|© Can Stock Photo / Zeferli|
God is Dead!
On a winding country road four boys reach the edge of reality.
Author Note: What follows is a brief foray into the world the four boys from my post apocalyptic series inhabit. A world of unrestrained brutality where death lurked at every turn, where the only law was the firepower one carried, and the only hope was for a swift death followed by a dreamless sleep.
Were it a different time and place the sight of four boys on a camping trip would elicit a smile as many recalled doing just that when they were young. Their packs slung across narrow shoulders, the pockets of their cargo pants bulging with the necessities for the trip. An adventurous trek into the wilderness away from the safety of home, even if it was at the very edge of the backyard where the forest waited in gloomy anticipation.
There was one notable difference, and it was in the way they moved. They weren’t bunched together as a group of boys normally would be. Shouting to let the world know they were alive. This group was spread out in a formation familiar to anyone who has ever served. Keeping to the edge of a road covered by a dense layer of dead leaves, the safety of a narrow ditch within easy reach.
Their obvious wariness belied the innocent nature of their trek, their heads always on a swivel as they kept watch on the forest that surrounded them. The well worn handles of various weapons within easy reach of hands that appeared at first to be idle, yet moved with a determined grace.
For them this was not a different time and place, this was their reality, having grown up amid the brutality of a world turned upon its head. This was the time after. Though they had heard the stories from the days before the dead walked. None of them had ever experienced the convenience of a fast food restaurant, the overwhelming sight of a fully stocked supermarket, the safety of a secure home.
“Did I ever tell you about the Zombie who wanted a girlfriend,” Billie-Bob, the youngest member of the group called out from his place at the rear.
“Keep it down back there,” Meat, the boy in the lead replied, turning around to walk backwards as he and Window, the second boy exchanged shrugs. There was a preternatural stillness about Window, who was not much younger than Meat. They both viewed the world through a thousand yard stare that was so out of place on a face so young.
In the distance ahead several structures along the side of the road emerged from the forest. Nothing more than a wide spot in the road, but it was the first sign of civilization they had seen this day. The last little town they passed through had burned to the ground some time in the past. The fire leaving only the charred remnants of the foundations that once supported the buildings. With no fire department to respond the inferno had consumed the small village.
Window spotted something ahead and pushed forward to tap Meat on the shoulder. Dropping to one knee they tried to make out what it was hanging from the tree limbs interlaced over the road.
“I don’t like this,” Window said, his hand dropping to the butt of the revolver protruding from the holster on his hip.
“There’s a lot of things you don’t like,” Billie-Bob said. He was the only one in the group who could get away with riding Window, who shot him a dirty look.
“Let’s get closer,” Meat said and as a group they rose and quickly covered the distance between themselves and that object.
As they got closer the smell alerted them to what it was. It was the stench of something dead that has lain in the sun for too long. For them it was a familiar smell, one they had grown up with, marring the fresh clean scent of a wilderness that has moved on to leave the remnants of civilization behind.
More details emerged as they got closer and from the canopy of interlaced branches above them hung the dead body of an older man. His neck had obviously been broken, the head sitting at an unnatural angle, the eyes open and watching as they neared.
“It’s alive,” Einstein, the fourth member of the group said with obvious distaste. Unlike the others he had grown up in a secure compound along the banks of the James river, so he was unfamiliar with the brutality of the world in which they lived. While he was the smartest in the group, earning the nickname he carried, it came with a degree of innocent that put a target on him.
“Not for long,” Windows said as he drew his revolver.
“Don’t,” Meat said, putting his hand out to stop him, “there might be others nearby.”
From the dead man’s neck hung a crudely drawn sign.
“God is dead.” Billie-Bob read the sign out loud. It was then Meat spotted the white collar around the man’s neck. He’d been a priest.
Why had he been hung?
Meat turned his attention back to the buildings ahead, and spotted the small church, its white siding shimmering in the noon day sun. The answer lay there, he was sure of it, he just wasn’t sure if he wanted to reveal it.
Going around was a preferable option that would add another day to their trek. While it was not a real inconvenience as they were well stocked for an extended trip, and were quite capable of living off the land, there was something about the whole situation that tickled his curiosity.
Why? The question begged to be answered, why would they hang their priest?
He didn’t appear to have suffered any other wounds, his clothes though dirty, looked to ve well maintained.
“What do you suppose happened?” Window said on his right as Meat watched the clearing ahead for any signs of life.
“Hard to say,” he answered with a shrug, his gaze never straying from that clearing.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Window said as he started down the road ahead of them.
“Maybe we should just go around,” Meat said, stopping the younger boy in his tracks.
“I agree,” Einstein offered, “I think it would be better if we just went around.”
“What do you think?” Window said, shifting his gaze to Billie-Bob who was whispering to himself, his voice soft, indistinct, the words running together like a chant.
“Who me?” Billie-Bob looked up startled, shrugging as he shook his head and lifted his hands, palms up. “Doesn’t matter to me which way we go.”
“It’s settled then, we’ll go through,” Window said before turning on his heel and striking out.
“Wait,” Meat said, “I don’t think it’s safe.”
“Where is it safe?” Window shot back, turning to face the other three boys, “tell me that, where in this world is it really safe, because you know what, I want to go there. I’m tired of always being afraid, always having to be cautious so we don’t disrupt the others, or draw their attention.” Window’s voice rose as he continued, closing with a shout of frustration. “Where is it safe?”
Several birds took to flight from the trees above them squawking in protest with raucous cries. Window stood before them, like them, nothing more than a kid lost in a world that no longer cared. Sure they were armed, and they certainly knew how to use the weapons they carried, but beneath their grimy exteriors, they were nothing more than children shouldering a burden that had been forced on them.
As the echo of Window’s voice faded into the distance, and the startled birds had settled elsewhere, from the forest on their right came the steady sound of someone’s approach though the dense blanket of leaves that covered the forest floor.
All eyes turned to the forest, hands dropping instinctively to the butts of their weapons. In this new age, when a stranger approached, it was best to be ready for anything.
A spot of white materialized from the gloomy forest depths as those steady footsteps drew closer. A person emerged from the shadows, staggering towards them, more details becoming obvious with every passing moment. She might have been beautiful once, but not anymore. Long blonde hair, that which remained, hung in filthy strands around a face marbled in shades of gray and black. Her mouth hung open, exposing blackened teeth that had probably once been perfectly straight and white. Her eyes burned with a preternatural light, shimmering in the shadowy depths as he mouth worked in hungry anticipation of sinking those neglected incisors into warm, living, flesh.
She was one of the undead and they slipped well worn pistols from leather holsters as she reached the edge of the road. Window fired, the sound of his forty four shattering the stillness, sending a flock of birds into startled flight as the heavy slug slapped her in the forehead, stopping her forward momentum as it shattered her skull and pulped her brain.
She dropped to the ground instantly as what remained of her brains splattered against the tree trunks behind her.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Meat yelled as he turned on Window. “Now everyone within a four mile radius knows where we are.”
“Who cares, let em come get us, I’m ready for them.”
Meat saw the truth in the younger boys eyes, for all his bravado he was as scared as the rest of them.
As if in answer to Window’s boast the sound of more movement came from the forest around them. More shapes emerged from the shadowy depths, staggering into view, drawn by all the noise Window had made.
“We better get going,” Widow said as he turned to flee down the road. The other three followed as more than ten of the undead staggered onto the cracked pavement of that narrow ribbon of road. Followed by even more that seemed to inhabit the entire forest around them.
Where had they come from? Meat had time to wonder as they drew closer to the church flanked by two other buildings. They were in the middle of nowhere, far from any major cities, there shouldn’t be that many undead in the woods around them.
When he chanced a look back he saw the road covered by a staggering crowd of the undead.
Window reached the church first and without hesitation he smashed open the door. After the last of them hurried through he closed it and with their help used whatever was lying around to barricade it.
It took all four of them to do it, but they managed to move one of the heavy pews at the back the church, sliding it across the wood floor with a loud screech, shoving it tight against the double doors, effectively blocking them before they stepped back to admire their handiwork.
No sounds came from beyond the closed doors, there were no listless slaps of dead flesh against the barrier, no moaning, no crushing weight as hundreds of the undead tried to get into the church where fresh meat was hiding.
“What’s going on? Why aren’t they trying to get in?” Billie-Bob said, crossing to one of the windows where he took a quick peek outside. The undead stood in an immobile crowd more than fifty feet away. Watching the church silently as the sun shimmered on their cataract clouded eyes. It was like looking at a group of people who were wearing mirrored sunglasses, and the image left Billie-Bob more than a little unnerved.
“They’re just standing there,” he said, glancing back at the other three who stood shrouded in the deep shadows of the church. Behind them he saw a shadowy figure hanging from the wall.
“What the hell is that,” he said as he pushed past the others, the undead momentarily forgotten, as he walked down the center aisle towards the statue of Christ on the Cross that dominated the wall behind the pulpit. The statue was more than double the size of an average person. Painted with immaculate detail, the eyes were full of sorrow and seemed to follow them as they trooped down the center aisle towards it.
“God is not dead,” Window said in an obvious attempt to inject some humor into the situation, “he’s right here.” He approached the statue, staring up into the haunted eyes, noting the crown of thorns and how each one appeared to pierce the flesh, each drawing a line of blood that followed the creases of the forehead like a network of rivers flowing among the mountains.
He was reaching up to touch the face when a booming voice shouted. “Don’t touch it,” stopping his hand several inches from the carved cheek.
All four of them whirled around, weapons drawn as they searched the shadows for the owner of the voice. Sunlight streamed through several skylights in the vaulted ceiling, creating shafts of light that spawned even more shadows for any would be attackers to hide within.
“Come out where we can see you,” Window shouted, scanning the shadows for any sign of movement.
“If I do will you shoot me?”
“Only if you mean to harm us.”
“I’m not here to hurt you.”
“Then you don’t have anything to worry about.”
“That’s easy for you to say, after all, you’re the one who came into this church armed.”
Window looked from one to the other and with a shrug slipped the forty four that was his birthright into its holster, yet his hand never strayed very far from the sandalwood grip as he turned back to address the disembodied voice.
“I’ve put my gun away, it’s safe to come out.”
“Do I have your word?”
“Of course, you’ve nothing to fear from us.”
There was a moment of silence as the unseen interloper considered what Window said.
“I’ll take you at your word.
A man appeared from the deep shadows gathered along the left wall, small of stature with a bald head, he wore the garb of a priest as he stepped into the light shining down from above.
Meat approached him with his hand out, “we’re not here to cause any harm,” he said as he got closer enough to the man to spot the white collar at his throat. “We were just running from the undead and picked what looked like the safest spot.”
The man laughed nervously at that, his head on a swivel as he searched the shadows all around him.
“It’s far from safe here,” the man said, finishing with a laugh that bordered on the cackle of insanity.
Window shot him a knowing look and Meat understood he would never fully trust the man who appeared from the shadowy depths of the church.
“Are you the priest for this church?” Einstein said as he stepped forward, following the man’s gaze that was constantly searching the shadows all around them. “Are you all right? Can we help you find what it is you’re looking for?”
“Who says I’m looking for anything?” The man shot back, pinning Einstein to his spot with a penetrating stare.
“I was just saying…” Einstein’s words faded under the priest’s withering stare.
From the shadows came the sound of movement and the man spun around to confront whatever lived in that deepening gloom. It sounded like something being dragged across a coarse surface. Soft, almost imperceptible, the sound multiplied as it grew to surround them.
“I told you, not now,” the priest shouted into the shadows and the sound faded to silence.
“What is it?” Window said as he stepped forward, moving Einstein aside, “what are you hiding from us?” He pulled his revolver as he searched the shadows for the source of the sound.
“It’s nothing, really, just the wind, and all that, there’s nothing at all in the shadows,” the man finished, jerking his head around to the right as he continued to search the shadows. “Or maybe it’s a nightmare that’s slipped its moorings,” he whispered more to himself as he turned from the four boys to continue his search of the darkness that had grown to fill the church with a palatable sense of approaching doom. They were trapped between the undead waiting outside, and a shadowy presence that inhabited the church. Why were the undead waiting? What invisible force was keeping them at bay? The questions begged for answers that were not immediately forthcoming.
“He’s crazy,” Window said, dismissing the old priest as he vanished into the thick gloom.
“Shhh,” Einstein said, “not so loud, he might hear you.”
“So, who cares?”
As the other three were dealing with the priest Billie-Bob had been watching the statue behind the altar. There was something about it that touched him in a darkly primitive place where old fears roamed unfettered through narrow corridors. Something that wasn’t quite right, aside from its size.
Window’s shout drew his attention, and when he looked away, just at the very edge of his peripheral vision, he spotted movement. The statue had moved, and he took several steps back as fear washed over him. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it. It had to be his imagination. It wasn’t possible for the statue to move. He focused his attention on it, watching for even the slightest sign of movement but the shadows were thick, and details were scarce.
He could move closer, but no, it was safer to remain where he was. He looked away, this time focusing on the statue and was rewarded with a slight nodding of the head. It had to be the shadows playing tricks on him.
Retrieving a flashlight from his pack he turned it on and played the narrow beam across the statue’s face, those clear blue eyes sparkled in the soft light. First one eyelid, then the other, closed and he took several steps back.
“Guys,” he whispered as he struggled to come to terms with what he had just seen. They were still arguing among themselves after the priest vanished into the deeper shadows along the side of the church.
Then he felt it on an emotional level, something reaching out to him, caressing his thoughts as it sought what? What was it searching for?
Do you believe? The question formed and he looked from the statue to his friends. They were the only thing he had ever believed in. The only thing he found he could trust. You couldn’t even trust adults in this new reality, it was every man for himself, and as the youngest member of this quartet he had experienced that disregard first hand. Most of the adults he’d met in his short life were focused solely on their own needs and wants.
You can trust me, a sweetly sinister voice whispered in his mind and he found himself drawn to the statue like a moth to a flame. He was aware the others had stopped arguing, their focus shifting from the priest to him, as they each in turn, spun around to watch as he slowly approached that living statue.
“Billie-Bob, what are you doing?” Window shouted.
The young boy failed to answer as he slowly approached the statue, one hand outstretched, reaching for those clear blue eyes locked with his as that inner voice soothed his terror. Quelling his fear, blanketing it with a spreading numbness that slowly washed through him.
With its numbing embrace came understanding as Billie-Bob shed his well earned doubts about humanities purpose and its future. They had come to witness the dawn of a new era. Those who had gathered beyond the walls of the church, drawn by that which inhabited the statue, the undead were to be the chosen ones.
When he and his brother first arrived at Bremo Bluffs, they had been taken in by a husband and wife who had lost their children to the awakening. Their presence helped soften the blow of that loss, but the couple had found more solace in the bible, in particular the teachings of revelations and the passages that dealt with the rising of the dead. For them the awakening was not the end of society, but the beginning of a new age.
Did that mean they were doomed to an eternity of damnation?
“Come to me,” that sinister voice whispered in his mind, and he did, against his own will, unable to stop himself.
He was only dimly aware of the others as he slowly approached the outstretched figure shrouded by deep shadows. In those shadows he saw movement. A primitive dance that kept time with the steady beat of his heart as the shadows slithered with a sinuous ease across the animated face of the statue.
It was nothing really, just plaster of paris, and paint put together to represent the embodiment of a religious belief. It couldn’t hurt him. Could it? The thought whispered through his mind, but there was no comfort in it. Something had inhabited the statues, creating a semblance of life for purposes that were a mystery.
Rough hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him away as the smile on that immobile face turned down into a frown.
“What’s wrong with you?” Window said as he turned the younger boy to face him. Billie-Bob’s eyes strayed to that shadowy face, seeking the comfort they all sought.
The slap sounded like a gunshot that echoed in the shadowy corners of the church and Billie-Bob blinked several times as awareness blossomed. The tenuous link he’d established with that which inhabited the statue was severed by Window’s act and he looked around at the others as if he were seeing them for the first time.
“Are you okay?” Meat asked and Billie-Bob numbly nodded his head. He was okay now, but there was no telling what might have happened had he reached the statue. Looking around the abandoned church he felt it again, reaching out from those dank corners, caressing his thoughts with a chilled touch that sent icy fingers dancing the length of his spine. They were not safe here.
“I don’t know what it was,” he said, searching for the right words to convey what he’d felt, “but it was trying to get me to come to it.” He finished with a shudder, his eyes drawn once more to the immobile shape of the stature dressed in a shadowy cloak.
“We can’t stay here,” Einstein said as he spun his head around trying to look into all of the shadowy corners at one time.
“What is wrong with you two?” Window said, “we’ve got shelter, and in case you hadn’t noticed there’s a shit load of the dead waiting for us outside.
“They’re right,” Meat said, “I can feel it too, there’s something here that doesn’t belong, something we don’t understand.” Meat turned to the window and glanced out at the immobile crowd of the undead who stood around the church in a dense crowd, all eyes focused on the building they were hiding in.
“Then what are we gonna do? We can’t just walk out now.” Window turned back to stare at the statue.
“No, not now, but maybe tonight.”
“How will we get through them.”
“I haven’t figured that out yet, we need to create a disturbance that will draw them away, give us a chance to escape.”
“You have to leave, now!” The priest shouted from the shadows, he stepped into view, no longer the submissive, diminutive, type. Now he was assertive, his voice confident, full of the conviction of his belief.
“He doesn’t want you here any longer.”
“Who doesn’t want us here?” Window said, turning on the priest who refused to be intimidated.
The priest pointed at the statue, “he lives. He is the embodiment of Christ and he only allows those who believe to be in his presence.”
“That’s not how I was taught,” Meat said.
“And you see where it got him,” the priest shot back, “this is the dawn of a new age, his second coming, and only those willing to submit to him will be forgiven.”
“Where are his followers?” Window said, spreading his arms wide as he slowly turned around in the deserted church. “Where are these true believers?” Window stopped, having turned all the way around until he was facing the priest once again. His arms still outstretched he glanced left and right.
“Are they hiding in the shadows”
“They’re here,” the priest answered, “they’re all around in fact, don’t you see? It’s the second coming. As it said in revelations twenty, twelve, and thirteen.
The priests voice rose as he quoted the passage, “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.” As the echo of his voice faded into the shadows the priests turned to the windows at the front of the church.
“They have come to be judged,” he whispered as he crossed to the window and gazed out at the growing crowd of the undead who waited yards from the front door.
“This guy’s off his rocker,” Einstein said as he twirled his finger around his ear.
“You’ll get no argument from me," Meat said as he watched the deep shadows around the statue. They had to get out of there, fast, the sanctuary they sought would not be found here.
“You need to leave,” the priest said as he turned from the window and stepped to the door, “the time of their judgment has arrived.” The snap of the lock being drawn back was loud in the church and the priest was opening both front doors, allowing the light of the setting sun to push back the shadows as briefly glimpsed objects scurried about franticly to escape the encroaching light.
He stepped through the door, his arm spread wide as he approached the undead who stood waiting.
“Welcome my children,” he said, “you have found your salvation, your journey has come to an end.”
The undead remained rooted in place, watching the priest with cataract coated eyes, those that were lucky to still have them. If this was salvation Meat didn’t want any parts of it.
“Let’s get out of here,” Meat said before turning to the deeper shadows crowding the back of the church.
“Where are we gonna go?” Einstein said, turning to watch meat as he vanished into the gloom. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said.
“What choice do we have,” Meat shot back, his word punctuated by the sound of a door opening.
Window and Billie-Bob remained rooted in place, watching the priest as first one, then another of the undead approached him with staggering steps. The priest stepped back, keeping his distance as more of the undead followed him into the church.
“That’s right my children, come to me, you have been abandoned by the one you followed, left to wander aimlessly, lost in the wilderness of ignorance. I have found the one true god, here in this little church, he has spoken to me as he will speak to if you will only open your hearts to him.”
The priest stepped through the door backwards, his arms upraised, palms out as he spoke in a fevered voice and the undead followed him in an orderly manner.
“Dammit, come on, let’s get out of here,” Meat said, breaking the trance Window and Billie-bob had fallen under as they watched the priest leading the undead into the church.
“Let’s go,” Window said, pulling at Billie-Bob’s arm as he turned to follow the others. Billie-Bob followed reluctantly, struggling to pull his gaze from the spectacle that was playing out in the church behind them. The crowd of the undead was growing as the priest continued to cajole them to follow him into the church. Spreading out to fill the emptiness.
The shadows enveloped them, slithering across their bodies as it wrapped them in ebony embraces.
“That’s right my children, accept the eternal life the one true god has to offer you. Embrace his essence for the god you once followed is dead, and another has risen to take his place.”
To be continued!
The four boys featured in this story appear in my post apocalyptic coming of age series available from Amazon.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO TERROR
ALL ROADS LEAD TO TERROR
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