By Celeste Kallio
The acolytes filed into the desert at night, a single line of seven, dressed in once-white linen tunics. Gabe fixed his eyes on the woman in front of him, a phantom leading him through the dark. Behind them lay the camp—blocks of FEMA tents lit by LEDs running off batteries that drank all day from the unforgiving sun.
No, Gabe reminded himself, the sun is the source of all life and should be respected. He bowed his head and murmured an apology, asking to someday be made worthy.
Emptiness in his belly flared like the blue flame of a Bunsen burner. The woman stopped suddenly, and Gabe came within inches of colliding with her back. He imagined bones flaring out from the acolyte’s shoulder blades like ossified wings.
The formation around him scattered, dissolving the image. He’d missed the command, so he watched the others lay their backs on the bare desert floor. Checking for scorpions on his patch of ground, Gabe hurried to follow. From above they formed a star, heads at the center and feet splaying radially. Imaginary lines extended from their toes around the Earth, meeting again somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
On the other side of the star from Gabe lay the prophet’s disciple. “Why do we gather here at night?” he asked.
The other six replied in unison. “To receive nourishment from the stars.”
This far into the desert, Gabe expected to see stars glittering in the firmament, but desert dust and smoke from the wildfires mixed in the atmosphere, blocking out all but the hardiest stars.
“Do we need food?” the disciple asked.
“No, only starlight.”
“Do we need water?”
(Yes, Gabe thought.) “No, only starlight.”
When Gabe was a child, he’d watched his parents writhe on the church floor, speaking in tongues. Light streaming through colored glass had painted the worshipers in garish red and blue. Something had held him back then, but tonight Gabe willed the starlight to vibrate his lowly being and make him a creature of the light.
Stars wheeled overhead. Gabe shivered as the desert air cooled quickly without the sun. Soft snoring interrupted the silence. They weren’t supposed to sleep, but maybe those rules didn’t apply to the disciple. The ground vibrated beneath him, sparking hope he’d achieved resonance, until a faint whistle reminded him of distant freight trains.
Someone murmured in their sleep. Turning his head to the sound, Gabe caught an open eye to his right.
“Hi,” whispered the woman with bone wings.
Gabe croaked, “Hey. Are…we the only ones awake?”
She propped herself on her elbows to check on their circle. “Looks that way.”
Gabe turned back to the stars. Resonate, he commanded his worthless flesh. He glanced at the girl. She was short, round, with cheeks full like apples—not the winged phantom he’d imagined.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Ella. Can’t sleep?”
“Too hungry.” Gabe’s stomach rumbled to underscore his response.
“They said the pain will pass.”
“Once we’re worthy.”
“How long will that take?” she wondered.
Gabe thought about humanity’s failure, the warming earth that drove winds that steered wildfires from the tinderbox hills into the suburbs. “A while.”
“If you could eat anything right now, what would it be?”
Gabe closed his eyes, insulting the starlight. “Pizza. Pepperoni, with big splotches of grease on top.”
“I’d have ice cream,” Ella said. “Vanilla with a caramel ribbon.”
“Fried chicken, with crispy skin.” Gabe’s mouth watered.
“A fudgy brownie full of walnuts.”
Gabe groaned. “Why aren’t we eating right now?”
“Because FEMA camp food is shit.”
Gabe laughed, the air catching in his throat. One of their companions groaned in his sleep. Gabe and Ella suppressed their giggles. They shifted closer until Gabe felt her shoulder nudge his. They lay in silence for a moment. Gabe’s mood shifted as he remembered the bus ride from the evacuation center to the desiccated San Joaquin Valley.
“Why are you doing this?” Ella whispered.
“There’s nothing else.” At the camp, Gabe and his parents had huddled with thousands of other survivors with no future—workplaces and homes had gone up in flames. Other parts of the country reeled from their own climate disasters—there was nothing to spare elsewhere.
“There’s the starlight.” It sounded like something the prophet would say, but his voice would be suffused with confidence. Ella sounded like a lost child.
“I want to believe in something.” Gabe’s voice lowered and vibrated his chest. Resonance at last. “That there’s a way out of this.”
“Do you believe?”
“Not really,” Gabe confessed. The camp was heat, boredom, and, if he managed a turn with the solar chargers, a trickle of data on Gabe’s phone telling of distant miseries. When the prophet’s flock had floated by over the packed dust streets, all jutting cheekbones and lean limbs, Gabe had followed them to their prophet, to his teachings, to the last day and a half of hunger, and finally to the desert. It was working about as well as speaking in tongues.
Ella grew quiet, and Gabe regretted his moment of honesty—what if she could resonate, but he had ruined it? “Sorry, I shouldn’t have…”
“I don’t believe, either. I want to forget.” She looked at the stars for a whole minute. “My little brother was at a friend’s house when the fires came. He didn’t get out.”
Pain flared behind his ribs for all they had lost, outshining his hunger. Gabe turned from the stars to Ella’s eyes that reflected blue predawn light. “Let’s walk back. They’ll be serving breakfast soon.”
Gabe rose too quickly, and black fog clouded his eyes. He staggered until it cleared, then helped Ella up. She surveyed the five sleeping figures curled into parentheses and laughed.
Gabe took her hand, warm and solid in the cool night. “Tell me about your brother?” They floated toward the camp-light constellation, leaving their dew-outlined silhouettes lying in the dirt.