailing Wood scream their angers and frustrations into the air - we needed a sacrifice and we'd never get a better time!
Doug stood up and looked around. Suddenly he ran off, at full pelt, thirty yards in this heat, bent, and picked up a sharp stone.
"Look!" he panted, showing us.
It was perfect. It fitted into his hand perfectly and came to a jagged point about four or five inches above his palm.
"Perfect," Doug said.
Poor sod Archie looked totally confused.
"It reminds me of one of them Stone Age tools we learned about in school," I said.
"Nothing like them," Doug lectured. It was though, I thought angrily.
Archie said "Oh, come on, let's go. I'm going home."
Archie dropped to his knees.
"Well, let's go soon," he sniffed.
Doug and me watched him as he stared abstractedly into the woods.
Eventually I broke the silence.
"How do we make an altar?"
"Don't need one," Doug said. "Just a stone. Crush the skull."
"What in hell you talking about?" Archie asked.
"Or crucifying?" I suggested.
"Nah. Too hot for crucifixion," Doug replied. "Besides, we haven't got nails."
"Make 'em out of sharpened branches," I was warming to the idea.
"No," Doug spoiled it. His tone was matter of fact. I found I didn't have the strength to argue.
"Why'd you bloody hit me?" Doug asked, each word interspersed with either a grunt or a wince.
I had no answer. One of his eyes was closing fast. I didn't know. Why did I bloody hit him? My knuckles hurt too and in the bone dry air they stung more than usual. I'd noticed that. If you cut yourself it hurt like hell in this blistering sandpapery air.
"Let's go home now," Archie pleaded.
Home no longer existed. Archie, the fool, didn't understand. Doug groaned and said "No. Wait."
Good old Doug. Archie'd learn eventually. But not yet.
Archie shook me, shouting "What's the matter?"
Instantly, the heat burned my face and I felt lost and adrift. I know tears welled up from somewhere inside me, but I think the roots of the parched trees sucked them back into me to slake their own thirst.
"..slaying the children..."
the words still slapped around us even though Doug's mouth was motionless. He touched his swollen cheeks gingerly with his fingertips and I realised I had him pinned to the ground, one knee on his chest, one trapping one of his arms. Slowly I moved off him and stood up.
And there - in this heat - was cold reality: my sudden awareness that apart from Lastwailing Wood, nothing else was important.
Because... well, because there was only me, those trees, Doug and Archie, and the dirt we stood on. Nothing else.
Nothing else existed. The realisation hit me like an explosion: this patch of earth, Lastwailing Wood, and us boys were the only things that mattered because only these things existed.
Here was the last remnant of Earth.
Everything else - I looked at the heavily shimmering air which hid the world's absence from us - everything else quite simply no longer existed.
I was in my house. There was the comforting smell and reassuring sounds of baking. On the table a bowl of fruit. Not surprisingly, I guess, the first thing I thought was "it's a sacrifice."
Suddenly I saw the earth, the tiny blue ball, it was a seed, and the tree that grew from the seed was Time shaped as a wheel of infinite dimensions. All seeds found themselves adrift within it; and such it was with the seed of all gods and the seed of all awareness.
And each tree was every tree as each seed is every leaf.
It didn't feel bizarre, but suddenly I was in the cool of Bethesda chapel and the sweat on my skin grew cold. There was Doug's Dad, standing at the altar, tidying away paperwork.
I said "Hi" but he couldn't see me. I sat quietly in one of the pews.
Then I was in Archie's home, sitting at a table. A baby gurgled on his mother's lap. I'd forgotten he had a big sister, she sat eating an apple. His Dad held a newspaper.
They were talking, Dad, Mam and older sister, but what they said was not mine to know.
Tremor! Something shivered within me then pierced my brain. The penetration sent a frisson of tremulous awareness coursing through my body and I knew myself then as part of this world and all worlds.
A hot dry waft moaned through the tinder branches of Lastwailing Wood and thickening roots slithered from the earth and spread within me. The dying gasps of the distant motorway flailed and panicked, and the roots of concrete and tarmac drilled through my flesh and bone.
Doug was a mouth, still repeating "under every tree slaying the children," Archie, a bodiless face, begging everything to stop.
Archie was crying and pulling my arms, then my shoulders, and then my hair.
"Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!"
Stop what, though?
There is nothing that can be stopped.
Above us, the unstoppable sky, its relentless heat burning incessantly. Yet that was no sky, that was Hell itself, slowly descending to earth. Below us, the immovable earth, dying in the furnace air that smothered it. And that was no earth, either, that, too, was Hell, opening for us. And here, where the unstoppable met the immovable, me, Archie and Doug, ready to call on God to save us all.
I lunged at Doug and even as we fell together his mouth still uttered those words, he shouted them, bellowed them, and they ricocheted around us like hot hard bullets.
Sinuous branches reached from within to strengthen my whole body. My arms, propelled by the power that surged up through me from beneath the earth, pounded back and forth like some maddened machine incapable of stopping or being stopped.
Only when the pain in my knuckles sliced through this horrifying and wonderful feeling did I realise that I'd been pummelling Doug's face, his blood and mine mingling on my fists.
Doug's widened eyes bulged under red eyelids like they'd either burst or fall out of his skull. His mouth hung loose.
A murmuring undertone drifted from the trees:
this was not serving our purpose.
Then Doug spoke, quietly at first, but each word getting louder
Under every tree slaying the children!"
And he repeated it, over and over, loudly, then increasingly strident, repeating again and again.
Eventually Archie yelled, covering his ears with his hands, "Make him stop! Make him stop!" and the squirming in my stomach and my chest told me it was time.
By this time Archie had properly glazed over. He'd stood up when Doug started talking, but now he'd dropped back onto the dry, withered earth and turned his back to him. Doug's face burned red with fervour, his eyes were bright and almost tearful. I couldn't tell what was going on in that head of his, but suddenly he stopped talking and a stillness fell upon us like a rock fall, and in the noisy heat the raucous silence hurt our ears.
Tree roots squirmed beneath my feet. And that which was within me rippled under my skin, impatiently waiting.
"We're going to make a sacrifice!" I said.
"To make God end this heat," Doug began and then he repeated everything he'd said earlier about Old Testament God and sheep that magically appear and all that shit, and then he went on and on about druids and Greeks and he wouldn't stop talking when I told him to shut up, I mean Archie had glazed over, he wasn't interested in all of that, you could tell he just wanted to go back home.
But I couldn't allow that.
And Doug was talking, irritatingly talking, talking pointlessly, talking annoyingly, forever talking.
The look on Doug's face when the penny dropped was weird. Maybe he wasn't so stupid after all, maybe I wouldn't have to hurt him to get him to see sense. That's what I was thinking because his brow furrowed. Obviously he was thinking about it. His eyes became wide and a grin grew with his realisation.
"Archie!" he whispered, his head leaning close into me.
"Archie," I confirmed.
"Whadya sayin'?" Archie's voice was still all asleep, even though he was only half asleep.
I smiled at him.
"You up for it?" I asked.
He rubbed his eyes.
"It would have to be a good sacrifice," I said. "Not just an apple and a pile of grapes."
"We haven't got them anyway. We haven't got anything."
I glanced quickly at Archie. He was making a noise, probably waking up.
"We have," I said.
Doug stared vacantly at me. I felt something hard and sinuous shoot down my arms and into my fingers, closing them into a fist. With it, the anger coursed through me again. So dumb. Stupid, stupid Doug.
"Who's that guy God sent a sheep to?"
"And he would have sacrificed a young boy, yeah?"
"So how'd we do a sacrifice?"
"Um, what?" Doug was still talking about giving food to the gods and Druids and stuff like that and I'd interrupted him.
"How do we make a sacrifice?"
Doug thought for a second.
"Put the fruit in a bowl, do a prayer. Maybe make a fire?" He was rubbing his arm again. Good. It either showed his arm was hurting or that he was deep in thought.
"We should make an altar!" he blurted out, laughing. "Put the sacrifice on it. Then offer it to God."
My heart pounded, banging excitedly in my ears.
We both stood up and looked around.
There wasn't a sheep in sight.
Saying nothing, we sat down, glancing once again at Archie.
"God sacrificed His son," Doug began
"Yeah, God let Jesus be crucified so we could be saved."
"Oh yeah." I hadn't thought of it like God sacrificing a son.
"And Romans and Greeks and them, they'd sacrifice food and fruit and stuff."
And as Doug rambled on about offerings to lesser gods I stopped listening because inside me something reached out, stretched up through my neck and hid behind my eyes, watching Doug's mouth incessantly move.
"Did your Dad say what to sacrifice? And sorry again about your arm, Honest, I didn't mean to hit you so hard."
"It's okay," Doug said and he sat quiet for a moment. He was rubbing his arm but I don't think he was doing it to make me feel bad, he was just sort of doing it while he was thinking.
"Somebody sacrificed their son," Doug said. "No, wait... they were going to, it was Abraham, he was going to sacrifice his son to God but then God sent him a sheep so he could sacrifice the sheep instead."