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archive:stories:floc

MATRIARCHAL SHEPHERD

by Marc Edwards
She gazed out her third-floor apartment window and saw simpler times. 
After the economic upturn following the Great Depression, the 

streets were hand-laid with red brick and flanked by hardwood trees. The surplus brick was used to build storefronts, houses, and apartment buildings. Flowers, adorning the shiny storefronts, could be seen and smelled. The sidewalks, always busy, were filled with peoples. Her neighborhood had seen many changes over the years; some said too many.

Because of the area's economic growth, the neighborhood became a 

community. People flocked to this mecca of renewed hope; took jobs, bought homes, and raised families. The bustling community evolved into a city; the city into a major metropolis, and everywhere you looked – signs of rapid growth and prosperity.

That was then; this is now.
She gazed out her third-floor apartment window and finished a silent 

prayer – she sighed. Tons of asphalt cover those same red brick streets, and the trees not paved over are dead and gone. Flowers. What flowers? dandelions and other weeds emerge from cracks in the asphalt. A large portion of the population had moved away, many businesses with them, and the city has been reduced. Nearly all the buildings remain, most skeletons of their former selves blankly staring at you through shattered windows, many, abandoned for years. The people who still inhabit the area fall into two categories: the sheep and the wolves.

Martha is one of these.
"I've lived in this neighborhood most my life," she was fond of

telling everyone. "Worked here, raised a family, and made life-long friends."

Her youngest daughter asked, "Momma, why don't you move in with us? 

You don"t need to stay alone in this big old building. Come live with us, please?"

Martha's reply was gentle but firm. "Why, Liz'beth, you know I can't

do that; your daddy wouldn't hear of it."

"Momma," Elizabeth reminded her, "Daddy's dead, remember?"
"Just his body, dear, not his *soul*," Martha replied, her eyes

glistening with confidence and happiness at the mention of her husband.

Each of her five children made the same request, repeatedly. She 

addressed them on each occasion, tenderly explaining her decision to stay. So convincing was her magic all gave up on suggesting she move out of her long time home. Instead, they respected her independence, and telephoned and visited "Gramma" with their children regularly.

  • * *
About fifteen years before his demise, Martha and her husband Lyle

had arranged to buy the apartment house. "It's a lovely old buildin'," he told her, "as long as you and me are here, she'll hold together. It'll be our little paradise." The same day they signed the papers, they made that a promise to themselves and a solemn oath before God. And they agreed, mutually, the promise would never be broken.

Years later -- only a day before his death -- Lyle told Martha, "Passin'

-on ain't no reason for sorrow. When I shed this old body, I don't want no cryin'. It ain't fittin' for people to be cryin' at a party."

Nearly two hundred people attended Lyle's funeral, which didn't 

resemble a conventional funeral at all. Would be mourners – friends and family alike – were treated to a Dixieland style wake, complete with five-piece brass ensemble, a feast, and liquor. Two days later, the last of the family and friends left to resume their lives. In keeping with his wishes, his empty husk was cremated and placed in a simple urn. He found an eternal resting place on the mantle in their apartment. Martha turned the mantle into a shrine – dedicated to his memory – replacing J.F.K.

Martha was then on her own; serving as matriarch to the family and the

apartment house. From the beginning of the Jennings apartments, Martha had been manager, super, surrogate parent, and defender of all persons housed there. On a first-name basis with adults and children alike, she made it her business to do all she could for every man, woman, and child that resided there.

            
The living arrangements in Jennings House -- like Lyle's going-away 

party – was unique. Without imposing herself or her values on anyone, she collected rent, saw to repairs, and negotiated contracts. Everyone living there came to appreciate Martha Jennings as a saint. When money was tight, Martha waited patiently for the rent. Occasionally, she excused the payment altogether. She would often sit children for harried parents when regular sitters were inconveniently unavailable. And when families would move on to homes of their own, she met another proviso of her and Lyle's pact:

She gathered the extended family of the house, threw a goodbye party, 

and secretly tucked the deposit money and a rebate of one-months rent into a thank you card. This token of generosity was often discovered by the recipient, and when they tried to return the gift, "My mind's made up," she would say, beaming with glee. "I want you kids to be happy where you're going. If you won't keep it, give it to the Lord and your church."

These gestures of cash gifts were one of the reasons the wolves soon 

flocked to Jennings House. The violence of the streets drew near.

"Martha, we gotta take care." cautioned Bill Hanson, a downstairs

tenant. "Johnson's Grocery – down the street – was robbed last night."

"Now Bill, don't you worry," she said, sipping tea in his living room.

"The Lord is our shepherd and He's watchin' out for us."

Bill's face was etched with fear, as he informed her, "I called the 

police today, and they told me they'd step-up patrols going through the neighborhood for the next few nights. But, ain't much more they can do."

"Don't you fret 'bout it," Martha said to calm him. "The Lord is in

this house, and He will provide and care for us."

         
That same evening, Bill invited the other adult house-members to his

apartment to discuss their situation. An hour later, Martha joined them. Although not intending to circumvent her, most of them felt shame in leaving her out of this discussion. "I'm sorry, Martha. I didn't mean any disrespect, but I don't think you're taking this serious enough," Bill explained.

"I'm not slighted, dear. But, I told you earlier, the Lord is in this 

house. He won't allow us to come to harm."

Martha encouraged them to discuss it. "Get it all out in the open,"

she said. So they did.

"The situation with the gangs is just getting' worse," Bill remarked.
"We're sittin' ducks," muttered another.
"Two weeks ago I installed double dead-bolts on my door. I'm scared

for the first time since I moved here. And I don't let the children play outside unless some of us are out there too," replied Evelyn, who lived on the second-floor.

"I think we should form a neighborhood watch," countered Bill, "and be

prepared to call the police at the first sign of trouble."

"I just want my babies to be safe! What happens to us if those . . .

*those damned* . . ." Evelyn's words broke off in mid-sentence; in tears she buried her face in her husband's comforting arms.

"I have a gun," Bill said blankly.
"Folks, we've known each other a lotta' years," Martha said, "and I

know we never told you no guns." She crossed the room and opened the door, standing in the doorway she added, "I've listened to you talk about fear, and I've heard you suggest vigilance. But, I can't abide by guns. I told you the Lord will provide . . . I'll leave it there."

For a long, awkward moment nobody spoke. For the second time in one

night, Bill had been embarrassed in his home. All were embarrassed. Little by little, the visitors excused themselves and thanked Bill for having them. After they left, Bill sat alone in his apartment and thought about moving.

  • * *
Rumors of Martha's generosity were circulating among the gangmembers.

They said Jennings House was full of wealthy people, wallets and safes full of cash and jewels.

For over a year, the opposing forces had engaged in a running-battle 

that frustrated law enforcement. Their criminal acts were independent of each other, but their timing and brutality often coincided, perplexing police. For instance, within minutes of the grocery store robbery the police received word of a drive-by shooting blocks away. With one patrol already dispatched to the market, another was needed at the shooting. While these patrolmen were involved, a third call came from three blocks in the opposite direction: a multiple murder with wounded.

            
An officer was summoned by Bill, to give advice on their Neighborhood

Watch program, "The pattern's well established, and law enforcement is strained in its efforts to protect and serve," said the patrolman. "What with crime on the rise – well, we can't be every place at once."

"You know it's the gangs, right?" Bill Hanson prompted the officer.

"Why don't you just arrest them all?"

"Without reliable information, little can be done," officer Danielson

said, looking a little bewildered at the suggestion. Turning to Martha, he added, "You could hire private security, Mrs. Jennings. They could be here round-the-clock and offer protection for all you folks."

Martha rejected the idea, despite the urgings of the patrolman and Bill.
"But Martha, listen to reason," Bill implored her. "Officer Danielson,

please tell her."

"The gangs in the area are about to get busy, Mrs. Jennings. The 

information we've been able to gather indicates they're about to have a major confrontation, and your building will be in the battle zone."

Martha's moist brown eyes reminded Danielson of a deer frozen in its 

tracks, facing an oncoming semi, transfixed by light and unaware of its predicament.

"The streets are your matter," Martha began, looking blissful and

committed, "and this house is the Lord's." That ended her involvement in the conversation; she turned and walked away, reciting the Lord's prayer.

 "Yeah, right. The meek will inherit the earth," Danielson muttered to

Bill, "a six-by-six plot."

  • * *
Mobilized in neighborhood watch fashion, they manned the apartments 

facing streets and alleys, reasoning those would be the first to witness any assault on the building. Fire equipment was inspected and tested.

Still, they were not prepared to do anything to defend themselves. If 

anybody beside Bill had a firearm, they didn't mention it. The Watch kept in close contact with law enforcement; they were told of any and all gang movement, but nothing substantial occurred.

                 
Martha had not participated in the watch, the tenants made it a point 

to visit her every day. She didn't agree with their actions, "I know you folks mean well," she remarked to Evelyn, "but it's unnecessary."

Later that night it happened.
 The police were alerted to a rampage by arsonists, ten-blocks from 

Jennings House. Minutes later, observers reported a gang war erupting seven blocks to the north. A few minutes later, police were summoned to an abandoned factory to the south, another suspected case of arson. In less than an hour, the section of city surrounding Jennings House was involved in fire and violence.

No patrols were available when members of the two gangs began their 

combat just outside Jennings House. The warring factions now used guns as clubs – almost useless without bullets. With knives and other make- shift weapons the Flow battled the Blades in for the right to take the prize: Jennings House.

Bill crouched by his street-front window watching the onslaught, he was

mesmerized by the violence and brutality. When it seemed one group was winning over the other, he ran out into the hall with his pistol and cried out to the residents to be on the defense.

No one responded.
Bounding up the steps toward Martha's apartment, he slipped and fell.

Bouncing half-way down the first flight of stairs, dazed, he tried to stand, and found his legs tangled in the spindles of the banister. "Oh, shit," he mumbled between swelling lips, "oh, God." He had dropped his gun and could see it at the base of the stairs – then – the lights went out.

The front door came crashing in and Bill was near unconscious. During 

his fall, his head had hit a number of steps. Through the darkness of the hall and thickening fog in his head, he made out a group of people standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the streetlights.

"Help me, Jesus," he whimpered, unable to move. "Oh, Lord! Please help 

me," he cried.

The group began to enter the house. A chant of "Blood will *Flow*!" 

echoed in his aching head.

"Be at peace," a vaguely familiar voice said in his ear. Bill wasn't 

startled by the voice. Shock had detached him from his surroundings. Where he had earlier felt anxiety, pain, and self pity, there was now rest and an odd sense of security. In his addled brain, he accepted he was going to die, and God's angel was ready to collect his soul.

All he could do was laugh weakly.
"What the hell is that!" a gang member cried, pointing to a dimly 

glowing form descending the steps. It looked vaguely human, but unnatural, just the same.

"Whoever the hell it is, it's DEAD!" their leader challenged, running

forward to attack it with a length of pipe.

At the bottom of the stairs, the two came together. To those near the

door, it seemed as if the vague figure crumpled to the floor. Laughing and whooping, the wolves streamed forward to their champion to give congratulations to their leader.

Without warning, the pipe was being used against them! The first two 

never knew what hit them. The cheers of the others became fearful howls amid sickening sounds of splitting skulls and crunching bones. Facing them was no longer their leader, but a homicidal maniac, with eyes glowing red and a voice foreign to them. He savagely caved-in heads, until those remaining fell back to the doorway and regrouped.

"This is `The House of the Lord'!" the unearthly voice boomed. In the 

darkness, the blood covered leader picked up Bill's gun and fired a round at the entrance. Those remaining scattered to the street.

"HE WHO LIVES BY THE SWORD SHALL DIE BY THE SWORD!" the voice intoned,

firing the remaining rounds toward anyone moving. Lifeless bodies hit the street.

"PREPARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD!" the ominous voice declared, from the

doorway. Throwing the pistol out into the street, the body shook violently then fell down the landing to the sidewalk. Where the body had stood, a ghostly image remained erect in the doorway, Bill could barely make it out.

The gang leader shook his head, as he got to his feet. He turned to the

doorway, transfixed by the spirit – as if listening to it – and finally charged down the sidewalk, screaming and running into the night.

"I'm in shock. That's it," Bill reasoned to himself, as he watched the

after-image shimmering as it moved toward him. He wondered, "Maybe it's time for me to die."

"You will be well," it said to him, as it slowly dissipated. "But, you 

and I have much to do." Bill passed out.

  • * *
When the police arrived, they were shocked at the scene. For a hundred 

yards on either side of Jennings House, the street and sidewalks were littered with bodies of gangmembers. One thing confused all who surveyed the scene: there were no signs of blood or struggle on any of the bodies found near Jennings House.

Martha met Danielson at the door of the house and welcomed him in. He 

declined the invitation to her apartment, choosing to question her there. "I need to talk to all the residents about what's happened," he said.

"Then you'll want to come upstairs," she implored, gently taking

him by the arm and walking him upstairs.

Once he entered the apartment, he found everyone was there; even Bill, 

who was lying on Martha's couch. "What happened here?" the policeman asked.

"I fell down the stairs and hit my head," Bill remarked, wincing at the 

pain and grinning slightly. "Tripped over my own two feet."

"What happened outside?" Danielson asked.
"I couldn't tell you," replied Bill. I was coming upstairs to warn the 

others and then – pow! Out like a light. When I came to, I was here."

"We know the power and phones went out," Danielson said to Martha.

"Who was watching the action in the street? I'll need to know what you folks saw."

Martha told him, but he refused to believe it. Consequently, he  

interviewed each and every man, woman, and child.

Finishing his investigation, he thanked them for their cooperation. 

"No need to see me to the door," he told Martha, "I know the way."

The Watch Commander questioned him at length on the accuracy of his 

report, Danielson vehemently defended his investigation. "Just look at the facts, sir. Nowhere in the house or just outside, did I or any other officers find any indications of struggle, and – not ONE drop of blood! The crime scene photos will bear-out the report. The gangs butchered each other in the street. But not in or around the Jennings House. Case closed."

"You're telling me nobody saw *anything*?" queried the captain, shaking 

his head. "I'd say that was impossible!"

"None of 'em saw anything, and wouldn't budge on their stories -- not 

even the kids."

"Dismissed," was the superior's last remark. Danielson left the room 

knowing the explanation wasn't satisfactory, but what could they do? All the dead belonged to one gang or the other, and all the fingerprints on weapons corresponded to the bodies – including the leader of the Flow. He had apparently committed suicide a few blocks away from Jennings House. A note found in his shirt pocket, in his hand writing, stated he had been "possessed" and it made him kill his followers, then himself.

All the residents of Jennings House had told him the same thing. But, 

Danielson kept hearing Martha Jennings' words in his head, and would for some time to come.

"We were praying to the Lord to deliver us from evil," she said with 

clear, unwavering eyes and firm voice, "and he heard our prayers. The Lord looks after his sheep, officer." He recalled how she paused for a long moment, then finished her statement, "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord."

                            #  #  #

Copyright 1994 Marc Edwards


Marc, often accused of being a ghost-writer, firmly denies that his spirit guides the "hand" of others. He enjoys writing SF and other worldly horror. Residing in Ohio, he wonders how the area became to be considered Mid-West.



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