Dazed, Penny stumbled through the gray ash and blasted debris. Charred human fat stained the fractured rocks of the old stone church. Blackened bones jumbled with the splintered charcoal of the pine roof beams. Most all the men of Fensmere, Mississippi lay dead around her, and many of its womenfolk, too. She spied a bit of wrought iron candelabra here, a burned scrap of a Klansman’s hood there.
She looked up at the broken wall where the skylight had been, and the Reverend Houghton’s order reverberated in her mind: “Brothers, place her beneath the stars!”
The girl shuddered and hugged herself as she remembered the cold touch of the old gods probing her mind, examining the Earth through her memory and dismissing her world as unripe fruit. But their thronging dark minions had clamored to devour the planet, and Penny had seen through the old gods’ eyes what terrible, craven, worthless creatures humankind was, and the darkest power of the cosmos had flowed into her, and she could have opened the doorway to let the minions in to end it all.
And for a moment, she’d considered it. It’s what the Reverend —her own grandfather—had brought her here to do. Exactly a month after Penny’s mother’s death, the Reverend’s sister brought her to the family mansion for the summer under the guise of a family reunion. Instead, the Haughtons wrenched her mind open with the mad Arab’s book, drugged her and kept her penned like a sacrificial calf until the night that the stars were right.
And she’d almost done it. She’d almost opened the door and let in creatures that would almost certainly end humanity. In those moments, she’d been the most powerful person on the planet, a living goddess, and yet still nothing more than a child trying to decide whether to open the latch for the stranger on her parents’ porch.
Instead, she’d chosen to use the cosmic power surging through her to turn her body into a momentary sun. And with the coldest blood, she blasted the Invisible Empire cultists gathered around her to ashes.
Penny couldn’t stop shivering. Her own mind had been overlaid with a new dark consciousness, a terrible inhuman logic. Was she a puppet now? A servant of one of the old gods that had briefly gazed upon her as a man might gaze upon a mote of dust? No, she finally decided. Her mind had been left to its own devices. But the cosmic fires had forged her soul into something new, and she was a stranger to herself.
And in that moment of realization, two things occurred to her simultaneously.
The first was that the Haughtons had almost certainly engineered her mother’s fatal automobile crash. It could be no accident that the one adult in her life who’d kept her safe had been removed right when Penny was old enough for the ritual. They had the money and resources to make it happen, and it had been done. Her cold new overmind shone a light on her past, and Penny realized they’d probably arranged to have her father murdered, too.
The second thing Penny realized was that, had her nuclear physicist father lived, and had her mother not remarried a Christian man when Penny was just a toddler, she might be having her bat mitzvah this summer instead. Her parents would have thrown her a big party with cake and Peach Melba and all the friends Penny didn’t have in her current life would have come to celebrate her becoming a daughter of the commandment under Jewish tradition. And her father would have given thanks that he could no longer be punished for her sins.
“I’m responsible now,” she said to the dead who lay scattered around her, and she threw back her head and laughed, spinning in circles with her arms outstretched in the cold moonlight. “I’m responsible for everything!”