When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers. — Oscar Wilde
“The CC&Rs are clear,” insisted Fred Crumly with a sense of authority only petty bureaucrats possess.
“Screw you, screw your rules, screw your mother. I’m going to keep that bird bath right where it is!”, replied Bob Matherson with equal intensity. “I didn’t work my whole life to retire and have some asshole like you tell me what to do with my own home!”
Strife was agog. At first, he did not understand what all the angst and excitement was about. He and his white horse had at first startled the semi-comatose residents of the Pretty Prairie Estates subdivision of Hialeah, Florida. But in this utterly unfashionable second cousin to Miami, unusual events had a short shelf-life, as did its ancient population. Most of the community’s activities centered around who had died that morning, the daily clubhouse “organ recital” where people bemoaned their sundry ailments, and, of course, strictly enforcing every rule in the home owners’ association handbook. That last activity flourished under the guise of maintaining property values, though many of the residents had weaponized HOA rules against every neighbor they disliked, which was all of them.
“Bob, it says right here,” Crumly stated while fingering his horn-rimmed glasses back into their appropriate position. Those glasses, along with inexpensive and oddly colored Target brand Bermuda shorts, standard issue polo shirt, and dark socks with sandals, were nearly uniform to the male residents of Pretty Prairie Estates. This helped explain the complete lack of sexual interest by the female residents.
Crumly poked at page 27 of the Pretty Prairie Estates HOA regulatory bible. “They are called covenants, conditions and restrictions,” he emphasized the last word for Matherson’s benefit, “for a reason.”
Strife, sensing the conflict, tabled his more pestiferous plans, and instead walked up to the two men, who in the heat of their disagreement cared nothing about Strife, his blindingly white stallion, or even the various weapons strapped to the saddle. All that he was and had brought up from Hell were, at best, of secondary importance to the location of Bob Matherson’s birdbath.
“Oh yeah? Big deal. What ya goin’ to do about it?” Matherson said with growing anger, the type of which Strife enjoyed because he knew it would not erupt into violence, which had the potential downside of finality, at least when fatal. Instead it was the simmering, life-shortening stressful anger that made life itself miserable. Strife positively beamed at Matherson’s growing rage and the tight cap he kept on it.
“Well, Bob. If necessary we can put a lien on your house.”
Matherson’s barely contained furor changed from anger to outright resentment and loathing for Crumly. “Oh, don’t you dare,” he challenged. “I’ll fight you on that, buddy boy. I’ll get a lawyer …”
Strife’s expression was a mix of amazement and joy. Lawyers. He had seen quite a few in Hell. There was supposedly an entire quarter section there reserved just for patent attorneys. A new malpractice lawyer arrived hourly, and everyone in Hell had lost count of the number of divorce lawyers in residence. That lawyers were instantly invoked over a rule book was, to Strife, an exciting fulfillment. It was the irrational extreme of human conflict. Let War have bloodletting. This was vastly more interesting.
“And I’ll run against you too!” Matherson all but shouted, pointing but not connecting with his stubby index finger. “How many dicks did you have to gnaw on to get to be the HOA president?”
“Now, Bob. No need to be offensive …”
“May I?” asked Strife, reaching his long and boney fingers toward Crumly’s copy of the Pretty Prairie Estates Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions. Crumly and Matherson both turned to Strife, giving him their first long look up and down. Matherson displayed the demeaning disgust he showed every unwelcome person he encountered, which was every person he encountered. But he also doubled down on his distaste for Strife since the latter’s skin tone was not any identifiable color, but it certainly was not white. Crumly, being more opportunistic than dismissive, gave Strife his full attention. He slowly shoved the association’s book of rules toward Strife, who took it while carefully placing his thumb into the fore edge, to save the point of conflict.
Strife lifted the book and silently read before a smile broke across his face. While reading on toward the key section, Strife marveled at, and found joy in, the regimented and authoritarian nature of each rule. The precision of every statute was art in the vein of societal sadomasochism. Like the very ropes used in popular San Francisco sex clubs, each rule was measured and tested to provide an exact degree of restriction without the infliction of fun-ending levels of pain. It was an instrument of torture to which every homeowner in Pretty Prairie Estates bowed their heads in submission, until it was their turn to be the dominatrix.
“He is correct,” Strife said directly to Matherson, using a low and authoritative tone. “Your yard decoration is not appropriately located. You will need to move it at least two feet to the right.”
Crumly stood a little taller yet remembered to not smirk. Matherson, feeling defeated, said nothing. After a moment he looked over his shoulder at the birdbath, then back at Strife. His cheek twitched, but he vaguely nodded his head in upright supplication before turning and walking toward the offending yard ornament.
“Nice to meet you …” Crumly trailed off, extending a palm for a handshake.
“Strife,” was the reply as the Pretty Prairie Estates Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions manual was placed in Crumly’s open hand.
“Well, Mister Strife. I’m glad you are part of our community. We have so few people here who are as good about the HOA rules. I assume you keep your horse elsewhere. I’m sure you know about section twenty-three, pets and livestock.”
“I would like to learn more,” Strife said, sensing a means to his own ends.
“That’s what I like to hear a neighbor say. Have you thought about running for a seat on the HOA committee?”
“Eat, drink and be merry,” the souvenir shot glass read. “For tomorrow you might be in Salt Lake City.”
Michael had grabbed it off the shelf of a store dangerously close to the Mormon Tabernacle, which given its stone girth belied the biblical definition of tabernacle for it was certainly not of light construction.
It had been a whirlwind morning, all on Faith’s insistence. The night before had been short on sleep and, as far as Michael was concerned, abominably absent of sex. Faith’s sensuality was like a low-level barroom buzz; persistently there, enticing in its prelude to greater events of the evening, but typically ending in sedated nothingness. She had let them snooze until something shy of sunrise before rousting Michael from an agreeable sleep and into the Caddy. After a quick hunt for coffee on the Nevada side of the line, a choice based on the possibility of the Mormon distain of caffeination making Utah coffee undrinkable, they rocketed down Interstate 80 and into the land of tardy saints.
They did not stay in Salt Lake for long, despite Michael’s protests.
“Have faith, Faith,” Michael said to drive home his point with substandard humor. “This is a spiritual place. That is why we’re on the road. We need to slow down, talk to some people, understand what drives their beliefs, what makes them tick.”
“It sure isn’t from an over-abundance of caffeine,” she said while watching some of the faithful enter and leave the tabernacle. “But is this where you will find true spirituality? Between not partaking of coffee or alcohol, I think they are deprived of some essential life. They are lacking in spirit.”
“But they believe. I want to know what and why.”
Faith gave him some time around the church, which Michael used effectively to stop, chat, debate, frustrate, offend and otherwise annoy Mormons to the point that authorities were called. Before Michael could raise his argumentative ire for the police, and thus assure they would be spending at least one night in Salt Lake City, albeit in jail, she slid her hand into his.
It was just a hand, but it wasn’t just a hand.
Michael’s hands had pressed flesh with perhaps too many women in his years, which had indirectly led to him thoroughly enjoying all the common carnal pleasures and a few exotic ones. The joy of those moments – times when connecting tissues created states of emotional, if we can call horniness an emotion, pleasure – were of a spiritual nature. They were part of Michael’s mechanics, for finding something worthwhile in life aside from philosophical explorations and used car sales commission checks large enough to afford some decent scotch.
It may have been just a hand, but it was her hand. It was a hand that in its tenderness, warmth and smoothness communicated everything while saying nothing. It checked Michael’s desire to debate law enforcement on what constitutes disruptive behavior and think of nothing more than the moment.
“Let’s go. Kansas awaits,” was all she had to say.
“Utah to Kansas? Why the rush from nowhere to nowhere?”
She paused one second too long for her explanation to be fully believable. “Just the road, Michael. There is so much to see. And the sooner we meet your Reverend Righthouse creature, then the sooner we are off to something even better.”
Michael grinned when he thought about Reverend Righthouse and the preacher’s completely consuming religious fervor. Utah was a snore, and Salt Lake not salty enough for his liking. Perhaps getting on with the show was the right thing to do.
“You know, we haven’t thought through the rest of the trip, which I guess is kinda the right way to go. But we might want to think of where to go after Lebanon. What is the next place of spiritual extremes?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Faith said with confidence. “New Orleans. We’ll find you some real voodoo.”
Michael lit up.
“Voodoo? That’s promising.”
“Voodoo? That’s promising,” Hunger said to himself, having successfully pulled his drowning black horse from the shallows of the Columbia River into which they had bubbled up from the depths of Hell. After a respite on its banks in Tom McCall Park, they rode into town.
Within a short distance, Hunger came to believe that Satan must have planned carefully for his arrival. After seeing a shifting army of homeless, all who seemed well on their way to starvation, Hunger found himself wedged between two buildings, he and his oversized horse blocking traffic while he marveled at the sight of the sites.
On one wall were the words “Dante” and “Burnside”, obvious references to Hell, though Hunger could not make out the meaning of “Keep Portland Weird.” And across the street, where he now dismounted, in blazing pink was the word “Voodoo”. In Hell, Hunger had seen many people of all faiths, from pedophile priests to unenlightened lamas. But voodoo practitioners were the most entertaining. Oh, they could dance, especially when their feet hit the scalding rocks on Hell’s stage. And they would wail as loud as any West Wall visitor. But their dark side, the incantations, the curses, even their black cat bone factories made them unusually spectacular in a place known for rather vivid images.
Now, in Portland, Hunger was in Hell’s obvious outpost. Dante’s name burned behind him and a house of Voodoo stood in front of him. Yes, voodoo, though he was unsure what “doughnut” meant and what its relationship was to voodoo practices. Yet it was a sign from Satan as to where and how to begin Hunger’s contribution to the End Times, so he entered.
Humans shriveled and fell, instantly emaciated as Hunger shoved through the winding line within Voodoo Doughnut. Behind a counter slouched what Hunger assumed was an awaiting imp. It had no hair on its head, aside from a single ridge of tall standing and electrifyingly bright red. Dangling from the imp’s face were multiple implements of confinement … or perhaps torment. Hunger could not be sure, but there were rings in its nose, several up and down each ear, and through its clothing Hunger detected a pair of metal impalements piercing its nipples. This obviously broken imp stood nearly upright as Hunger approached.
The imp looked Hunger up and down for a longish moment, mildly intrigued. This was, Hunger thought, quite common in Hell. In a place where everything is unusual, one develops a taste for it, and examines all curiosities. “This place, this Portland, must be a direct outlet from Hell,” Hunger thought, “Though the temperature is a bit cool.”
“What’cha having today, bub,” the imp said. It stood in front of a stack of bright pink boxes. Hunger had started to ponder if these were awaiting coffins of some sort, right-sized for famished children. But he was quickly distracted by the smell. Hunger had never before encountered this aroma. Hell had many stenches, from rotting corpses to the rivers of excrement in which politicians resided. But this smell, it was familiar and yet different. Hunger sniffed. There was an unmistakable scent of oil that had been boiled, but it lacked the associated bouquet of scalded flesh. There were notes of sweetness, but not from fermenting of tissue. The accumulated fragrances were, to Hunger, confusing.
“I said What’cha having today, bub,” the imp repeated, fingers impatiently tapping on the counter.
“I am not Beelzebub,” he said, though he was flattered by the mistake. “I am Hunger!”
“Everyone here is hungry. What do you want?”
“I want everyone to hunger.”
“Look at the line of people outside Jack,” the imp said impatiently. “It’s like this every day. All the hungry people in the world seem to come here.”
If he had ducts to do so, Hunger would have shed a tear. All the earth’s famished people were already marshalling to meet him, to have their hunger ended by Hunger through the act of accelerated starvation. And surely those who were not hungry yet would arrive as well. It was part of Satan’s plan, Hunger assumed. This Portland was the place where the starving would find true famine.
“If you don’t know what you want, let me suggest a Diablo.”
Hunger suddenly stood taller, riveted with attention.
“The Devil? Yes?”
“Sure bub. One Diablos Rex Doughnut coming up.” The imp turned, attached metal fingers to its hand, and pulled from a case a bloated, dark disc. Across its top were stars of bright red, and in the middle a pentagram in blazing white. The imp put it in a parchment sheath and handed it to Hunger.
Hunger was confused. The object was obviously sacred. The symbols were clear. But what to do next? There were many signs, and they all were obvious in their origin. But he could not connect their messages. Dante, voodoo, pentagrams, weird.
“The magic is in the hole,” the imp said sensing Hunger’s troubled state, but knowing nothing more than to echo the corporate slogan. “That’ll be a buck twenty.”
Hunger slowly extracted the bloated disc from its parchment sheath and examined it carefully. It was soft, something Hunger did not expect, for nothing in Hell was soft save the scattered muscle tissue of a newly flayed arrival. The goo atop the disk was unlike any plasm he had known.
“We got a line behind you, bub. You going to admire it all day, or you going to eat it?”
“Eat?” Hunger roared in authentic disgust. The line of donut buyers took one collective step backwards.
“Yeah. That’s the process. You get a doughnut, you eat a doughnut.”
Hunger was alarmingly enlightened. Now, this was without doubt part of Satan’s plan. How could Hunger really know the work ahead of him until he had actually eaten. To know starvation requires having known being sated. It also required the power to discharge depravation upon the masses. The disc, the amulet, this object from Satan’s own hand must achieve it all. It was, as the imp said, magic, though how magic was contained in the apparent nothingness of the missing center section was beyond Hunger’s comprehension. That invisible magic would give Hunger all he needed to starve the planet and the understanding of why starvation was beautiful.
Hunger opened his mouth, and let the disc slide in. It was his first taste of anything aside from sulfur. Overcome by the “magic in the hole” and of the taste, Hunger collapsed in a convulsing spasm of sensory overload.
Reverend Righthouse was speechless, something Katie Mae nor anyone else had ever before witnessed.
It took nearly a minute of slack-jawed gaping before Righthouse laboriously rose from his chair, blindly navigated the perimeter of his desk, and staggeringly approached the television monitor on the wall. Tick closely followed, delighted and amused.
Katie Mae let lose a loud gasp that distracted Tick, but not Righthouse. It was the first she had seen of the television broadcast from New York. Her timing could not have been less fortunate for the moment she looked up to the screen was the same instant where a hurtling leg, cleanly detached from its perfectly surprised owner, flew directly and bloodily into the television camera and cameraman. The image shifted, shook, and finally came to a rest looking upward to a smoke-filled sky, which itself was soon eclipsed by a large and looming figure with a nasty expression on its mug. It was dressed in black leather armor, wore a helmet of spikes, and slowly straddled the camera and supposedly the cameraman, who could be heard on the open mic whimpering not unlike a scolded puppy or homecoming queen with a pimple on prom night.
Righthouse said nothing as the televised figure slowly reached downward before an audible snap was heard. The dark figure stood upright once again, scanning the horizon. In its right fist could be seen a pair of headphones still wrapped around a human head that also wore a cap with the news network’s logo on it. The head was traveling alone, without its body for company.
“Call the ops team,” Righthouse said without taking his eyes off the screen. “Get them here. Now!”
Katie Mae dashed to Righthouse’s desk, and began furiously calling the church’s operations squad. The heads of video, engineering, and even the web master were summoned. Everyone involved in spreading the word of the Lord through the words of Reverend Righthouse was called into action. The church’s public relations director was notified, their media buyer was placed on a conference line and an open speaker. Righthouse’s personal PR rep was in route. Everyone connected with the electronic outreach of the First United Church of Kansas was in play, and many were flooding directly into Righthouse’s office.
His public relations flack fainted when she saw the television. The others gasped, murmured, but didn’t bother to raise or revive the fallen PR department head. They shifted nervously, forming a semicircle around Righthouse’s rear flank. Before them was carnage, broadcast from multiple camera angles. Nobody turned-up the volume, fearing that the sounds would be as horrific as the images. The running news ticker said the scene was from New York city, near the George Washington Bridge, and that Kiribati had advanced to the World Cup finals.
Reverend Righthouse shivered. Not from fear. Not from the horrors on the screen. Not even from the artic-level air conditioning system that kept his office at a temperature capable of compensating for the heat generated from his copious circumference. He shivered from anticipation. Like a child, who on his birthday sees a Chuck-E-Cheese on the road ahead. Like a sailor on shore leave spotting a non-repulsive hooker. Like a man with a calling who sees that his moment of glory has arrived.
“The End Times,” Righthouse said aloud and authoritatively. His webmaster fainted, landing atop the PR pro.
Reverend Righthouse turned with a rotational velocity that surprised everyone still standing. Almost tiger-like, in a semi-crouch, he looked each of them in the eye.
“This,” he shouted, one hand pointing backwards in the general vicinity of the television. “This is the Lord’s plan. This is the Devil coming to cash in on the sins of man. This …” he almost stuttered in his excitement. “This is why we are here! We have very little time before the end, and we have to save as many souls as we can before this monster …”
He faded for a moment, and looked back at the television. Righthouse realized there was only one Horseman, three shy of what an apostle had prophesized. Righthouse had a fleeting moment of doubt. “Might this not be one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Might it be a lone lunatic with an unusual taste in costumes?”
But Righthouse decided it did not matter. This was big, and if it wasn’t the beginning of the end of time, then it was still a crisis on which he could capitalize.
“This is one of the Horsemen. The seals are being broken. The prophecy is coming to pass. We are a witness to the miracle of John the Revelator and the coming of our Lord!”
His operations staff said nothing, glancing back and forth to one another, to Reverend Righthouse, to the television screen and then rapidly away from the television given that even Righthouse was a more appealing sight. It was collectively hard to swallow. Call any person to report that grandma has died, and they deal with it reasonably well. Tell them that everyone is about to die, and it is a bit harder to take as gospel.
“Everyone call home. Tell your family to say their prayers and to stay put. Tell them you will not be seeing them again because as of this minute, we are twenty-four-by-seven broadcasting. I want video feeds from the pulpit to our web site, to UStream, and rent a pipe to CNN, Fox, even those bastards at MS-NBC.”
“But, that will cost a fortune,” Righthouse’s chief broadcast engineer said.
“Son, pretty soon there will be nobody to collect the bill. Now go! I want to be streaming within 20 minutes. Maggie, get on the blower to every international news channel. This is my moment!”
With that, everyone except Katie Mae left the room, the engineers dragging unconscious coworkers with them.
Katie Mae was visibly terrified, but also visibly electrified. Her admiration for Reverend Righthouse, previously in excess, now seeped from every pore. She had felt the Holy Spirit on several occasions – at her baptism, at her first communion, during a revival meeting. She hid the shame of thinking the feeling was quite like the one and only time she let a boy grope her nether region, but the similarities were astonishingly vivid to her. She was consumed by a feeling that welled-up from within, caped in excitement, glory, perfect trust and titillations that she could not nail down.
“What can I do, Reverend?” she asked with near giddiness. “What should I be doing?”
“Pray dear,” Righthouse replied in his comforting baritone voice while reaching out to hold her hand. “Pray for your sins and for the sins of man.”
That made perfect sense to Katie Mae, who believed as Righthouse did that the book of Saint John the Evangelist was coming to life, and thus to death. Prayer was the answer. There was little time, and though she lacked any meaningful sin in her spinster life, she wanted to erase any that might be lingering undetected. Any for which she had forgotten to seek forgiveness.
She fell to her knees before the Right Reverend Righthouse, ready for prayer.
War flinched as a bullet zinged past his nose, intersecting perfectly with his red horse’s skull, squarely between its eyes, killing it instantly.
More gunfire echoed through the less-then-scenic neighborhood. Another round sailed by, shouts emitted from alleyways, with the entire area enduring a low-level general panic. The thought came to his mind that combat was erupting the very moment he arrived. War smiled.
That was until he saw his horse, dead atop a cobblestone and spottily asphalted road. He stared down at the stallion. War was untroubled by being in the crossfire of an ongoing assault, but stopped and ever so briefly had a moment of wistful reflection for his horse. War had waited for millennia to ride into battle, flaming sword at the ready, to lead men into open and never ending fatal conflict. This dream of his had been blunted in recent decades. War, witnessing the technological escalations of human combat, wondered how little of a change his contribution would make to mankind’s condition. Those long-term, depressing notions were pushed aside by more immediate ones. The majesty of his mount, the thunder of its hooves and the fright it would give mortals was a plan now canceled, snuffed out the instant he appeared on Earth.
At some point in the non-emotional spiral that War substituted for grief, he noticed that the gunfire had stopped. Nobody was yelling. The streets had fallen silent, as if fear, or perhaps resignation had emerged victorious. He looked up one street, down another, and saw nothing over which starting a mêlée seemed logical. The best of the buildings on either side of any street were ramshackle, and others bordered on rubble. Doors, where there were any, were made of barricaded metals, painted in optimistically bright colors, though all showed signs of rust, chipping and marks of attempted forced entry. A dog, riddled with fleas and patchy of fur, ribs clearly visible, backed deeper into crevasse between two former walls as War strolled past.
“I think I am too late, War said aloud to nobody. “A mighty battle has already been waged here.”
Perhaps, War thought, Hell’s reconnaissance was wrong. San Diego, he had been told, was a modern city. It was a place where a great Navy sent its battleships. Where wealth and invention collided. Where you could find great tapas. This, whatever he wandered through the streets of, was not what Etch nor his assistants said it would be. This was filth and depravation. It was despair and poverty. It was bullet ridden and looked perhaps as if it had been bombed before being overrun by refugees.
After a moment’s reflection, War decided that his location was of little concern. The mission was all important. He could launch warfare wherever he roamed, and Satan commanded him to roam toward Lebanon. But upon even further reflection, this presented War with one unpleasant reality and one significant logistical problem. He would have to walk to Lebanon. He had to meet-up with the other Horsemen, sans his horse. Given the predicament, the others would surely arrive long before War did. But what options did he have? Perhaps he could steal another horse, but given his desperate and destitute surroundings, he suspected a horse of suitable size and health would not be found, having been roasted and ingested instead.
The other difficulty he pondered while meandering randomly through the streets, attempting to set his bearings and map his march to the North and the East, was that he had no idea in which direction Lebanon lay. It was still in the small hours, and night’s darkness prevailed. A persistent fog and a lack of a moon made navigation impossible. The streets were impossibly small, none had signs, and even the graffiti was unhelpful.
“Damn. I’ll have to ask for help,” War said, feeling helpless while passing and completely missing two conjoined street signs. One said “U.S.A.”. The other, the one pointing in the direction in which War walked, read “Tijuana”.
Block after block, War saw nobody aside from those who peaked out from behind curtains or who ran from him on sight. He nearly fell after slipping on slime concealed in the middle of a foul-smelling rivulet that flowed down the center of the street. He turned into various dead-end alleys, climbed over the remains of former buildings, mussitations emitting from his thin lips, before War finally saw something of promise.
Down one alley War spied an opening surrounded by buildings suitable for storage, workshops and the rapid dismantling of automobiles. Music from a ravaged boombox ricocheted from the gap, and a brighter light of artificial nature faintly illuminated the tattered walls. There were voices too. Voices of young men – loud, rowdy, testosterone soaked and perhaps intoxicated. “Yes, this is promising,” thought War. “Young men are always ripe for battle. They can easily be misled into fighting. I may be late arriving in Lebanon, but I can arrive with a battle-hardened army of my own and a trail of dead behind us.”
War stood taller, pushed his chest out, assumed the image of warrior, master, and leader and strolled confidently down the alley and into the middle of a dozen men.
The first man he met scared War.
The minor mob fell silent, leaving only the fifth-hand boombox to set the score, providing a disturbing, electrified Mariachi melody riding atop a gangster rap beat. War was heartened but dismayed that the men were already in uniform, and the worst uniforms he had ever seen. They wore thin white shirts without sleeves and low riding denim pants. War assumed that their slightly differing caps denoted their military specialties, though the insignia on each was obscure. That each displayed their battalion number – 18 – was promising, but the fact that there was no single representation of the badge showed sloppiness in their ranks. War did not know exactly what to make of this unit’s observable pride in displaying the upper most region of their underpants.
From the ring of men approached one. Head cocked, he observed War with a calm suspicion. War recognized the expression, and wore it himself whenever he needed time to evaluate a potential enemy and intimidate them in the same instant. It was the face on someone who had waged war, who had killed, and who had no problem doing so again … and again … and again. This did not scare War.
What did was a face covered with tattoos.
Bald, the man’s tattoos covered all of his cranium, flowing over the top and sides, and disappearing down into his uniform’s shirt. “TC” was darkly blazoned on his forehead in Old English script, and “diesiocho” wrapped around his jaw. A rendering of a tombstone was on one cheek, while “muerte” was roughly lettered on his jutting lower lip.
He approached War with a limp-embellished swagger, arms folded across his chest, head nodding almost imperceptibly.
“¿Te crees muy muy?” the tattooed soldier said, keeping a safe-to-strike distance between them.
War was caught unprepared. The first battles of the End Times were to be fought in America, and so he equipped himself with a passing familiarity of English, though he admitted to himself that the American dialects of the language might stump him. But This man, this language? “Still in uniform but not speaking in the local tongue,” War pondered. “Could they be mercenaries? This creates problems. Mercs are never well behaved. So difficult to lead men who are in it for the money and not the gore or the glory.”
“I need soldiers,” War started, then stopped as the circle of men chuckled and grew slightly tighter.
The only one not laughing, besides War, was the heavily tattooed mercenary. He studied War, more sternly than before, more calculatingly. He looked up and down War’s impressive frame, searching for marks, signs, identification emblems.
“We’re soldiers, gringa,” he added with the feminine as an opening intimidation. “What you need with soldiers?”
War, suddenly optimistic, leaned back a bit, speaking and turning his head to address everyone.
“The End! I need soldiers for The End, to wage war against all …”
“¿Que es el fin?” asked a decidedly bemused and anxious fellow. Unlike the mercenaries’ spokesman, this fellow’s tattoos were not as stylish, not as perfect. They had a bit of improvisation and revision to them, cartoonishly remapping and redrawing the art around a long and nasty-looking scar, the result of a botched Colombian necktie. This gave the lower ranked soldier the unsettling appearance of having two mouths, both grinning evilly and unevenly.
“No tiene dos dedos de frente,” opined a third.
“So, gringa,” the facial tattoo started. “You Zeta? Beltran? Juarez?”
“What?” mumbled War with genuine dismay.
“We’re 18th, hombre. We don’t work for anyone else. You come here? Here to our hood? Try to recruit us for your cartel de culo …” The squads apparent commander became more animated, more agitated, and stepped closer to War. Nobody had ever challenged War, and it unnerved him.
“You come to take us? Our pride? Our familia?”
“Take his head.”
“I only need you for …”
Those were the last words of War. He fell forward, having received the spiked end of a fast traveling crowbar to the back of his neck. He felt one, then three, then an indiscernible number of steel blades enter, then exit, then reenter his body. A series of gunshots echoed in the confined space, amid the angry and celebratory shouting. Wild punches landed as War slumped to his side, followed by non-ending stream of heavy boot kicks from all directions.
Despite the violence, no blood flowed for War was without the stuff. This only infuriated the soldiers, who renewed their assault with a ferocity that made War frightened, then proud, then lightheaded, then dead.
“If God had not meant humans to eat pigs, he would not have made them so damn tasty,” Michael said before his tongue resumed its probing in an ongoing attempt to dislodge a strand of barbequed rib meat from between two teeth. “Our Jewish and Muslim friends come from common stock, and maintain a mutual lack of culinary sophistication.”
Michael was enjoying the Interstate views of Denver, Colorado from an unaccustomed position in the passenger seat. Faith had offered to drive. Michael, having yet to find any flaw in Faith’s sensibilities, correctly assumed she was competent behind the wheel and did not bother to ask if she had a valid license. He knew, from personal experience, that the need to present a driver’s license was largely based on how badly one drove.
“Maybe,” she replied with cheerfulness. “But if you forgo a moment of epicurean pleasure, you give that pig a lifetime of joy.”
“How do you know pigs are happy,” Michael parried.
“Haven’t heard one complain yet.”
Michael smiled at the analysis, and at the thought of pigs raising a stink other than the ones they naturally did.
“But back to the hypothesis. Can humans ever really know the mind of God? Every bible thumper claims that they do, but they all have as little proof as you or me. They have their sacred texts, but no proof that their prophets had any true divine insight. So, everyone is guessing, I guess.”
“What else have we got other than a hunch? That pretty much explains most decision making.”
“Leave Congress out of this.”
“No, really. We all make decisions based on incomplete information. I got in your car knowing nothing about you, but I had a hunch that you were safe and maybe even tolerable company.”
“I assume at least half of that has proven to be correct.”
Faith tried to suppress a smile, and failed. “Actually, you get a solid C+.”
“Well, best grade I’ve ever gotten from a nearly complete stranger. Maybe I’ll earn some extra credit,” he said with a faux sinister and slightly unsavory tone, planting a sexually suggestive seed while accepting it had low odds of germinating.
They slipped past the freight and warehouse district of Aurora, Colorado. Michael gathered his thoughts as he watched rows of white, windowless buildings fly by. Each was uniform in scale, shape and lack of external esthetics. Most were empty containers awaiting the delivery of merchandise with fleeting value to someone, somewhere. “Televisions, bicycles, end tables,” Michael thought to himself. “Nice for the moment, but won’t last longer than a generation at best. Yet religion endures and is made of much less.”
On the other side of the highway were ticky-tack subdivisions of identical houses on identical streets, mirroring the opposing identical warehouses. The owners of the uninspired homesteads had made lackluster attempts at individualizing their holdings. An awning here, a deck there. Yet the homes were the same monotonous, stale, non-offensive colors. They had the same number and style of window sashes. The same square footage. The same uniform banality.
Nearly identical warehouses to the right. Nearly identical homes to the left. Each designed to hold things, and yet hold nothing of permanence. Each was, in Michael’s mind, definitively Zen in its determination to achieve nothing.
“Isn’t that the nature of life though,” Faith said, reinserting their stream of conversation back into Michael’s consciousness. “We work with what we have, even when we have nothing.”
“Perhaps God is nothing.”
Faith frowned. “You don’t believe in God anymore?”
“Not sure I believed in God in the first place. But one can be spiritual without proof. One can even be spiritual without a God. Perhaps the proof that God exists is in his nothingness.”
“Maybe the better way of looking at it is that religion is nothing,” Faith replied as the last rows of mind numbing housing and warehouses faded in the rearview mirror.
“Kinda like those warehouses back there.” Faith didn’t reply, confused by the analogy.
“Churches are built around ignorance of the nature of God, because they cannot really know what God thinks, since they cannot even prove that God exists.”
“So, churches are warehouses of nothingness?”
“No. They are places where men put their Gods, then decorate the outside to make their church look special. But inside, it is still the same.”
“OK, buckaroo. You lost me now.”
“An empty warehouse is the same inside. It is filled with exactly the same stuff as the next warehouse. An on, and on, and on. What is inside is so similar that nobody is happy with that. When you get rid of the silly stuff, the dietary laws, the rules and regulations, all the crap people add to their basic beliefs, everyone’s God is pretty much the same.”
The question gelled in Michael’s mind as the glowing white radar domes of Buckley Air Force Base appeared on the horizon.
“One God, and because of religion, he has a multiple personality disorder.”
“I suppose I must,” Zoroaster said, his voice heavy with reluctance.
Lao said nothing. The partially merged, endlessly spinning, and constantly bickering Moses/Mohamed and Jesus/Buddha figures had much to say on the subject, but only to their conjoined deity. They were unaware of everything else.
“Is there a purpose?” Zoroaster asked.
“Perhaps not,” Lao loquaciously replied. “Yet there is a reason.”
“What would that be?” Zoroaster said, grin half-cocked, dubious that Lao had any real insight. He was very surprised when Lao did.
“You started this mess. Before you, humans had superstitions so broad that we were what we were. Unaffected. Humans had no effect on us, and it was good. Then you gave us a body. A name. And beliefs. That was too much temptation for humans, and soon they all needed their personal God.”
Zoroaster sheepishly dragged a toe across his part of the cosmos.
After giving Zoroaster enough time to internalize a few revelations, Lao asked “What do you see before you?”
Zoroaster looked up in time to see Mohamed swing a wild, looping right cross directly into Moses’s nose. The pair, now bound more tightly than before, spilled to the side, but not before Moses jabbed a meaty thumb into Mohamed’s eye.
To the other side, he witnessed Jesus trying to hug Buddha, while Buddha openly sobbed and weakly lifted a hand to pushing away Jesus’s cheek. Jesus smiled with absent-minded tenderness, seeking to love Buddha even while Buddha limply attempted to crawl away. Yet Buddha was changing, his walls of resentment, his self-loathing, his contempt for everyone else in their dimension faded into reluctant acceptance.
“I see four imbeciles in two bodies.”
“I have a hunch,” Zoroaster said, “That there is some sublime essences in the two … whatever the hell they are. These two mutants mean something.”
Lao remained silent, knowing that true enlightenment is acquired, not taught.
Seeming centuries, but actually just mere seconds passed before a small, fractured, almost imperceptible smile germinated on Zoroaster’s mug. He glanced back and forth between the battling Moses/Mohamed and the almost obscenely affectionate Jesus/Buddha. With each kick to the groin and every blubbery embrace, an ember of enlightenment shined more brightly in Zoroaster’s mind.
Lao said nothing.
“Hate and love.”
Lao continued to say nothing.
“Conflict and cooperation.”
Lao had both the right and the ability to remain silent.
“And yet, something is missing.”
Lao began to wonder if Zoroaster’s necessary realization would take all year, or perhaps just all day. Despite having ninety nine percent of a very obvious correlation waltzing about in front of him, Zoroaster could not make the connection.
“Are they connected?” Lao finally asked, realizing that the prophet needed a hint as well as a clue.
“Well, no. Obviously not.”
“Should they be.”
It took a second. A very long second. A second that might better be measured in minutes. Zoroaster’s jaw slowly fell, exposing an open orifice Lao tried to ignore. Zoroaster’s breathing slowed, deepened and collected enough air to finally reply.
“Two halves of the same thing.”
Lao said nothing.
“The Yin and the Yang.”
Lao continued to say nothing.
“But they are not one. They are two.
Lao had, out of necessity and practice, become an expert at concealing his impatience. Zoroaster was like a child standing poolside, toes dangling over the edge, and wanting desperately for someone to push him into the water … and then drown him.
It then slowly dawned on him that he must. He had not known why, and more importantly how. But time, thought and Lao’s silent nudging had brought bodhi to Zoroaster, which he found to be both pleasant and painful.
Zoroaster did not smile, nor frown. He had a purpose, and went to it knowing it would be righteous and likely very painful. Zoroaster walked to a point midway between the brawling Moses/Mohamed and the mushy, comingled Jesus/Buddha. Zoroaster reached his arms out in the direction of the two compound prophesiers, arching his hands so his palms faced each battling or bleating mass.
Zoroaster’s head rolled back as his fingertips began to sparkle.
Death was depressed.
He should have been happy, or at least as happy as Death could be. The streets of Fort Lee were various shades of red from the copious blood let from Death’s sword. Much of Ridgefield lay in waste, and even North Bergen was worse for the wear.
Yet Death became depressed once he entered Jersey City, and largely for the reasons that everyone else did. From the looks on the faces of the people living there, they too were depressed, though depression among the masses was augmented with erratic fits of rage, anger and general annoyance. Jersey City was like Hell, but without the ambience. Everything was in decay. Nothing and nobody looked renewed or renewable. All souls were lost.
Death was lost too. He knew the general direction to take in order to reach Lebanon, Kansas, but he now doubted he would make it. The slog from Fort Lee to Jersey City was daunting and got progressively worse with each mile. The closer he got to Jersey City, the less people ran in fear and the more began to treat Death with disrespect. They hurled bottles and epithets at him. Car horns blared in anger, though the drivers uniformly saluted Death, middle finger raised high.
Death, for a moment, wished he were back in Hell. Hell was, at very least, predictable. New Jersey was not.
“Get your fuckin’ horse off the fuckin’ street, buttagots!” The driver pressed and held his car’s horn. The same had happened a few miles back in Hoboken. There, Death had spurred his horse, making it viciously kick a rusted Datsun into a backwards summersault. But Death didn’t have it in him to repeat the stunt, and his pale horse was running low on moxie as well.
The horn stopped and the driver exited his cream and Rust-Oleum colored Buick, one manufactured in a previous century. He motioned to someone standing under the awning of a local butcher shop as he marched toward Death.
“Hey, Nico!” At the driver’s calling, a forty-something man, wearing a blood-stained apron and a perpetual scowl, came from under the butcher shop awning and navigated a path to intersect the driver at Death’s side.
“Hey, you. Cowboy. Yaw wanna get your pony off the friggin’ road, eh?”
Death said nothing. Death was, in effect, paralyzed. His conversational skills and motivation were minimal on his best days. Now he encountered a language he did not understand, accents thicker than the gore he had splattered in Weehawken, and humans who actually insisted on talking to him instead of fleeing in fear.
Death was intimidated.
“You know,” Nico began. “We could take that horse off your hands for you. I mean, if it’s too much trouble to get it back to the ranch, or wherever. I could, um, make good use of it, if ya know what I mean.”
Death growled and started to draw his sword.
“Che cozz’? Don’t fuck with us stronzo,” the driver said, his chin automatically, responsively dropping into a fighter’s position, looking upwards at Death. “I guaren-fuckin-tee you they’ll be a dozen bullets headin’ your way if you pull that thing on me.”
Death hesitated. This gave him a moment to gather his thoughts and Nico an instant to mentally estimate how much Death’s mount would fetch in the black market horse meat trade. Death, not wanting to be in Jersey City any longer, and remembering why he came to Earth in the first place, decided that maybe the angry and threatening driver knew how to help.
“Lebanon.” Death said casting his eyes across the horizon.
“Lebanon?” the driver asked with angry amusement. “Hey, buddy. You want to go to the Middle Fuckin’ East, that’s your business.”
“Maybe he means that restaurant,” Nico unhelpfully added. “That joint on the west side.”
“If you need to get to Lebanon, just turn your horse around,” the driver commanded, “And go to the New York Airport …”
Death shivered. “I don’t like New York.”
“Hey, nobody likes New York. But that’s how you get your ass over to the Holy Land.”
It took a moment before Death remembered that there was another Lebanon. “No! Lebanon … kan-sas,” he mispronounced in such a way that the driver and Nico clearly understood him.
“That’s a loooong way away bub.”
“I am not Belzabub!” he protested, and with as much majesty and terror as he could muster after his ride and battles in Eastern New Jersey, he added “I am Death!”
“Bub, death, Mother Mary. I don’t give a shit. But on that pony, I’m going to guess you is a good thirty, maybe forty days from Kansas. This horse,” he added with a note of feigned sadness. “He not lookin’ so good, ya know. Might not even make it to Trenton.”
The driver stopped talking, – which for him was a monumental feat – when Nico nudged him in the ribs and whispered in his ear. The driver smiled and nodded, then turned back to Death.
“Gotta deal for you bub.”
“I’m not Belzabub!”
“Like I care. Listen. Nico here wants your horse. He, errr, he has a nice home for it. Out around Morristown. You know. Out west. So, here’s the deal. Nico gets your horse, and I take you over to the Greyhound station in Newark, and get you a bus ticket to Kansas.”
The driver was momentarily stumped. “Who doesn’t know a bus, eh?” was what he thought to himself. “Then again, he’s riding a friggin’ horse down the middle of Baldwin, carrying a sword and all. Maybe he’s stuppiad, eh?”
“Yeah,” the driver finally spoke aloud after sufficiently sorting his thoughts. “Ya know, the bus. Big, fast machine. Probably get ya to Kansas in a couple of days.”
“Two days!” Death said with amazement and excitement. Even at full gallop, his stallion could not travel such distances so quickly.
“It’s a good deal, coglione. Nico gets your horse and you get to Kansas, bada bing, eh? No time in the saddle. No saddle sores. You might even get some sleep.”
Death did not spend much time thinking through the options. Kansas was just the first stop on his long path to global carnage. A horse would take too long, and this bus thing sounded like a much better option. If busses worked, as the angry human said, he might use this greyhound to travel the globe and incite warfare throughout the planet. Satan would be pleased at such progress, and Death would be blissfully far away from Jersey City.
Death dismounted, and with a pause for final reflection, handed the reins to Nico.
“You gotta good deal, mac,” Nico said without a smile before turning toward and leading Death’s horse into the alley beside the butcher shop. Over his shoulder he added “Yeah. We’re gonna take good care of him. Got a nice home for him, ya know. Out west like Angelo said.”
With the street unblocked, stalled traffic speaking through their horns, Angelo surveyed the situation. Death was tall. Very tall. Angelo looked at Death, then at his Buick. “Too big to fit inside the sedan,” Angelo concluded, but Angelo was a resourceful Jersey City native.
“Come with me pal. I’ll take you to the station.”
“Greyhound!” Death insisted.
“Yeah, sure. The Greyhound station. I think I know how to pull this off.”
When they reached the Buick, Angelo inserted the key into the vintage trunk lock, and opened the lid.
“Have a seat, Mac.”
Death looked at the open trunk half filled with flotsam, ranging from a box of tire sealant bottles, mostly used, to jumper cables missing their clamps, and what appeared to be publications with poorly clothed females.
“Turn around, plant your butt in the back, and I’ll get you to the Newark bus station.” Angelo turned, only after Death was uncomfortably seated backwards in the Buick’s trunk, and climbed behind the wheel. It took the customary three tries and the teeth-shattering grind of the starter motor’s sprocket before the Buick’s poorly timed engine found enough spark to roar to life. Angelo dropped the shifter down into drive and rolled the Buick down rough side streets, Death’s spurs dragging and sparking on the asphalt.