Friday, January 20, 2012

They Are Legion, Part Six

The smell of coffee drifted tantalizingly through my room. Maybe that was what woke me up, even. For a time I just lay there, being awake... but, well, not awake enough to actually move.

There was sunlight on the blankets, and on the wall behind me. It was bright enough that I knew I wouldn't be able to go back to sleep. That realization brought me another small step closer to wakefulness, but it was so nice to just lay and drift until I was actually ready to move.

I'd been dreaming about a roller-coaster, I remembered - an improbably massive structure that wound around an entire mountain, and even dipped through tunnels inside. There had been someone... no, that was gone. I couldn't remember anymore. I was too awake.

I sat up at last, cracked my neck, and yawned. My room was the same as always, decorated with posters for a couple of movies and another for the Marine Corps, which I'd briefly considered joining after High School. The bookshelves still held my old favorites, but the computer desk was empty - I'd taken its contents off to college, and left behind an empty shell. I remembered telling my parents that they could do whatever they wanted with my room, but either they hadn't heard me or they'd just decided to leave it alone...

Once things had settled down last night, I'd sent Tina and Mom off to bed and sat down to watch a little television. The news reported looting and other violence. At least some of the violence seemed to be a product of people trying to loot houses and stores that were still occupied. A lot of the rest seemed to be people who were convinced that the world was ending, or just taking advantage of the social disruption. I doubted that the troubles were anywhere near as widespread as the talking heads implied; for one thing, we hadn't seen anything like that around here, and for another the TV news programs had been getting ever more hysterical in their attention-seeking for as long as I could remember. Still, I made a note to go and find a couple of guns in the morning... just in case.

One guy they interviewed said that God had clearly turned His Face from us. Since he knew he was damned, he said, there was no reason not to do all those things that he'd always wanted to do. That was right before the police stuffed him into the back of a patrol car. I found myself reminded, very uncomfortably, of Anna - and I realized that I should call her. Probably not then, though - it was after midnight.

Instead, I'd shut off the television and wandered up to my room. I didn't exactly remember collapsing on the bed, but since I'd woken up there I was prepared to take that part for granted...

Now I paused in the hallway outside the kitchen. I could hear voices inside: Mom and Tina, talking. I stopped where I was, just out of sight. It wasn't a desire to eavesdrop, exactly; it was more that I wanted to know what I was about to walk into. And I wasn't quite awake enough to make conversation myself, so I waited... and listened.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

They Are Legion, Part Five

I told myself a story, about a young man who took an unexpected turn and found a strange set of ruins, where some evil genius had hidden away the world's children and covered his tracks by taking a few of the adults. In this story, the young man found his way into the hidden laboratory, and happened upon a death ray, and destroyed the evil genius and freed the children.

Then I told myself another story, about a young man who woke up imprisoned on a spaceship. He tricked his captors, took control of their weapons, and brought the abducted children - and the others, his own father among them - back to Earth.

That got me as far as Memphis. On the way to Little Rock, I told myself a story about a young man who came home to his father's funeral, and found that he'd inherited a book and a sword: the book to explain what had happened and what was coming, and the sword to fight against it. The Demon Lord commanded powerful forces, but in the end human stubbornness prevailed. With the Demon Lord vanquished, the ties between our worlds were severed - but the dead were still dead, and the missing, missing.

They were vague and grandiose fantasies, though I took some pleasure in filling in the little details: how the ruins look, why the villain had bothered with a death ray, how the aliens differed from humans... It was comforting, to imagine a world where good would triumph and evil would be defeated. It pleasant to think that, with the right combination of wit and insight, things might still be set right. And it was, ultimately, just a fantasy. I knew that, but I indulged it anyway.

I stopped in Little Rock to eat. I don't remember what I ordered. I don't remember my waiter. I don't actually remember eating the food, but I must have done so. I have a vague memory of latching my seatbelt on the way back out of the parking lot. Presumably someone would have stopped me if I'd forgotten to pay...

Mom called me just as I was leaving Little Rock. I pulled over to answer the phone, then assured her that I was fine and still on my way. She said she was glad that I was coming home, and I told her I was, too. And when she was done, I put the phone on the seat and got back on the highway.

It was starting to get dark, and I was tired. But I thought about it, and decided that I'd continue on; I wasn't too tired to drive. (This may not have been the wisest decision I've ever made.) So I drove, keeping the Jeep in its lane and watching the mile markers go past, and eventually I hit Texarkana. An impossibly long time after that, I drove into my parents' house in Grapevine.

By then I'd gotten my second wind, which was a good thing: Mom and Tina were still awake, waiting up for me. I barely made it in the door before they they were holding me. I was worn out from the drive, and maybe still in shock, so all I could do was wait through their tears and their relief, and assure them that I was glad to see them, too.

It was the worst homecoming I ever had.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Courtship of Meta-Chloe: I did it all for the cookie!

Cameron was used to Chloe being the more talkative one, and he was resigned to the fact she was probably the more clever one as well. She knew just how to tweak his ego, make him flustered and off-balance. So the drive to the airport was odd and unsettling, but not for the usual reasons.

Chloe was chattering, nerviously at times. It seemed like silence was the last thing she wanted in the car. Buck knew she was anxious, but didn't want to press things. They'd only managed to make up the night before, when she realized his article on the Event was a smokescreen. Things felt good to Cameron, but delicate, and he didn't want to foul anything up before his flight to Isreal.

The treaty signing was confusing. It was obvious that Carpathia had manipulated events to literally turn the entire world against Isreal, but why? He'd been successful, so why seek a treaty now? Cameron was so lost in thought he hadn't registered that Chloe had parked the car and was unloading his luggage from the trunk. Cameron found himself walking briskly to catch up with Chloe as she headed towards the ticket counter.

"Hey, remember me? The one who's actually flying out?"

Chloe blushed and looked embarassed.

"Sorry. I was just nervious that you'd miss your flight, and I didn't want you to be late, and..."

"Woah woah woah! You're with experienced world traveller Buck Williams! We've got enought time to get checked in."

Chloe smiled as his self-depreciating use of the nickname, but she still looked tense and nervious. Cameron got his boarding pass, and they walked along the concourse.

"I overheard you talking with Dad. Carpathia's offered you a job?"

"Not formally, but it looks like it. I don't know if Steve Plank put in a good word, or if he was just impressed by my recent turn to bland propoganda."

"I know you want to help the cause, I know you want to serve the Lord, but last night you said you wanted to protect... people from danger, and I just-"

"Cookies! That's what I want right now!" The conversation was headed for dangerous territory, and Cameron wanted to defuse it as quickly as possible, so he hooked his arm in Chloe's, spun her to the side, and marched into Ms. Fieldsworth's Cookie Shoppe.

"Cameron, could you please be serious for a minute?"

"I am serious, Chloe. Look at this place? There's a Ms. Fieldsworth's Cookie Shoppe in every major airport in the United States, and every airport in Europe, eastern and western!"

Chloe looked at him pleadingly, but Cameron wouldn't slow down or stop to let a word in edgewise.

"I've flown out of a dozen airports in Africa, and there's only two things that all of them had: a Pepsi vending machine, and Ms. Fieldsworth cookies. Once, I was stuck in the North Korean airport for three days; it was Ms. Fieldsworth or kim-chi. At least, I hope it was kim-chi, but I wasn't going to risk it."

"I hope this is important enough to talk about instead of taking a job for-"

"Yes, as a matter of fact it is. I'm flying to Isreal; I hope to interview the Two Preachers, and I'll be standing on a dias next to the Antichrist when he signs a treaty that will start the end of the world as we know it. There aren't a whole lot of things you can count on in this world, even less in the End of Days. Small comforts are important, even better when they're shared..."

Cameron walked up to the counter. A sullen teenager stood with an apron, visor, and nametag. His face was bleak, like so many others. Briefly, Cameron wondered who he had lost in the Event. One parent? Both? A little brother? Cameron blinked, and looked closer; the kid was young, possibly still in high school, but the grief on his face was deep. Maybe it was a son or a daughter he'd lost.

"Excuse me, sir, but I need two oatmeal chocolate chip cookies."

The kid shuffled, bagged the cookies quickly and rang up a total.

"Oh, could I get two bags? One for each cookie?"

The teen had almost no affect at all.

"Store policy is one bag per purchase, sir. I'm sorry..."

Chloe must have noticed the kid's grief, and she piped up.

"Can I get a cookie? What's your favorite kind?" Buck eyed Chloe warily. Had she seen the same grief he had?

Chloe happily bought the cookie, removed it from the bag, and handed it back to the kid behind the counter with a quick peck on the cheek before leading Cameron out of the store.

"What? He looked like he needed a pretty girl to cheer him up a little. Here's your extra bag. Now what's with the cookies?"

"I wish I could share more time with you. But since I can't, I'll share what I can."

"Medeocre baked goods found across the globe?"

"When I eat this," Cameron gestured with the cookie, "it's something I know is real, something I know wherever in the world I am, it's there. I know faith is supposed to provide that for me, but faith doesn't come with a little sugar rush between meals. When I eat this particular cookie, sometime while I'm in Isreal, I'll let you know, so you and I can share a snack, even if I'm on the other side of the world."

"Bucky... I think you're trying to make eating a cookie over the phone sound romantic..."

"Is it working?"

"...let's get you to your plane, Bucky."

Friday, January 6, 2012

They Are Legion, Part Four

There really wasn't much left to do. I'd put most of my stuff in storage before Anna and I went camping, and it took very little time to load the last few bags and boxes into the Jeep. It would have been nice to stop and eat, but I didn't want to keep my family, and Mom in particular, waiting any longer than necessary. I could find a drive-through on the way...

I called again when I was on the road. I didn't stay on the phone for long; I didn't like talking while I was driving, and this seemed like a good time to stay alert. I just told them that I'd left, and when I'd call next. Tina told me to be careful, which was advice I didn't need.

The trip was remarkably uneventful, though. I mean, the end of the world is supposed to involve massive chaos, right? The highways should be littered with wrecks, city streets should be full of rioters or looters or partiers, and bands of cold-eyed survivors should be retreating to the wilderness with canned food and extra ammunition. Instead, I got... nothing. If anything, traffic was lighter than usual. But the roads were neither empty nor blocked with wrecked and abandoned vehicles.

From Sewanee, Tennessee to Grapevine, Texas is about thirteen hours by car. Call it fourteen, since you'll want to make stops for gas, food, and sanity. The easiest route goes up to Nashville, then swings down through Memphis, Little Rock, and Texarkana. I found an eighteen-wheeler doing a respectable speed on the highway, and settled in behind him. Eventually, he turned off, and I found another. Their presence was reassuring: it meant that an awful lot of our economy was probably still in place. I didn't need to be spot-welding weapons-mounts to the outside of the Jeep just yet.

I left the radio off. For a while I tried listening to one of my playlists, but it clashed with my mood and after a while I shut it off. So there I was, following the big trucks, driving in silence.

And realizing that my father was dead.

It didn't seem real. I couldn't make it real. Dad was a vibrant, living figure - he couldn't be dead. Not dead dead. He was still fixing up that old Karmann Ghia, for fuck's sake. No way he could die before he had it working again. It just wasn't possible.

I could imagine a world without my father in it, sort of, abstractly. I mean, I'd been in college in another state for three years, now. Yeah, I came home for summers and holidays, but holiday visits were just visits, and summers were always a shock. My parents were trying to figure out how to handle a kid who was basically out on his own, and I was trying to adjust to having parents again. So the idea of not seeing my dad wasn't all that strange. I spent a lot of my time not seeing him.

The idea that he wasn't out there, anymore... that it wasn't just that I wasn't seeing him, it was that he was really gone... That was something else altogether. I couldn't process it.

And after a while I gave up trying. I thought about Anna for a little bit, and realized that I should call her... and then realized that I wasn't sure if I wanted to. We balanced each other in some important ways, but her insistence that the disappearances had been The Rapture... and that we'd missed it... was strange and unwelcome. It made me realize that maybe I didn't know her as well as I'd thought I had. That maybe we weren't as... connected... as we'd thought we were.

But that was something else I wasn't ready to deal with. So I left it alone and kept driving, losing myself in the simple act of keeping the car on course. I wasn't thinking so much as waiting, letting my brain absorb the new information and giving it time to adapt, to formulate new responses.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

They Are Legion, Part Three

My mom answered on the second ring. I'd been considering what she most needed to hear, so when she said, "Hello," I said:

"Mom, it's James. I'm still here. I'm fine."

There was a brief, choked sob, and then a moment of silence. I said, "Hello?" but nobody answered.

I tried again: "Hello?"

Then I heard my sister's voice: "James?"

I said, "Yes... are you guys all right?"

"Jesus," said Tina, "We thought you were dead, too. Why didn't you call us?"

Something cold and tight curled in from my shoulders and settled in my guts. "I was camping. There's no reception. What do you mean, you thought I was dead, too?"

There was a long pause. Then Tina said, "It's Dad." She hesitated, but I didn't say anything. I couldn't. "There was an accident. The driver beside him disappeared. The car drifted into his lane, pushed him off the road. He's... dead."

You hear that, Anna? I thought. It's not the Rapture. Because if that was the Rapture, your God just murdered my dad.

There was sound of fumbling, and then my mom was speaking into the phone. "James? James, honey? You have to come home. You should be with your family."

"I'm on my way," I told her. "I'll call you when I'm on the road. I love you."

"I love you," said Mom, and cut off the call.

Monday, January 2, 2012

They Are Legion, Part Two

A park ranger picked us up not five minutes after we got back to my Jeep. We'd left the parking area beside the trail head, but we hadn't even made it back to the main road. He filled us in a little - told us that there had been mass disappearances, world-wide, and that nobody was sure what had really happened - but mainly he took down our names, addresses, and family information. He said he was going to radio it in, so someone could put it in the big national database that everyone was using to search for missing family. It was something that FEMA had come up with, apparently.

The radio wasn't much help. Everyone broadcasting assumed that everyone else knew as much as they did. They didn't give us any new information about what had happened, and we didn't understand the significance of what they did have to say. It wasn't until we got back to campus and found my roommate, Andrew, that we could get any real information about what had happened while we were away.

And that was when Anna realized - or decided - that we'd been left behind. The Rapture, she said, had come. Jesus had claimed His own, taking them directly to Heaven to avoid the judgements that were about to be poured out upon the Earth.

And I, in my usual I'm-withholding-judgement-until-I-get-more-and-better-information way, said: "That doesn't seem very likely."

It didn't occur to me until much later that Anna would see that as a slap at her beliefs, or that she considered those beliefs so personal that rejecting them was rejecting her. She just went very still, the way she does when she's angry but doesn't want to show it, and then she told me that she was going to find her parents, and that Andrew and I should do the same.

And then she left. It seemed a little abrupt, but I didn’t think much about it at the time. We’d just found out about a disaster, she needed to check on her family, and we’d been together all weekend; of course she’d want to get going. I wanted to get going, too.

So I went back to my room, and picked up my cell phone, and called home. And what I learned then made me forget all about what Anna and I had said to each other.