The instant those words came to mind, he felt strange, a little wicked yet at the same time, he felt as though some cage inside him had been opened. He wonders what Irene would think.
He missed her. In spite of how their marriage had deteriorated to the point where they were barely speaking to each other, he missed her. For all her flaws, he missed her and though he knew it wouldn't do any good, he hoped that wherever she was now, she was happy. He hoped that for all the members of his family: Ray-Ray and Chloe. He rose to his feet, feeling somewhat renewed.
"Preacher, preacher," Loretta mumbled as she tried to comfort Bruce. "Is there anything we can do?"
"Not much," Bruce said. "We need to secure this place from the gangs. So far they haven't done much except break a few windows, but we can't be sure that their attention won't turn to here. If we are to keep everyone safe, we have to secure the building."
"If you don't mind, Bruce, I really need to get going," Ray said. "Chloe and the others might return any minute and I want to be waiting for them."
"Sorry, Ray, I'm afraid I can't let you leave. It's too dangerous to be wandering around in the dark right now. I'm going to have to ask that you stay here for the night."
"Okay." He wasn't too surprised by Bruce's response, though his conscience still bothered him. What if Chloe or Irene and Ray-Ray returned while he was gone? What would they think? "What do you need me to do, Reverend?"
"Try and see if anyone's lucid enough to be put to work. If not, then it'll just be the three of us. In which case we'll need to block off all entrances except the door to fellowship hall and the hall's windows; we'll need them as escape routes should the gangs overrun us."
The three wandered the church, but unfortunately there wasn't much they could do to secure the place. They pushed as much junk as they could against the doors and stuck junk in the doorframe and the locks, hoping to slow down anybody who might try to break down the doors. There wasn't much they could do about the windows except nail sheets of plywood. Thank goodness the church had been in the middle of renovations when the disappearances happened. After they had done all this, they collapsed on the floor of Fellowship Hall, too exhausted to think.
"I guess we better talk who's taking the first watch," Bruce muttered.
"I'll do it," Ray said. "You've been keeping watch all day."
"Do you have a gun?"
"Yeah, a Smith & Wesson," he murmured. He showed it to Bruce. Bruce sighed. "Not much but it'll do for now. Don't fire unless absolutely necessary."
"I won't." There was still the question though, how long, even with all their preparations, could they last. While they hid in the church, out there, the gangs were getting larger and more organized. Most of the people in here were barely lucid. Should a gang attack full force, it wouldn't take them long to overrun the place: the only weapons they had between them was a shotgun and a handgun. Not to mention, even if their luck held out and they weren't attacked, they would still have to leave the church sooner or later: with all these people here, they couldn't survive on canned goods for long.
Ray took his spot at the door and prepared for a long night. But though he knew he should remain as hawk-eyed and vigilant, his thoughts kept turning back to Chloe. How was she doing at Stanford? He knew he shouldn't have let her attend college so far away from home but she had had her heart set on Stanford since she was a girl and he couldn't deny her. He hoped she was managing to survive somehow.
"You okay?" He turned to see Loretta standing next to him.
"Yeah, I'm fine. You need to settle down, try to get some sleep."
"I can't. I don't think I'll ever be able to sleep again. Listen, Bruce found a radio. Maybe it'll have some news."
Bruce turned on the radio and together they crouched around that staticky thing as though it was the potential savior of the world. But the radio had little if any useful news. Most stations were out and the few that had news, didn't tell them anything they didn't already know. They didn't need to be told about roving packs of street gangs; they could see them with their very eyes. There was talk about establishing martial law, but no one could get anything organized: so many people in the government and the military were missing that it was impossible to get anything off the ground.
Bruce turned off the radio. "We'd better save the batteries. We might need it."
Loretta started to cry. "Oh, preacher, do you think my Elliot is suffering. What about my babies and my grandbabies? What do you think is happening to them right now?"
"I wish I could answer your questions—I'd give anything to know what's happened to my wife and baby."
"My wife would say they are with God right now," Ray said.
"That's what Rev. Billings always said." Bruce turned away, as though suddenly pained.
"But why? Why has he taken my Elliot? Elliot was a good man. Sure he killed people on Okinawa, but that was war."
Ray watched silently as Loretta sobbed, his anger growing by the minute. The memory of the vow he had made back in the sanctuary still hung in his mind and burned even brighter now. He didn't want to serve any God that arbitrarily ripped families apart then left people behind to be tortured. If he ever met whoever did this, he would shove his gun in their face and personally blow their head off their shoulders. He vowed to live his life as a rebellion against such a capricious, mean-spirited force and if it meant going to hell, than he could go to hell with his conscience intact.
Loretta lifted her head. Her grey hair had fallen askew and her eyes were swollen and puffy. "Do you think it's true, preacher? That God's called all the good people back to heaven like Rev. Billings said."
"I don't know. I've been studying the Reverend's papers but none of this makes sense. If he loves us, then why does he want us to suffer horribly?"
"Well, I don't." Ray sat up with a start. "You guys can believe Billings's story all you like, but you'll never make a believer out of me. If God is as bloodthirsty as he says, then I refuse to believe." His words echoed on the air.
He had rather expected they would be shocked by what he had said, that they would argue bitterly with him. Instead he saw them nodding silently in agreement.
"I know what you mean, Ray," Loretta said. She took a deep breath. "I've felt the same way for a long time—I've just never had the courage to say so. All these years, warming the pew and I've never believed." She breathed. "I've never told this tale to anyone and I don't know why I'm telling it now, but I guess it's because the past has remained buried for too long.
I was living with my parents in Georgia when it happened: I fell in love with a man named John Watson. The only problem was he was black and I was white and Jim Crow still ruled." Ray winced. He already knew how this story was going to end, but Loretta kept talking.
"We managed to keep our love a secret for awhile but eventually I became pregnant.
Now I knew very well that my parents would kill me and my lover if they found out, so I did my best to keep it secret, but eventually they found out. They yelled and screamed at me for hours until finally I slipped and revealed his name.
I can't tell you clearly what happened next—my parents shipped me off to a home for unwed mothers and we never spoke to each other again—but I do know what happened to John. They hanged him from the highest tree, butchered him like an animal." She paused, tears coming to her eyes. "After that, I could never feel at home as a Christian, after those people killed John and made me give up my baby. I faked it for many years, because it was expected of me as a dutiful wife—people would get a little suspicious if Elliot's wife wasn't in church—and I kept on faking it out of simple, stupid habit. But I guess now I'm free." She smiled a weak, pained smile. Ray sighed. He massaged his temples. He had never thought he'd hear such a tale from sweet Loretta who gave out peppermint candies to his kids on Sunday. He felt a little guilty. His reason for not believing was that he had simply stopped. He hadn't believed ever since the Rev. Billings terrified Ray-Ray with stories of hellfire and damnation, and now with the disappearances, he'd never felt angrier or more spiteful towards any being that would call themselves God.
Bruce tended to the flock as they needed, providing whatever food or drink or comfort they might need, but there wasn't much he could do. These people he surrounded himself with were gone, completely and totally; only their physical bodies remained. Ray watched as he tried to coax some of the flock into taking a drink of water.
Loretta went over to him. "Preacher, is there anything I can do to help?"
"Just rest, Loretta," he said as he silently poured water down someone's throat. It was clear he had a story in him too, one that was struggling to burst its way out and he was struggling to keep in.
"Preacher, is something the matter?"
"Yes," he finally admitted, "there is something wrong. I hear you and Ray talking about how you want nothing to do with God and I know that I, as the associate pastor, should do something to intervene, but I can't help but nod and agree with every word you say." He sighed and rested against the wall, still keeping the shotgun close at hand. "My story is quite simple. I am the visitation pastor for this church and as you know my duties involve tending to the sick. As a result, I see a lot of misery and sickness.
The thing is people who are sick or dying; don't care about your interpretation of the letters to Paul. They want to pray with the pastor, and not just "Thy will be done" prayers, but real prayers.
I threw myself into this job. I ignored all my misgivings about the reverend's teachings and set to work. I prayed my tongue off. But the thing is, no matter what, the odds ran exactly as the doctors predicted. If they predicted a 9 in 10 chance of survival, most of the time the patient died. I mean, is this prayer doing anything?
But I kept at it, plodding along until I met Veronica. Veronica was in the terminal stages of bone cancer; by this point, there was absolutely nothing that could be done. But still I showed up and I prayed my ass off, but as I was in the middle of my prayers, she turned to me and said, 'Fuck God.' After she said that, I couldn't continue. I tried to resume my place in the script but it was lost. After she said this, I watched as she went into seizures and died, real hard.
Afterwards, I could hear nothing but her words in my ears, and I wondered, what that meant for her and God. Would God damn her because of something she said while in the throes of excruciating pain? I looked and looked through every book I could find, but I could find no answer.
Months after, I still had no answer and I wasn't sure if I could believe in anyone who'd damn a person over such a matter. I mean, we talk about Hell and hellfire, but does anyone really think about what it means to burn forever, as in a punishment without an end. Does anyone, however bad or rotten they may be, deserve to suffer forever? I confess, Loretta, I like you continued going to church out of habit and simply because it was my job. What would my family do if I wasn't a preacher? Being able to interpret the psalms isn't exactly a highly demanded skill. So I stayed by Rev. Billings's side because while I hated God, I also couldn't imagine being apart from him and I couldn't let my family starve."
Ray nodded. It was all he could do to keep his mouth shut as he heard all these stories of pain and misery. He knew if he opened it, more stories of his own would start spilling out. He wanted to tell everybody about the wife and son he had lost; the daughter who was stranded on the west coast. He wanted to tell how even though the love had since gone out of their marriage; he never once regretted marrying Irene. But he knew once he started talking, he'd never stop, so he kept his mouth shut.
The night was long and no one got much sleep. Every time they heard the sound of a window breaking or a car going by, they would look up to see what was going on. Also by telling their stories, Loretta and Bruce had started something of a chain amongst the group. Nearly everyone there wanted to theorize on whether God was involved and if it did, what it meant about his nature. Everyone had lost somebody, and everyone wanted to tell about whom they had lost and how much they had meant to them. Ray tried to remained stony-faced, his eyes focused on the door, but as he listened to their tales, made up of simple joys like the way the sunlight hit their hair in the morning, he grew misty-eyed. Was this some sort of great ransom? Would God return them once they were sobbing and groveling at his feet? What had he done with sweet Irene, the woman who never stopped praying for everybody's soul, Ray-Ray, who was the type of boy who wanted everyone to win, and Chloe, smart and funny Chloe?
He would raid heaven itself if it would bring them back.
Morning came, and soon they found themselves in a flurry of activity, as Bruce opened up a few cans of food for breakfast. Bruce waited until everybody was served before he finally opened a can of fruit cocktail for himself. "So I guess you'll be leaving us," he said.
"Yeah." Ray felt a little guilty for abandoning them, but what if Chloe or the others returned while he was gone? They might need him.
"Be careful." Loretta gave him a peck on the cheek.
He stepped outside, breathing in the air. The air smelt acrid, the scent of smoke hung strong on the breeze. He wandered to where he had hid his car, unable to shake the feeling that there was something following him. Maybe it was a ghost; after all, there seemed to be a lot of them lately.
He found his car where he had left it, parked under a tree that was bent nearly to the ground. A corpse hung from the tree, its unclad feet touching the battered hood of his car. The person moved with the tree as it swung gently in the breeze.
The person had been beaten to a pulp; his nude body had been sprayed repeatedly with spray paint and around his neck, hung a cardboard sign, covered with obscenities. Half of his hair had been shaved away, giving him the appearance of a crude mohawk.
Ray felt his stomach churn. He bent over and puked, vomiting up the canned peaches he had eaten for breakfast. He raised a hand to steady his head. Get a grip, Ray, he thought. You have to stay strong, for Irene and the family. He forced himself to walk over to the car, past the corpse. All the glass in his car had been smashed; spray-painted obscenities obscured the original paint. He slid into the driver's seat. Thankfully the car still started; the punks only did cosmetic damage. He revved up the motor and sped down the street, leaving the church and the corpse behind.
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4 weeks ago