Our Lady of the Wasteland

It wasn’t all that long ago. A few weeks, give or take. Lots of folks have come and gone since then. Maybe you remember it—the dust storm that swept through. It was a wicked one.

I met an angel in that storm. And not just any angel, either. An angel in a red scarf, carrying an axe on her back. You’ve heard of her, haven’t you? You must’ve. Wouldn’t be surprised if even the buzzards started telling the tale.

Anyhow, I was making my way to this here camp. The air was full of rust and ash and not much else. Only way I knew I was on the road was ’cause I felt it under my boots. The storm had sprung up outta nowhere, so fierce my goggles felt about as sturdy as wet paper. Somehow I managed to keep walking. No idea how long for. All I know is that the wind just about knocked me clean off my feet, then there she was. That scarf looked endless, whipping around in every direction at once. Like one of those flags that used to hang outside the havens, if you can remember.

No, she didn’t have wings. Where’d you hear that?

No, no wings. No shoes, either. Just one of those old motorcycle helmets with the tinted glass. And a ragged, patchwork dress, made out of a quilt. Stopped me in my tracks, she did. Beat the storm to it.

I’ve heard most of the rumors, all the stories about how she only shows up on the darkest nights, driest days—the moments folks tend to think’ll be their last. Never gave ’em much thought, to be honest with you.

Folks’ll make up all sorts of things to put their kids and fears to bed. The longer you last in a place like this, the more you let your fears just tire themselves out. Fear’s a heavy thing to carry. Eventually you just run out of room for it.

I’ve never been much afraid of anything, really. Except dying. But out here, that doesn’t count for much. It’s like saying you’re thirsty. Just the way of things.

When she came out of the dust with that axe on her back, I damn near thought she was Death come to drag me kicking and screaming down to perdition. But she wasn’t. She was just the opposite—a miracle. A miracle on two whole, dark legs.

Before the storm showed up, there was no sign of another soul out on that highway. She was barely a step or two in front of me by the time I saw her. Could’ve taken that helmet right off if I wanted. See the face no one’s ever seen. But I didn’t. Didn’t even think of it then. The helmet just felt like enough of a face already, I guess. Plus, there was no ignoring that axe. Hellish thing, it was—half a sawblade jammed into a baseball bat and wrapped in rusty wire. But …well, thinking about it now, I don’t think she would’ve used it.

I didn’t move a muscle, not at first. The dust started to creep under the rim of my goggles, then she held out one of her hands to me. I just stared. Was still a little caught up thinking she was some kinda monster, or a ghost or something. Can you blame me? I never paid any mind to the stories. A guardian angel? What business did heaven have out here? I always thought that God died with the rest of the world. Burned right up with the trees and laughter and every scrap of goodness in strangers’ hearts.

Turns out I was wrong. About a few things.

I took her hand. Bare, like her feet, and impossibly soft. Like it was brand new.

The wind died down a bit, but the air was still too dusty to do anything in but wait. She led me off the road into a little ditch, and we sat together. Sat and just watched each other.

Well, I was watching her. For all I knew, there was nothing but hot air holding up that helmet. I still don’t know what she’s made of, but it must be good.

Holy, even.

Whatever she is, this world needs her. Somebody’s gotta watch over it.

Now, I’ve heard all the theories folks have. Spouted some of my own, too. Like that she’s part of some underground government operation to get the world right-side up again. I don’t believe ’em. Some things don’t need explaining. They just need doing. I ain’t gonna question who or what it is that does ’em.

It’s like that old saying—how’s it go? Something about a horse’s mouth.

Anyway. Where was I, now? Right, the dust storm.

We waited. And waited. Eventually it passed on over, and you could open your mouth without getting dirt in your teeth. She pulled out a canteen and handed it to me. Just like that, like it was the simplest thing in the world. Like wilder folks wouldn’t have killed her for it. I was skeptical, of course. You’ll die real fast if you don’t question some things. I shook the canteen around, smelled it, looked inside. Seemed normal. And damn, was I thirsty. It was like she knew.

The canteen was full of the sweetest, cleanest water I ever tasted in my life. I must’ve drunk a gallon of it, but that little thing never ran dry. Never felt even a drop less than full. Let me tell you, I thought I really had died and made it to heaven. But no, heaven made it here. Better late than never, I guess.

Funny, ain’t it? The way things work out?

When I’d had my fill, I handed the canteen back and watched her some more. This time, though, it felt like she was watching me, too.

Then she talked to me.

How’d I know she was an angel? You been listening at all? I’d love to hear your theories. Tell me, kid, what else could she have been? I’ll wait.

No, nothing? Well then.

Her voice. It was softer than I expected it to be. Not soft as in frail, just gentle. Young and old all at once. Found it strange at first, familiar. Then I realized how long it’d been since I’d last heard kindness in somebody’s voice. Real kindness. The sort that ain’t a mask for need. Mercy me, it was something.

First, she asked me what I was travelling for. Where I was headed. I said this here camp. Heard there was solid shelter around, and like any sensible person, I wanted a piece of it.

She laughed at that, an odd little chirp. Though I couldn’t tell what was funny about it. She said it was good to know that sensible folks—sensible people, she said—still existed. ’Cause she hadn’t met many of those in a long time.

I gave her a look for that one. She laughed again, and asked if I’d do her a favor.

I said sure. Wasn’t gonna pass this up.

Then she said—and I’ll never forget the words, ’cause they were some of the strangest, most beautiful things I ever heard in my life. She goes, “There are so many people in this world who need help. People who need to be reminded that there’s something to believe in. That everything isn’t pain, and dust, and survival. People like you, Uzi.”

I just about jumped outta my skin then. Hadn’t heard my own name in …can’t remember how long. She must’ve noticed, but she didn’t stop. Swore I heard a smile in her voice, though.

“There’s hope everywhere,” she went on. “Most have just forgotten how to see it. They can no longer perceive light, even when it’s all around them. Even when it’s growing inside them. There’s a light burning inside every one of us, do you know that? You do. I can see it in your eyes. I do my best to help kindle these lights. But I only have two hands, you see. That’s why I’d like your help.”

I didn’t have anything smart to say after hearing something like that. Nobody talks like that anymore. It was one of those moments—like the morning the first bombs fell. You could feel it in the air. Everything was different.

So I told her I’d do whatever she needed.

And so she asked me to tell folks about her. To let anyone and everyone know that someone out there was still listening. That someone would be there when they needed it. But most important, she said, was to tell folks that they had to be there, too. They had to listen, too. Because one lonely angel wasn’t gonna fix the world. It’s way too big a place for one woman to carry on her back.

I had a feeling she already knew my answer, knew it before she ever found me in the dust. But I liked the sound of that anyway. So I said sure, I’d tell anyone I could. Just like all the others that told me. And so here I am. Can’t think of a better place to start than this. Hell, for all I know, maybe she heard about the well and filled up her canteen here. Or maybe not. You’d remember her if she did.

Anyway. That’s the story.

You don’t have to believe me. I sure didn’t, until I met her face to face. Maybe it’ll take that much for you, too.

But look around. You’re not stupid. There’s not all that much left to lose here, but a hell of a lot to save. Like I said before, somebody’s gotta watch over this place. Turns out it’s not a one-person job. So what do you say?

The world didn’t end happy. We can’t change that. But maybe, just maybe, we can try and give it a decent epilogue.