A Novel By Brandon Cole Phillips brandon@7bowls.com Copyright 2010 – Some rights reserved.

Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoncommercialNo Derivative Works 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

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Chapter One

No injuries reported with the toppled cement truck on the Highway 25 off-ramp on to Highway 85, though it is slowing down the downtown commute into Denver for those headed into the Saturday morning rush. Further north, the westbound traffic on

Interstate 70 out of downtown is moving at a snail’s pace due to a water main break, with eastbound traffic into downtown flowing normally. President Singh was inaugurated this past Monday for her second term, and yesterday signed her first new bill into law since taking the oath. While regarded with controversy by

fringe elements on both the right and the left, the bill was powered through both houses with relative ease. Named for

prominent religious acceptance activist Sharon Von Key and famed national security specialist Doctor Warwick Forest, the KeyForest Religious Openness Act provides additional protections for religious speech, though requiring disclosure of religious beliefs for national security benefit. Under the new law, schools will be required to provide equal amenities for all children of all religions, all passengers of commercial air flights and trains will be required to give a brief summary of their religious leanings if requested by the

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TSA, and there are extensive limits and guidelines on the placement of iconography by religious organizations. President

Singh described the act as a “step in the right direction toward curbing terroristic activities” while providing “proper elements needed to maintain tolerance between religious groups”. Reverend Jimmy Lee Sanchez of Hooghan Evangelical Fellowship Church, a member of the organization Human Sanctity International, called the act a “shameful rejection of the separation of church and state”, and called for its the immediate reversal. Stay tuned for a weather update following the break, and Stone Silvers coming up at the top of the hour. and you’re listening to KHOO AM 1200! # The alarm clock wailed a beckon from across the shade-drawn room. Stone snorted a mucosal groan from deep within his sleepWith a belabored squint, the aged radio This is Allen Teeter,

softened morning lungs.

personality could only just make out the flickering luminescent numerals that scattered red pulses throughout the bedroom like a “cold beer” sign in an abandoned pub. It was already five past

seven – and he had yet to indulge in his first cigarette of the day.

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“You smell like hell, Rufus,” Stone moaned beneath the blankets. A black Yorkshire with a prominent underbite pulled himself out from beneath the billowing argyle comforter by his front legs, plopping lazily onto the boot-scuffed floor. The

toilet seemed days away as Stone trekked vigilantly toward the bathroom. The man parsed his gaze during urination – the

bathtub had a ring as dark as coffee, the tissue box was empty, and the medicine cabinet mirror had been speckled into uselessness with toothpaste splatters. What the crap is this?

Stone thought as he smeared a clear streak on the glass with his robe-sleeve, Must have busted a vessel in my damned eye. The

white of the man’s left eye had turned plum beneath its surface. Rufus took off into the backyard as quickly as Stone could slide open the glass doors. sat just inside the door. A pair of tattered house-slippers

Stone barely had the patience to

cover his feet as his nicotine itch crept under his fingernails, up his arms, into his chest and behind his clambering lungs. pile of empty cigarette boxes littered the picnic table – a towering monument to broken resolutions and blatant procrastination. Stone grinned in unrepentant bliss as he Succulent A

palmed a fresh pack of Morley 150s in his robe.

truffles from deep in the overgrowth of the Italian outskirts – each inhaled treat tingled with a glorious sensation. Settled

into his routine morning indulgences, Stone looked out over the

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crest of his backyard – blowing a tarry, carcinogenic haze from his nostrils. The city was bustling below. Anything a

Hooghan, Colorado was broad and self-sustaining.

person would want or need could be found somewhere in or around the city limits. adults. There were schools both for children and

Churches, stores, farms, and high-rise buildings Entertainment venues such as sports

accented the skyline.

arenas, parks, and a number of established restaurants and bars were available for all to enjoy. thousand residents. The town sat nestled between two mountains and at the axis of two major highways. Wealth was spread west-to-east, with the Farms, There were nearly fifty

business district blending into the residential area.

elementary and high school schools, and the trailer park sat on the outskirts of the east side of town. It was a pleasant place

to live, with every necessity available in moments. Stone checked his watch – almost twenty after seven. casually flicked the cigarette butt into the yard. He

Rufus popped

up from a squat in the bushes and kicked some grass over his business. With a couple clicks of his tongue, Stone called the

dog back inside and back to the bedroom. Sifting through the closet, Stone decided to make it a casual Saturday. He chose a grey pullover hooded sweatshirt, and a

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ratty pair of blue jeans.

He hated to wear a dress shirt and

slacks to work – with a three hour morning show to do six days a week, his comfort was jeopardized frequently enough. Dressing

down on a Saturday morning would likely be overlooked by the station manager. Stone flipped open his cell phone. It was half-past, and he He tossed Rufus It felt like

had to be at the station before eight o’clock.

into the basement and took off toward the garage. a motorcycle day.

On went the helmet, and with a forceful growl It was a smaller crotch-rocket style Twin exhaust pipes spewed grey

the bike roared to life.

bike – black with yellow trim.

smoke as he accelerated down the hill to the main drag. Stone flipped open his cell phone and hit the first speed-dial number. His mother’s voice boomed in his helmet speaker after a

single ring. “Hey Mama, how ya doing?” “Doing well,” she replied, “You headed in to the station?” “Yep, just wanted to check up on you. You doing some

gardening today?” Stone asked with a smile. “Yeah, got some apple trees to plant in the front yard. You

call me tomorrow though – you know you can’t use a cell phone on the road, Stoney.”

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He laughed quietly, “Alright mom, you be careful today. fun!” “Bye Stone. Love you.”

Have

“Love you too, Mama,” he replied, flipping the phone closed. Fifteen minutes later he arrived at KHOO. The bike was parked

right outside the entrance, casually leaned against an empty planter. Stone tossed the keys to the receptionist – a young She grinned and hung the

girl in her first college internship. key ring on a hook underneath the desk.

“What have you got for me today, Boomer?” Stone asked his producer as he sat down at the news desk. Allen Teeter was

still inside the sound booth, rambling on about local taxation rates. “Well,” began Boomer, flipping through dog-eared notes, “Looks like the Hooghan Fire Department finally finished their transition to battery-powered electric vehicles. Uhm… Hard

drug use is on the rise again in downtown Hooghan, as well as Denver.” “Bleh, same old crap.” “It’s kind of a slow news month, Stone. We were lucky to have

the inauguration this week – at least that pulled in a couple of new advertisers. Hey, there’s always that new Key-Forest Act…”

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“Teeter stomped that into the ground already.

I don’t really

care to beat the religion drum anyways,” Stone groaned as he pushed the computer mouse to disable the screensaver. He

quickly pulled down a few news wire stories and skimmed each quickly. “Anything?” Boomer asked, hopeful. “Same old crap.” “Hey buddy!” Allen yelled with a dumb grin. He slid through

the sound booth door, his large stomach dragging against the doorframe. He wore a red and blue Hawaiian shirt and had poorly He

bleached blond hair that stood up in a poof on his head. would not look out of place at Jimmy Buffet concert. “What’s up, Teeter?” “Ah, just glad to be on my way to my weekend, bro! got planned?” “Gonna watch a bit of football, maybe rent a movie.”

Whatcha

“You should come out with me, I’m going lunker fishing up at the lake. fish!” “I’m good, thanks for the invite, though. resting this weekend,” Stone said casually. Feel like just He tried his best Bigass poles, bigass hooks, bigass beers, bigass

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to hide his disdain for Allen, but the man was just so goofily obnoxious. He smelled like body spray and looked like a senior He was lame

that had escaped from the retirement village. company. “How ’bout next weekend?”

Stone sent the wire stories to the printer and sauntered across the room to retrieve the copies. to air. “Sorry man, two minutes

Give me a call later or something.” That’s what I’m talking about!” Allen

“Alright, buddy!

enthused, “I’ll shoot you a holler later!” Stone took a seat in the recording booth. It was cramped and

old, with little room for the chair, soundboard, phone, and computer. The walls were covered in faded wood panels, with

yellow sound absorbing foam pads running half the height of the walls every few feet. The foam had peeled back near the ceiling The sound system was several

and was in significant disrepair.

decades old, purchased second-hand by the station in the late twentieth century. The computer was a newer single-body design,

though it ran an archaic version of the production software. “Thank you for joining me this morning! This is Stone Traffic’s still

Silvers, and you’re listening to KHOO AM 1200.

slow on the highway twenty-five interchange onto eighty-five, but all is looking clear as the morning commute winds down. In

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local news, the Hooghan Fire Department has completed the transition to all electric vehicles, signaling the beginning of the end for gas powered automotive travel. President Singh is

still strongly urging U.S. automakers to stay on target for a complete phase-out of fossil fuel cars by 2033. Denver versus Torres, the verdict is in! In the trial of

This week Marshall

Torres was convicted of embezzling several thousand dollars of bail money from the Denver Police Department, and ordered off the force. Torres was not immediately taken into custody, but No

will remain out on parole until he can appeal in March. punishment has yet been set. Sparks…” #

Now on to weather with Sydney

“Gorgeous day out here, boys!” yelled Sunshine from the deck of his parents’ beautiful country home just outside of eastern Hooghan – his bright blonde hair flowing in the light breeze. He and his friends had graduated high school in May – and while some of them began attending the local community college, most had opted to get day jobs at the local industrial park. weekends they made fighting videos for their website. “Almost finished here, give me a few more minutes,” said Jován, “I’m finishing up the mask.” On the

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Jován was one of the few black kids on the east side of town. He was a good-looking boy – tall, slender, and clean-cut. His

family moved near the high school when his mother took a job there in reception. Most of the blacks in Hooghan lived

downtown or toward the north side of the residential area near the hospital. Culturally, Jován was not unlike his white

friends, though his family attended an all-black church on the other side of the city. Jován hated going to church, but he

hated to disappoint his parents even more. “Elliot! Did you take my sword again?” asked Charlie, hunting

through a cardboard box of props. “My sword is ten times more expensive and a hundred times more awesome than yours,” Elliot joked, a coy smirk on his face, “What would I want with your piece of crap?” “Just asking… I might have left it in my car…” He was a member of

Elliot was the black sheep in the circle.

a local church youth group – volunteering every Wednesday night to take attendance at their services, perform in the worship band, and stay afterward to clean up. With glasses, messy red

hair, an ample amount of freckles, and a penchant for studying and hard work, he was somewhat of a nerd. bother him, though. He did not let that

He tried his hardest to be an example for

his friends – who had fallen into some unsavory habits after

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graduating from high school.

If he could not convert them, he They would

would at least show them the strength of his faith. never know how often they were each in his prayers.

Charlie fumbled with a faulty lighter as he lit up a cigarette. With the little wind that day, the smoke rose slowly

from his nostrils and hung around his head of precisely groomed black hair. His bushy eyebrows crinkled as he contorted his His hands ached from the

face to try to blow a smoke ring. workweek.

He packaged goods for a local cannery, handling The actual

several thousand cans of vegetables each day.

canning and labeling was automated, but several dozen workers were needed to load the cans into boxes and pack the shipping trucks. Charlie flexed his knuckles back and forth, cracking He spied Sunshine hooking up the video

the digits individually. equipment on the porch.

“What’s up man?” Charlie asked with the cigarette pursed between his lips, “Something’s wrong with you today.” “Erica’s being retarded.” “What’s she up to now?” “I don’t know,” Sunshine sighed, “It’s like she doesn’t want to see me at all for some reason. answer my calls or emails.” And I don’t even know. Won’t

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“Maybe she needs some space.

Maybe she’s stressed out over

college,” Charlie offered, taking a final drag off the cigarette. He tossed the butt into one of the potted plants.

“I don’t know…” Sunshine paused, “She’s been spending a lot of time with this teacher at the elementary school. she’s doing some substitute work there. You know,

I… I don’t know, man…”

“So kick the dude’s ass,” Charlie quipped, as he threw an arm around one of the porch poles. “It’s not a dude. “What? Erica? It’s a she.” She’s straighter than I am,”

Yeah right!

Charlie laughed. “You’re probably right,” Sunshine sighed, “But after three years, I can’t figure out what her problem is.” “Why don’t you wieners shut up and come make Internet video history with us?” interrupted Jován, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. “Don’t you know that shit’ll kill ya?” Charlie laughed, swatting at the smoldering butt. “Hey poser, cut it out!” said Jován, ducking and swinging for Charlie’s midsection.

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Elliot stood and pulled his samurai mask over his face, “Charlie? You find your sword?”

“Sure did, was at the bottom of the box.” “Well then, let’s make a movie!” Jován beamed. # Two miles northeast of Sunshine’s house sat Newpine Baptist Church, nestled deep in the woods and off the beaten path. was a small facility – built right next door to Pastor John Jacobs’s house. The church itself was a three-room building – a Altogether it was less than two It

sanctuary, lobby, and restroom. thousand square feet. and deep red carpet.

It was old and plain, with white drywall The pews were lacquered oak, with hymnals Amenities were modest.

peeking out from the backs.

The house was even smaller, though it had both an attic and a basement. There were campgrounds down the trail from the A tiny

premises with grills, trashcans, and picnic tables.

storm shelter sat at the edge of the camp, in the odd event of a thunderstorm during prayer retreats at the grounds. church property was contained and quiet. Allison Jacobs sat alone in her room. the empty attic space. It was forged out of The entire

She had a laptop, stereo system, bed, It was not much for a

and vanity with drawers for clothing.

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girl of her age, but being only eighteen she could not afford much more. She finished braiding her dark auburn hair and bound After closing the

the end of the ponytail with a green band.

lid of her laptop, she peeked out the window at her father, who was down on the lawn in front of the church building. Pastor Jacobs wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. His

wrinkled face and grayed hair sparkled with moisture in the warm light of the sun. He had spent the afternoon splitting wood and It

weaving it carefully into a large rectangular structure.

spanned nearly twenty feet in length, five feet wide, and five feet tall. It was an impressive feat for a man of his age and

stature, but he was determined to finish before the congregation arrived for the special service. He had finally finished the

construction and moved to collect the gas cans needed to set it alight. Allison watched her father carefully. He was the only family

member that she knew, but she had grown nervous about his religious ideologies. Allison herself believed in God, she

sometimes thought that she could feel a greater influence governing over her life. But it did not feel like the same God His

that her father spoke of during his messages to the flock. version of God was fearsome, cold, and unforgiving. was vengeful.

His version

His God was different than the God she had read

about in her Bible.

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Pastor Jacobs strained to lift the wheelbarrow off of its struts. It held ten gas cans, all filled with a half-gallon of He waivered as he pushed it toward the The contents of each can were poured inside It dripped to the dirt below, where he

unleaded gasoline. wooden structure.

the cracks in the wood.

had left roughly a foot of space between the first layer of wood and the ground. After the empty cans were arranged neatly back He struck a match

into the wheelbarrow, Jacobs pushed it aside.

against the zipper of his dark suede jacket and tossed it loftily into the construction. flame. The stink of the burning fuel irritated Allison. the window down and drew the blinds. She slammed It erupted with bright orange

It was a “walk of faith” –

a ritual that her father claimed God had given him one morning during a church service. Once the wood had burnt down to

nothing but hot embers, the members of the congregation were expected to each walk across the pit with their bare feet. If you incur injury, her father had said to his flock, then you must have a problem with God. Allison had taken issue with the

idea, though she remained quiet. There was a knock at the door. “Baby are you in there?” “Yeah, dad. Come in.”

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“Hey, Kiddo.

You excited about the walk tonight?” Pastor She

Jacobs asked, placing a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. nudged his hand away with a shrug.

“I don’t want to do it, Dad,” she admitted, “It’s not what God wants, and you know that.” “Don’t you doubt the will of God, Ally,” he said with an odd growl, “This is an important test for us. All of us. Just as

important as when Jesus was tested by Lucifer in the wilderness. Don’t you ever doubt the will of our Lord.” “That’s just it, Dad, I’m not doubting God’s will. doubting yours.” “God speaks His will through me, Ally. prophet.” Pastor Jacobs left the room, a grimace planted firmly across his face. Allison watched her father through the window as he walked angrily into the church building. keys and snuck downstairs. She grabbed her purse and I am His humble I’m

Jacobs was still inside the church

building as she climbed into her old pickup truck and took off down the red clay road. floor. She pushed the pedal all the way to the

The girl wanted out of there – and fast. #

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“Look, I believe you.

I do.

But if you didn’t take that bail

money – then just who did?” “Cynthia, damn it. a question like that? thinks I’m a thief.” Marshall Torres had become a big name in Colorado news in recent weeks. He had been fingered in an inside plot that had If you believe me, then why would you ask Huh? What the hell – my own wife even

been mildly successful in siphoning funds out of bail money from the Denver Police department. His own police chief had given

the primary testimony in the case, sealing Marshall’s guilt before the jury. Though several thousand dollars had been

removed from the bail and citation vault and a mysterious wire transfer had placed a large amount of funds into Marshall’s checking account, he maintained his innocence throughout the ordeal. him. It was not the first time that the young Hispanic couple’s marriage had been strained. “Well this is just it. This is all I can take out of you, Unfortunately, the jury ruling was unanimous against

Marshall,” Cynthia groaned. “All you can take out of me? out of you! I’ve had about all I can take

Do you know how many times I’ve had to defend you Do you

and your little jewelry making business from my family?

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know how embarrassing it is to have you peddling that garbage to our friends?” Marshall turned to look out the high-rise window. “Ah, here we go with you having to defend me. If it’s so Why?”

damned embarrassing, then why do you put up with it?

Cynthia yelled, grabbing a fistful of her handmade trinkets and shaking it in her husband’s face. a grunt. “You know, you just can’t be satisfied with us having separate interests. other. We don’t have to be the same person to love each He batted her hand away with

I put up with all the silly things that you latch onto But when

because I want you to be happy in what you’re doing.

you try to shove this crap down my throat I get a little testy. A little annoyed. But I tolerate it.”

“So that’s how you think of this marriage?” Cynthia yelled in exasperation, “You tolerate me? Oh, now I’ve heard it all!”

The room grew quiet as Cynthia and Marshall stood nearly noseto-nose – both puffing full breaths. They looked at each other They had aged.

and no longer saw the people they had married.

They had new lines between their eyes when they would grimace, faint clouding in their irises, and grey hair sprinkled at their temples. But it was not just a change in their outward

appearance that had occurred – they had become different on the

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inside as well.

Marshall and Cynthia loved each other but often

could not stand each other. “What does a lawyer cost these days?” Marshall muttered. Cynthia turned her back, “I don’t know. this out. Sooner rather than later.” Remember We need to figure

“Divorce wasn’t supposed to be in our vocabulary.

those days?” whispered Marshall, “All big dreams and big promises.” “We were naïve. long. And even more so for continuing this for so

This is a business partnership, not a marriage,

Marshall.” There was a knock at the door. “Who the hell…” Marshall groaned as he stepped over to answer. He pulled the door open to reveal a small-statured, portly black minister. He wore a black button-down suit with a white

collar, and carried a copy of the New International Version Bible in his left hand. with age. His eyes were dark, the whites yellowed

The shoes on his feet were tattered at the front His lips were chapped and

edges – obviously heavily worn. cracked.

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“Hi, I heard a bit of commotion…

I was visiting with some Everything alright

parishioners that live a few doors down… with you folks?”

“We’re fine here, father…” Marshall trailed off. “Father Rupert Smith. Please – call me Rupert.”

“Just a bit of a disagreement is all,” Cynthia explained, “Nothing, really. Sorry for the noise.”

“Excuse my nosiness, but I heard talk of a divorce…” The couple looked at each other – both were visibly annoyed. “Now you may not care what I have to say about this, especially if you folks aren’t interested in the church, but marriage is a sacred promise. It’s blessed by our Father. I

can offer you counseling free of charge if you’re ever interested. I know I’m a stranger, but I don’t want you to be.

God can help us through every problem in life, and He wouldn’t be pleased with me if I didn’t pop over here to offer my service. I you ever want, just call me at this number,” Rupert

said, handing the couple a card. Marshall groaned, “Well thank you, Father. think on… All of that…” We’ll certainly

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“Bless you sir. And bless you ma’am. happiness.”

May you both find

“Bless you, Father,” Cynthia muttered. the door and on his way down the hallway.

Rupert shuffled out

“Can you believe these religious nut jobs?” Marshall moaned, grabbing the classifieds section from the newspaper. “He was only trying to help, it might be good to—” “Not in a million years, Cynthia. counseled by that jackass. We are not going to get

And not in a black church for sure.

Who the hell do they think they are, anyways?” “Sometimes you just blow me away. # Rupert stood on the stoop just outside the high-rise. He You can be such a prick.”

popped open his organizer and checked off the last name on his list. He had finished his weekly round a day early and was in a The white collar slid out from under the A trench coat covered his priestly garb.

mood to celebrate. neck of his shirt.

With a hook around the corner, he made his way into a back alley. Behind the high-rise, on the opposite side of the block, sat a row of buffets, bistros, and knick-knack shops. Rupert made his

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way past dumpsters and cardboard boxes, weaving through the trash as he went. It disgusted him to be in such a place, but He

with his community prominence, there was no other option. knew that he needed help – that he needed a way out.

But the

urges were strong, and too often he could not fight the hunger. Rupert pulled a crisp one hundred dollar bill from his right coat pocket and held it loosely in his palm. Javier was

counting his roll just outside the back door of the Chinese buffet at the end of the alley. Rupert approached slowly – with

a nod to gain the dealer’s attention. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned!” Javier hissed through his gold-plated grill. “Good evening, boy…” “Nickel or dime, Father?” “Dime. “Yeah… business.” “Here’s a c-note, keep the five, brother.” The cocaine changed hands slyly and the men split with no further conversation. Forgive me father, Rupert thought to He Heh, I remember when a dime actually cost ten bucks.” Yeah, I’ll cut you down thirty, ’cause I like your

himself, clutching the sack firmly inside his jacket.

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boarded the bus back uptown and waited anxiously for the hit. His body felt like it needed it – like air to the lungs. He

felt guilty with every purchase, every puff, and every moment he would come down. But he had to have it. # Eddie ran a finger across the sub-dermal lump at his right shoulder. The metal bead rolled around a few millimeters, but

the sinewy surrounding muscle kept it from moving much further. It was an irritating reminder of the violent life he had chosen for himself. He had become too engrossed to escape, though. To

attempt to leave would be a suicide mission. The bullet, once near his shoulder blade, had found a home in the soft tissue near his bicep muscle. It was a result of a

shoot-out with an Asian gang from the far west side of Hooghan. Both gangs had been courting a new arrival to the area – a young rap artist of both Japanese and Jamaican descent. The young man

was hesitant to join either gang, hopeful to further his musical career in Denver with a clean record. But when he was sidelined

by every production company in town, he quickly realized that the only way to score a deal was to use the connections of other artists in the area. rappers. Both gangs were frontlined by indie

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Each crew sought the value of a multi-racial face for their group. Gangs in their generation were more focused toward A talented and

generating wealth than protecting turf.

marketable group of young men was worth much more in gold than in land. The young biracial artist would add flare to both

groups, connecting with the primary audience as well as a new audience. He would be a gimmick – though a valuable one.

As tensions surged between the two groups, it came to a head in a shoot-out at the Perry Park playground on a cold evening at dusk. Ketsueki, the Asian gang, had come to the conclusion that The thugs

the young man was worth more than taking a few lives.

had followed Eddie and his crew to the park, where the young men would often go to smoke herb and enjoy the night sky. After an

exchange of insults and threats there was an exchange of gunfire. One of the Asian boys perished in the gunfight, and

Eddie took home his souvenir bullet and a new nickname – “Slug”. The young man they had been fighting over left for Atlanta a day later. “Yo Slug, check it,” yelled Damerae as he floated a paper airplane to his best friend. Eddie unfolded the airplane to examine the lyrics that Damerae had scrawled out. The streets are mean, see the steam rise,

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A life of lies, deceit, hear the cries and the sighs, Mad rhymes of the wise, who seek that prize, That way out of the life – full of negativity they despise. The park is cold, memories old, They flood back and attack, Just takes one man to be bold, Or one cowardly thought to be sold. Eight men in, seven go home, All lose the prize, all are alone. “This is trash, man,” Eddie said as he tossed the paper aside. “Com’on, braa! It’s on da’ Perry Park ting mon. It’s on da’

struggle in da’ circuit. defense.

Mad beats,” Damerae replied in

“We aren’t spinning that shit, Dam. ain’t goin’ there. Period.”

I told you before – we

“Yeah man, no tying us to that.

We got a bad enough rep as it

is,” groaned Rome from across the room. Young Rome grew up in eastern Hooghan, a rare black face amongst the majority white crowd. He had met Eddie and Damerae Rome had

through a series of underground poker tournaments.

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dropped out of school with little care – the white kids treated him more as a token oddity than a friend. brothers – like family. passing fascination. These guys felt like

They treated him as an equal – not as a

Eight years later, he shared a bond with

them closer than that which he had with his own family. Rome pulled an aged Glock Model 22 from his belt and inspected every inch of the polymer frame. It was the gun that he had He wondered

used to pick off the Asian boy that fateful night.

briefly why he had not sold it and purchased something with less memory attached. that felt. empowering. Maybe I like remembering? Maybe I like how

I decided his fate that night and it felt It’s a shame no one can ever know.

“Well we’ve gotta come up wit’ som’ting soon, we’re runnin’ out o’ time on our advance n’ we don’ wanna blow ‘dis shit. now. Not again,” Damerae lamented. Not

“We’ll come up with something,” assured Eddie, “Just don’t go that route.” # “Look at that goober,” Carl snickered with a nod to the left. He liked to tease Allen Teeter any chance that he had – but it was all in jest. His brother Jeff’s disdain for Allen was The men’s boats were docked side-by-

another matter, however.

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side at the eastern marina on Reeve Lake.

Allen was loading an

usual amount of fishing equipment into his boat – being that he was headed out alone. Carl Walton had recently been released from prison after serving a seven-year sentence. He had been convicted of

brutalizing a seventeen-year-old girl just outside Hooghan High School after a late-ending Friday night football game. showed up nearly nude and covered in blood at the police station, still in proper mind to identify her attacker. details were gruesome. The trial was heart wrenching. The Many The girl

members of community thought the punishment was too lenient. Carl was out for a night of bow fishing with his brother Jeff, a gas station attendant from north Hooghan. his brother had done. Jeff detested what

The poor girl had done nothing to warrant He knew that Carl

such a shameless disregard for her innocence.

had been drinking that night but had no idea that he had become such a violent drunk. Carl had been reborn while in prison, and He no longer drank,

genuinely seemed like a different person.

partied, or spent late nights cruising the streets for an easy score. Prison had changed him – dramatically. You’re a

“Come on, man,” Jeff said, embarrassed, “Be nice. Christian now, remember?”

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The men were out for a good hunt.

Carp and catfish had been

recently stocked in the lake to both clean it up and draw in tourist fishers. Both men packed wooden recurve bows with spin The arrows were secured to the Each brother strapped on a threeJeff started

reels mounted on the fronts. reels with eighty-pound line.

finger glove and snapped their lifejackets tight.

the motor and the men cruised across the lake to a shallower shoreline. The sun had yet to set, and the men needed pure darkness so their spotlights could penetrate the water and expose the feeding fish. Carl leaned back in his chair and pulled a large He slipped one into his The

bag of fresh cherries from his cooler.

mouth and popped off the stem – chucking it into the water. only cherries he had the opportunity to savor in prison were covered in a thick slime of preservative goo. tasted more like freedom. These fruits

Jeff fiddled with the automotive batteries that would be used to power the three million candlepower spotlights. A quick He

check with a multimeter showed both to hold a full charge. grinned and pulled a cold can of beer from his own cooler. “Good lookin’ shoreline.”

“Definitely,” mused Carl, as he spat a cherry seed into the lake, “Shaping up to be a perfect night to pull the bows.”

30

Jeff smiled and sipped his beer.

His expression grew relaxed,

“We’ve been out here four weekends straight now – you ’bout ready to talk about this thing?” “It was a stupid, stupid mistake. live.” “I know I don’t have to ask you what you were thinkin’… man, an innocent little girl. Somebody’s kid.” Jefferson Shaw. But, I’ll regret it as long as I

“I met a man inside, I’ll never forget him. Everybody called him ‘Shark’.”

Jeff grew curious, “What made him so special?” “He killed a man that raped his little girls,” Carl muttered. “Oh, damn.” “Nothing’s a secret in there – nothing. Shark heard about

what I did before I ever got in there, and he was delighted to see me walk by his cell on day one. yard every day for a month. were just as vengeful. pissed on, and worse. He kicked my ass in the

The guards let it fly because they

I was hated by everyone – spit on, People say I didn’t do fair time. They

don’t know shit about prison.” “So that’s it, he beat you up?” Jeff raised an eyebrow.

31

“One day on the yard, I finally spoke up. the lashing, and I just blurted it out. him to forgive me. eyes. I pleaded.

He came over for

I apologized and asked

Then I saw it, a change in his

His swagger stopped.

He spit in my face one last time

and walked away. Shark in with me.

When my cellmate got released, they moved He told me that he wished he had given the We started going to chapel

man he killed a chance to talk. together, became friends. – I know he’s free.”

He won’t ever get out, but deep down

“You believe that?” Jeff asked, again curious. “I have to. If I don’t, what else is there?”

32

Chapter Two

Blistery cold night here in southern Colorado, so button up those jackets if you’re headed outside. A cold front has moved Expect

in from the west, headed up north across the Rockies.

two to five inches of snow mixed with a light sleeting rain around Denver, with warmer temperatures and a chance of rain near Hooghan and the surrounding area. tomorrow. A terrorist scare in Orlando put authorities on their toes today. A Qatari immigrant loaded down with explosives Clear skies expected for

threatened to blow up a strip mall full of bustling tourists. Police were able to successfully terminate the man when his explosives failed to detonate. The man’s family was taken into No word yet on their

custody shortly after the incident. charges.

President Singh moved quickly on the heels of the scare, addressing the country in a brief message from the Oval Office. In her five-minute speech, she stressed the significance of the new act signed into law this week, stating that the Key-Forest Religious Openness Act was designed specifically to weed out these sorts of threats. This is Amy Van Dyke, with your KHOO AM 1200 primetime update.

33

# Stone pulled each finger back to pop every knuckle individually. He had just returned home from a lackluster date

with a radio show host from a competing AM talk station. Despite what she puts on for the air, he thought, she sure doesn’t have much of a personality. Her show was a conservative talk program, so Stone knew to stray from politics and religion. the evening were all for naught. It also meant his motives for She had worn a full coverage It was a clear signal that He knew from

turtleneck dress with black tights.

it was all Stone would see of her that evening.

the beginning of the unenthusiastic dinner that he would have been wiser to have simply stayed home. “Why did I think that was a good idea? Jesus…” he mumbled,

cracking the seal on a tall bottle of aged whiskey. He tossed a couple of ice cubes into a rocks glass and poured a generous ounce of the liquor. It went down warm in one quick He poured

slug, and stung the back of his throat as he exhaled.

another ounce and sipped on the edge of the glass as he waited for his notebook computer to boot up. The whiskey had a smoky It was a

flavor and aroma that reminded him of his late father. thinking man’s drink. Rufus whined at the glass doors.

34

“Ah, damned thing will never boot up.

Let’s go, Rufus.”

Stone slid open the doors and stepped outside onto the patio. The little Yorkshire pup made a beeline to the back of the yard and squatted immediately. A shuffle through the empty cigarette

boxes reminded Stone that he had purchased a new hard pack of Morleys earlier in the evening. Not wanting to push his

conservative date any further, he had not yet broken the seal on the cigarette package. Surely the scent of burnt tobacco on his

breath would not have gone any further to woo his bible-thumping dinner partner. With a spin of the wrist, he pulled the little gold plastic string from the package and popped a filter out of the box top. He lit it quickly with a flick of the thumb, turning his head skyward to watch the smoke disappear into the night sky. There

were no clouds directly above, but the sky was opaque black off toward the west. There was the big dipper toward the north, and

Venus hanging bright in the southwest, peeking over the edge of the cloud line. The moon was a sliver, like a discarded toenail

or a dried macaroni. Stone wondered if all of his skepticism was misguided. He

wondered if the bible-thumping woman he had dined with might actually be the sane one in the pair. The night sky was so

magnificent, as if every speck was placed with precision and

35

calculated intention.

It was like a work of art – like a It appeared as sheer chaos at first

Jackson Pollock painting.

glance, but the more Stone stared into the heavens, the more order he could discern. The thought made him uncomfortable.

With a few more drags on the spent butt, he tossed it into the yard and called the dog back into the house. The computer had finally booted. and launched his email application. Stone keyed in his password Thirty-six unopened

messages appeared in his inbox, causing him to audibly groan. Many were junk mail messages, as his email address was no secret in the local community or online. Male enhancement, virtual sex

simulations, inhalants – it was all advertisement for pastimes of a younger generation. He dragged a slew of the messages into Apparently the local

the trash bin – though one caught his eye.

mega-church was hosting a series on end-times events. “Yeah, seems like the world is going to end every week…” He tossed the email away and shut down the laptop. # Allison parked the pickup truck behind a defunct coffee shop. It was nestled in a part of town scheduled for demolition to make way for a new parking garage for the large local Assemblies of God church. The church had been expanding farther into the

36

residential district each year.

All the lagging businesses in

the surrounding area had been purchased for bottom dollar prices. The church pulled in a combined fifteen thousand With those attendees

attendees in its three weekly services.

came multiple millions of tithing dollars every year. Allison rolled up the driver-side window and pushed down the stubborn door locks. Out of her purse came a small zipper bag She looked around for

of marijuana and a straight bronze pipe.

peeking eyes before relaxing cross-legged against the rear wall of the coffee shop. The weed was fresh, ground up from a plant

that she tended to in the woods near the Newpine campgrounds. Mixed with clove and dried in a dish in her windowsill, it was her own personal blend. She stuffed a pinch into the end of her She

pipe and held a small plastic lighter just at the end. inhaled hard and held it for several seconds. Relief.

She knew that her father would come down hard if he knew what she was up to. But she felt like he drove her to her vice. His

unusual approach to religion bothered her – right to her core. Her belief in God had never waivered, but she refused to accept her father’s interpretation of the Bible as anything near appropriate. Walking over burning coals, dancing with venomous

snakes, and weeklong fasts in the forest – it was too literal. It was too far outside the accepted norm.

37

She loved her father, but her affinity for him had weakened as she grew and matured. Once the man she looked to as a model of

quality in life, his imperfections had recently become more apparent. prominent. She knew that all people had flaws, but his were more His were dangerous. She felt for those in his

congregation – so many were looking for simple validation and inclusion. His methods had preyed on that weakness and

indoctrinated the congregation into something they could no longer break away from. faces. With a decent buzz, she rose up and stuffed the paraphernalia into her purse. The mega-church’s roof jutted out over the top Allison could see the steeple The lights atop the Before she knew It sickened Allison to see it in their

of the neighboring buildings.

piercing high into the rolling clouds.

building beamed like lasers into the night sky.

it, Allison had left her truck behind in the alley and was standing in awe at the gorgeous church building. Maybe it was

the weed, but she could not shake her fascination with the architecture. There was a series of doors at the front of the building with a full glass exterior above. She watched families pouring into

the building – they laughed, shook hands, and wore casual clothing. They were relaxed, and appeared to be enjoying

38

themselves.

Are they having fun at church? she wondered.

Allison knew that she had to get a better look. After she crossed the road, she was approached by a pudgy man with blow-dried blonde hair. He was better dressed than the

other parishioners, and wearing an orange reflective sash across his chest. A flashlight in his hand swung side-to-side as he He smelled like baby powder and Old

shuffled over to meet her. Spice.

“Hello young lady, headed into church tonight?” “Uh… Well…” Allison stammered. “Well if you’re headed our way, we’ll be delighted to have you. Reverend Sanchez is delivering a wonderful message You won’t want to miss it!”

tonight.

“Well, I guess I don’t have anywhere else to go,” she admitted, her euphoric curiosity growing. “Just head through the front doors there, someone else with a goofy get-up like mine will help you find a seat!” the man exclaimed, genuinely excited about the evening’s events. Allison took towards the church with anxious anticipation. There were so many people – it blew her away. Several families She bumped

stopped her to shake hands and introduce themselves.

39

into another man in an orange sash, who guided her to the leftmost row and seated her in the youth section. Before long the church grew dark. Then, a pop of smoke and a The choir

flash of light signaled the choir to begin singing.

risers grew right out from behind the stage, with men and women of all ages and colors dressed in royal blue robes. dancing back and forth in place. They were

The music was loud – her There were

church never played music while singing hymns.

drums, guitars, pianos, an organ, a full orchestra, and even a banjo. church. The congregation danced, sang, and worshipped for nearly a half an hour before the service transitioned. A small Hispanic It was less a chore and more a celebration. It was

man in an expensive white suit strolled on stage to a roar of applause. His hair was slicked back with shiny grease. His

glasses rested on his forehead as if he had been pouring over his studies immediately prior to taking the stage. smart and personable. The man oozed charisma. He looked

“Hello congregation!” he yelled into the pulpit – holding the last syllable for an entire breath. “Hello, Jimmy Lee!” they all yelled back with a near-rehearsed synchronicity.

40

The reverend grinned ear-to-ear and patted his forehead with a sharp white handkerchief. “Tonight we are going to delve deep into the scripture. are bad, bad times ahead of us. There

Soon the Lord will be back to

escort his people away to the kingdom of Heaven in a glorious procession. We need to be ready, we need to prepare, and we Look at the world’s

need to prepare our friends and loved ones!

events – the drugs, the terrorism, the gratuitous sex!” There were several shouts of Amen and Preach it! “Tonight’s message is about preparedness. We need to prepare You don’t

ourselves for what is to come – else we’ll miss it. mess around when it comes to our Lord Jesus! around!

You don’t mess Going home!”

We’ll be going home to our Lord Jesus!

Allison’s father had preached the tale of Armageddon to her church in the past. It was a grim fairytale with deformed She always felt that her

lions, men on flying horses, and war.

father put too much emphasis on preaching literal interpretation of the metaphors in the book of Revelation. He preached the He

death and destruction – the sacrifice and heartache.

preached why one would not want to miss the rapturous events, not why one would want to rejoice in being taken back to Heaven. He wanted his congregation to fear the rapture, not embrace it. Jimmy Lee’s version was different, though.

41

“We are going back to the father!

And we want to bring as Can I

many people along to celebrate as can fit in our chariot! get an amen?” “Amen!” the crowd roared.

“Open your notes tonight and you’ll find my list of the three things you must do to prepare yourself for what is to come – may it be twenty years, twenty months, or twenty hours. There are

three things you must do to prepare yourself to be received by Jesus when he returns to take us home.” Allison snuck a peek at the list. It had been tucked into

every pamphlet that had been handed out that night – along with promotional material for the next few nights in the series. The

three points for preparedness were simple: rebuke, repair, and repent. 1. Rebuke the sinful deeds of your past and those around you. 2. Repair your relationships and mend hearts. 3. Repent for your sins and encourage others to follow. Jimmy Lee encouraged his parishioners to live every day to the fullest, but to uphold the will of the Lord. He urged It was a

preparedness for disability, death, or rapture.

message of being mindful of the consequences of one’s actions and improving the lives of others by improving one’s own. He

42

was not preaching doom, gloom, and destruction – he was preaching the celebration of moral life. though somewhat hooked. She slipped out during the altar call to return to her truck. It was far from an easy exit, though – she had to shake a dozen hands before she made her way out the door. It was very dark out, as the moon had begun to set in the west. Allison wondered if her father had yet noticed that she He would not be happy to know that she had been Allison was cautious –

was gone.

smoking pot, but he would be even unhappier that she had visited a competing church. He was adamant about his rules, and had

never approved – much less tolerated – a request from her to attend another church. She was declined even when she asked to She

go to a youth event outside of regular church hours.

suspected tha it was her father’s way of controlling the message. It was his message, and he did not want his daughter

exposed to someone else’s interpretation. # “Turn this crap off,” Marshall groaned, hunched over a pile of employment applications. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to expose yourself to a little church now and again,” replied Cynthia as she turned back to finish the tail-end of Jimmy Lee Sanchez’s television broadcast.

43

“I don’t need church and God to feel good about myself. know you don’t buy that crap.

And I

Why are you even watching it?”

“I thought I might at least give it a try…” Marshall turned up from his vigorous writing to rub his eyes and look about the apartment. the small one-bedroom home. So many things had collected in There were souvenir cups from the

couple’s honeymoon sitting atop the mantle, a collection of ceramic music boxes on the end table that Marshall had bought Cynthia over a decade of Christmases, and a rug that was purchased in their first week of marriage. He looked at the

sombreros tacked to the wall – keepsakes the pair had purchased on a trip to Tijuana to celebrate their Hispanic ancestry. place was full of memories – memories of a happier time. The

But

Marshall was spread thin with the stress of losing his job, losing his court battle, and losing his love for his wife. He

was tired of working on it all and still feeling like a failure at the end of the day. “I spoke to a divorce attorney today,” he whispered, “Says if there’s no debate over who gets what, we can get it taken care of for about a hundred fifty bucks.” “Are you really ready to call it quits? we can’t keep trying on this?” Are you really sure

44

“Cynthia, I’m just so tired of working on it – even having to work on it. It’s not worth all the stress anymore.”

Cynthia sipped her tea slowly, processing each word for hidden meanings. compassionate. Her husband had always been so caring, so They had experienced their fair share of

disagreement in the past but nothing of such magnitude – nothing so life altering. She wanted to keep Marshall and love him. But his resistance had pushed her

She wanted to keep trying. away.

Where she once felt guilty thinking of life without her

husband, now she felt slightly optimistic about the prospect. When the couple was first married Cynthia could not think of life alone. pushed back. “Well,” Cynthia sighed, “I guess if that’s what you want to do, we can go down there Monday afternoon.” “You know,” Marshall began as he stood from the kitchen table, “It’s not like I ever planned for this to happen. We fight more than we get along. breaks than for the love. about you. It’s just… That feeling had changed the more Marshall had

We’re in this more for the tax

When we were twenty, my life was all And we’ve become There are some

I’m older now – we both are.

different people with different interests. things that I’m not willing to compromise.”

45

“I know, you’ve always been stubborn… honestly…” Cynthia trailed off.

But I’m okay with that,

“You’re trying to make this work, rather than let it work, Cynthia. Can’t you see that? We’re not in love anymore, we’re

just going through the motions.” Cynthia’s eyes moistened as she tried to hold back her tears. She had said some things in the last week that she would regret until the end of her days, but she had never intended any of it to ruin her marriage. still loved him. her heart out. Marshall might not love her, but she

The thought of her marriage slipping away tore With no parents, few friends, and little family Now he was

– Marshall was the only one she ever had to turn to. out of reach as well.

“Look, don’t start with the tears,” he sighed, “We’ll go see that… Whatever his name was… Father Rupert… If that’ll make

you happy. hear.”

Who knows, maybe he’ll tell me something I need to

“Really?” sniffed Cynthia, “You’d really go?” “Sure, we can try it. Just please, stop whimpering.”

Cynthia smiled a half-grin through her dripping mascara. Marshall may have lost his temper, but he would never lose his sense of humor.

46

# Rupert hurried down the street from the bus depot. He was The

desperate to make it to his apartment above the church.

small sack of cocaine bounced up and down inside the interior breast pocket of his jacket. Every step reminded him of how It would taste

close he was to getting his nightly hit.

horrible – bitter and salty – but the feeling that followed would be worth all the trouble and pain. He groaned as he spotted a homeless man on the corner. It was

Frank, a former methamphetamine cook that had inhaled a few too many of his own fumes. papers to prove it. The man was verifiably insane – with the

He stood on that corner, just outside Frank would

Hooghan First Assembly, four to five nights a week.

sing to passers-by on the nights his mind half-worked, but most nights he would hurl insults or just stare with a glassy, expressionless emptiness. He was in a bad state, but did not He could not be Nor

even have the mental capacity to know it.

locked up, since he had never been caught in his misdeeds. could he work – his unstable mind barely able to keep him clothed. “Brotha’ Rupe! where you headed?” “Headed up to rest, Frank.

Brotha’ Rupe!” Frank called, “Brotha’ Rupe

What are you out for tonight?”

47

“I’m looking for some dope, Brotha’.

Want me some dope for

smoke!” Frank grinned, a bead of drool dangling from his lazy lower lip. “Now Frank, what’d I tell you about that? putting that in your body. God don’t want you

That’s what scrambled up your head. He bit his lip at the

Told you that,” Rupert warned him. hypocrisy.

How can I stand here and say this? he thought. Pray me straight!”

“Pray wit’ me Brotha’ Rupe.

“Alright, Frank, but you promise me you’ll stay away from the pot tonight, okay?” “You got it Brotha’!” As Rupert laid hands on the man and began to pray, his heart sank lower than it had in ages. It killed him to go on

community outreach calls, visit shelters, and bless the homeless. Rupert was a hypocrite, a fake, and a phony. right from wrong. He knew to rebuke temptation. It killed him. He knew

He knew that

he was supposed to be a mentor.

“Thanks Brotha’ Rupe!” Frank laughed, “You alright, Brotha’.” “Thanks, Frank. You stay out of trouble.”

Rupert patted the man on the back and trudged up the stairwell. He hung a right inside and took up the stairs to his

48

hideaway bedroom. his mind.

A thought of how lucky he was passed through

The church had taken him in just a few years before,

after he had been discovered leading quiet services in a shelter. The congregation liked his humble style, and he Since he had no

quickly escalated on up to assistant pastor.

home of his own, the church had surprised him by renovating the church attic into a sort of apartment. His cocaine pipe was ornate, carved from an old piece of ivory – harvested long before elephant hunts had been banned. The

business end was yellowed from years of use, even as he cleaned it after every cool-down. He ran a finger along a carved ivy

vine up the side of the pipe shaft, rolling it down and over the ridges of the chiseled tusks of the elephant that adorned the bowl. So beautiful, but so despicable, he thought. He ran his Should

Rupert’s deep black face looked like aged leather. thumb across a mole that jutted out from his cheek. probably get that looked at. he took a hit.

He hated looking at himself before

It made him think about what he must look like A pinch of the white powder

during a trip – disgraceful. sprinkled into the bowl.

It rose to a forty-five degree angle

up out of his mouth as he sucked in several quick drags with the lighter flame dancing high. He held it. It sizzled in his

mouth before his face became numb. another hit.

He exhaled and dragged in

The numbness enhanced – and a lump grew in his

49

throat.

It became difficult to swallow, like when a large piece

of food lodges in the esophagus and no water can be found to flush it down. The room grew dark then bright – and then the walls disappeared and Rupert was surrounded by clouds. weightlessly looking down over the Earth. sailed across the sea skies below. He hung

A flock of gulls

Rupert made the birds The Moon

explode into bursts of feathers by blinking his eyes. flew over to him. It was small, like a basketball.

He grabbed

it and threw it toward Earth.

A shockwave rippled across the He was powerful. He threw his It exploded

planet and incinerated all life.

legs behind himself and flew forward into the Sun. into tiny sparkles as he hit it.

Rupert spun around, flicking the specks of burning debris with his fingers. He spun faster and faster – until the walls The room fell back into darkness. An army of The He

appeared again.

spiders crawled out from underneath the walls and bed.

arachnids scrambled up his legs and into his mouth and ears. watched his stomach bloat and expand – until the bugs burst forth from his insides and began consuming his flesh. Rupert

scraped at the bugs with his fingernails, trying to knock them away. They ate his guts, his bones, and his flesh. When only

his eyes remained, the bedroom came back into focus.

50

Rupert saw that his forearms and shins were carved up bad – and he had hunks of flesh still sticking grotesquely underneath his nails. Bad trip. He stumbled to the washbasin to clean up, Rupert detested the It felt like shame.

and refused the urge to look at his face. feeling in his gut when he would come down. #

Crosley burst through the front door waving a bag of fresh dagga blend in one hand and a Grande Puissance in the other, “We’re gon’ black up dis weekend!” He had founded the Blackheart Men more than a decade before, enlisting Eddie and Damerae shortly after. Their numbers had

dwindled after recent crackdowns and stings in the area, but even with four members still in the crew, Crosley commanded a lot of power. tar. He was tall and muscular with skin as black as

His hair hung in long dreadlocks to the small of his back

– a strong indicator to onlookers of his Rastafarian pride. “Big bout yah! Boonoonoonous! ’Dat kali an’ dagga res’? Yaga

yaga, true,” replied an excited Damerae. “Def’ braa. Gon’ light it up!”

The bag contained two ounces of skunky marijuana laced with purified resin from the leaves and buds of the leonotis leonurus plant. It was a favorite blend of the gang – providing a strong

51

high with a calm, euphoric mellow that followed.

Most weekends,

Crosley would bring the crew a bag to share in exchange for their help in whatever caper that he had planned. The casual

flash of his prized weapon indicated that something big was in the works for the group. “We ’to tief us ’da Pianeta from ’da Green’s shop lot tomorra’ night,” Crosley said through a toothy grin. “Shit bro,” moaned Eddie, “How we gonna get away with that?” “Unu we take her after ’da dusk falls. Put her in ’da

deliv’ry truck an’ take her to Southside Storage in ’da ghetto. Got a buyer lined up for ’da third. week, braa.” The GH Pianeta was the latest in the Italian automobile manufacturer’s line of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. In the She flipp’d in less than a

waning days of fossil fuel cars, ethanol and legume oil had been used only as a bridge while hydrogen cell implementation had been perfected. The Pianeta was no consumer-grade vehicle,

however – it was a top-of-the-line sports model with no optional features. It was the entire package – heated leather interior,

high definition screens for each passenger, auto-drive for highway traffic, multi-directional tires for tight parking, and more. Crosley had wanted one since he had read the press

release – but would have to wait until he had enough cash to

52

purchase a model that he could drive around town without fear of incarceration. “Bad, Bredda. When we go?” asked Damerae.

“I’m still concerned with getting picked up for this one,” Rome interjected, “We ain’t never snatched something that big before.” “Don’t ya’ worry, mon. We got ’dis,” Crosley reassured the We all be

youngest man with a wink, “I ain’t no sanfi, braa. rakin’ duns afta’ ’dis.”

Eddie hoped that his long-time mentor was correct.

Reselling

a stolen Pianeta would bring in about half of what the vehicle was worth. Cutting it up in the usual percentages, each man Each man

would pull in nearly eighteen grand of untaxed cash.

would be able to cut several records without going through an agent. The risk was high, but the reward was worth the trouble.

Eddie had been waiting for his opportunity for almost a decade. He was terrified of the consequences – but confident under Crosley’s lead. # The new gourmet coffee shop was bustling in its closing hour. Since its grand opening a few weeks prior, the place had been packed nearly every hour of every day. The residents of Hooghan

53

had been clambering for a hip new joint for months after the midtown shop boarded up its doors. The line was long and the

baristas were tired, but to the pair’s luck, Erica Hoover and Lana Lane had already claimed a table. “So that’s it then,” Lana said with a relieved sigh, “After that we’ll round the kiddos up and have them wait for their parents.” “Sounds solid. Feels great to have the details finally

hammered out!” laughed Erica. Lana had called Erica over to complete plans for an event that was to take place at the school the next day. About twenty kids

were being brought in for a special Sunday project to plant trees along the fence of the recess yard. The ladies were

allotted a budget for refreshments and supplies and needed some time to plot out which dollars would go where. The impromptu meeting was not without its ulterior motives. Lana had taken a fancy to Erica and wanted to spend time with her away from her boyfriend, Sunshine. Though at one time she

had been married, Lana made the choice to leave her husband when her attraction to a female coworker became stronger than the one for her mate. Since that time she had only been with women.

The single life for a lesbian in Hooghan was not without complication. The town was in a more conservative part of the

54

nation, even given its tendency to generate drug addicts.

It

left the mid-thirties elementary teacher with few options to trawl for love. She liked Erica, though – a lot. decided. It was not forced or

It grew out of many hours spent alone mentoring Erica

through her trial period when she began training to work for the contractor that provided substitutes for the Hooghan school district. She had no hint as to whether or not Erica felt the The wait for a

same way, but she would soon have to find out. signal was agonizing.

Erica swirled the dusty remnants of mocha cappucino with her straw. She knew why Lana had brought her to the shop – it was I wonder if she knows

more than just a work-related meeting. that I know?

Erica had been well aware of Lana’s attraction to her for some time. There was something alluring about it, but what a huge Sunshine had

leap it would take for Erica to ever act on it.

been her only flame for nearly two years, and she had never before encountered thoughts about being with another woman. was never a consideration until she met Lana. The woman was It

kind, casual, and interesting – traits that had been fading from Sunshine as their relationship grew. Maybe it was the

55

temptation of the unknown or perhaps the thrill of new attraction – but something had drawn Erica to the teacher. What would my family think? Any time the allure became strong Her parents and

– that thought would cross Erica’s mind.

siblings were very involved in church, with no affinity for what was considered to be a degenerate lifestyle. Erica had always She

been indifferent, feeling that love can take on many forms.

never could have predicted that she could be on the other side of the issue from her family. If she were to leave Sunshine for

Lana, would her family be devastated or supportive? “Check it out, it’s Principal Cook,” Lana whispered with a nod to her left. Erica looked and giggled, “Who’s the lady?” “His secondary squeeze!” “Whoa! No way, he’s cheating on Meredith?” The little hussy Has a kid in

“Yeah, most of the teachers know already. makes a lot of private visits to his office. Rick’s class down the hallway. he’s not,” Lana explained. “She’s cute, though.

She’s single – and she knows

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t

impressed with his catch…”

56

“She ain’t as cute as us!

Come on, let’s bounce before they

see us,” whispered Lana as she tossed a two-dollar bill on the table. # Sunshine grimaced as he checked his phone. from Erica – perhaps he was trying too hard. messaged her five times in the last hour. Still no reply He had text

It infuriated him not She had shut

to know what his distant girlfriend was thinking. him off almost entirely.

If Erica would just tell me that she

wanted to leave me – at least I could start preparing myself for the heartbreak. received none. “Almost done over there?” he asked, shoving the phone back into his pocket. “You really need to be more patient. This computer is old, it All Sunshine wanted was a few answers. He

takes some time to pull in over five hours of footage!” Elliot replied. Charlie was bored to tears, “Jován, I’m out for a drag, you in?” “Hell yeah.” “Sunshine,” Charlie shouted, “Come with, dude!”

57

The three youths went out to the porch while Elliot stayed inside to watch over the computer as it imported the raw footage from earlier in the day. Elliot was bothered that his friends The body is the temple of

treated their bodies so carelessly. the Holy Spirit.

Why Charlie and Jován would clog their souls

with the filth that they inhaled he would never know – but his repeated calls for his friends to give up smoking always fell on deaf ears. He said a silent prayer for his careless peers.

Jován snatched the lighter from Charlie and turned the flame up high before lighting his wide-filtered vice. He had started

with light cigarettes in high school, but soon felt no effect from the nicotine. After graduating, Charlie encouraged Jován The rush of

to move to regular cigarettes with wider filters. tingles felt good again. well.

But it had worn off after time as

The young man now smoked just because it was something to He blew

do – and something to make him seem harder and tougher. a haze out toward the open pasture. Sunshine sat in a rocking chair near the screen door.

He

rocked to and fro quickly – his heels tapped out his tension like hurried Morse code. “What’s wrong with you, man?” Jován asked, “Sounds like you’re learning to tap-dance back there.” “Erica – she’s pissing me off.”

58

“What’s she done now?” Jován moaned. “She refuses to reply to my texts or pick up my phone calls. I feel disrespected, you know? This is a girl I’ve been with

for like two years, and this is how she acts when she’s got a problem? What’s that about?”

“Cut her loose,” offered Charlie, delighted by the swirls of smoke that leapt from his nostrils. “Not that simple, playboy. Dude – I love this girl.”

“She don’t love you, man,” Jovan said with sincerity, “Not if she treats you like this. “I just… You gotta let go, bro.”

I don’t think it’s over yet…” Sunshine sighed.

Charlie and Jován tossed their cigarette butts in the potted plant and pulled Sunshine out of the rocking chair. “Come on, loser, let’s go play some Death Snyper so you can forget about her,” Jován grinned. Elliot’s head snapped up as his friends returned to the room and grabbed the video game controllers. “Hey,” he piped up, “Just wanted to renew your invitation to come to the youth group on Wednesday night. I know you guys

think it’s stupid, but you might find out that you like it. Pretty girls there too.”

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“Pretty girls at the Saturday night bon fires too,” Charlie laughed as he blasted Sunshine’s digital avatar off the side of a building, “And easier to score.” “Alright, well… Just offering…”

“Man, it’s not that we don’t like you or something,” Jován explained honestly, “But dude I tried church. me. Just not my game.” It don’t work for

“What didn’t work?” Elliot seized on the opportunity. Jován raised an eyebrow. “It’s political – corporate, even.” “We could have a devotional right here every weekend, if that’d make you more comfortable. I just want to share how it God is

makes me feel, and maybe see if it rubs off on you guys. good.”

“You’re persistent, man,” Charlie laughed, “I’ll give ya a shot, if it’ll make ya feel better. Next weekend though. Right

now I have to snipe Sunshine’s ass a few more times.” # It was pitch black out – aside from a beam light light aimed into the shallow water. still. Carl pulled back the bow and held it

He chose a mark just below the fish’s stomach – Jeff

compensating for the light as it bent through the water.

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held the spotlight firm as he followed the fish in its lazy swim toward the rear of the boat. The grass carp was just twenty Carl estimated it at ten

feet away – and it was a whopper. pounds or more.

He squinted and released his grip.

The fish tore out of the water – the arrow lodged cleanly in its side. “That’s what I’m talking about, right there!” Jeff yelled with delight. The spotlight bobbed up and down in his grip as he

cheered for his brother. Carl was ecstatic, “Straight through!” The fish squirmed as Carl pulled out the arrow. bleeding carp into the live well and reset his bow. He tossed the Jeff

started the trolling motor and stepped hard on the foot-pedal. “Let’s head up around this little peninsula thingy, maybe get out of this wind.” “Sounds good,” Carl agreed. As the men cruised through the dark and onto the next fishing hole, Carl bowed his head. opportunity. Thank you Father, for this

Thank you for the friendship of my brother Jeff.

Though I have sinned in the past, I am thankful for the blessing of your forgiveness. May you work the same blessings for Jeff

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and the rest of my family.

And if it’s not too much to ask, Amen. He had

please bless us with more big whoppers tonight!

Nearby Allen Teeter sat in his small bass boat alone. been casting for hours with little success.

The overweight radio show host tried not to let the loneliness get to him, but on occasion it would grow consuming. loved him – they listened and called in regularly. His fans But those he His

worked with acted as though they could not stand him. coworkers should have been his best friends. wanted to spend time outside of work. They did not.

They should have

They should like him.

Allen pulled his cell phone out of the tackle box and looked at his list of received calls. There were a pair of calls from

his parents, the local newspaper sales office, several more from his parents, a wrong number, and an instance where Stone had dialed him by accident. I’ll give old Stone a call – maybe he’s He did say to

freed up his schedule and needs something to do. call him later… “Hello?” Stone answered on the third ring. “Hey, hey man it’s Allen!”

“Yeah, I know, it says your name on the phone when you call. What’s up?”

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“Just out here fishing. see it.

Catching lots of fish man, you should

Lake is teaming with ‘em tonight!” Allen lied. Why you

“That’s great, glad you’re having fun out there.

calling me when all them fish are biting?” Stone muttered with a roll of his eyes. “Just wanted to know if you wanted to join in. to fish out the whole lake you know!” “Man, I’m sorry, I’ve had a few drinks tonight. shouldn’t be out driving.” “Oh… too. Oh no totally. I totally understand, I’ve been drinking Empty beer cans all over the boat.” Probably I don’t want

Yeah, lots of empty…

Stone sighed. coworker.

He knew that he was being unfair to his

The man’s voice conveyed nuances of both hope and Allen led a miserable life – and that was

disappointment.

certainly not any fault of Stone’s – but it was painful to watch. Stone sucked up his frustration and decided to give

Allen some sympathy. “Tell ya what – I’ll meet you out at the marina tomorrow at noon. We’ll make a day out of it.” See ya then!” Allen glowed as he

“Alright man, alright! snapped the phone shut.

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# The fire still roared on the church lawn. Allison could see

her father sitting casually in a folding chair near the inferno. It had only burned down by about half, and it appeared as though he intended to keep watch over the blaze for the remainder of the evening. His posture changed when Allison’s pickup truck It became tense and agitated. His left foot

came into view.

began to quiver anxiously. Allison parked and shut off the vehicle. She was hesitant to Her

get out – knowing that she was seconds away from a lecture. father rose from the chair and sauntered her way.

Through the His

bellowing smoke of the fire he was but a silhouette. expression became clear as he neared.

Jacobs was fuming.

Allison bit her lip as she checked to make sure that her purse clasp was locked. would be suicide. To have her father find the marijuana pipe He had preached hundreds of times about the She knew full well that his

sins of controlled substances.

disappointment in her failure would be harsher than any punishment she would receive. Even though she disagreed with

many of his religious views – she still respected him as a parent. “Where’ve ya been Ally?” he asked in restrained anger. “I went out for some fresh air.”

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“Had to leave Newpine for fresh air, huh?” he grimaced. Then it happened. She knew that it had been a mistake when

she climbed into the truck with it tucked into her back pocket. She cursed the man that had handed it to her. keep it? What was I thinking? Why? Why did I

That was the moment that the

brightly colored church flyer fell from the driver’s seat of the pickup and down to rest atop Allison’s feet. down and slowly picked it up. “So this is where you found your fresh air? His frustration was muted. “It was interesting. Different from ours. I have to say, I The TV church?” Her father reached

enjoyed a lot of it,” Allison said honestly. “You think that goofy Mexican is a better preacher than me, do ya?” “Well, no… He’s just different…”

“You know very well that I don’t want you going to other churches. They preach deceit. They want money, not salvation.”

“Dad, it really wasn’t like that—” He grabbed her arm and dragged her into the house. a bit on the way, but knew the drill. her bedroom as punishment. She fussed

He always locked her in

It was ritual since she had been a

65

small child.

Jacobs’s religious convictions would not let him His fatherly instincts would not let him When his temper really flared, he would

spank or beat her.

deprive her of supper.

throw her into her second-story bedroom and lock the door from the outside. As soon as Jacobs had resumed his seat next to the fire, Allison lit one of her own. her disposable lighter. Hers was smaller and danced atop

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Chapter Three

KHOO AM 1200 is your place for the most up-to-date news, traffic, and weather. This is Amy Van Dyke, and here’s what

happening in national headlines… World leaders are headed to Gaza today to complete the final round of peace negotiations for the Middle East. Under current

plans, a cease-fire and weapons audit agreement would be signed by Israel, the Palestinian territories, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan. President Singh stated in a

press conference yesterday that she is hopeful that the Iraqi state of Idrisistan would also soon sign the resolution. However, there was no word on whether the other Iraqi states – Babylonia and Abbas – would follow. Israeli Prime Minister

Yosef Ibrahim Shertok praised the agreement, calling it a “monumental achievement” and “a long-awaited gift from on high”. Meteorologists are baffled by a storm that has developed over the Pacific Ocean. A category five hurricane is at the heart of

the weather mass, with multiple smaller tropical storms trailing it close behind. The entire cluster developed within the last

twelve hours – a phenomenon unheard of in recorded history. Current predictions have the storm breaking up before landfall

67

in California, but residents are being advised to be aware of possible heavy precipitation later in the day… # “Rupert! Rupert!” Rupert threw on a bathrobe and splashed A glance at the alarm clock caused him

It was Pastor Brown. some water in his face.

to cringe – church service was to begin in less than an hour and he had yet to even brush his teeth. He kicked some rubbish Crap! He

underneath the bed in a rushed attempt to clean up.

slipped on his house shoes while he swished some mouthwash between his cheeks. “Rupert, are you awake? he cracked the door. “Yes, come in. Rupert apologized. The room smelled terrible. It was a wet urine odor that Pastor Brown Clothes were I’m so sorry, it looks like I overslept,” Are you okay?” the pastor called as

wafted from the nook where Rupert’s bed sat.

surveyed the room and took stock of the situation. scattered about. sink.

A blood-soaked rag hung on the edge of the

The ivory crack pipe rested in a soup bowl next to the The head pastor’s face resigned in disappointment.

bedpost.

“Fallen into old habits, Brother Rupert?” he sighed.

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Rupert grew cold inside. “Pastor Brown, I…

He felt like a failure. I’m still weak,” he

There’s no excuse.

muttered through tear-filled eyes. “In the eyes of God you are strong. You are strong and wise.

While you still may relapse into your old ways, you must continue to seek God’s guidance to see you all the way through,” Pastor Brown paused, “I want you to go ahead and preach this morning. I want you to stand in front of those hungry people in Let God feed

our congregation and let God speak through you. them what they need through you.

You just let go and have a

trip courtesy of our Lord this morning, Rupert.” “Yes sir,” Rupert replied. “It’ll be good for ya,” said Pastor Brown on his way out the door. Rupert cringed as the door closed. He was sick to his stomach How could I

as he replayed the previous minutes in his mind. let him down like that? and shallow. I let them all down.

He felt pathetic

Rupert pounded a fist against the sink and forced His reflection disgusted him. The Wiry

himself to look up.

capillaries in his eyes were inflamed and his skin flush.

black whiskers poked through the dark flesh of his cheeks and neck. A thin crust of dried mucus ringed each nostril. Rupert

had let himself down.

69

# Erica and Lana sat on a bench near the swing set to watch the high school aged volunteers as they showed the children how to dig with the shovels. The kids were having a lot of fun

learning about arborism as they prepared the trees for planting and tied colored ribbons to the lower branches. The activity

brought together a lot of children that did not have any other activities on a normal Sunday morning – such as church. Many of

the kids had been eager to join in, and each had been talking it up in the preceeding week. Lana made sure to give Erica her space when the ladies sat down. Every action was calculated. The teacher did not want to

be too forward or intrusive, but she wanted to continue dropping hints about her motives. The last thing she wanted was to Her

surprise Erica when the admission would finally surface.

arm rested lightly on the back of the bench as she turned to look at the girl. She was beautiful. was knockout. boastful. Light blonde hair, deep blue eyes – she She was not pretentious, or

She was humble, too.

Erica cared about people – and what those people There were no strangers to her. Everyone was a

thought of her.

friend and everyone mattered.

She had a charisma and charm that

70

was uncommon in the world at that time. fascinating – and Lana craved it.

It was special and

“So what do you usually do on Sundays?” Lana asked quietly. “Lounge around, read the funny pages from the newspaper,” Erica smiled. “Don’t go to church?” “Oh, I believe in God. Organized religion really isn’t for me

though,” she replied, “It’s complicated.” “Well I’ve got time, go on,” Lana encouraged. “Like my grandma, for instance… She goes to a church up near She thinks the way

the county line – has been for thirty years.

they tell her to think, gives the money they tell her to give, and votes how they tell her to vote. political party. It’s practically a

Grandma has been going there so long, though.

It would break her comfort zone to leave.” “So you don’t like the routine?” Lana pressed. “I don’t like the thought control. I think the Bible should I don’t think

be open for interpretation and discussion.

someone should just have to accept what they’re told about it and believe it as fact.”

71

“I grew up in church,” Lana said with a groan, “I had a lot of the same reservations. the same way I did. No church we ever went to seemed to lean

Eventually I gave up on it altogether.”

“Never looked back?” “No… Never got the itch to give it another try.” She sure is

“So what do you think of President Singh, then?

pushing the rhetoric now that she’s in her second term,” Erica inquired with a specific motive in mind. “It would have been nice to have our first woman president be someone concerned with women’s rights. As a double-minority,

you’d think she would give a crap about abortion rights, workplace equality, and other important issues. Instead she

spouts off puppet talk from the GOP about national security and faith-based initiatives. It’s embarrassing, if you ask me.” You’ve got to give her that,”

“She’s a smart woman, though. Erica offered.

“She’s got political smarts, I guess. definitely lacking in a lot of areas.

But her book smarts are

Maybe it’s the educator

in me, but I want a president that could teach me something – not one that needs coaching from her staff.” Erica was impressed with the teacher’s grasp of feminist ideals. She had been studying women’s issues recently –

72

pondering a possible career in local politics.

Uncertainty had

set in though, as she realized that Hooghan was less progressive than towns nearer to Denver. learn from someone like Lana. “So you mentioned a grandma – have any other family?” asked Lana, with an abrupt change in the subject. “Just my parents and little brother. You?” “I’ve got my mom and my cats. like to talk about it.” “Why not?” Erica turned to face the teacher. “I left him for a coworker. It was really messy.” She had a feeling Should I? I know she It I was married once, but I don’t There was a lot the girl could

Erica pondered her next words carefully.

about the situation but wanted to tread lightly. could be awkward. What the hell, I’ll go there.

wants me to find out. Here goes nothin’… “What was her name?” Her name?

Erica smiled sweetly to soften the blow.

Lana’s lip quivered a bit.

Well that answers that

– she definitely knows. answer honestly.

Lana was well aware that she had to

If she shied away from the question it would But she had to parse her way through

make Erica uncomfortable.

73

the answer carefully.

It was tricky – Lana did not want to lay

it on too heavy, but she also did not want to leave too much out. This was her opportunity to open up the subject. She was a pretty and quick-witted. She I fell

“Her name was Jen.

understood me better than anyone I had ever met before.

in love quickly and knew that it would be unfair to my husband to lead him on. ever expected.” Erica was curious. “What happened… With Jen, I mean?” “Ironically enough, I left He was more understanding than I could have

Lana craned her neck back and grinned.

she fell in love with Scott – another coworker of ours. a man for a woman and a woman left me for a man.” #

“You gonna eat that oatmeal or just stare at it?” Elliot asked, shoving the back of Sunshine’s head. “Heh, didn’t sleep much last night,” Sunshine groaned, “Man, Erica is driving me insane with this thing.” “Still not replying to the texts huh?” Elliot felt bad for his friend – but worse that he did not have any advice to lend. pledge of abstinence. In his youth, Elliot had taken a

He had stuck to that oath with aggressive

74

determination. brief.

Any relationship Elliot had pursued had been

Perhaps he was too picky, but the young man simply He wanted the one. No girl yet had

wanted the perfect girl.

come close to his expectations. Elliot teased his fire-red hair with a handful of tap water. “Maybe she’s just not the right fit for ya?” “You know I thought she was. at some point. her. I thought we might get married

I had been thinking thoughts of a future with

Then this happens.” Just let go. If she loves you, she’ll come

“Well let her go. back.”

“After all this I don’t know if I want her to,” Sunshine groaned, raising his head to window height to spot his other friends smoking by the horse pasture fence. Jován flicked his ashes into a wet patch of soil. phone showed four missed calls from his father. wondering if I’m coming to church. to be preaching today. His cell

They must be

That Rupert guy was supposed

He deleted the missed calls so that he Jován hated to ignore

would have an excuse if they asked later.

their calls, but his disdain for sitting through the wild church services outweighed his guilt.

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“Parents again?” Charlie asked through a cloud of tobacco smoke. “Yeah…” “Why don’t you like going with them to that church?” “It’s embarrassing, man. It’s like that stereotypical crap

you see on movies, with the hands waving, jerry curls and weaves, and all that. normal one. If I’m going to church, I want to go to a

Not that I want to anyways, though.”

“I think it’s kind of neat,” Charlie admitted, “Good music, the people seem genuinely happy. I mean I’m no Christian, but I

don’t really get why you think it’s embarrassing.” “I guess you have to be raised around it to understand. When

you look past the novelty, it’s just a big show,” Jován sighed. “Well I know one thing – you black folks have rhythm. Man I

dropped in with a friend to that church up the road once – Newpine. They don’t even play music when they sing. They’re

like monks, all monotone singing hymns out of books,” Charlie laughed. He pulled a last drag from his cigarette and thought for a moment about his friends. Jován was fed up with his church. Sunshine had never been to Why

Elliot could not get enough of his.

a single church service and was an unapologetic agnostic.

76

don’t I have an opinion on this? harder.

Maybe I should think about it I don’t know

I don’t even know if I believe in God.

what I believe. have one.

So many opinions all around and I don’t even

“What’s with you and church? Jován raised an eyebrow.

You bounce back and forth,”

“I was just thinking about that,” laughed Charlie, “I don’t even know. I really don’t know what I believe.” Most people try to get

“Well at least you’re honest about it. all philosophical about religion. down-to-earth.”

I think people should keep it

Charlie turned to look through the house window. stirring his breakfast hopelessly. friend was so hooked on Erica.

Sunshine sat

Charlie wondered why his

She had treated him so

disrespectfully in the past weeks, but he still clung to a tiny shred of hope that she would come back around. Though there was

no evidence that she would change her mind, he continued to believe that her love for him would shine through. It’s a lot

like religion, he thought, even though they can’t be certain about it, they still hold on with faith. “We gotta break Sunshine out of this mess at some point, man,” Charlie said, “Look at him in there. He’s miserable.”

77

“Man, relationships will do that to you.

I’m not going

monogamous until I’m so ugly I couldn’t possibly get another date,” laughed Jován. Charlie smirked at the joke. At one time he had been jealous They were like soul

of Sunshine and Erica’s relationship. mates.

All through high school he had longed to find that one Somehow he had managed to muck He had exclusively

girl that really made him glow.

things up in every relation he had pursued.

dated nearly a dozen girls in high school, but no relationship had made it past six months. It was not pickiness, jealousy, or He just wanted He wanted a

in-fighting that had broken the romance, though. the same thing that Sunshine would find in girls. friend and a girlfriend. He wanted to be loved. #

Allison took a bite from her granola bar as she flipped through the torn pages of the mega-church flyer. She had

retrieved it from the bushes that morning before her father awoke – still interested in the tale that the next few sermons in the series would tell. The pictures amused her – winged

beasts, longhaired Viking-looking men with arcane weaponry, and a sky full of meteors hurtling toward Earth. intriguing, though. The message was

She was near determined to make it to the

church that night in time to hear Jimmy Lee Sanchez speak.

78

The coals on the church lawn were still simmering and ready for a fresh pile of pine wood. Smoke had permeated the small

kitchen throughout the night and the ashy smell irritated Allison’s sinuses. He never remembers to shut the windows. He

She heard her father rummaging around in the next room.

was audibly excited about the day’s events – like a child that knew his parents had a fun activity planned. were like a game for Jacobs. Tests of faith

Though he would tell the

congregation that it was a mission from the Lord, Allison always suspected something more. She wondered if her father was

twisted in some way – perhaps even unaware that his actions lacked common sense. The Bible said that Jesus had been If

crucified to alleviate the burden of all the sins to come.

that’s true, then why the heck do we need this spurious testing? Allison wondered. “You ready for today?” her father asked as he burst into the room. He had recovered an old baptismal robe from the boxes in

the spare room and was shaking the dust into the air. “Dad, please. My allergies are already bad enough with all

this smoke in the air.” “I get the feeling,” Pastor Jacobs paused and took a shallow breath, “I get the feeling that you aren’t planning to join us today.”

79

“I haven’t decided yet how I feel about this. need to test us? It doesn’t make sense.”

Why should God

Her father suppressed his frustration and pulled out a chair from the kitchen table. “Do you think I’m some sort of con man? Is that it? I know that God speaks through me. I’ve tried to

convince you that I know that it’s true and you continue to show me this doubt of yours. God chose me to be his messenger and I I stood there that

will not take that responsibility lightly. morning in church. very soul. faith. them’.

God and his Holy Spirit manifested in my

He said ‘John, your flock is wavering in their

You must show them that they trust in Me to protect And then it came to me – visions of fiery coals.” He blinked

Allison stared deep into her father’s eyes. several times while he spoke. honesty of his words.

She had trouble determining the

Pastor Jacobs spoke with a hushed tone She knew

that sounded sincere, but he was a man of the stage.

that he could easily be fibbing and simply oozing emotion to prompt a reaction. told her not to. Allison wanted to believe him, but her gut He was her father, but such a changed man Just as he exercised control over

since his wife’s death.

Allison and her social life – he had a leash on most of the church members as well.

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Jacobs stood and folded the baptismal robe over his arm. “Let me know by eleven o’clock. Just be aware of your punishment if

you choose to cross me on this.” Allison cringed as she watched her dad walk out the back door and toward the woodpile at the rear of the church. He grabbed His

an armful of fresh pine and began loading a wheelbarrow. determination was evident. this?

I wonder if he truly believes in

He acts so confident about it, but it’s against It’s as bad as his

everything I’ve read in the New Testament.

strict interpretation of the scripture that he belches every Sunday. Just because the Bible says something, that doesn’t

mean it’s a literal mandate to do it… # Eddie and Rome sat across from each other in the floor of the small apartment – papers scattered about atop the coffee table. Crosley was working at the computer. skunky dagga blend in the windowsill. All four men shared the two-bedroom apartment, with Crosley using the master bedroom, Eddie and Rome sharing the second, and Damerae with a hammock in the utility room. Quarters were Damerae sat toking the

cramped, but each only paid one hundred dollars a month for rent. The men considered the small apartment a stepping stone

81

to fame and fortune – and they were all counting on the Pianeta heist as a leap forward in their lagging careers. “So I learned this morning that KHOO down south of town rents out their recording booths after midnight Mondays through Thursdays,” Eddie announced, “You get a three hour session for four hundred fifty bucks.” “Jeez, that’s half the cost of any of the stations in Denver, easy!” Rome replied. Damerae laughed boisterously, smoke streaming from his nostrils, “Still gonna cost ya mad dunsa ta’ get da’ cut’n’finish, mon. producer.” “Dam’s right ma’ bredda,” Crosley agreed with his nose still buried in the computer monitor, “Sow dunsa wisely fa’ boonoonoonous r’ward, yah.” Eddie smiled shyly, “I’ve got it figured down almost to the penny. I’m gonna use the whole thing to cut two records. Even Set aside half da’ Pianeta corn for’a

picked out which rhymes I want to cut. happen, finally.” “I’m glad ta’ be a help, mon. ya tief,” grinned Crosley.

I’m gonna make this

We gonna score mad big on dis

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“I-man tired o’ waitin’ na’.

When we ta’ run dis?” Damerae

asked through a cloud marijuana smoke. “We tief at dusk aft’ da darkers lift, ma’ braa. mine got gon meet us deh. artillery.” “Think there’s gonna be any gunfire?” Rome asked, petting the Glock in his pocket. “No one will be at Green’s on a Sunday after dark,” reasoned Eddie, “If we can clear Dam’s head long enough for him to crack the alarm system on the GH, it should be as easy as hoisting it into the truck.” Eddie dreaded the idea of having to pull his weapon, though it would make for a good set of lyrics for future albums once he had become established in the industry. he could keep himself out of harm’s way. He would be happier if Eddie needed the gang A cous’n o’

We just bring de’ muscle an’ da’

and their connections to worm his way into producer offices and cut deals with record labels, but beyond the business relationship the men had little more to offer. Their

companionship was valuable – the Blackherat Men were the only friends that the young man had – but Eddie doubted how long their relationships would last if he were to make a break in the business. #

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Allen tapped his foot nervously as he sat in his boat and checked his cell phone. There were no missed calls. He pulled Maybe

over his tackle box and began to sort his fishing lures. he’s still in bed. it down. here.

Maybe his dog got loose and he has to chase He said he would be

I’m sure he’s not standing me up.

Allen tried to remain positive.

“Hey Teeter, what’s up?” Carl asked with a friendly chuckle as he walked down the marina dock. “Waiting for my fishing buddy. Stone Silvers from the station.” “Ah, Stone. I’ve never met him. Well I’m glad you’re gonna He’ll be here any minute.

have someone to hang with today. weather,” Carl mused. “Yep, he’ll be here any second. time.” Jeff shot Carl a knowing grin.

Shaping up to be great fishing

Yep, we’re gonna have a great

“Well if for some reason he doesn’t show, don’t hesitate to hop on in with us,” Carl offered. “Thanks man. Thanks. He’ll be here though. Thanks though.”

Jeff started the motor and drove the small bass boat out of the dock. “You’re being unusually nice to him today.”

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“Yeah,” Carl sighed, “He’s just so pathetic, and it’s painful to watch. morning.” “Well you’re a bigger man than I am, bro. that loser the time of day.” Carl sighed and bit his tongue. Twenty minutes east, Stone was rifling through his drawers to find something to wear on the lake. He tossed a few pairs of I wouldn’t give I figured he could use a bit of friendliness this

stained sweatpants aside and dug down to uncover an aged pair of starched jeans. He unfurled the denim pants and noticed that He shook

the garment had held creases where the folds had been. the jeans hard and threw them onto the bed. the disturbance – still in a sleepy daze. “One more second, boy. pulled out.

Rufus groaned at

Daddy’s almost got all his clothes

Daddy is going on a fishing trip and he’s hoping

it’s not a waste of his time.” After digging out an old flannel shirt, Stone clicked his tongue to call the dog off the bed. Rufus ran quickly out of He pawed at it

the bedroom and to the sliding glass door. anxiously.

Before Stone could even light his morning cigarette, his cell phone began singing in his robe pocket. Probably Teeter, he

85

thought.

A check of the caller data showed the radio station’s Oh crap. He grimaced at the thought of being

phone number.

called in on a Sunday – not to mention that he would have to postpone with Allen. There goes even more of my night…

“Hello?” he answered as he flicked his lighter and inhaled. “Hey Stone, it’s Boomer. Listen, Amy is leaving. She’s sick.

We need you to come in here in about an hour.” “Oh, come on, she’s not sick. crap.” “Hey man, I’m just the messenger. Boomer hung up. Stone sighed and pulled in a drag of smoke. through his nose and dialed Allen’s cell. “Hey buddy! What’s up?” Allen answered on the first ring. He exhaled it Now come on, get in here,” She’s always pulling this

“Hey man, gonna have to postpone this thing for a few hours. Van Dyke is playing sick again.” “Oh, oh man. Oh that sucks, man,” Allen replied, “What then,

like two o’clock?” “Probably closer to three. I’m gonna come back here and let

Rufus have a run in the yard before I head up that way.”

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“Alright man, I’ll go scope out the terrain. good fishing hole!” “Alrighty, Allen. Hang tight up there.” #

I’ll find us a

What a life, thought Cynthia as she put the last of her family photographs into a moving box. How did it get to this point? If she was to have to

She had been packing most of the morning.

move out, she wanted it to be as quick and painless as possible. Cynthia had never planned for a divorce, and after all of the fighting, yelling, and admissions, she was still willing to work it out. reverend. Her only hope was in the meeting with the black Maybe he’ll say something that can turn this around.

Marshall climbed the stairs with a newspaper folded under his arm. He was still committed to finding a new job quickly. It

would be difficult since his name was plastered all over the headlines alongside the word ‘guilty’, but he was confident. He

knew that he was innocent, and was determined to clear his name. Why would I need to steal money from the city? he wondered. This whole situation is ridiculous. He opened the door to see his wife removing their wedding photo from a frame on the mantle. She looked like a train wreck He wondered

– hair unkempt, no make-up, and bloodshot eyes.

briefly if he was making the correct decision in dissolving the

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marriage.

I’ve gone too far at this point.

It would be too

difficult to go back now.

I’ll give that Rupert guy a chance,

but there’s certainly no hope there. “Packing already? I thought we were going to give the

reverend a chance to try his hocus pocus on us.” “Just preparing. I know you have no intention of working this

out,” Cynthia groaned. “You know that this is how it will end up anyways. point in trying? What’s the

I’ll go with you to visit with him, but I

think that we both know that it’s not going to make a difference.” Cynthia began to tear up as she pulled over another cardboard box to fill. “Look, I didn’t want it to end this way. people now. that.” “I still love you, Marshall. We may have grown and matured. But I But we’re different

We don’t have to feel like failures because of

We may have different interests and different ideals. still love you.” “I don’t know how I feel about you anymore. doing this counseling thing.

That’s why I’m

I’ve got one more try in me, but I

just don’t know anymore,” Marshall sighed.

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# The church grew in volume below Rupert’s feet. The wood The

floorboards buzzed with the bass guitar on every note. party had begun. in tongues.

People were hollering their hellos and singing

It was a special atmosphere that, in some churches, Hooghan First An aura of praise

would only occur at the end of a service. Assembly was a different breed, though.

surrounded the pews as soon as the first parishioner entered. Rupert rolled up his shirtsleeves to inspect the marks on his forearms. The wounds were not deep, but they were telling. He

rubbed a bit of antibiotic ointment over the lacerations before buttoning up and slipping on his suit jacket. his face had subsided. The symptoms in

A fresh shave had awakened his pores and

opened his sinuses. He was almost ready. Rupert wanted to pray, but could not yet bring himself to admit his problem before God. but also very stubborn. He was embarrassed and ashamed,

The proper path would be to denounce

his vices and beg for forgiveness, but he was not yet ready to take that first step. He wondered if Pastor Brown would help

guide him, but winced at the thought of asking for counsel when he was supposed to be the church counselor. The message for the day would be on maintaining relationships while building new ones. Rupert wanted to share with the

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congregation his experiences with the homeless and his outreach visits. He had a lot of experience in creating and maintaining

mentorships with those in need, and he felt that a lot of the lessons he had learned could be applied to other types of relationships as well. It was something he had often used when I

counseling couples that contemplated divorce or separation. wonder if that Hispanic couple will show up today? message would help them.

Maybe this

They fought so loud, I wonder if

there’s even anything I could do to help them repair the friendship and move forward. Rupert straightened his tie and made his way downstairs. # Allison was nervous. Dad’s gonna be so pissed, she thought.

She had made up her mind after almost a half an hour of serious consideration. The situation did not feel right. It felt

contrived, crafted, and forced.

The congregation was not headed

to church to have their faith questioned by God; they were coming to have their devotion to her father put to the test. made her sick, but she had nowhere to run and no one to tell. She was not locked up, but she was a prisoner. Pastor Jacobs walked into the kitchen. He was bathed in a He looked She It

smoky aroma and his hair was slicked down with sweat.

his daughter in the eyes and tried to read her expression.

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looked unhappy and distressed.

The room was silent, save for

the hushed crackling of the fire that simmered just outside. His presence loomed over the room – strong and intimidating. sighed heavily. “What’s it gonna be Ally?” “I’m not doing it.” “Why? Are you afraid that God won’t protect you?” he asked He

with a sneer. “No, I’m afraid that you’re not being sincere about it. If

God is watching, I just wonder what He would think about what you’re doing.” “So you think this is all some twisted scheme?” “I think that while your heart’s in the right place, your mind isn’t. I think you should apologize to everyone for putting

them through every little test you’ve come up with,” Allison said, almost regretting it as it came out. Pastor Jacobs growled a furious guttural groan. He pulled his His eyes

daughter to her feet and shoved her toward the pantry. were wild with anger. “Go. door. Now,” her father hissed. Allison hesitated.

He pointed to the basement

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“Dad, come on, you can’t punish me for having a different opinion…” “Go. Now.”

She walked to the door, ripped it open, and slammed it behind. She listened as the three locks turned one-by-one. a day this should be. box of old electronics. Great, what

The basement was mostly empty, save for a Allison dusted off an area of the She scanned the

cabinet top and plugged in a small AM radio. channels. Nothing but news talk. Fantastic.

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Chapter Four

It’s a quiet day today in Hooghan.

Traffic is moving cleanly

downtown, with only some minor congestion around the churches and byways. Expect heavier traffic nearer the noon hour.

Middle East peace talks resume today, with a resolution expected within the next two days. Just over eighty years after

the controversial formation of the state of Israel, the pact for peace is long overdue. change in heart? Here’s what I don’t get – why the sudden

Why is the Arab world jumping at the

opportunity to come together after decades of war, terrorist attacks, and in-fighting over policy? If it is so easy to enter

into a permanent cease-fire now, why was it not so easy even thirty years ago? Is President Singh really such a charismatic Smells fishy to

negotiator, or is there something else afoot? me.

I’ll leave you with that as we go to commercial. take your calls this morning. and hear what you think.

I’d love to

Let’s light up the switchboard

This is Stone Silvers filling in for

Amy Van Dyke, and we’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors… #

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“Beautiful music today,” commented Pastor Brown as he brushed a dusty mark off of Rupert’s shoulder, “A truly remarkable choir we have been blessed with here. Truly talented.” He jiggled

“They certainly are a blessing,” Rupert agreed.

his hands to his sides to shake out some of his nerves. “I’m going to go have a seat. today. Make me proud, Rupert.” May God be with you up there

“I’ll do my best, Father Brown,” replied Rupert with a calm smile. He watched as the pastor made his way into the side The man strode in a humble but

hallway with a slow swagger. confident manner.

Rupert listened in as the choir transitioned to the last song in their set. It was Amazing Grace. He thought it ironic that

his introductory music would be an ode to God’s forgiveness – a forgiveness that he had yet to ask for. The song was like a He was

call to action that he could not bring himself to heed. embarrassed about his actions – even before his Lord.

There was a crescendo toward the end of the second verse. woman embellished on the final notes with crisp intonation between pitch changes.

A

Suddenly and unexpectedly, Rupert heard A

a sharp squeal of electronic feedback from the microphone. thunderous boom rocked the building. from the speakers.

There was a hiss and buzz Sounds like the

The choir fell silent.

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whole darn sound system went out, Rupert thought.

When the

music did not quickly return, he decided to go ahead with his entrance and perhaps crack a joke about the inferior technology to amuse the crowd. Rupert pulled the side curtain open and swung casually onto the stage. his stomach. His eyes widened as he entered. His heart fell into

The choir risers were empty and the pews deserted. The ushers were gone. Pastor

Sooty dust clouded in the air.

Brown was not in his reserved seat in the leftmost front pew near the altar. Oh my Lord, was there a bomb attack? This Where has

church has never been a target of arsonists before. everyone gone?

Why is the building no worse for wear? There was an ashy

Rupert moved down into the central aisle. residue in each seat. the pews and floor.

Jewelry and handbags were scattered about Rupert looked to the stained glass windows. Couldn’t have been a bomb, the What in God’s name

There was no noticeable damage.

windows would have been blown clean out. happened in here?

The rear wall crumbled inward as a 1982 Oldsmobile careened into the church sanctuary and rolled to a stop about ten feet away from Rupert. think clearly. He broke his confused paralysis and tried to His

It felt as though time had slowed down.

mind struggled to process what was happening.

The soot in the

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air smelled faintly of burnt hair. Wonderland? windshield.

Had he fallen into

The reality was clear as he peered through the car A Holy Bible remained in the passenger seat, though The same ash residue was embedded in

the driver had vanished. the leather seat.

“It’s begun,” Rupert whispered before he fell to his knees, “Dear Father in heaven, blessed be your name. Please – I beg For

your divine forgiveness for all sins that I have committed. the cocaine, Father, forgive me. succumbed to temptation. wrong. me. In a moment of weakness I

My actions were inappropriate and For the prostitute, Father, forgive

Forgive me, please.

A life of abstinence has caused me loneliness, and in my It was a singular moment of intense pain Forgive me for my foul language. Forgive me.”

distress I buckled.

that I have regretted since. For my lies and deceit.

Forgive me.

Rupert opened his eyes. accept his fate.

His heart sank further as he tried to

“What now, God?” he whispered aloud, “What now?” # Jeff threw a cast out and over a tree limb. getting stuck on or over something. Damn, always

He gave a couple short tugs

on the line to start the lure swinging before he pulled hard.

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The lure popped up and over the hanging limb and plopped into the water with a splash. Oh yeah, I’m the man. Haven’t heard a peep out

“What’s the matter back there, Carl?

of you since that sneeze or whatever that was.” When his brother offered no reply, Jeff turned to see what was the matter. Carl was no longer on the boat. We swung pretty

close to the shoreline back there a ways – maybe he hopped off as a prank. Jeff dialed Carl’s cell phone number. It went

right to voicemail. “Carl buddy, funny joke man, but come on out. out there in the bushes! I’ll leave you

I’m the one driving the boat, you

know!” Jeff yelled into the wilderness. There was no reply. “Alright, bro seriously. Still nothing. There I’m gonna chuck

your cherries overboard!”

Jeff set his rod in its holder and climbed to his feet. was an odd discoloration where Carl had been sitting.

On closer

inspection, and with a swipe of the finger, Jeff guessed it to be some sort of charred grease. down the possibilities. His mind raced trying to narrow

Maybe it’s something from his old blue But it’s almost too thick for

jeans – axel grease or something.

that – surely it would have rubbed off in the truck this morning. Where the hell is he? This is starting to get a

97

little too creepy for me. cove. “Jeff!

Allen Teeter waved from a nearby

Come quick!” Allen yelled.

Jeff kicked the trolling motor into gear and rounded the corner. Deep in the cove was an upturned pontoon boat. Its

propeller was still spinning as it shook against a stumpy tree. No passengers were visible, but lifejackets were strewn about the surrounding water. “Come on, Jeff!” Allen yelled as he approached the wreck, “There might not be a lot of time!” Jeff raced to the bobbing wreckage. The boat was run up and Cola cans and an ice No bodies

onto its left side against the tree stump.

chest floated in the water with the lifejackets. could be seen.

Jeff’s eyes scanned across the interior of the Each

boat and stopped at the row of seating along the side.

seat had a large grayish-black soot mark on it – very similar in size and coloration to the one still caked on Carl’s seat. “Hello, police?” Allen yelled into his cell phone, “I need to report a boat wreck on Reeve Lake… have a radio… hung up on me.” “What’d he say?” asked a panicked Jeff. Uh huh… Alright… Yes, I do He

I understand that you have a lot to — hello?

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“Said people have been disappearing all over the place and that I really should listen to the radio for more info. are getting flooded with calls and can’t keep up.” “What? Disappearing all over the place? That’s ridiculous,” They

Jeff groaned. “Well it was the 911 operator that said it, who am I to argue?” Allen asked with a raised eyebrow, “Where’s your brother anyhow?” “I don’t know. talking to myself. shit. One minute he was here, the next minute I’m I figured he jumped out as a prank or some

But he left that same ashy grease – like what’s on those

seats in there.” “So you think he disappeared too?” “No, there has to be some sort of answer – people don’t just disappear.” Allen pulled back on his hair and rubbed his eyes. confused and scared. happen to him as well. He was

If it happened to those people it could Not that death by spontaneous combustion

would somehow be any worse than my current life, he thought. Allen grabbed a rope from inside his live well and looped it around the tree stump. With a pull of a lever, his anchor

dropped into the shallow water.

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“I’m gonna hop on over with you.

If there’s already one crash If the cops can’t get out

out here, there’s bound to be others. here, who’s gonna help?”

Jeff groaned, though he knew that it would be best.

Better to He

spend time with this idiot than to go it alone, he thought. grabbed Allen’s hand and pulled him up into the larger boat. For a radio personality, he sure is a dork. He watched Allen

pull a handkerchief out from his back pocket and wipe down the grease from Carl’s seat. morning dew. “I wonder if Stone has heard about this…” Jeff pondered aloud. “Good call, I’ll give him a ring.” Allen flipped open his phone and dialed the station. signal was all he could get. Both lines were in use, as a busy He tried Stone’s cell phone. “Stone, this is Allen. It It was wet, like campfire ash after a

went to voicemail after four rings.

Don’t know if you’ve heard about this disappearance thing yet, but I’ve seen the evidence myself. You’re probably on-air right Stay safe, buddy.”

now – so hit me back when you get this. #

Sunshine burst through the kitchen doors and sprinted down the steps and across the yard. pronounced. The fear on his face was true and

The flesh of his face had lost all color – the boy He looked as if he had seen

was as white as a hotel bed sheet.

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death itself.

His breaths were short.

He bent over at the

waist and spit onto the ground. “What the hell is up with you?” Jován asked calmly as he enjoyed his freshly lit cigarette. “First off,” Sunshine groaned, “You guys should really stop smoking so much. exploded. It’s kind of ridiculous. Second, Elliot just

He fucking exploded.”

“What have you been smoking?” Charlie laughed. “Shut the hell up, I saw it with my own eyes. blue light. It was a bright Boom! And

It sounded like thunder or something.

all that was left was a puff of smoke.” “Dude, he’s making it up,” Jován groaned, “We’ll go inside and Elliot will pop out of a closet or something to try and scare us.” “Fine, whatever, believe what you want, but you can come inside and search the place over. parents.” “Come on, let’s go find him,” Charlie said, nudging Jován’s arm. “Lame joke, Sunshine, lame,” Jován called behind, “I expect more from a creative type like you!” He exploded. I’m calling my

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Sunshine could barely bring his fingers to dial. shaking wildly.

He was

In a bright blue burst of light, one of his He had no idea

best friends had vanished right before his eyes.

what was happening, but hoped that his parents might be able to offer some sort of support. Fright had overcome the young man

and his friends thought we was crazy for it. His mother’s phone rang and rang. picked up. Finally the voicemail

He closed the phone, then opened it an dialed his It too went to voicemail. They were at The answering My friend just

father’s cell phone.

the animal shelter – he decided to try there. machine clicked on. Where the hell are they?

exploded in my kitchen and my parents are nowhere to be found. Jován and Charlie exited the house and came down the steps to meet Sunshine. “Okay,” Charlie sighed, “We’re going to ask you what happened to Elliot and you’re going to tell us the truth. screwing around. No jokes, no

I will beat you senseless if I find out that

this is some sort of loser joke of yours.” “What the hell happened in there?” Jován demanded. “I told you idiots,” Sunshine sighed, “He exploded… imploded or something. Friggin’ gone.” Or

He’s gone – just in a flash of light.

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“We saw all that shit all over the chair in the kitchen. that where he was sitting?” Charlie asked. “Yeah, toward the fridge?” Sunshine clarified. “Right. Elliot ain’t in that house, either.

Is

This isn’t the

kind of thing he’d joke around about anyhow.

You know how

serious that kid is,” Jován said as he lit another cigarette. “Maybe it was like, you know, ball lightning or whatever. know how it can go through windows to hit stuff…” Charlie theorized. “There aren’t any clouds out here, moron,” Sunshine moaned, “It wasn’t like that anyhow. It was a blue flash.” You

“Alien abduction?” Jován guessed with a shoulder shrug. “Oh, get real, dude,” Charlie said with a smirk. “Stop dicking around, assholes. One of our friends just died

and you’re acting like it’s a joke,” Sunshine said with an authoritative firmness, “Don’t you dare act like that.” “Well what the hell do you think happened?” Jován asked before pausing to think, “Oh shit…” “What?” his friends begged. “Wait… I need to call my mom…” Jován trailed off as he dialed There was no answer.

on his cell phone.

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Jován’s eyes teared up as his friends looked on in confusion. He looked as pale as a black boy under the Colorado sun could. His lower lip quivered. “She didn’t pick up. She always picks up. Always,” Jovan

sighed, “Even if she’s at work or in the restroom or when she’s driving. You know what’s going on, right?”

The boys shook their heads. “It’s begun… God’s taking the believers to heaven.”

“See, Sunshine, and you thought my ball lightning theory was crazy,” Charlie half-joked. “I ain’t bullshitting, man. enraged – hissing as he spoke. happen? How did I miss it? Shut the hell up!” Jován was How could I have let this

Why? The rapture? Man, that’s a

“What’s the Bible call that… fairytale,” Charlie groaned.

“Well I’m pretty sure it just happened,” Jován snarled, “Let’s get inside and turn on the news.” # “Miss Lane, Miss Erica, help!” came a blood-curdling yell from the recess yard fence line. “Kari, where are the kids?” Lana called back to the girl.

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“They’re gone!

They’ve disappeared!”

“What are you talking about where have they disappeared to?” Lana asked as she stood from the recess yard bench. Erica rose

to her feet also, confused by the teen volunteer’s claims. “No, they disappeared. to explain it. her explanation. Lana and Erica surveyed the recess yard. All of the younger They vanished. I… I don’t know how

They just disappeared,” the girl struggled with

children were missing – as were many of the older volunteers. Only a few of the girls and one boy remained. The boy was

hopping the fence to look along the tree line, but the girls were still frozen in place with gazes of shocked despair. ran to the fence line. “Kids what happened?” Silence. The girls could not force out a sound. Lana

Erica and Kari caught up to the small group, puffing and out of breath. “What… What’s going on? Fill me in?” Erica puffed before

sucking in a deep breath. Kari sighed, “I told you. Gone, poof. The children – they disappeared.

Like something out of a movie.”

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“That simply doesn’t make sense, though, Kari,” Lana reasoned, “People don’t just vanish…” “Miss Lane,” one of the other girls spoke up, “I saw it too. They literally just disappeared.” Lana’s cell phone rang in her hip pocket. looked at the number. She slid it out and

She did not recognize the caller but Yeah? Oh, hi Mr. Crawford… Well, yes

answered anyway. “Hello?

there has been a slight — oh I see… “What’s going on?” Erica begged.

Okay, I’ll see you soon…”

“People have been disappearing all over town. apparently.

Nationwide too,

That was little Jared Crawford’s dad wondering if He rambled something about some sort of

his son was still here.

new space-based terrorist weapon that can vaporize people?” Lana began nervously shaking as she spoke. “A space-based ray gun?” Erica clamored, “That’s sillier than people just up and disappearing!” “Well I don’t know! We’ve got to call these kids’ parents. Oh God, I hope there’s some sort

If this is happening all over…

of bunker or something we can go to…” Lana trailed off. “Miss Lane,” called the young man as he climbed back over the fence, “I think we should head inside. there!” Probably safer in

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“That’s probably a good idea, Greg,” Lana replied, “Let’s go into the gymnasium and try to get a hold of these kids’ families.” Lana, Erica, and the others walked around the side of the main elementary school building and to the old tile-floored multipurpose room. The door was still ajar from the earlier After the last youth walked inside,

activities of the morning.

Lana pulled the door closed, locked it, and pushed a lectern in front of it as a barricade. I don’t know what’s going on out

there, she thought, but I don’t want it getting in here. “Alrighty, volunteers,” Lana announced, “Grab your cell phone and let’s call all of these parents. Tell them nothing about

the condition of their child, only that there is an emergency and that they are needed at the school immediately. We’ll

figure out how to handle this face-to-face when the parents actually arrive.” “I’m scared, Lana,” Erica whispered to the teacher. “Me too, Erica… Believe me.” # “Have you seen this, Marshall?” “What now?”

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“On television – on the news. maximum.

The terror alert level is at Apparently

Every news station is on emergency alert.

thousands of people have gone missing in some sort of terrorist attack,” Cynthia explained. “Now that doesn’t make any sense, it must be some sort of hoax. How would terrorists make someone disappear?” Marshall

inquired, “What, some sort of phasers?” “I don’t know, laser beams or something?” Cynthia mused, “Seriously though – look. in Hooghan. They showed a whole church right here

All that was left of the people were ashes where

their clothes had burned off.” “Maybe it was, what’s that called… combustion! Spontaneous human

Maybe it’s all the chemicals in the water reacting

and making people just burn up from the inside,” guessed Marshall. He could not believe the sound of the words as the

guess came out of his mouth. “Their bones would still be leftover, and seriously – this many people all at once? It’s those damned Iranians. I knew it

was just a matter of time till they got weapons up there in space. They’re all terrorists over there,” Cynthia groaned.

“Now you’re being more racist than me,” laughed Marshall, “You can’t honestly think some cave-dwelling terrorist figured out how to build a ray gun that can be fired from satellites!”

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“Well…” Cynthia paused as a mail flyer caught her eye.

She

lifted it from atop the coffee table and a cold chill ran down her spine. “Well what?” Marshall prodded. “Well, maybe it was this?” she asked as she handed her husband the flyer. He hunched forward as he read.

“The ‘second coming’ and the ‘rapture of the church’?” he asked, “You think God has returned to zap his followers to heaven?” “Well, maybe… That Sanchez guy on the Christian channel He was doing that series all week

seemed pretty sure about it.

about the ‘end times’ or whatever.” “Well if anyone would know, it would be our buddy Rupert…” “I still have his card, hold on,” Cynthia enthused. through her purse until she found the small slip. She dug

It was

printed on regular sheet paper, not cardstock like a professional business card. She dialed the number on her cell

phone, but the network was down. “I’ll try the cordless,” Marshall said as he plucked the slip of paper from his wife’s hand. He dialed quickly.

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“Hello? ring.

Hello, who is this?”

Rupert answered on the first

“Hello, is this Rupert?” Marshall asked. “Yeah, this is Rupert. Who is this?”

“This is Marshall Torres, you came by yesterday during an argument with my wife and I…” “Oh yes, Marshall. Hey, have you seen what’s going on today?” Cynthia is convinced

“Yeah, any word on what’s happening?

that it’s the second coming or something, but you’re still here, so I assume that’s not what this is?” “Look Mr. Torres,” Rupert began with an apologetic sigh, “I am a sinner. I didn’t repent for what I have done. I was too My

proud and too embarrassed, and now I’ve paid the price.

entire church was taken home today, and when they get to heaven, I’m not going to be there with them.” Marshall gulped down a lump in his throat. “So what should we do?” “Go to Hooghan Evangelical Fellowship Church just past downtown. There might be some folks there that missed it too.

That’s where I’m headed when I get done gathering my things

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here.

Maybe I’ll see you there, but I have to go.

I have a job

to do now,” Rupert hung up. “Well?” “He said to meet him at Hooghan Evangelical – isn’t that Sanchez’s church?” asked Marshall. “Yeah… Let’s check on Mrs. Lipinski first. She’s such a

sweet little old lady, I’d die if anything happened to her.” “Alright, I’ll go check on her. have to stay up there.” “Marshall,” Cynthia stopped her husband, “I love you, hurry back.” He turned and stepped out the door, leaving it open behind. Mrs. Lipinski lived in the neighboring apartment. Often alone, Pack up some food in case we

she spent her widower days knitting and watching courtroom shows on network broadcast during the day. door. bell. No answer. Marshall knocked on her

He turned a small brass knob to ring her Marshall pulled

Not a sound peeped from behind the door.

a backup key from underneath her doormat and slid it into the keyhole in the deadbolt. On entering the apartment he smelled a faint foul odor, like that of burnt dust that becomes caked in an unused space heater.

111

“Mrs. Lipinski?

You in here?” he called. The refined senses from his Something out-of-

He scanned the room for clues.

days on the police force came quickly back.

the-ordinary caught his eye – a spilled sack of cat food on the floor. Next to the sack was a black circle – two darker patches A large ruby-encrusted

inside it shaped like shoe soles.

anniversary ring sat mixed in with the pile of cat kibble. Marshall burst through the door and ran the short length of hallway back to his apartment. Cynthia’s face turned when she He was pale

saw the look of horror in her husband’s expression. – his lips slack and trembling. articulate his words. “She… Mrs. Lipinski… She’s gone…

His hands shook as he tried to

Whatever’s taking them…

She’s gone…” “Oh my god…” Cynthia trailed off. was happening. weapon? She could not process what

Is it some sort of epidemic, some sort of Mrs. Lipinski was just an innocent old

Something more?

shut-in who only left her house for church on the occasional Sunday morning. thing? What could have got her? Is it this “rapture”

Could all that religious rhetoric be true?

“We need to get down there to that big church and see if there’s anyone there. If this isn’t some sort of new threat –

if this is what Rupert says it is, the second coming of Christ

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or whatever – we might be able to find out more about what we need to do,” Marshall reasoned. “That’s crazy, I mean… How could that be it? It has to be—”

“Well I’m not in any mood to argue about it,” Marshall interrupted, “Let’s just go meet Rupert down there. reason to wait around here.” “Alright, you’re right. Let’s just go,” Cynthia resigned. The world as she There’s no

She did not have the will to argue anymore. knew it seemed to be dissolving around her. # “Where the hell is Karen?” Stone yelled. “She’s not here, Stone.

She was taken,” Boomer sighed. Do you think it’s what they’re He had never

“What the hell is going on? saying? The Rapture?”

Stone groaned as he asked.

been a religious man, but certainly knew what the Biblical concept entailed. “That’s the speculation. a statement at any time. Stone. career. President Singh is expected to make

It’s happening all over the planet,

This is shaping up to be the biggest news day of your I hope you’re ready,” Boomer grinned.

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“Wipe that smirk off of your face.

Do you realize what it It means we

means if this is the Biblical second coming? fucking missed it!

We’re stuck here in limbo for three and a

half years of prosperity and three and a half years of turmoil. That’s what the nuts who believe this crap always warn about. According to their version of things, we’ll be killed – if we’re lucky. If it turns out that these are the events of the Rapture

of the Church – we’re screwed.” “I know, Stone, I know. But think about it, whatever it is, So you should

you’re never gonna get another story like this. savor the news value while you can. man,” offered Boomer.

This is gonna be your 9/11,

“I was supposed to be out fishing today, Boomer – not covering the destruction of society,” sighed Stone as he replaced his headphones and flicked on his microphone. The commercial break ended and he took a deep breath before the introductory riff, “Disappearances, mystery, and conspiracy – joining us today for discussion is theology professor Usain M. Gordon. With the

count of missing people worldwide reaching an astonishing two hundred million people at current estimates, all speculation is starting to point toward a religious phenomenon known as the Second Coming or the Rapture. Professor Gordon, thank you for Do you believe that

joining us via telephone this morning.

these are, indeed, the events of the Rapture?”

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“I’m glad to be here, Stone. anyhow.

Well glad to be with you,

I do believe that there is a strong possibility that we

are witnessing Christ’s return to bring his followers home. Because there are so many interpretations of scripture, it is difficult to know exactly how the end times events will unfold,” the professor explained. “But if Christ is taking the church to heaven, why haven’t we seen Him? Where is He?”

“There is no specific evidence that Christ was ever to return to Earth as a man or in a physical form – and why would He? With regards to New Testament scripture, his mission to Earth as a man was accomplished. He died to absolve Christians’ sins.”

“If this is indeed Christ’s return, have all of us remaining here on Earth missed our opportunity for a free ride to Heaven?” Stone pressed, though he was already aware of the answer. “Certainly. If indeed we have just experienced the exodus of

repentant believers, we only have one more opportunity to rise to Heaven – by martyr death at the feet of the anti-Christ. my professional career studying the religions of the world, I never anticipated the reality of this moment, and I am honestly troubled by the notion that we may no longer be discussing the hypothetical.” In

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“I’ll be honest, in my thirty years in radio, I have never felt at such a loss for words. there. I can see what’s happening out With whole

I have been combing through the theories.

Sunday morning congregations disappearing with nothing but a film of ash left in their places, with planes dropping from the sky and trains jumping the tracks, it is painfully obvious to me that something out-of-the-ordinary and beyond human technological understanding is occurring out there. frightening beyond words.” “I understand entirely. My entire life has been devoted to It’s

studying all aspects of theism in the world, but not once did I ever devote my time to observe a religion of my own,” Professor Gordon sighed. # The volume knob clicked as it moved to the off position. Allison reclined her head back against the concrete wall of the basement in sheer disbelief. She had never expected to hear

such talk on the radio – in her experience, such concepts had only ever been discussed in a church sanctuary. Allison’s

religious beliefs had been on the decline for years, but to be directly confronted by one of her childhood fears – missing the Rapture of the Church – was disconcerting. Can this be true?

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If they’re talking about it on the radio, it must be a strong possibility. If it weren’t – they’d be fired in a heartbeat.

Allison emptied the cardboard box into the corner and flipped it over. Seems sturdy enough. She scooted the box below the

tiny window.

The window was at ceiling-height in the basement, Balancing each foot

but at ground level with the outside.

carefully on the strengthened corners of the box, she pulled her eyes to the edge of the windowsill. Her father and the

congregation were carrying on normally with their ‘walk of faith’ in the churchyard. Everyone’s still out there…

“Well if the radio guy was right and this is really going down – looks like dad’s way was wrong and so was I,” she muttered. She thought back to the service at Hooghan Evangelical Fellowship Church with Jimmy Lee Sanchez. She remembered his

bullet points for the evening – rebuke, repair, and repent. Allison had done none of those things to prepare herself. small marijuana pipe and a pinch of weed were tucked in her pocket at that very moment. unapologetic about. It was a vice that she was The

Her relationship with her father was

strained and miserable – the two were barely acquaintances at that point.

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Allison thought of another ‘R’ word that felt more appropriate in her moment of despair – regret. She dropped to her knees on

the cold cement floor and folded her hands. “Why God? Why do it this way? How were we to know what was

the right way? answers.

I have so many questions and I’ll never get

Why would you punish someone like me, or people like What have they done but It’s not Leave

the ones out there at the coal pit?

follow their pastor in what they thought was right? fair, God. It’s not fair! How?

How could you do this?

us here to whither away now with no direction?

I know that I’ve

done a lot of terrible things to myself and my father, but I never thought that you would think me any worse than a crackhead on the streets! I tried! How could you?!” She

Allison pulled her small pot pipe from her pocket.

crouched back against the exterior wall and looked it over. What’s the point now? I might as well toke the rest of this

weed since I’m being punished anyways. Sensing a bit of discomfort, she shifted and reached into her back pocket. The crumpled church flyer was still tucked inside.

She flipped through pages and stopped on the week’s itinerary. One line seemed to jump out at her. Day four: The Tribulation

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“The Tribulation,” she mused, “Seven years and then everything is wiped out completely… If anyone survives that long.” The

It felt like something snapped inside of her. Tribulation! had to do. I can still get out of this…

She knew what she

I can make a difference – I can study the truth – I can help lead a

what the people who were raptured did right. resistance and we can still make it.

Those who hold onto the

faith through the Tribulation can still live free in Heaven as martyrs. Rebuke, repair, repent! I can still do this.

It was a brief moment of elation as she stood and crushed the pewter marijuana pipe under her foot. I just have to find a way out of here… # Damerae was in a significant state of impairment as he sat in his perch blowing the first haze of the morning out into the early spring sky. Residents of the small black apartment The people I’ll stand up and fight.

complex were running about frantically down below.

were searching vehicles and begging each other for help. Damerae wondered if it was the dagga blend playing on his fresh morning bloodstream, or if there was really some sort of panic ensuing with his neighbors. “Hey ma bredren, coo 'pon!” he called.

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Rome rounded the corner from the kitchen with an apple clenched firmly in his teeth. He thought about how funny it

would be to shove Damerae out the window, but decided against it. He leaned over the ledge to see what had piqued his

friend’s interest. “What’s going on down there?” “List’n braa,” Damerae mumbled. “Where’s my J.J.?” a woman shouted below, “I can’t find my son! Someone please help!”

A man nearby was showing a photograph to other neighbors, “Have you seen this woman? She’s my mother. She’s not in her Do you

apartment and I think she may be lost. recognize her?”

Anyone?

“Yo Crosley!” Rome yelled, “You seein’ anything weird on the news in there?” “Yah, mon! People gone duppy all ova’ mon!” His

Crosley jogged into the living room to join his friends. mind was pouring with ideas of how to exploit the chaos that

would ensue after what he had just witnessed on the television broadcast. People all over the planet had gone missing – and

major cities like Hong Kong and Sydney were already in complete states of riot. A man could make a killing with stolen goods

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looted from abandoned storefronts – not to mention hot cars and trucks. It was an opportunity that not even a cover of darkness Police would be so engrossed in managing the Dis be

could afford.

madness that most crimes would go completely unnoticed. our break ova guy mon, Crosley grinned to himself. a mad bounty t’day. “List’n up, bredren. Green’s shop na’.

We gon tief

Get ’hold o’ Slug an’ we gon get to da’

Dis is mad time ta’ mash it up.”

Rome flipped open his cell phone to text message Eddie: Come home. Cros wants to go now. Bring piece. Wear cover.

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Chapter Five

Again, if you’re just joining us on this eventful Sunday morning, we are bearing witness to an alarming phenomenon. now have reports of dozens of airline crashes, with more expected as additional pilotless aircraft begin to run depleted of fuel. There is massive devastation across the nation as well We

as the rest of the world, with mysterious disappearances now in the hundreds of millions leaving theology experts to point to a specific Biblically predicted event known commonly as the Rapture of the Church. We had theology professor Usain M. Gordon with us in the last half-hour, and he is convinced that this is indeed the cause of these missing persons reports. We’re working to get additional

experts with us soon, and President Singh is expected to give a brief address from Gaza before the top of the hour. As if the destruction and misery are not enough, there are now reports out of China of a possible resurgence of avian influenza. The disease, previously thought to have been Suffers of the

eradicated in 2018, may be back in a big way.

mystery illness have shown up at hospitals in Hong Kong and the surrounding area reporting flu-like symptoms and small skin lesions on the face and arms.

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We will be updating you as more information comes in, but now we have to break for station identification. This is Stone

Silvers, and I’ll be back with you after the jump on KHOO AM 1200.

“This is some scary stuff, huh Stone?” Boomer asked as he sipped his coffee in the rear corner of the sound booth. “You seem pretty casual about all of this,” Stone groaned. “This is big news, man – big news. Not to say I’m not

terrified out of my wits here, but this will probably get us the highest ratings in years,” Boomer grinned. “You’re insane, old man. Do you not realize that we might not This epidemic – I was saving this

even make it through the day?

for the next update, but they’re saying it could go global in hours. The pathogen is apparently airborne, and with all the

downed flights out there, and all the rescue workers who have no idea what they might be exposed to… serious.” Boomer tossed Stone his pack of cigarettes. the front doors and not let anyone in. whatever. “Well we’ll lock This thing could be very

Self-quarantine or

Stone, this may be a bad situation, but you can’t You’re a civil servant, man. People are

just hide from it.

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expecting to turn on their radios and listen to what you have to say. You’re their informant. They trust you – need you.”

“The world’s tearing apart at the seams and I have to sit here and talk about it like some schmuck,” moaned Stone with a turn of his head, “Get me a bottle of ’Jack from the meeting hall.” # “Jeff, I don’t want to be an alarmist, but you don’t look so great,” whispered Allen with a hushed breath. “Please just shut up for a second.” The men sat on the west edge of the lake staring into a handheld radio atop Allen’s tackle box. They had decided to Jeff

take their chances and wait out the incidents on the lake.

has assumed that if anything was headed the men’s way, the woods or the water would provide ample cover. Through all the

disaster planning he had still not been able to put the disappearance of his brother out of his mind. The guy was a If

felon and a rapist, how the hell would he get into heaven?

that’s the only explanation they’re feeding us, then they’re a bunch of idiots. Carl did nothing to impress God…

“Look Jeff, I know you don’t like me,” Allen bit back, “It’s obvious by how you’ve treated me all these years. me from what I can tell. Nobody likes

I try so damn hard to be what people

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want me to be and still I get no respect from anyone. here, man. We’re stuck in this together.

We’re out

There may be more

hell coming our way – I don’t know.

But if we’re going to make

it through this, you’ve got to stop being such an asshole and step it up.” Allen blushed a bit – it felt good to finally “I was just trying to tell you that you’ve got

defend himself.

a rash all up the left side of your face,” he continued, “Just trying to be helpful, you don’t have to be so darned snippy.” Jeff pulled a spoon lure from his cap and checked his complexion. Allen was right, but it was not just a rash – the It was painful when he

skin had begun to break open and crack. pressed on it with his fingertips.

“You don’t think,” Jeff paused for a second look, “You don’t think it’s that bird flu thing?” “Surely not,” Allen offered in a reassuring tone, “How would it have spread out here?” “I don’t know, man… for too long. But I don’t think I should sit on this

It looks nasty already.”

“I’ve got some anti-biotic ointment in my tackle box,” Allen offered as he sifted through his fishing lures to the bottom of the box, “You should put some of this on it until we can get back into town.”

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“Should we even go back into town at this point?

I mean, if

I’m contagious we could risk infecting a ton of other people.” “We could risk infecting me too, man!” “I know but… there. Man I don’t want to make matters worse out

I doubt we’d be able to even get into the hospital area People are probably running crazy in the streets by

downtown.

now,” Jeff sighed. “Well, we’ll do whatever you want to do. on me. Just in case, you know.” Just don’t breathe

Jeff’s face fell somber for a moment before it grew concerned. He pulled off his cap and covered his mouth. uncertain. Allen leaned back, He

Jeff moved in close to inspect Allen’s face.

sighed and replaced the cap atop his head. “You’ve already got it. Looks like chicken pox starting to

come up through your forehead.” Allen’s eyelids fluttered quickly. He rolled up his right

sleeve to find a rash, similar to shingles, forming up the inside of his forearm. as well. The same had developed on his left arm

A trickle of blood crept down the bridge of his nose

as one of the small boils on his face split open. “What… How did it come on so fast?” he gasped. His The

astonishment was furthered as Jeff rolled up his sleeves.

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inside of the garment was already caked with a dried crust of blood. “This is serious, Allen,” Jeff groaned, “What the hell, man? We’re out here in the middle of nowhere, how would we…” “It’s a plague, man. over – we’re screwed.” “Don’t talk like that. much worse. We’ll stay out here until it gets too Like Stone was just saying. Man, it’s

You know there’s protocol for this kind of shit. Until they set

We go into town now and we’re screwed for help.

up some kind of emergency quarantine or something, we won’t be doing anything helpful.” “Alright, we’ll keep KHOO on and wait,” Allen sighed, “But I’m telling you, we’re just as screwed out here.” # The boys sat atop the wooden fence of the horse pasture. Sunshine had tried numerous times to phone his parents, but the cellular networks were unreliable. It was becoming more and

more difficult to maintain a signal on the phone, and he wondered how long it would be before the network was down entirely. Thoughts of Erica flooded Sunshine’s mind. With people

disappearing into thin air, there’s no telling what kind of

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destruction could be going on. anything happened to her.

I hope she’s safe.

I’d die if

Without cellular service, there was He could only think positive

no way that he could contact her. thoughts and hope for the best.

Jován pondered life without his parents.

Nearly everyone he

knew outside of his circle of friends he had met through his parents’ church. His family and other loved ones were all Aside from the

members of Hooghan First Assembly church.

friends he was sitting with, he knew that he had no one else to go to. His life would be different. He would be on his own.

Charlie stared into his pack of cigarettes and thought about his past up to that point. in serious relationships. He had been with several girls, none He had broken a lot of girls’ hearts He had

and angered a lot of fathers – all for the experiences.

never loved a girl – he had only used each one so he could feel good about himself afterwards. Charlie would never admit it,

even to close friends, but he led a primarily unhappy and spiteful life. Sex was his drug – even more so than nicotine –

and it felt like the more of it that he had, the less happy he became. “I miss Elliot,” Charlie finally broke the silence, “Damn it, we should have listened to him.” “It’s the past man. Can’t go back now,” Jován replied.

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Charlie exhaled a deep breath, “I know, but it’s just…

I

always thought he was such a tool for being so devoted to his church. I thought he was just being put in line, a follower. And ’cause we didn’t listen,

Man, the dude was right though.

we’re sitting here just waiting out what’s next.” “What else is there?” Sunshine asked with a nervous shakiness. He had no knowledge of scripture and felt ill in his consuming lack of information. prepared of the group. “It’s up in the air, man. I’ve been to dozens of sermons He felt as though he was the least

about this stuff – all of them had a different idea of what might happen. It was all meant to scare people into believing I

more than it was meant to tell what was really gonna go down.

mean, there were stories of a lot of wars and politics, stories of plagues and suffering, and all kinds of other stuff. supposed to be bad. It’s

Like, it’s supposed to be stuff you just

can’t imagine preparing for.” “All I can think about is what I’ve done,” Charlie said through teary eyes, “Guys all I can think about is all the girls’ lives I’ve screwed up. Some of the crap I’ve done – man

I could be responsible for sealing someone else’s fate just like I did my own. There might be girls out there right now, like

Shannon or Robyn – I mean I treated them like crap when I broke

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it off.

I took their innocence and left them, and I know

Shannon at least, she wasn’t the same, man.” “You never think of the repercussions until they hit, dude,” Jován said solemnly, “It’s like Janine – dude I treated her like scum when I broke that off, and she was still head-over-heels for me. I thought it was just tough love, you know. Thought it

was what I needed to do.

And when she was in that car wreck, it

was the worst feeling knowing that I would never have the opportunity to apologize. We had been friends for years before

we dated, then we had the messy break-up, I didn’t pick up her calls and then… you know? different. Boom! She’s gone and I’m stuck with the guilt,

If only I had any idea, things could have been so I still think about it every day.”

“This just ain’t right,” Sunshine groaned while sliding off the wooden fence, “It’s just not right that a god of compassion could be so cold. What about the people who’ve never had the What of their fates?” If they hadn’t

chance to hear about Him?

“I mean I guess that’s what this time is for.

heard about Christianity yet, they’ll learn quick before the big war,” replied Jován. “War?” asked Charlie. “Yeah, from what I understand, we’ve got seven years before the real hell breaks loose. At least, that’s what I’ve heard

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most often. out.

It’s the final battle before everything gets wiped It’s like, the ultimate bad guys

Total jihad, guys.

versus the ultimate good.” The boys sat in silence, trying to process the thought. They

had friends that had enlisted and been shipped out to Third Iraq War. Many of those young men and women had died in the last

battle of Baghdad before the Federation of Nuclear Powers had stepped in to split the country up by religious factions. When

the final order was signed and the three Iraqi states had been given borders, very few soldiers were left to return home. The

thought of a third world war – a war without borders or rules – frightened all three of the young men. “Who is that?” asked Charlie as he spotted an elderly woman running toward them. “It’s Frances, one of our neighbors,” Sunshine replied, “Looks like she’s carrying something.” Jován hopped off of the fence, “She’s coming this way, looks scared as hell.” Frances reached the small group. Her face was covered in She was

sores – her clothes soaked in blood and yellow fluid. babbling incoherently and crying.

The skin of her arms was open

– so far that the meat of her muscles could be seen through the wounds. She handed the armload to Sunshine, who quickly

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unwrapped it to find a small, bloodied, deteriorated little girl inside. The grotesque child looked to have been about twelve

years old – but the skin and muscle were so eaten away that Sunshine could not accurately tell the age. “My, my grandbaby…” the woman muttered, “We’ve got to… get her to a hospital… She’s very… Very sick…” Got to

Sunshine fought back his flooding emotions, “Frances, your girl is gone. so sorry, I… She’s not breathing – not moving. Frances, I’m

We need to get you both to a hospital.” Her legs

The woman’s face froze and her eyes rolled back.

buckled, but Jován and Charlie swooped in to ease her to the ground. She began convulsing wildly and vomiting coagulated The boys rolled her over to prevent her

blood onto the ground.

from choking, but her body stiffened up as it seized. “Frances!” Sunshine yelled as he lay the dead child atop a hay bail and rushed to his neighbor’s side, “Frances, breathe!” The woman’s seizures slowed. The boys rolled her onto her

back and tilted her head to relieve the stress on her throat. Jován ripped off his shirt and nestled it underneath the woman’s neck for support before placing a palm to her nostrils. “She’s not breathing! Jován ordered. Sunshine, get ready to pump her chest!” The metallic

He sealed his mouth around hers.

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taste of her bloody lips turned his stomach.

He forced himself Her chest

to continue, and filled her lungs with a full breath. sank.

Jován pushed another breath into her. “Pump now, thirty

compressions.” Jován spit the blood from his mouth and wiped the mess onto his pants leg. “Thirty! Sunshine counted in his head.

Go!” As her

Jován dove in again to give the woman another breath. chest fell, Sunshine began the compressions. several minutes. “It’s over guys,” Charlie sighed as he placed a hand on Jován’s shoulder. The boys sat back and looked at the woman. she had been attacked with a steak knife. and her skin had nearly been eaten away. “She was old… Charlie offered. Weak immune system.

They continued for

She looked like

Blood was everywhere,

Whatever it is hit hard,”

“Oh, shit!” Sunshine yelled, looking over his arms, “I’m breaking out. She’s contagious.”

Jován noticed small reddish bumps forming on his own skin, “Oh, God. Oh, God. This isn’t happening.”

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“We’ve got to head up to that church up the road – Newpine,” Charlie offered nervously, “We’re all gonna get this, whatever it is. We’ve got to go get help now. Let’s grab the first-aid

kit and some supplies and get out of here!” # The Blackheart Men slipped unnoticed around the rear of Green’s Auto Emporium. blue jeans. backs. Each wore a black hooded sweatshirt and

Their weapons were hidden in holsters at their

Only Damerae carried a satchel – holding all the tools Crosley had

necessary to successfully pull off the caper.

riskily chosen to lead his team to the lot in the middle of the day. With the town was in the beginning stages of panic-fueled

anarchy, and he was certain that it would provide ample distraction for from the police. Eddie and Rome each grabbed an acetylene torch from the satchel. The young men had to cut a hole large enough to drive The fence was made of cheap anodized In minutes the

the GH Pianeta through.

aluminum links that cut easily with low heat.

fence was opened and the men were inside the car lot. Crosley spotted a row of three of the prized vehicles near the large exterior windows of the main showroom. – the third on the ground. Two were on risers

He quickly decided on a sleek black The color was nice and the risers

model with a flashy spoiler.

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would give Damerae easy access to the computer maintenance port near the underbelly of the vehicle. Damerae lit up a blunt and

pulled a small netbook computer from the satchel. “Time fa’ da’ bashment!” he announced as he slid underneath the car and plugged a universal fiber optic bus cable into the car’s access port. He launched a command terminal application and requested root access to the operating system. The request was immediately met

with a login procedure, to which he ran a script to guess common default usernames and passwords. Just forty-three attempts No matter how

later, the script replied with a success message.

interweaved computers had become in society, security was still not a priority on many systems. Damerae thought it amusing that

administrative access to such an expensive machine was so easily compromised. “Alright bredren, we in,” he said as the door locks clicked open, “Cros, hop in an’ put an eye near da’ scanna’ mon.” Crosley climbed the riser and jumped into the driver’s seat. With a quick run of a second computer script, Damerae accessed the retina scanner in the steering wheel and instructed the keyless start application to store a driver profile for Crosley. An invisible beam traced the patterns of Crosley’s retina speedily and the car chimed from the center console before

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quietly humming to life. so simple.

Stealing an automobile had never been

The men jumped into the car after Crosley backed it off of the risers. Cackles of delight filled the vehicle as Damerae

connected wirelessly to the car’s network adapter and blared Bob Marley’s The Heathen through the digital surround sound system. “We gon go down ta’ town ta’ nab duns n’ loot braas! diem, yah!” yelled a delighted Crosley. Carpe

He was delighted to

seize the day – and as much bounty as he could pack into his shiny new toy. # “Wait Marshall, the President is about to speak!” Cynthia motioned for her husband to drop his backpack and have a seat on the sofa. President Juliana Singh appeared on the Her

television, flanked by a number of foreign dignitaries. expression was grim and her posture rigid.

She stepped up to

the podium looked directly into the lens of the camera. I speak to you today not as a politician or theologian – not as a representative of any specific religion or group. to you today as a leader. I come

You are all frightened of what is Everyone is now aware that the I am lucky

going on around the planet.

world is in a state of shock, crisis, and confusion.

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to be here with some of the most well educated leaders of our time, and have had the opportunity to consult with these men and women about how to overcome this situation and persevere as a people. We have begun talks with the United Nations and the

Federation of Nuclear Powers to bring about a greater mode of cooperation to face this crisis. In the short term, I call on

every state, county, and city government to put into place the procedures for a national state of emergency. There are now

reports worldwide of a serious illness of pandemic proportions, and quarantine shelters must be set up wherever feasible. out in your community and band together to survive. Reach

When we

have a handle on the severity of the day, the governments of the world will unite to find cures and rebuild. These are just the

early hours of this situation, and we have ample time to address all concerns. I beg for your patience and understanding, and

want all the people of America and the world to know – I will be committed to do anything in my means to bring us through this. Thank you, and God bless us. “Just more of her asinine bullshit,” Marshall shook his head as he threw the newspaper at the television set, “How this idiot got re-elected is beyond me. She didn’t even mention the cause Why even speak

– she’s so terrified that she’ll offend someone. if she has nothing at all to say?”

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“Granted she’s no FDR, but I give her credit for trying,” Cynthia said as she scratched a small bump on her cheek. speck of blood was smeared on her fingertip. ran to a mirror on the living room wall. “What’s wrong with you?” “I don’t know,” Cynthia said curiously, “I’ve got these little bumps on my face – like acne or something.” Marshall felt his own face – his forehead felt like Braille. “Crap, something’s on mine too.” “It’s that skin disease, oh God…” Cynthia worried as she ran A

She jumped up and

to the kitchen cabinets to rifle through old pill bottles. “What? What are you going to do now?”

“I’ve got some antibiotic pills in here from that bacterial infection you had. supposed to.” Marshall groaned, “You’re gonna take antibiotics? even know if that’s going to work.” Suddenly the television roared with a load tone. emergency broadcast system. The emergency alert system has been activated. Denver It was the You don’t You never finished them like you were

residents suffering from skin irritation, rash, and sores are to

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report to Saint Joseph Hospital.

Please enter through the

emergency room entrance and you will be directed toward the quarantine area. All other Colorado residents please listen Mandeville – residents

closely for further instruction.

experiencing symptoms please report to the Hudson Family Clinic. Rockwell – residents experiencing symptoms please report to the Rockwell High School gymnasium. Hooghan – residents

experiencing symptoms please report to the Perry Park storm shelters… “We’ve got to get down there,” Cynthia urged calmly. “We’re meeting up with Rupert first. we’re sticking to that. We promised him, and

He might be infected too, and might

need our help,” replied Marshall. “You’re right, but we’re going to that shelter immediately afterword.” # Lana slammed her cell phone down onto the table, “This is ridiculous. minutes.” “Me either,” Erica replied, “We’ve only got a hold of one of the kids’ parents.” I haven’t been able to get a signal for ten

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“This is hopeless, Miss Lane,” said Kari, closing her phone and spinning it on the table. The phone sang a little jingle

and Kari opened it back up to read the message. “Sounds like something got through?” Lana asked. “Text message from my sister,” the girl replied, “Apparently there is some sort of disease going around on people’s skin. They’ve set up the Perry Park storm shelter to treat people.” “That’s down by the hospital,” offered Erica, scratching her arm vigorously. Lana gasped, “Erica! Your jacket!”

A stain of warm blood was slowly seeping through the thin windbreaker. Lana turned to the other kids. sweating. anywhere. “We’ve gotta get down to that shelter, Miss Lane,” offered the young man, “This thing has got to be strong if it somehow blew in here.” Lana could barely stand up, her heart was racing at a nervous pace, “Yes, we definitely need to go – now. we’ll take my SUV.” Grab your things, Each was faintly red – some God, we’re not safe

How the hell did it get in here?

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As Erica checked her purse for her belongings, she began to wonder about Sunshine. She wanted dearly to call him and make A

sure that he was safe and aware of the emergency shelter. check of her phone signal showed no bars of service. When I really need to talk to him, I can’t. through all of the possibilities. Charlie, and Elliot.

Why now?

Her mind blew

He’s probably with Jován,

Those guys could survive anything.

They’ll probably already be at the shelter when we get there. She bit her lip and hoped. “Erica, we’re going to get through this – together. I won’t

let you out of my sight,” Lana said with compassion, “We’re going to be alright.” “Thanks Lana,” Erica replied softly, nuzzling into the woman’s embrace. The feelings Erica had for Lana were unusual and unexpected. She could have never anticipated being emotionally torn between two such different people. folksy. Sunshine was rugged, outdoorsy, and

He had his moments of openness, but those were rare.

He sincerely cared about her, but it was often in a stoic and reactionary manner. Lana was nearly a polar opposite.

Lana worked to discuss all of Erica’s feelings when she sensed that something was wrong. Where Sunshine would call to ask

Erica to spend time doing activities, Lana would call just to

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talk, share, and most importantly: listen. compassionate – not to mention beautiful.

Lana was outwardly But she was a woman,

and Erica still struggled with her feelings about the relationship. With all that’s going on, is it right to still

wonder? Erica thought. # Record player, police scanner, a box of D-cell batteries, two stereo speakers, and that AM radio. thought Allison. She desperately needed a way out of the locked basement. had plugged in the AM radio just minutes before, and after hearing about the pandemic, horrific crashes and explosions, and rising death toll – she knew that she had to see it all for herself. Locked in a cement box, Allison would have no She Not much to work with here,

opportunity to witness the events and make up her own mind as to whether or not it truly was the Biblical Second Coming. She had

been taught about the Rapture all of her life, but had never considered it anything more than a literal interpretation of passages intended to be metaphorical. With a few quick tugs, Allison snapped the aperture arm off of the record player. plastic strip. The needle slid out easily, leaving a thin

She wedged the strip between the lock and the The lock clicked a few times,

doorframe and wiggled it about.

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and with a little more work, the strip had separated the locking mechanism from the slot. frame. budge. Maybe I can bust the locks inside the

She slammed her shoulder into the door, but it would not The two additional locks held firm.

Allison returned to the pile of old electronics and picked up the police scanner. pried apart. It had an aluminum case that was easily

She took the metal panel in her left hand and the The middle hinge looked like the

box of batteries in her right. easiest first target.

Allison fit the panel under the head of

the pin and began hammering away with the box of batteries. With every pound the pin would move up just a millimeter or two. This will take all day. There’s gotta be a better way. Well, I

Allison again returned to the pile of electronics. was always good at Tetris.

She pushed the junk underneath the

single basement window and began assembling it into a tight structure. This will be the base. If I can build it sturdy

enough I should be able to balance on the cardboard box and have enough space to wedge my elbows in and climb out. When finished With the

building, the stack of junk stood about a foot high.

added eighteen inches of the old box, and a lot of careful balance, Allison could raise her shoulders all the way to the windowsill.

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The parishioners outside were holding hands and praying around one of the children. Allison was disgusted and embarrassed –

they all wore nearly nothing – just simple wraps of cotton material to cover their privates. The child began dancing

wildly and took off onto the hot embers. Allison sighed, “That is obviously not the will of God.” # “The pain is getting too intense, man,” Jeff groaned. “Yeah, let’s get out of here – head to the storm shelters,” Allen agreed. Jeff primed the motor and turned the key. The twenty

horsepower engine roared to life, but began choking hard sputtered out. He turned the key again. The gears grinded with

a loud creak and the prop seized. Allen sniffed the air, “What’s that smell?” “Smells like hot metal…” The men stood and looked out across the lake. become a dark, thick, red soup. boat and inspected the liquid. The water had

Allen dipped a finger over the He brought it to his nose to There was

catch the odor before wiping the drop on his shirt. no question – it was blood.

Thick clots had begun forming on

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the surface, and had been the cause of the fault in the boat’s motor. “We’ve got to go – want to try my boat?” Allen asked with a panic. “No, it’ll just seize up the same, you’ve only got a fifteen horsepower on that little thing. Look, we’re ten feet from We can get to Ferris Byway

shore, let’s just head out on foot. before we would get to our cars. into town that way.”

We’ll grab a ride and head

Allen became hysterical, “This is insanity, man. crazy god does this?”

What kind of

“Pull it together, Teeter!” Jeff yelled, “Don’t even think about that right now – we’ve got to think about survival, not regret!” “How are we gonna survive this? better. It’s getting worse – not We’re

He’s wiping us all out – exterminating us.

fucked, man!” “Just shut up and get out of the boat, you idiot! We’re gonna Of

make it, just follow me and stop bitching!” Jeff growled.

all the whiny morons to get stuck with in a time like this, of course God would punish me with Teeter.

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Chapter Six

We are now hearing scattered reports of a new wave in what a Vatican spokesman is calling the “most bizarre series of supernatural phenomena ever witnessed by man”. Water supplies

worldwide have taken on the appearance and viscosity of human blood – and doctors have begun confirming that, in fact, it is just that. From oceans to rivers to even snow in the Rockies, Even

the phenomenon is sweeping quickly across the planet.

saline drips in the emergency quarantine shelters have suddenly changed form, making the recovery effort all the more difficult. The Vatican spokesman confirmed reports that Pope Pius XIII, the College of Cardinals, and most other Vatican parishioners had vanished in this morning’s global disappearance event. Just a few moments ago President Singh offered her first words on the crisis. Democrat majority leader Dillon Keen called her

statements a “show of reckless neglect” and a “display of her sincere misunderstanding of the situation”. elaborate, Senator Keen went on to say this: President Singh does not show the slightest shred of concern for the crisis at hand. She has already destroyed all hope of When asked to

maintaining a divide between government involvement with religious institutions and vice versa. Now she fails to treat

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this situation with the gravity it deserves.

It is clear that

the President does not have any concept of how to act on this crisis. It is a national embarrassment.

Harsh words, but many prominent Senators and congressmen and women across party lines have also spoken of their disappointment with Singh’s handling of the matter and the brevity of her statements. And now we’ll break for the emergency broadcast system with updates on the pandemic outbreak and information on local shelters… # “Flashlights, lighters, bottled water, and batteries!” yelled Charlie. The guys were hurriedly packing supplies into their They had already begun to develop small

emptied backpacks.

breakouts of sores and were in no mood to wait around until it grew as horrific as Frances and her grandchild. “My dad has this emergency radio,” Sunshine remarked, holding up the device, “It’s got a hand crank and a solar cell to power it if the batteries die.” Sunshine wondered if anyone at the Newpine church would be able to help – or if anyone would still be there. He only knew

that it was an odd offshoot sect from the Southern Baptist

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philosophies, but that even the local Baptist churches kept their distance from the group. Sunshine had heard many weird

stories of snake dancing and mock crucifixions – stories that had turned him off from ever wanting to go near the place. he was desperate for guidance. willing to hear him or her out. Erica, he thought, I wonder if she’s okay. raced. I should really go out and find her. His thoughts She’s probably If anyone was there, he was But

still up at the elementary school. woman. I should go on my own.

She’s probably with that

I should go and get her and make They

sure she’s safe.

He fought the urge to ditch his friends.

needed his help too – it would be wrong to abandon them after all they had done to help him along with the toils of his relationship. I just hope she’s okay. It had

Charlie had visited Newpine once with a girlfriend.

been a few years before, during his crooning high school days. The service was not exceptionally unusual in comparison to some of the other eccentric churches he had visited in his hunt for pretty flings – but the tone of the pastor had been memorable. The man spoke with a direct authority, as if he was channeling a higher power with each word. He pointed directly at individual

parishioners as he spoke, as if to call them out publicly for their sins. Pastor Jacobs was intimidating and showered the

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congregation with guilt – so much so that even Charlie had squirmed a bit in his pew. “So what’s the plan?” asked Jován, “Head up Battle Creek Road to old Highway 99? Take the back way?” No sense in driving all the way out to

“I think that’s best.

the interstate and getting lost in a sea of traffic,” replied Charlie. Sunshine grimaced as he zipped up his backpack. wonder what downtown looks like. “Yeah, I just

People are probably dropping I

like crazy if this skin rash has spread around up there.

mean, people with weak immune systems probably don’t stand a chance.” “We’d better head out if we want a chance,” muttered Charlie. The boys piled their bags into Jován’s pickup truck and climbed in. The key was turned and the starter chugged for a

few seconds before the engine roared like a lion after a kill. Almost immediately, smoke began to bellow out from under the hood. red. “Dude, kill it! yelled. You’re gonna lock up the engine!” Charlie The temperature gauge began to climb rapidly into the

Jován complied with a nervous rush.

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Sunshine leapt out of the vehicle and popped open the hood. “What in the hell?!” “What’s wrong?” asked Jován as he stepped down from the driver’s side door. Sunshine extended a blood-soaked pair of What is

fingers around the hood for Jován to inspect. “What? that?” “Dude, it’s blood.

Why do you have blood in your coolant

tank, you retard?” Sunshine asked with an annoyed glare. “Man, shut up. Why the hell would I put blood in my truck?

What kind of sick dumbass do you think I am?” Jován bit back. “Well, then how’d it get there?” Sunshine queried before a snarl of his nose, “Aw, shit. It smells like burnt hamburgers.”

“Water into blood, oh my God…” Jován thought for a moment, “Dude, I know I’ve read about this in the Bible – in Revelation.” “So you’re telling me that it’s another plague?” “Guys!” Charlie yelled from the truck cab. He was holding

something up in his hand, before he tossed it out of the window. It was an unopened water bottle filled with a thick red liquid. “It’s blood! All of them are filled with blood!”

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“Oh man, what the hell are we supposed to drink?” Sunshine groaned. Charlie had already hopped out to check his own car. had a coolant tank full of rich, coagulated blood. supposed to get out of here?! is this? It too

“How are we

What kind of ridiculous horseshit

Not only do we have the plague, but He takes away our

transportation too?!” “Let’s just go on foot,” Jován groaned, “We can’t just stand around like idiots.” “You’re right, let’s bounce,” Sunshine replied with a nervous tremble in his voice. The two-mile stretch between the youths and Newpine Baptist Church was not an easy walk. Most of the geography was hilly

forestland with large rock formations, creeks, and leftover grids of rusted barbed wire from when the land was used to contain cattle. Sunshine had ventured out a few times when he

was younger, but had never made the trek from one side of the woods to the other. He worried about whether or not they could

make it by foot before the skin rash became too serious. # “It’s useless!” Erica yelled across the school parking lot, “My car won’t start either!”

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“None of them will!” Kari yelled back. Lana was already under the hood of her small SUV. She

immediately recognized the problem, “Someone’s filled our coolant tanks with blood!” “It’s like the plagues…” mumbled Kari as she walked to join the group, “It’s like that story in the Bible about the Egyptians. You know, with the locusts and all that.”

The boy patted his sores with a paper towel, “It’s probably the end of the world. God’s wiping everyone out or something.”

“I don’t care what it is,” Lana said confidently, “We’re gonna get out of here and get down to the storm shelters.” across the hill toward downtown. She looked

A school bus was perched at

the crest of the precipice – left by the driver who had volunteered to chauffer some of the kids whose parents could not. Though Lana knew that it was crazy, she formulated a plan. “Where are you going?” Erica asked as she watched her friend dart to the bus. “It’s like three miles down to the shelters – it would take all afternoon to walk it. We just need to shift the bus into Heck, it might even roll on

neutral and give it a little push.

its own once we kick off the emergency brake.”

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“That’s insane!

You think you can carry the momentum all the There’s no seatbelts on that

way into town without killing us? thing!” Erica protested.

“Trust me on this one, E,” Lana begged as she climbed aboard the yellow bus. In the driver’s seat, she pressed a foot down

on the brake pedal and pulled back the on handle of the emergency brake. She shifted into neutral. As her foot eased

off the brake pedal, the vehicle rolled slowly forward – though only a few inches. “This is gonna work!” the boy yelled as he ran to the rear of the bus to push, “Come on girls!” The others ran to help him, planting their feet on the pavement and pushing with their backs. Their feet slid and

shifted across some of the loose gravel scattered about below, but collectively the youths held firm. With just a few more

moments of work, they had helped scoot the rickety vehicle the few more inches it needed to cross the gravity threshold. “Get in!” Erica yelled, running back to the bus door. The

youths all piled in behind her and took seats near the front. It was bound to be an eventful ride. “Okay, hold on tight!” Lana announced as the bus’s rear tires edged over the crest of the hill. There was nothing but an open

stretch of road all the way down to Markham Hospital, which sat

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right next to Perry Park and its storm shelters. “As long as we ride the brakes, we should be fine – even at the stoplights. It’s totally downhill.” The bus eased down and Lana rode the brakes to keep it under thirty miles per hour. As the nervous travelers began passing

storefronts and homes, it was apparent that most of the townspeople had begun the evacuation. Erica turned away as she His

spotted a young man vomiting blood into the storm drains. shirtless torso was covered in terrible open sores. Kari screamed from the left side of the bus.

Lana slowed down

a bit to catch a look at a team of police officers piling up disease-ridden bodies from inside a small apartment building. The thought of such imminent death was terrifying – even more so as the next scream came from Erica. She was holding the boy who had just seconds earlier helped to push the bus. His body was lifeless – his chest motionless

without breath. “He’s not breathing!” Erica beckoned to the other girls, “I think he’s dead!” “Calm down,” said a cool Lana, “Just hold onto him and talk to him. We’re almost there.”

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As she slowed the bus to a halt at a four-way stop, a crowd of refugees pushed open the bus door. bloody, sweat-soaked, and angry. “Let us on! Take us downtown!” yelled one of the men. The weary travellers were

“No fair you’ve got a working vehicle while we’re out here suffering!” growled a woman. the bus. “Okay, fine. Come on, but stay toward the front. We’re just Nearly a dozen people piled onto

rolling on gravity and can’t weight down the back,” Lana resigned. She lifted her foot from the pedal and began coasting again. What’s that sound? What the— Suddenly, the brakes gave out and the bus rapidly gained speed. Lana fumbled with the emergency brake handle. It was a Sounds like… Metal grinding against metal?

struggle, but she pulled the bar backward.

Smoke bellowed from

beneath the tire wells and with a snap, the emergency brakes were in pieces. “What the hell is going on up there, you idiot?” yelled one of the refugees, “You’re going way too fast!” “The fucking brakes just went out – you wanna come drive this thing?!” Lana roared.

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The bus careened down the hill – tagging parked cars and mailboxes on the way. through a stop. hour. Lana cringed every time the bus blew

The speedometer climbed to sixty miles per The old vehicle became

The road curved just up ahead.

unwieldy as Lana tried to edge along the wide bend of the road. Just a little more! Yeah! Come on, we’re almost out of this! Almost…

The bus rocked back and forth as Lana pulled it into the

straightaway. “About a mile to go!” Lana yelled back to the passengers. They remained quiet – most still holding their breath in anticipation of disaster. The road leveled out and the bus slowed to just over forty miles per hour. “How do you plan to stop this thing?” shouted a man to Lana’s right. “I haven’t thought that far ahead – any suggestions?” “You’re gonna have to crash it – just try and swing wide for a wall or something!” he offered. Suddenly the bus dropped.

“The tire blew!” Erica yelled as she watched the front passenger side tire splinter into pieces and flutter past her window in a tumble. The rear passenger tire exploded just as

the last word leapt from Erica’s lips.

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“Brace yourselves, we’re on rims and coming in hot!” Lana called. The parking deck of Markham Hospital was just ahead.

The bus lurched to the left and leaned hard on the bare metal rims. It skidded sideways and screeched with a deafening The passengers braced hard – heads against the seats The bus toppled onto the passenger side and Splinters of glass,

intensity.

in front of them.

scraped flatly down the blacktop road.

thick chips of yellow paint, and shards of metal sprayed through the interior, slicing the flesh of the helpless passengers. seemed as though the ride would never end. The parking level barrier was a four-foot-tall, three-footthick slab of poured concrete. It crumbled from below as the It

bus slammed into it, creating a sort of ramp to elevate the vehicle. It creaked in a brief balance on the bare rims – When the

barely supported by the concrete debris to its side.

dust and debris finally settled, the wreck of a school bus slammed forward and sat right-side-up on its remaining wheels and rims. Smoke streamed from beneath the hood. The windows

were gone – the door torn off. No movement could be seen within. # Allen slid down from the back of the boat into the thigh-deep bath of blood. It was warm and smelled of iron. As his feet

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touched down at the bottom of the lakebed, a dead carp floated up and rested at the surface. Allen pushed it to the side and Jeff hung the pair of

made his way along the boat toward shore.

fishing bows over his shoulder and hopped out to follow his new counterpart up to the rocky beach. “My God, it’s all in my shoes and everything,” Allen groaned. “Well empty it out and let’s get going,” replied Jeff. The men removed their shoes and poured the thick ooze out onto the rocks. It had already begun to coagulate and was thick and Allen slid his

clotted as it splattered out at their feet.

hands down his pant legs to wring out as much of the thick soup as possible. It dripped in long strings from the hemline. His

gag reflex triggered twice, but he held it back. “If we head directly south we’ll come out by the Freemont Circle neighborhood. The emergency shelters are about two and a

half miles south from there,” Jeff explained. “How far is it to the neighborhood?” “A couple of miles I think – all wooded. We should definitely

make it by dark,” sighed Jeff in reply, “Let’s get going.” #

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The streets of downtown Hooghan were like a disaster zone – something one would expect in Baghdad or Tikrit, but not in middle America. Bodies hung from car windows, buildings burned, It reminded Rupert of the aftermath of

and looters ran rampant.

Hurricane Katrina – when many of the displaced residents took advantage of the brief lawlessness. people acting like such animals. It baffled and amazed him how buildings that he passed every single day in his regular life could look so different with the change in circumstances. The structures loomed ominously, Many It pained his heart to see

shadows dancing with vibrance across the stone surfaces.

of the windows Rupert could see had been broken – either by looters or careless thugs. A distinct dustiness could be felt in the air. It dried the

interior of Rupert’s nose and had begun to chap his alreadyparched lips. the lungs. The air tasted hard – mineral rich and thick on

Breathing had become increasingly laborious, though

the trouble was more an afterthought in consideration of the circumstances. Perhaps what alarmed Rupert most was the sheer number of people who had taken to the streets. well populated. Hooghan was small, though

But aside from the city fair and similar

events, it was rare to see so many Hooghanites amassed in such

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numbers.

People were running, screaming, searching, stealing,

tending to the ill, defiling the lame, and making good choices and bad with little time for consideration. It was a

nightmarish disaster of a situation – with visuals that only deepened the hurt that word of the plagues had opened. Rupert was headed to Hooghan Evangelical Fellowship Church on the west side of the residential area. It was the church

pastored by Jimmy Lee Sanchez, and though Rupert did not think anyone would still be at the premises, Rupert figured that it would be his best bet at finding someone who might have a better understanding of the end times events. The young black minister

prayed that he could find some sort of guidance amongst the engulfing distress. Most of the urban residents had formed groups with neighbors to begin the walk to the Perry Park shelters and Markham Hospital. Rupert watched as men and women – young and old –

black, white, and between all came together to try to survive. The situation was dire, so many people were inflicted with the horrible disease, but many did not complain. Those who chose a

noble path greatly outnumbered those who decided on unlawful advantageousness. There was no water to drink or to wash their sores, but the majority of the refugees remained confident. Sadly, the same

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could not be said for those miscreants who had chosen to abuse the situation for personal gain. thought. “Hey! Hey you!” yelled a woman nearby, “Hey, you’re that What the hell are you still doing Selfish cowards, Rupert

pastor from up the road! here?

Thought you guys were all disappearing.”

“I hadn’t repented my sins,” sighed Rupert, “I wasn’t ready.” “You’re a pastor and you didn’t get the free ride? Whew, your

god must strict,” the woman laughed, “I’m Sandy – it’s nice to meet you…” “Rupert. Nice to meet you too, Sandy.” She was wore

Sandy was tall, slender, and had caramel skin.

gold laced-up boots to her knees, with a short skirt to match. Her black belt hung to her left side – weighted by the thick gold buckle. The sequined guilded spaghetti-strap shirt clung

tight to her torso – her bust accentuated by a push-up bra and accessorized by a long chain necklace. Her hair was done up in

a weave and her make-up painted on with precision detail. “You’re a… Uh…” Rupert trailed off. A hooker? A prostitute?

Sandy laughed “A lady of the night? A tramp? Yeah.

Any worse than what you did?”

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“I suppose not,” Rupert muttered. “What was it? Dip into the tithing bucket?” Sandy joked.

“Drug habit,” Rupert groaned, “I kept telling myself that I had to stop, but… It was too hard, and I was too weak.” You knew what you

“Aw, now Honey, you’re just making excuses. were doing was wrong.”

Rupert rubbed his forehead with a firm grip, “Yeah.

But I had

done so much good – you’d think it would have washed out.” “Apparently God don’t work that way, Sweetheart,” Sandy replied. She watched the frustration in Rupert’s expression.

The man was in turmoil, and her joking did not seem to lift his spirits. “I’ve got to keep going. I’m sorry,” Rupert groaned.

Sandy cocked her head to the side and tried to read Rupert’s face, “You look pretty intent – where you headed?” “Down to Hooghan Evangelical,” Rupert replied. “And what do you plan to find down there, Mr. Rupert?” asked Sandy with a curiosity in her inflection. “I can only hope that I can find some sort of help. Maybe Maybe

there are other believers who are stuck in my situation. we can help each other.”

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“Sounds like you still have a lot of faith, Rupert,” Sandy smiled, “Tell you what – I’ll go along and keep you company. Not like I’m going to be getting any business today – people are a little pre-occupied to be thinking about what I do.” “I’ll take you up on that, Sandy. I could use the company,”

Rupert said, as he smiled for the first time in weeks. # It was a situation all the police training in the world could not have prepared Marshall for. The severity had not been clear Marshall looked out

from the couple’s twelfth floor window.

from the stoop of the high-rise upon a scene of complete chaos. Cars were wrecked into buildings – many with flames pouring out from beneath the hoods. Marshall’s small sedan had been The dead were being thrown into Battery-powered

pulverized by a delivery truck.

piles and covered with tarps or blankets.

ambulances were stopped in the middle of the intersections surrounded by mobs of pleading plague victims. It was like Hell

on Earth – more literally than Marshall wanted to admit. Cynthia joined her husband on the patio – a knapsack and purse tucked under her arm. She could see the yearning in his eyes as His sorrow was evident as his face

he surveyed the landscape.

remained stiff while he watched their beloved neighborhood deteriorate into what looked like a war zone. Cynthia knew that

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Marshall wanted to be out there with the emergency responders. It pained her to see him struggling with his dismissal from the force, but she was secretly joyous to have her husband stuck beside her during the crisis. way. Maybe this will help us in an odd

Maybe it’ll help us grow close again. The guys

A group of young men caught the couple’s attention.

were driving a GH Pianeta that appeared as if it was fresh off the lot. It was obviously stolen, and the men’s hoots and They dodged the

hollers made no attempts to hide that fact.

police easily – the officers were too preoccupied aiding the ill to concern themselves with looters. It cut Marshall to his core

to see such selfishness take place when selflessness should be unquestionably proper. Cynthia placed a hand on Marshall’s

shoulder – almost begging him not to give in to the temptation to chase the gang down and try to apprehend them. “I should be out there, Cynthia. fair.” “That’s not your responsibility right now. We have to take Enforcing the This isn’t right. It isn’t

care of ourselves and help others along the way.

law is not a priority in this mess – not right now,” Cynthia reasoned. “I just…” Marshall paused to close his eyes, “I just feel totally useless.”

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“You’re not. without you!

You’re certainly not.

I wouldn’t have a chance There

Come on, let’s go down to that church.

might even be a way for us to help down there.” “You’re right, we’re doing no good just standing around here. Let’s go. anyhow.” The pair took down the street and rounded the corner to Washington Boulevard – which would take them directly to the edge of the downtown district. From there it would only be There might be folks we can help along the way,

another quarter-mile to Hooghan Evangelical Fellowship Church. Aside from the various obstacles, it was a direct route and simple walk. Marshall could only see for a few blocks, but an elderly man immediately caught his eye. The man was bleeding profusely from His hair was caked down with clothes he wore were tattered to His tongue hung loosely from his Marshall saw the

several large boils on his face. grease, blood, and sweat. The

the point of near uselessness.

mouth – swollen and inflamed with necrosis. man more as a zombie than a person. gibberish as he passed.

He could be heard muttering

Death would be a relief for that poor

bastard, Marshall thought. A mother ran from a nearby apartment building holding a small boy. Aside from his anthropomorphic form, there was little to

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define him as human.

His skin was nearly entirely eaten away by

the mysterious virus – bits of bone and muscle peeking out from the decayed dermal layers. The distraught mother was covered in Tears

the sores as well, though not with the same severity.

streamed in bloody flows down her cheeks – her eyes nearly glued shut with congealed mess. “Please, God! Someone please! Help!” she yelled, trying to

hand the boy to Cynthia. “I’m sorry,” Cynthia replied firmly, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to take him down to the ambulance at the end of the street. There’s nothing we can do…” “Why?! Why, God? How could you do this to my boy? He was

only eleven years old!

Still a child, God!” she called to the

heavens as she continued down the street. “That boy was long dead, Cynthia.” “I know,” she sighed, “I think she knew too…” Marshall’s internal struggle was tearing him apart. I should

be out there, he thought, this is just as selfish as those jerks parading around in the hot car. I’m a cop, not a coward. #

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The Blackheart Men cruised through town in the only working vehicle aside from the emergency responders. The hydrogen fuel

cell and electric motor worked together wonderfully to provide speed and efficiency without the use of water-based coolants. The small four-door sports-model Pianeta made little sound as it raced down the streets, bobbing and weaving through pedestrians and around crashed cars. Crosley was delighted with the easy heist – wondering if it would be possible to nab a few more of the pricey vehicles before the end of the day once the remainder of his intentions were fulfilled. His focus was on looting out the abandoned

storefronts that littered the downtown area before hitting the jewelry and cash advance shops on the east side of Hooghan. The

day would be bountiful and he fully intended to make the most of the otherwise dire situation. Where others saw distress and

heartache in all that had occurred that day – Crosley saw opportunity for profit. We to bring’n da’ mad duns dis day.

Ta’ teach da’ white mon ’is place na’. Eddie could not escape a nagging sensation in his arms. itched – with mounting intensity. It

He pulled the dark sweatshirt

over his head and shrieked in horror when he caught a glimpse of the affliction. His arms were swollen and oozing a bloody pus It looked as if he had been

from open holes in his flesh.

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riddled with buckshot.

Eddie panicked and began to sweat bloody

beads down his inflamed face. “Pull over!” Eddie yelled, “Let me out, damn it!” “What’s wrong with you, bro?” Rome yelled back. “Look at my friggin’ arms! face!” Rome peered into the blank LCD screen in the headrest before him and saw what appeared to be severe acne marks bubbled up under his cheeks. After seeing Eddie’s arms, Rome too removed Holy shit – look at your friggin’

his sweatshirt to reveal similar lacerations about his arms and torso. His lesions were less inflamed, but still alarming when What

giving consideration to the other events of the morning. the hell is going on today? something. It’s like Biblical crap or

“Pull over, Cros!” Rome hollered, “We got some kind of leprosy or something back here!” Crosley swung the Pianeta into the empty parking lot of a small convenience store. door. The men climbed out and ran to the Rome pulled his Glock and

It was locked and deadbolted.

jogged to the back door. the ground.

Three shots and the doorknob was on

He kicked in the door and ran to the restroom to

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wash his sores.

The faucet bubbled and gurgled before spitting

out a dark red clot, followed by an oozing drip of rancid blood. Eddie was at the refrigerated cases throwing bottle after bottle into the floor. They were all sealed with the vibrant What the hell This

red liquid – even the expensive glass bottles. kind of gas station is this? is disgusting!

Everything is contaminated!

“The faucet in the bathroom is broken,” Rome groaned, “It’s spitting out blood. Must be a dead rat caught in the pipes.”

Eddie’s stomach grew cold, “The bottled water is blood too. Shit this is some kind of plague…” “It’s da’ Armageddon, mon,” said Crosley from the hallway near the restrooms. sweatshirts. He and Damerae had both removed their The men’s arms were covered in the open sores –

significantly more advanced than those Eddie and Rome had yet endured. Damerae grinned a sinister smile, “Lot o’ hell comin’ down t’day, braa. We gon’ta make da’ most o’ it, na’.”

“What do you have planned?” Eddie asked with a curious raise of his eyebrow. “We gon’ta take da’ Pianetta down ta’ Riser Street an’ pull some teif at da’ storefronts. Den we be hittin’ Jewelry Row.”

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“Jewelry Row” was the local nickname for a series of pawn shops, check cashing outlets, and other brokers for the less fortunate. It was located in the western part of Hooghan, and

despite the quality of the neighborhoods across the street, it was rated highest for crime in the area. Crosley and Damerae

were counting on most of the shops that day to be closed for business – an open opportunity for the men to help themselves to the cash and wares within. “S’gon’ be mad duns t’day, bredren!” cackled Crosley, “Carpe diem!” # The Newpine Baptist parishioners walked back and forth, oneby-one, over and over across the smoldering pit nearly a half an hour as Allison watched from the basement window. Her father

shouted Old Testament passages with authority as he watched over his submissive flock. With nothing covering their legs or feet,

many of the members could be seen bearing reddening burns and open sores. In a typical fire walk, one only walks the pit once

or twice – the parishioners had experienced a terrible overexposure to the intense heat. Allison spotted a woman tending to her adolescent son. His

face and arms had broken out with sores like those Allison had heard about on the radio. The woman brought the young man over

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to Pastor Jacobs for inspection, but he waved the pair off with instruction to repent their sins and walk the pit again. Allison was horrified. Oh my God, the virus is here, and he Some compassionate reverend he is.

doesn’t even seem to care.

As the minutes passed, parishioners began to form a group at the gazebo. They were then led into the small church building It was Allison’s first opportunity to make her

in single file. escape.

She pulled a torn scrap of her t-shirt from her pocket and wrapped it firmly around her hand. With a tightly clenched It was not

fist, she rapped hard against the aged glass window. as brittle as she had hoped.

She hopped down from her perch

atop the shaky cardboard box and reached around the back of the pile of electronics underneath it. The antenna, yeah! She

snapped the antenna free from the radio and gripped it between her ring finger and middle finger. rested in the cloth in her palm. Back atop her makeshift step-tool, Allison again banged on the window. Even with the soft padding on her palm, each pound With a Allison The butt of the antenna

drove the sharp aluminum rod painfully into her flesh. last frustrated punch, the window finally shattered.

drug the antenna around the frame to remove any remaining shards

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of glass and with a quick, confident jump, wedged herself in the window frame. Her center of gravity had made it past the window and onto the ground outside, necessitating only a few wiggles and kicks of her legs to pull herself the rest of the way through. In

minutes, the girl ran around to the back door and was inside the house. She began to hurredly throw her valuables and cash into a small backpack. Those poor people, Allison thought of the parishioners, They don’t even know what’s going on. Allison caught a glimpse of herself in her vanity mirror and ran over to get a close look. The top layer of skin had begun

to separate in places, causing fluid-filled blisters to form. She pulled a towel from her hamper and draped it over her shoulder. With a sewing needle, she punctured the blisters and The sores did not yet hurt, but

drained the pus into the cloth.

one along her cheekbone had begun to open up – revealing a bloodied, red patch of muscle beneath. Allison dabbed a bit of

antiseptic solution on the sore and covered it with a bandage. A knock at her open bedroom door turned Allison’s stomach. “I saw your little mess of my basement window. You better

believe you’re gonna pay to fix that,” her father said angrily.

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“I’m leaving,” Allison stated firmly, “And I’m not coming back.” She turned to look at him, only to see his face turn

with a curious concern. “What happened to your face?” Jacobs asked with a bluntness that only he could deliver. “I asked you a question,” on?” “You wouldn’t have the courage to believe it if I told you.” # “We have that guy from DenvAero ready yet?” Stone groaned. Boomer nodded, “Yeah, he’s in the green room.” “Of all the days for water to turn to blood – it would be today. Can’t even make a damn cup of coffee,” Stone lamented as He Allison sat silent. he said impatiently, “What’s going

he popped in a stick of gum to help moisten his dry palette.

followed it with a murky shot of whiskey that tasted faintly of iron. “Well, you’re doing great in here, Stone. Fantastic! Keep

this up and we’re gonna be getting calls from all over offering us the big bucks,” grinned Boomer. “I don’t get it, man,” Stone groaned, “How can you be so excited about a tragedy like this? This is serious stuff, not

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some sort of blow-over thing. out there.

People are dying by the millions

I haven’t even heard from my own mother today!” Humans always get through Survival

“Yeah, but we’ll get through it.

this natural disaster stuff, it’s natural selection. of the fittest, you know what I mean? haven’t ever had a hit like you.

But Stone, look – I

I’ve been in this business It’s just

longer than I can remember, and you are pure talent. that we’ve never had exposure.

But Denver’s stations are all You! I never

down, most of Colorado is listening to you, man.

thought that we’d get a chance at this kind of success, but this is gonna be our ticket. Those people out there might be

screwed, but we’re gonna be turning a profit, I swear to you now!” “That’s a twisted way to look at it, Boomer. I mean, I

understand that we’re public servants just as much as the police or paramedics, but that just ain’t right,” Stone said humbly. “You look at it your way and I’ll look at it mine – but don’t judge.” Stone dabbed some blood from his left cheek onto a handkerchief, “I’m not judging, I’m just saying that my priorities are really not in here right now. there helping.” I should be out

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“Stone, man – you’re in here helping.

You’re doing what

you’re best at,” Boomer turned to greet the incoming guest, “Mr. Wyndham! So glad you could make it in!”

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Chapter Seven

Stone Silvers back here with you on this remarkably devastating day. The death toll is now in the millions, with

the global pandemic reaching into every country, principality, and province from New Zealand to Cameroon to Hawaii. In the

United States alone, there have been reports in the thousands of automobile accidents as well as a total of two hundred fortyfive downed airline flights. Joining us to talk about these

troubling airline disasters is Steve Wyndham of DenvAero Incorporated.

“Mr. Wyndham, thank you for spending a few moments away from your family to help our listeners understand what is happening our there today.” “Thank you for having me, Mr. Silvers. Family is with me in

your green room, and I assure you that we are headed directly to the Perry Park shelters afterward. It is not safe to be out One might

there right now, what with the looters and rioting.

think we had stepped back an evolutionary step today with how some of our fellow residents are behaving. animals,” Steve cracked. They’re like

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“Investigators have put forth several different reasons for various plane crashes so far, can you run through a few of them?” “Certainly,” Steve began with a heavy sigh, “First off, there was one of our own that fell early on – just before noon. DenvAero Flight 663 was en route to Atlanta, Georgia from Boston. Shortly after take-off, and almost coinciding with the No contact

disappearance event, the plane veered off course.

could be made with the pilots, and the cockpits are, of course, always locked because of national security concerns. Other

pilots near the plane were contacted and made aware of the situation. What happened next was typical of a decompression

event – the plane continued straight on its new course until it simply ran out of fuel. It fell near a truck stop just east of

Tulsa, Oklahoma. Decompression has yet to be confirmed, though evidence is still being collected in the investigation. We do

have evidence of an explosive decompression event with a plane that crashed off the coast of Washington state, near Copalis Beach. Few passengers were left on the plane, apparently most One of the

had vanished just like so many others have today.

windows was completely blown out – possibly in an attempt to escape, but more likely as an act of suicide.” “Can you explain explosive decompression for our listening audience?” Stone asked quickly.

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“Explosive decompression occurs when cabin pressure drops so rapidly that the air inside escapes faster than air can from a human’s lungs. The lungs can be severely damaged, with death

sometimes instant for those who have a weak respiratory system. The most common cause of death, however, is projectiles that fly like shrapnel from the vacuum-like force. Baggage, books,

flatware – things like that,” Steve explained. “Troubling… Truly troubling,” Stone lamented.

“Lastly, there has been a very high incidence of in-air collisions today. Passengers typically perish on impact, though With many of our planes

there have been a few survivors found.

left pilotless, it was a sad certainty that impacts would occur.” “Should we be prepared for additional airline crashes?” “Yes, several out-of-contact planes have flown over the Hooghan and Denver areas already, with more to come. Keep an

eye toward the skies today, but mostly, just get yourself and your family to those shelters. “Thank you, Mr. Wyndham. for safety now. It’s your best bet.”

I’ll let you and your family head

Be careful out there.”

“Thank you for having me, Mr. Silvers,” Steve said before jumping from his seat and hurrying off to his wife and children.

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“And you all be safe out there.

We value all of our

listeners, and hope for the best for each and every one of you. Now we’ll break for the emergency broadcast system…” # The woods around Reeve Lake were completely undeveloped. Everything was still in its natural state, aside from a few scattered campsites that had been used and reused by some of the local community college students. An ice storm had ravaged

Hooghan the previous winter, resulting in many downed trees and limbs that littered the area. The walk would not be easy or

quick – navigating the mess took precious time and energy. Allen’s shoes still sloshed with blood. fish cannery. He smelled like a

The blood stains ran all the way up his legs and The pants clung to his bony little legs, The drier portions near his

nearly to his waist.

causing an eerie discomfort.

beltline had begun to darken into a nasty brown color, and dusty puffs of particulate rubbed off as his inner-thighs moved past each other. With the added discomfort of his heavy beer-belly

weighting him down – he had never felt so miserable. Jeff, however, felt energized. The disappearance of his

brother had at first troubled him, but he took comfort in the idea that his brother had gone to a better place. Jeff had

never considered the idea of any sort of afterlife as a

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plausible concept, but now understood the feeling of relief that could be experienced in knowing that his relative had moved on to someplace better. The only thing that kept him from

sprinting was his traveling mate. “Can’t you move any faster?” Jeff called. “I only weigh about two hundred pounds more than you!” Allen laughed through heavy breaths. “So Stone stood ya up, huh?” Jeff jabbed. “He had to go in to work – the morning girl called in. gonna come. He even called to let me know he wasn’t. He was

He never

calls,” Allen grinned. thought of him.

He was delighted that Stone had even

“I guess he’s getting the pleasure of covering this the rest of the day, huh? Lucky guy, sitting there in his sound booth.

Probably hasn’t even had to worry about what’s going on out here,” groaned a seemingly jealous Jeff. “I don’t know about that – he’s pretty fond of his mother, and she’s getting up in years. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s

probably worried sick about her.” “Well I don’t give a damn about my family. one I was ever close to. Carl was the only

Less so after his little prison

fiasco, but still – he was my brother.”

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Allen thought for a bit before he spoke.

He did not want to

offend his new companion – if he did he would be walking alone. “I remember reporting on that. eight years ago?” “Seven, yeah. mournfully. “I heard that he made a lot of changes in prison though – joined the chapel, did crime prevention talks as community service, and even helped the families of rape victims understand and grow past their emotional distress. things.” Jeff shook his head, disgusted with himself, “Yeah, and you know what? I never forgave him for it. He wanted so bad for me I just never He did some really good The whole thing was shameful,” Jeff replied Shoot, what was it, seven or

to let it go – to show me that he had changed. could let it go. But look at me now!

I’m the one fighting to

survive with a blistery rash, covered in blood, and hiking through the forest to God knows where.” “Come on man,” Allen smiled and patted Jeff on the back, “We’re in this together and we’ll be back to town in no time. I’m just thankful I’m not alone out here. Hey – maybe you got

left for a reason – to help a fat old radio show host out of the woods.”

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The men shared a laugh as they hopped over a downed oak tree. We can do this, Allen thought, I needed some exercise anyhow. # The demolished Hooghan Elementary School bus sat spewing steamy blood from its radiator and bellowing smoke from the engine. Small slivers of glass still trickled from some of the The front

rear windows like sharp drops of frozen rain.

driver’s side tire finally gave out, which caused the vehicle to settle down onto the rim. relatively well. A small female hand reached up into the third driver’s side window and plucked a large shard of glass from the window frame. The piece fell to the pavement outside and shattered. The hand For its age, the bus had held up

grabbed the window panel and pulled hard until a battered face crested the open frame. Erica was covered in blood – barely Crumbs of glass

recognizable through the thick paint of red.

were stuck into her forehead, and scraps of hair pulled easily from the back of her tattered scalp. She scanned her body up and down. She did not feel any pain,

but knew that the adrenaline flowing through her was likely preventing her nerves from reacting properly. Her left arm felt

numb – just as it would if she had slept on it and the circulation had been impeded. She rolled up her sleeve

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carefully to discover a fragment of her humerus bone that had been pushed through the outer side of her arm. though only slightly. It was bleeding,

The arm hung limp and unable to move.

She could breathe fine and see straight – for that she was thankful. Erica pulled herself up from the seat and began checking the other refugees onboard for a pulse. One-after-one, all she It was gruesome – some

could find was death and dismemberment.

of the people were in conditions that Erica never thought she would witness. She considered herself lucky having only

suffered the broken arm. There was a hushed moan at the front of the vehicle. Oh, God, I hope she’s alright! the driver’s seat. Lana!

Erica rushed over the bodies to

Lana was pinned under the dash, but appeared She had been the only Erica Lana’s

to have not suffered any serious injury.

passenger to have the luxury of a seatbelt and airbag. grabbed the teacher’s shoulder and shook her lightly. eyes opened slowly. rushed in. “Hey… We made it…” she whispered.

Her pupils widened and shrank as the light

“Yeah,” Erica replied quietly, “Someone must be looking out for us – ’cause no one else made it. I don’t know if it’s the

virus or the impact, but they’re all dead – even Kari.”

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“Shit…” “Yeah, but we made it. We’re here. Perry Park shelters are

just over past the hospital courtyard and across the Frisbee golf field. Let’s get you out of here.” Is that a bone?” Lana asked, still

“What’s up with your arm? in shock from the crash. “Yeah, it’s nothing.

I don’t even feel it yet.

Now hold onto The

my good arm,” Erica said as she gripped Lana and pulled. teacher slid slowly out of the seat and onto her feet.

Lana inspected the girl’s arm closely, “No really, I think we should get you into the hospital for that…” “The place will be packed, let’s go to the shelter, maybe I can get in a triage line or something.” “Okay, okay. You win, E. You win,” Lana laughed in a stupor.

The ladies exited through the space where the bus door had once been and climbed over the heap of crumbled concrete. The

pair could see a mob of sickly refugees congregated outside the emergency room entrance. keep the crowd out. Armed guards were standing inside to

A man yelled through a megaphone They

instructing the group to go to the storm shelters.

hollered back obscenities and demands for treatment.

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“Well, I guess you were right,” Lana smiled, “Looks like they’re not taking any new clients.” The entire expanse of land between the hospital and shelter doors was covered in people of all sizes and types – all with the same attribute in common. Each stammering, stumbling Many could not be

evacuee was covered with the plague of sores.

recognized by race or age – with wounds so dramatic that much of their outer dermal layer was eaten away. # “You think Erica’s alright?” Sunshine asked his friends while sliding down a large rock into a dry creek bed. “Yeah, she’s probably sitting down at that Perry Park shelter right now,” Charlie replied. “Yeah, with her girlfriend!” laughed Jován, his eyes alight with glee upon hearing his own wit. “Shut up, man. Don’t even joke like that!” Sunshine jabbed It was a death march.

his friend in the arm, “I don’t even want to think about that. Jeez…” Jován rolled his eyes, “Ah, man, I’m kidding. you can’t laugh now – you’ve got nothing left.” Lighten up, if

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“I just hope she’s okay. her…”

I don’t know what I’d do without

“Dude, since there’s no better time than now, I’m just gonna say this,” Charlie began, “She treats you like shit and you can do better. cut you off. She’s hot – don’t get me wrong – but seriously, she There’s no excuse for that. Man up and move on.”

“It’s not like th—“ “Yes! Yes it is like that, bro. She stopped even talking to What kind of little pansy It’s over, dude,”

you and you’re still defending her.

are you that you can be so submissive?

Charlie said, glad to finally have his thoughts aired. “He’s right, Sunny,” Jován piped up, “You gotta move on. Even

if she’s made it so far, you probably aren’t gonna see or hear from her again. Just buck it up and worry about yourself. Not

like you can fix anything from here anyways.” Sunshine exhaled a deep breath and gave up. He was

outnumbered and decided that it was useless to pursue the argument any further. Maybe I am just making excuses for her. But I love

I mean, she did basically just drop me like a rock. her – and I know she loves me. got to be it.

She’s just stressed out, that’s Crap, I

But maybe that’s just another excuse.

don’t know what to do – this is so screwed up.

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Charlie lit a cigarette as the boys reached the summit of a small hill overlooking a bald spot in the woods. caught his eye and he grabbed Sunshine’s arm. “Look at that!” he yelled, “It’s a friggin’ bear!” “No way,” Jován replied with a squint aimed at the mound of fur in the brush, “Are you sure?” Sunshine put a hand on his brow to block out the sun, “Looks like a bear to me.” “What the hell is it doing?” Charlie wondered aloud. “Looks like it’s dying,” laughed Sunshine, “Let’s go check it out.” “Not a good idea, man,” Jován warned. running down the hill to investigate. Sunshine was already An anomaly

The black bear did not so

much as move its head as the youth approached. “Guys!” Sunshine called, “Come check it out – it’s got the same skin sores that we do. nestled up in here too!” Charlie and Jován reluctantly scaled down the incline to reach their friend. The animal smelled terrible and had flies eating Though the beast had stopped Totally almost dead. There’s a cub

away at its nose and mouth.

producing milk, her cub still tried desperately to nurse for

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vital sustenance.

The scene was heart wrenching – even to

Charlie’s calloused disposition. “Let’s take it with us,” Sunshine enthused. “Oh, hell no. What’s with you today?” Jován groaned in

exasperation, “We are not bringing a damned bear with us.” “It’s gonna die!” “Sunshine, my friend,” Charlie said with a hand on his buddy’s shoulder, “You’ve gone off the deep end.” # Sandy watched Rupert’s face as they navigated through the hysteria toward Washington Boulevard. He was intent – almost She

uncaring that she had even offered to walk with him.

wondered what drove the man so passionately toward the megachurch. He’s a reverend, what guidance could he possibly find That look on his face – it looks like Not like he’s any

at some other church? disgust. better.

I wonder if he’s offended by me?

Sandy would not let it break her façade of confidence.

Sandy had fallen into prostitution after she had given up on high school. After years of childhood sexual abuse by a

disturbed uncle and a high-profile rape in her teens that shredded any personal privacy she might have felt, Sandy left home to live with a man twice her age. The relationship ended

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in just months and put Sandy out on the streets.

It was only a

matter of time until she discovered the easiest way to support herself. She relied only on herself and her johns – not family

or friends. The pitiful young woman had been struggling with depression issues for years – spurned on further following a back-alley abortion that nearly took her life. With some black market

anti-biotics and a lot of alcohol, she eventually recovered – but the memory of seeing the second trimester fetus as it was pulled from inside her was haunting. Almost losing her life in

the process added a level of trauma that had pushed her near her breaking point. It ate away at Sandy every waking hour. But

she put up a front worthy of an Oscar. Rupert suddenly turned and took toward a parked ambulance in the intersection. There was a quiet group of sickly people

gathered around the vehicle awaiting medical care for their increasingly gruesome skin lesions. Unlike many of the victims It was

in the area, there was a calm about the ambulance.

uncharacteristic of the growing mood and had nabbed Rupert’s attention almost immediately. Sandy followed reluctantly.

“Wars, disappearances, miraculous plagues – you can all see for yourself what is happening!” a man spoke within the circle of onlookers.

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He was young – perhaps in his mid-twenties – with long, flowing curls of brown hair that tickled his shoulders. The

clothing he wore was modest and lightly blood-stained, as if he had recently changed attire. A starched white, long sleeve His

button-up shirt complimented his baggy white slacks.

saddle-shoes were adorned with a touch of brown and laced up in double-knots. face. Small bandages covered the open lesions on his

Wraps of thick gauze covered his arms beneath the shirt –

all the way down to his wrists. “We are living in the days of the Apocalypse!” the street preacher announced, “These are the final days of judgment before the mouthpiece of Satan will take over this planet and unite our world governments into an evil big brother overlord. Now is our

opportunity – for we have been forewarned by the exalted John of Patmos in his Book of Revelation. was on the near horizon. We were told that this crisis

We have before us a roadmap for The Lord sayeth:

conquering the trials that lay before us! Behold, I come like a thief!

Blessed is he who stays awake and

keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed. We are to walk in the ways of the Lord and

we shall be saved – go without the armor of God and you will bring embarrassment upon yourself in His eyes!”

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“What makes you an expert on this shit?” asked one of the paramedics, annoyed by the man’s evangelism in the midst of the medical effort. “I am a prophet of the Lord sent to spread the gospel to those astray from the flock,” the swaggering man replied. “Whatever,” snorted the paramedic, “I couldn’t even begin to count the times we’ve treated you after a bad acid trip. lost!” Rupert turned away and pulled his travel Bible from his rear jeans pocket. He flipped frantically through the pages at the Get

end of the book – intently searching for a specific passage. “What are you looking for?” Sandy inquired quietly. purposeful in his hunt. “That scripture – I know it. I’ve read it before…” Dude’s He was

“That dude’s just crazy – you heard the nurse guy. just trippin’ balls.” “No, I think he’s on to something…

Here, Revelation chapter

sixteen!” Rupert took a deep breath and read carefully, “The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The second angel poured out

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his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead man, and every living thing in the sea died.” “No way…” Sandy trailed off in thought. “Yeah, if that joker’s right, we’ve got a lot worse coming up, too.” # Just one block up the road, on Washington Boulevard, Marshall and his wife had stopped at an abandoned vendor booth. The

could worked tirelessly as each pulled bottle after bottle from the broken-down refrigeration unit – all were murky with a bloody suspension. The least tainted in appearance was a The fruit punch flavored beverage had a With

bottled sports drink.

red color that muted the appearance of the blood within.

their bodies losing water from the bleeding sores – the drink was a necessary preventative step toward dodging dehydration. “I don’t know if I can do this, Marsh,” Cynthia muttered through a weak disposition. “We’ve got to stay hydrated. Our bodies are being depleted of

nutrients every second – at least this will have some sugar and electrolytes to keep some energy in us.” Cynthia cracked the seal on the bottle and immediately gagged as the odor aggravated her nasal membranes. It was putrid. She

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held her nostrils tightly as she poured the vile slurry down her throat. As much as she tried, there was no way to block the It reminded her of the

flavor from hitting her taste buds.

taste one might pick up from the air of a butcher shop, but with a sickening sweetness that only served to make the drink worse. Marshall took the bottle from his wife and tipped it back. was terrible – but not as bad as he had imagined. His wife’s It

strained grimaces may have helped better prepare him for the experience. He grabbed several other bottles and tucked the Though he hated to take what was

beverages into Cynthia’s bag.

not his, Marshall was comforted by the thought that no one in their right mind would buy such contaminated filth anyway. “I just don’t understand how the water inside the bottles could change like that – it blows me away,” Cynthia marveled. “He’s God. He can do whatever He wants. And apparently He’ll

go to any length to punish anyone who didn’t follow Him by the book.” “You aren’t just… In shock by all of this? I mean, I know

you were trained for disaster situations, but how can you stay so calm when society – our neighborhood – is crumbling around us?” begged Cynthia.

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“What else can I do?

It’s an unbelievable circumstance, but

if we get panicked and flustered, we’re just going to make mistakes that could cost us time or resources.” Cynthia shook her head in awe of the man she had married. Through dismissal from the police force, a seemingly rigged trial, and weeks of looking unsuccessfully for work, the man maintained a level head and calculated demeanor. Whether it was

the experience from his years on the job, knowledge gained in the police academy, or just his natural predilection toward planned success. How Cynthia wished that her husband still

loved her – more than ever she was witnessing all the qualities that had originally drawn her affection. “Hey, check it out,” Marshall beckoned, pointing toward the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Sapling Road. “Hey, that’s Brother Rupert and… contorted a bit. “Yeah, and I think he sees us,” Marshall laughed, “Rupert! Rupert! Good to see you, my friend!” A hooker?” Cynthia’s face

Rupert grabbed Sandy by the arm and rushed to meet the couple, “Well you two are looking about as good as us!” “Yeah, looks like we’ve all got a bit of the rash, huh?” asked Cynthia with an almost forced smile.

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“Look,” Rupert began, as he started moving down the road, “We need to hurry down to that church fast – so let’s walk while we talk.” “What’s the official word on all of this? Anything new?”

Marshall asked while following the minister slowly. “It’s all coming straight out of the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Revelation. See, this stuff was supposed to happen at At least that was the common

the end of the Tribulation. interpretation.

Instead the plagues are happening now – maybe I don’t know for sure.”

to weed out the weak.

“Back up a sec,” interrupted Cynthia, “What the heck is a ‘Tribulation’?” “A seven year period, split into a good half and a bad half. So after all of this mess is over, the governments will get together and everything will come out great. We’ll be living

like we never thought possible for about three years – and then it will hit. and death. Three years of complete economic distress, wars, I believe the only way to heaven now is to repent

and be struck down in God’s name.” Marshall cringed, “So you’re positive that this is the work of God? We’ve just experienced that fairy tale bullcrap we’ve been

fed for the last century about how Revelation should be taken as

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prophecy?

And here I thought it was just to sell videos and

seminars to the feeble minded.” “I’m afraid it’s not a fairy tale, nor is it bullcrap – and we’ve got to get to that church quick before the next plague hits or we’re gonna be toast. Literally,” Rupert explained. # Riser Street was only a few blocks south of Washington Boulevard, ending at the hook where Main Street became Juniper Road. The KHOO radio station sat only a block farther south at

the edge of downtown. The street was lined with dozens of retail shops and restaurants, but the Blackheart Men had chosen a gun and ammunition shop for their first hit. Crosley rifled through the

smashed accessory counter and loaded his pants pockets down with clips and magazines galore. He did not hesitate to also grab

the guns to match – an emptied shipping box made the perfect carrying vessel for his new bounty. In total, the gang leader

had collected over three thousand dollars in weaponry by himself. Damerae and Rome worked to remove a lock from a plexiglass gun rack on the far wall. It was a simple pair of padlocks. The

acetylene torches cut slowly, but a cherry-red coloration on the hasp and small sprays of steel sparks indicated that success was

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imminent.

Damerae’s torch finished first.

He tossed the busted

padlock to the floor and berated Rome.

Rome finally concluded, The

just before slugging his obnoxious friend in the shoulder.

men pulled down assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols – stuffing the weapons into a large hunting bag for easy transport. Eddie rifled through the paperwork in the back room office. He was hunting for bank account and credit card numbers, safe combinations, and computer passwords. He filled his pockets

with anything that appeared useful or relevant in any way. There was a small computer atop the desk – likely filled with ample records that would be useful later on. Eddie ripped open

the side of the case, tore out the information drive, and stuffed it into the satchel he had borrowed from Damerae. Carpe

diem, he thought with a sigh, I just hoped we don’t get seized for this. Eddie caught a sudden glimpse of an aged, portly, white man dart past the office doorway. “What the hell do you hoodlums think you’re doing in here?!” the shopkeep yelled as he pushed forward the barrel of a loaded shotgun and pointed it at Crosley. “Whoa notch! Slow it down, mon!” Crosley pleaded.

“The world is fallin’ to shit and you losers think you can just come take anything for yourselves, huh?”

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Rome tried to interject, “Hey, bro, calm dow—” “No you calm down you slimy son-of-a-bitch! This is my damned I’m

store, and I reserve the right to refuse any customer. gonna refuse your asses to hell!” Eddie cringed and knew what was about to transpire.

It was a

moment he had dreaded for years and avoided successfully too many times before. His hand trembled as he pulled a semi-

automatic nine millimeter Smith & Wesson from his belt and popped the safety switch off. How he hated that metal-on-metal

clang as the gun became ready to fire. “I’m gonna blow each and every one of your dreadlocked nigger heads clean off. Teach you assholes and your whole damned

families to mess with my shit ever again!” the shopkeeper howled. weapons. The men stood still, terrified to move for their The tension was high. The small storeowner looked

each man square in the eyes.

He wanted to memorize the looks on He especially enjoyed

their faces as they accepted their fates. the trembling of the clean-cut boy.

The shopkeeper raised his aim to Crosley’s forehead.

But

before he could pull the trigger, Eddie rounded the corner and put three bullets into the old racist’s spine. His lifeless

body fell slowly to the floor and his legs twitched as the

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nerves continued to fire broken signals to his lower half. was grotesque and cathartic. “Big bout yah! relief.

It

I knew ya’ be da’ hero mon!” Damerae yelled in

Rome threw his head back as a tightly held breath erupted past his slack mouth, “You’re the man, Slug! You’re the man!”

It was the first time Eddie had been forced to kill – and the feeling of it was not a pleasant one. ever know – I won’t ever forget. to this? # Allison stared dismissively into her father’s weathered face. For thirty years he had pastored the small Newpine Baptist church, but only after Allison’s mother had passed away from an aneurism had he tread down his dangerous controlling path. It Even though no one will

Jesus, why did it have to come

was like the man had no care or concern for the people he led. It was more like he cared about retention than reaching out for new members. His dedication to literal interpretation of the

Bible would have devastated his wife, but without her around to keep him on track he had gone dangerously overboard in his ministry.

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“Ally, tell me what is going on here,” he pleaded with shallow sincerity. “It’s the friggin’ plague, Dad,” she whispered, “If you paid any attention to anything outside of this church you would be better off.” She turned away to tend to her bloody face.

“What are you talking about?” he queried with a blank stare, “What have you heard?” “Hooghan… Well everywhere… It’s chaos out there, Dad.

People are missing, planes and trains are crashing, everyone’s coming down sick with this skin rash, and water has turned to blood. It’s over, Dad. The rapture happened and we missed it.”

“That’s impossible, Ally,” he sighed, “We’ve done everything just by God’s word – there’s no way that’s possible. you even say something like that? Why would

I know I’ve been tough on you

today, but this is an inexcusable reaction.” “You don’t have to believe me – but you will soon enough. can’t keep these people here forever. Once they see what’s You

going on in town and figure out what happened, they’re gonna be coming for your head.” “Allison Marie, that’s enough!” Jacobs yelled as he slammed a clenched fist into the top of her vanity.

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“It’s true!” Allison shouted back, “Just look for yourself!” She flipped on her small television set and it immediately flickered to a local news affiliate montage of the worldwide destruction. People were screaming for help and running Planes smoldered in their crash pits and A camera atop the

aimlessly in panic.

trains sat toppled next to their tracks.

Statue of Liberty showed New York Harbor to be a cesspit of thick, dark blood and half-sunken wrecks of tugboats and barges. “Looks like you’re right,” the pastor said after several minutes of humbling silence. he moved toward the door. “Wait!” Allison called, “Where are you going?” “Allison, listen carefully,” her father said with a calm certainty, “Go into town and find help for yourself. here now. Get out of His demeanor suddenly changed and

I have to take care of these people here, but you He rushed out the door and down the small

need to go.” staircase. That’s it?

Allison wondered.

No lecture…

No lockdown?

Definitely not what I expected… # “Stone! Personal phone call on line two. Better take it

while the phones are up.

The lines are still finicky.”

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“Thanks, Beth,” Stone said as he flipped on the speakerphone, “This is Stone…” “Hey Stoney!” his mother replied. “Mama! How are you?”

“I’ve got a touch of this thing that’s going around, but I’m doing okay…” “I’ve been sitting up here worried sick about you. been listening to the show?” “Yes son,” she replied lightly, “It’s just a terrible situation.” “Are you able to get out of the house, Mama? Do you have any Have you

neighbors that can get you down to the shelters or something?” “No, I haven’t heard from anyone today. here and wait it all out. I’m just going to sit

Maybe when you get out of the station It’s a ghost town down

you can come help me get down there.

here, but I just don’t think that I can make it all that way on my own, Stoney.” “I’ll get down there as soon as I can, Mama. there for me, okay?” “Take your time, Stone. I’ll be alright.” You hang in

Stone hung up and waved Boomer over to the sound booth.

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“Boom, buddy – I need to get out of here soon and go tend to my mother. She’s playing like she’s fine but I can hear in her She’s alone, scared, and wouldn’t

voice that she isn’t well.

have called up here unless she needed me.” Boomer thought quickly – there was no way he could let his most talented radio personality leave during the climax of a big story. He had not heard from Allen or Amy since the cell phone

networks had gone down – and he had not been on air in decades. Stone was it, or most of Colorado would not have AM radio updates. If that were the case, Boomer could kiss his Marconi

Award prospects goodbye. “Alright, just hang in for another hour or so while I get a hold of Amy and Teeter. KDNV 1490 up here, even. Might be able to get Robyn Jones from I’ll keep you posted. Just hang in

there, man you’re doing great.” “Don’t dick around, man. Find someone quick. I’m not losing

my mom to this mess,” Stone growled. “No problem, buddy. callously, “Oh! in ten seconds. No problem at all,” Boomer lied

Emergency system light is blinking – you’re on You’re doing great, Stone. Keep it up!”

Stone pulled a thick cigarette out of his breast pocket and stared Boomer down until the man closed the door. While the

introductory music played, he sucked in the first drag and tried

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to estimate Boomer’s sincerity and willingness to help. Something about the man seemed amiss or withheld. Stone blew

out the puff of strong, tar-heavy smoke and shook off his suspicions. I’ve still got work to do.

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Chapter Eight

Complicating matters further for the relief effort in the western United States, the remnants of Hurricane Yvonne have begun to reassemble over land. Leading meteorologists warn that

while the storm is currently only scattering rain and heavy wind, it could grow more serious as it collides with a cold front moving in from Canada. Though the foul weather will

impede rescue efforts, many refugees have celebrated the showers as the first sign of uncontaminated and safely drinkable water since this morning’s devastating worldwide phenomenon, officially deemed ‘spontaneous hemotransmosis’. We are not the only country experiencing unusual weather patterns. Japanese and Russian meteorologists have reported a

drastic increase in temperature over the last hour, with cloud cover rolling in from the coast. Residents there are being

encouraged to move into underground shelters to escape the scorching heat, and with temperatures rising now in the United States as well, it may be a good idea for anyone still in their homes to consider getting to shelter as well. President Singh has released an internet statement on the official White House web publication, declaring the entire nation to be in a state of emergency and promising to allocate

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more than a trillion dollars in disaster relief.

One begins to

wonder if her hands-off and reactionary approach is appropriate, given the situation. The Democrats are already nipping at her Could this be a

heels, and we’re just in the first few hours.

turning point in her presidency, like Herbert Hoover with the Great Depression or George W. Bush with 9/11? depend on how she handles the aftermath. It will all

The shelter was packed with both paramedics and the deathly ill. Dug deep into the ground and lined with rebar-reinforced It had never

concrete, it reeked of rotting flesh and mildew.

been intended for use as a medical facility – its disheveled condition proof of its lack of maintenance. Cots lined the

walls, blankets sat in piles, and supplies were stacked near the rear – but that was the extent of the organization. Sensing

death was imminent, many virus sufferers turned to anger-fueled chaos to increase their priority in the triage. Posterboard signs hung against the right wall – hand-scrawled categories drawn in marker on each. Lesions, head trauma, Erica

unconscious, broken bones – each sounded equally poor.

nodded her head toward the line for her ailment, and tugged Lana’s sleeve in a plea for company. followed. The teacher gladly

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An elderly woman, riddled with disease sat running a string of rosary beads between her fingers and babbling broken Hail Marys through her nearly absent, blister-bitten lips. Her hair had

mostly fallen out – open patches of meaty tissue adorned her glistening crimson scalp. Her glasses frames slumped down over Her legs had been

the boney bridge where her nose once sat.

crushed in some horrific accident, and the pool of slow-oozing blood was an indication that the life was slowing pouring out of her as well. “I should have gone to confessional,” she whispered to herself before turning her attention to Erica, “They found a cure, did you hear?” “Excuse me?” Erica asked politely. “The doctors in Washington DC – they found a cure for the virus,” the woman whispered. She returned to her Hail Marys and

rocked to and fro with closed eyes. “Well what is it?” Lana interrupted, “What’s the damn cure?” The battered old refugee scrunched her face at Lana, turned, and fixed her eyes with Erica’s, “It’s a transfusion. water blood.” “What?” Lana asked loudly. From the

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Without pulling her empty gaze from the confused Erica, the woman continued, “A transfusion from the water that turned to blood. It’s got something called antigens or something like

that – whatever it is, it fights off the disease.” Erica turned to her friend, “So one plague is a cure for the other?” “That’s the first good news I’ve heard all day,” Lana replied. A screechy whine crackled through the speaker system. A few

loud thumps against a microphone echoed like gunshots through the shelter chamber. The women spotted a man standing on a

supply box at the rear of the facility – waving to garner any attention that could be given. “Excuse me! Thank you for your attention,” the man began, Some of my men

“I’m Police Chief Kieran Sanderson of the HPD.

and I will be heading out shortly to tend to a commercial airline crash on the northern side of residential Hooghan, near the Buenos Acres apartment complexes. I want to strongly

encourage you all to remain within the confines of this storm shelter. The temperature outside has climbed to well over one

hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and it’s only expected to go higher. Stay in, stay cool, and stay safe!” “A hundred degrees in Hooghan?” Erica marveled aloud.

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“That’s amazing… Lana agreed.

Sounds like we made it here just in time,”

Even as she was inflicted with the grotesque lesions and encrusted with her own dried fluids, Lana still marveled at young Erica’s beauty. Through all of the strife, the girl’s Lana wrapped an arm around her

majesty still shone in her eyes. friend and pulled her close.

Surrounded by the sorrow, death,

and destruction – just a closure of the eyes was enough to give Lana a sense of comfort while holding her crush. might be wrong, but I can’t ignore my feelings. something I’ve chosen. so natural? Erica endured the embrace, but was in an entirely different emotional state. With it having been weeks since she had last I know it It’s not

Why have I been punished for what feels

spoken to her boyfriend – the guilt had grabbed her tighter than Lana ever could. She missed Sunshine – worried about him and She wondered if the guilt would be overly It made her Erica

cared for his safety.

consuming if she were to never see him again.

nauseas and drew attention to the pain in her shoulder.

had never known a pain so powerful both physically and in her heart as well. #

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The sun hung just past the middle of the sky – its scorching rays beating heavily down upon the ravaged group of boys. Leaves of the trees overhead fell lazily to the ground; giving an eerie dichotomy to the predicament at hand. sucked all moisture from the foliage. The heat had

Vegetation seemed to weep

all around the youths as thick blood ran gingerly from open blemishes in the trunks. severe. The temperature was insufferably

Charlie swore that he could feel it intensifying on the

meaty wounds of his forearms as he walked across the rough terrain. “I don’t know how much more of this I can handle, guys,” he lamented, “I can literally feel my flesh baking.” “It’s alright man, we’ve got your back,” Jován replied, “You let me know if you need help and I’ll walk with ya.” “Yeah dude – don’t give up. up ahead,” Sunshine offered. Charlie tried to lick his chapped lips, “How far? I’m struggling here… “Hang in there. yards.” After only a few more steps Charlie fell face-first onto the ground. His body convulsed a few times and lay limp. Guessing Dehydrated as hell.” Seriously, We got this, it’s literally just

It can’t be more than a few hundred more

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it was heatstroke, Sunshine jumped into action and pulled his friend into the shade. He snatched a pocketknife from a pouch

on his belt and quickly cut Charlie’s pants off at the knees and sliced through the buttons of the shirt. From Charlie’s The bottles

backpack came three blood-filled water bottles. still felt cool to the touch.

One-by-one he slowly drizzled the The boy’s eyes

chilling liquid over his friend’s face. fluttered open. “What… What happened?”

“Bit of heat exhaustion,” Sunshine replied, “Let’s sit for a second and cool down some. “This is insane guys. Why are we even fighting it?” Charlie

moaned through short breaths, “We don’t know if our families are dead. We don’t know if there’s anything left of downtown. We

don’t even know what’s going on.” Jován hated to even think it – but there was some truth to Charlie’s exasperation. Jován had hated every Sunday of the

last five years – and acted like a jerk to his parents for making him go. It was torture knowing that he might never again

see his family or give them the apology that they deserved. What is the point? These two bums are all that I’ve got left.

We could disappear out here and no one would ever know or care.

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Sunshine lay on the warm ground and closed his eyes to try and picture his girlfriend. perhaps too much. He felt like he dwelled on her – She made him feel With Erica he felt Since the

But he loved her.

different than he ever had with a girl.

better, stronger, more alive, and full of joy.

separation, all of those wonderful sentiments and changes had receded – leaving him feeling empty and alone. for Erica, I’d probably be losing hope as well… “I must have been too delirious to notice, but did you know that there’s a road over there?” Jován asked. The group rose to their feet and stumbled to the street, just yards away and past a small hill. An aged and disheveled wooden If it weren’t

sign on the roadside read Newpine Baptist Church, Pastor John Jacobs in a bold blue font. end of the lane. of the pavement. The church was in full view at the

Cars were parked in neat rows on either side It was a sight the group never thought that

they would see – a glimmer of hope in the middle of nowhere. # Only a few hundred yards up that small dusty road, Allison was tugging hard on the zipper of her duffle bag. She had packed it

full of her clothing and valuables – with little room to spare. The coffee pot beeped loudly and released a last puff of rancid steam. In a last minute stroke of experimentation, she

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had decided to try running the contents of a pair of bloodfilled water bottles through the percolator to see what would come out. worked. Though it smelled terrible, it appeared to have A peek inside the filter showed a dark brown stain –

and she could see a mucky reddish mess in the water reservoir. The water inside the pot was brownish in color, but transparent anoguh to see through. Holy crap, it worked. Allison emptied

the pot into a large thermos and reset it for another go. A heavy thump piqued Allison’s interest and drew her to the window. She caught a quick glimpse of her father darting behind He’s supposed I need a

the church building and toward the storage shed. to be inside leading the service… better look.

What’s he doing?

She raced out of the kitchen and up the attic Damn – still can’t see him. With a

stairs to her bedroom.

stretch of the arm, she held a small compact mirror out of the attic window. She could see her father’s back as he unloaded

something from a wheelbarrow and into one the battery-powered carts that the church used to move food down to the campgrounds during their retreats. “He’s up to something,” Allison whispered to herself, “He should be inside that church telling those people to go home… But it looks like he’s planning to take them down to the campgrounds instead.”

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Pastor Jacobs covered the contents of the cart with a white tarp before he buzzed it over to the side door of the church. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and paused for a moment to inspect the small streaks of blood that had stained the garment. He tucked it into his rear pocket and

shuffled through the entryway. Allison darted out of her room, through the kitchen door, and across the church lawn. The tarp covering the contents of the

small vehicle was tied down tight, but she managed to lift a corner to look beneath. Several white jugs were lined up in

uniform rows with no exterior markings to identify the contents. She opened the first one and peered within – it was filled with some sort of reddish metallic dust. with the same dust. The second one was filled

Allison moved down the side of cart and It was filled with a

pulled the cap off of another jug. coarser, silvery metal dust.

“What is all this stuff?” Allison wondered aloud.

She moved

to the side of the building to listen at the bottom of one of the frosted glass windows. She heard the crowd finish a hymn

and recognized the footsteps of her father through the speakers as he took the stage. “It is with a heavy heart that I stand before you today,” he began, “While our tests today have served to strengthen our

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resolve, our friendships, and our faith – there is a new challenge on the horizon. television in my home. I just witnessed a news report on the

The United States is under attack.

Nuclear missiles from around the world have entered the country, and many of our own have left in counterattack. World War III

has begun and we are the primary target of a unified attack from all corners of the planet. They hate us and they hate our God.

I want everyone to take their belongings and join me in a hike down to the campgrounds. The small storm shelters there will If

serve as our best bet as a bunker to wait out the attacks. we are lucky, and if God is on our side, we will prevail to fight another day!”

Jacobs was met with gasps of terror from the congregation, but not a single word of dissent was spoken – nor any questions about the whereabouts of his daughter. Allison sprinted back to

the house as soon as she heard feet begin to shuffle within the sanctuary. He’s lying to them – but why? find out. The Newpine campgrounds were about a half-mile walk from the main church lot. Allison knew that it would be easy to trail What’s he planning? I have to

the group through the surrounding woods without being noticed. It would be risky – but thinking of herself before the safety of

217

the church members would pose greater risk.

She could not

imagine the guilt that she would be riddled with were she to abandon the parishioners in whatever her father had planned. Pastor Jacobs had drawn the poor people through so much in recent years as Allison stood idly by – but this time she could not bear the pain of watching the flock suffer further. another “divine test”? Something worse? Is it

At this point, even I

don’t know what he’s capable of. # Allen and Jeff sat huffing and puffing beneath an outcropping of rock against a hillside. The shade provided only minor The men could easily see the

protection from the searing heat.

moisture being baked from the surrounding greenery – the ends of leaves curled quickly with each passing minute. brown and floated to the forest bed below. Some turned

The abrupt climate

change had sapped the life out of the forest, as well as the weary travelers. “What’s that?” asked an exhausted Allen. “Looks like dinner…” Jeff mused while pulling a fishing bow from his shoulder and loading an arrow. release button and drew back. He pressed the line

The thin white arrow soared just

feet above the ground and connected easily with its target. Jeff dropped the drag and reeled in the line.

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“It’s a rabbit,” Allen laughed. “Check it out… It’s got the little sores all on it.” Should we eat that?”

Allen grimaced, “Gross!

“It’s not gonna infect us with anything that we haven’t already got,” Jeff muttered while gutting the hare, “Grab some of that dry wood and get a little fire going.” “With what?” “My lighter,” Jeff said, tossing over the butane Zippo. “Huh… Didn’t know you smoked,” mused Allen.

“Neither did Carl.” Allen’s hands reddened as he reached out of the crevice to scrape the dry wood inside. He guessed that it had to be well The

over one hundred twenty degrees in the direct sunlight.

wood needed little more than a spark to take light and burned almost as quickly as Allen could replenish it. He pulled some

of the nearby sun-baked rocks into the fire pile to help give Jeff a more consistent heat source. up in just minutes. “I wonder if this is what the future holds for us?” Allen pondered aloud. “You think it’s getting that bad in town?” The quartered hare cooked

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“I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of chaos is going on. In cities with populations in the millions it must be complete pandemonium. I mean we’re struggling without food or water out

here – just think of how what animals people are probably being in places with lower resources. The whole third world will

probably be gone after today alone.” “Everything will go local,” Jeff offered, “Imagine life without South American and Asian imports. in time three hundred years. tomatoes in our dens.” “Scary,” whispered Allen. He crunched one of the hare’s leg For a oneWe’ll be headed back

Growing wheat in our backyards –

bones between his teeth and sucked out the marrow. off meal in the woods it certainly was satisfying.

Jeff picked his teeth with a small rib bone, “Can you picture a life where a banana is a delicacy and a kid’s toy costs sixty percent more?” “At least they wouldn’t be coated in lead paint – am I right?” joked Allen. that bad.” “How do you figure?” Allen curled his upper lip in brief thought, “Hooghan is a real tight place – really strong community. There may be a lot The humor fell flat. “Oh come on, it won’t be all

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of places that suffer, but I think our town will stay pretty strong.” “I can only hope so,” Jeff sighed, “Other than Hooghan, I don’t have anything else. got.” “Well you’ll always have me, man. how to fish with a bow and arrow…” Jeff had never considered a friendship with Allen Teeter. usually detested even the sight of the man. He I’ve always wanted to learn My job and my apartment are all I’ve

But in the woods,

huddled under a rock and dodging the crippling sauna, there was something special about the companionship Allen offered so selflessly. He was a genuinely nice fellow – Jeff had never Friends… I never

given him the opportunity to showcase it.

thought it was possible, but I think that just might work out. Even hanging with Teeter would be better than hanging alone. # The headache was unbearable. A vein pulsed with intensity

across Stone’s temple as he rubbed his fingertips hard against the sides of his head. A cigarette – untouched since it was lit An edited

– sat clenched between his first and second fingers.

recap of earlier broadcasts played back through his headphones. Boomer sat nearby grinning away as he listened.

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Stone wondered if Boomer had even attempted to find him a replacement. The man had barely moved from the mixer board – His face was hard to read. His

only leaving the room twice.

wounds were just as severe as anyone else’s that day – but it did not seem to effect his attitude at all. wide as his mouth. His eyes smiled as

The flaring of his nostrils as he breathed

in each heavy breath wrinkled his brow into a determined inverted arch. Stone kicked the leg of Boomer’s chair, “What’s the word on getting me a replacement? on that.” “I’m on it. I’m on it,” Boomer assured him with a dismissive Thought you said you were gonna work

wave of his fingertips. “I hear you saying you’re on it – but I don’t see your ass moving to figure anything out,” Stone replied with a cold glare, “Why don’t you get on the phone while it’s still working and get someone in here A.S.A.P.?” “Look Stone, I’ll get to it. But this shit’s important and

I’m not gonna jeopardize the integrity of the broadcast so you can go gallivanting around trying to play superhero for your mom.” Stone was struck by Boomer’s verbiage. dis on my desire to help my family? Did he seriously just

Did Boomer really just go

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there?

His producer had never been so arrogant and neglectful The situation was Stone

in all the hours the men had worked together.

stressful – but not enough to warrant such harsh rebuke. stood and aimed a finger at Boomer’s nose.

“Look man, I know you’re concerned about ratings and awards – probably more than informing our listeners about what’s going on – but there’s no excuse for that kind of talk,” Stone roared. “I care about those people out there – don’t throw that at me. I care about your mom and all the other moms struggling to make it right now. I do. But our place is in this booth keeping

those folks updated on what’s going on out there,” replied Boomer with a hiss. “You keep saying that – but you know you’re not convincing me,” Stone growled, “I need to help my mother get to that storm shelter. She told me that she’s alright – but I can hear in her She needs me, Boomer!” You know that.”

voice that she isn’t.

“I can’t let you go yet, Stone.

Stone took a moment to calm down, “Boomer, you’ve been my producer for more years than I can remember. I’ve always But this

followed your lead and usually you’ve been right. time, you’re not.” “What are you saying?” Boomer asked quietly.

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“I’m leaving.

You can find someone else – maybe the new I’m going to get my mother some help.”

intern – to do it.

“Stone, don’t do this,” Boomer warned. Stone stared his producer down with a cold glare. read the intensity in each other’s faces. felt still. The men

The air in the room

The tension was almost painful to endure, as both Boomer leaned forward and

men silently asserted their will. stood up to speak.

“Look, I know it’s rough out there, but you can’t shirk your responsibilities in here. I’ve got plenty of cash saved back We can work out a nice bonus for

from the cost cuts this year.

you by the end of the month and get you a salary raise for the remainder of the year.” “You can’t buy me off, man,” Stone groaned as he walked toward the door, “This is about family.” Boomer sighed as he reached into his jacket and removed a revolver. shins. friend. here.” “You wouldn’t shoot me, Boomer. I believe you would.” Don’t think for a second that He cocked the gun and held it angled toward Stone’s

“I really didn’t want to have to resort to this, my old But you’re not leaving a lot of options on the table

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“Do you have any clue what’s going on out there? falling dead all over!”

People are

Boomer laughed, “It’s a fucking mess,

and it’s making people a little bit desperate – a little bit crazy, even. I could blow your legs off and throw you in the The world is changing

lake and no one would ever know or care. today. It’s in complete anarchy.

Crimes are being committed,

longstanding desires for murder being realized – kidnappings, rapes, and theft. tried. Not a single crime committed today will be Nothing at all.

I have nothing to lose here, Stone.

But if we pull this off right, if we’re the last damned station on the air – we’ll be the ones with the book deals and the glory. it. So sit your ass in that chair and report like you mean

Because I swear – if you so much as think about leaving

this booth I will not hesitate to splatter your fucking brains all over that sound board.” Stone hunched into his chair and placed his headphones around his neck, “You’re out of your damned mind.” “I’m protecting my assets – and my ass. I’ve put too much

work into this station – and into you – to risk losing it all on the biggest news day of our generation. Yeah, it might be a

little over-the-top, but you know – I don’t give a shit anymore. This is how it’s gonna go down, and I’ve made peace with that. So get on your mic and make the most of it.”

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# “It’s so friggin’ hot. Turn up the AC, bro,” Rome groaned

from the back seat of the Pianeta. Eddie sat hunched against the door looking out at the trees and road signs as they blew by. He had killed – and for nothing He had always But

more than a few grand in weapons and artillery.

hoped that if it came to murder the choice would be easy.

he had not saved the lives of anyone innocent – not family or children – he had spared the lives of three of the lowest thugs in Hooghan. saints. When he joined the Blackheart Men, Eddie had been well aware of the risks involved in aligning himself with a criminal organization. The benefits were so alluring that he could not As the gang dropped from a They were his friends, but they were by no means

talk himself out of the decision.

few dozen members down to the four remaining, Eddie knew that his responsibilities to the gang would only continue to grow. He had essentially become Crosley’s wingman – and his inarguable commitment to each cause was expected. Eddie wondered to what lengths he would be willing to go to gain and maintain his credibility with both his peers and with those in the record business he had been attempting to woo. Now

that I’ve killed a man, how much further can I – or should I –

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go?

What other morals am I going to have to sacrifice to get

ahead in a this celebrity worshipping, quid pro quo nation? The notion of having taken a life bothered him less and less as he began excusing it – though the fear of getting caught still loomed. The man was a brute and a racist and had no plans It did not seem I may think

of sparing the lives of Eddie’s friends.

unreasonable to take a life to save three.

differently tomorrow after I sleep on it – but for now it feels like the right thing to have done. the guys. I mean, he was gonna kill

Why should I give a flip about his problems?

“Dat aces how ya smok’d dat bhuttu back der’ Slug,” Crosley praised his cohort, “Saved our lives, mon. still have our heads on!” “You did a good thing back there, bro,” agreed Rome, “Don’t piss yourself about it. you picked us.” Damerae turned around in the passenger seat, “Yah an’ don’ forget he woulda blown ya’ brains out too, Slug mon. defense an’ all dat sheez.” “Yeah, just sucks that it went down that way,” Eddie sighed, still gazing out the window, “I really don’t want to be put in that position again.” Self It was him or us, and I’m a lot happier We very grateful ta

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“No worries, braa! na’.

We not ta’ be touchin’ no mo’ gun shops

We headed to Jewelry Row to pillage da’ cash an’ blings.”

“Let’s just try to stay out of trouble the rest of the day. I’m not a big fan of close calls,” Rome offered. Eddie agreed, “Yeah, let’s just smash and grab and get out.” “Sounds like a plan bredren, let’s do dis’!” roared Crosley as he slammed his foot down on the accelerator pedal. in his element. # The heat of the pavement was so intense that the cheap plastic soles of Rupert’s loafers left goopy prints as he walked. Hooghan Evangelical Fellowship Church was in sight. Its glass Even He was a man

exterior sparkled like an oasis amidst devastated ruins. in all the lawlessness, no one had dared touch the church building.

It was as if the sinful had gained a newfound respect

– or possibly fear – of God’s house of worship. “I never thought we would make it here,” Sandy said through a raspy breath. Her lungs felt weak and full of fluid. Looks totally abandoned,”

“I wonder if anyone’s inside. sighed Marshall.

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The group crossed inside through the central glass doors, which had been left unlocked and propped open with a hymnal. Cynthia entered first, followed by her husband, Sandy, and Rupert at the rear. They moved cautiously, with worry that

there might be a looter or two inside the sanctuary – with all the gilded adornments decorating the room it would be a treasure trove for an opportunistic thief. The large wooden doors leading into the sanctuary were also propped open with hymnals, as if to invite weary refugees into the place. As soon as the group pulled a door open a man could His suit

be seen huddled in prayer at the steps of the stage.

jacket was draped cleanly over the pulpit and his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His jet black hair was frazzled in the

front – a thick residue of hair gel holding it in a messy puff. The group moved forward slowly, with Rupert edging out in front to approach the man. He recognized the clothing and

jewelry instantly, and nearly fell into shock at the discovery. Of all the people he had expected to meet upon reaching the large mega-church – this man would have been last on the list. How could it be? What sin could keep this man from tap-dancing

on the golden streets of Heaven in those top-dollar saddle shoes?

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It was Reverend Jimmy Lee Sanchez, and the despair painted across his face said more than words ever could. “I’m a coward and a thief,” he whispered. “What in God’s name did you do?” Rupert politely inquired, resting a hand on the reverend’s shoulder. “The glamour, the fame, the glory… in it all, Rupert…” “How do you know my name?” “I follow all the local churches, my brother. of promise in the ministry…” Rupert would have blushed if his dark skin would have allowed it, “I’m honored, I guess… Like this?” “As time went on, my salary just didn’t seem like enough… felt like I was doing more than what I was being paid…” Jimmy Lee buried his head in his lap. “You didn’t…” Cynthia groaned. “I dipped into the business expense account every week for a year. New clothes, new jewelry – I felt like I had to look the I But how could a man like you end up… You had a lot I just… I got caught up

best every where I went…”

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“Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is

meaningless,” quoted Rupert from the fifth chapter of Ecclesiastes. “Believe me, I’ve read it a thousand times,” sighed Jimmy Lee, “My only wish is that I had taken it to heart.” “How could a man who led so many to follow Christ fail so miserably?” Sandy barked, “You are some hypocrite!” Rupert shook his head her way and recited from Romans chapter fourteen, “Let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way.” “You are a true disciple of the faith,” Jimmy Lee remarked, “I will not ask you of your own sins, but only for your hand in friendship. We must work together to save as many souls as we

can in this changed world, my brother.” And here I cam expecting to find guidance, thought Rupert, and it seems I’m going to have to provide it. “The heat is getting a little intense in here,” Marshall piped from the back of the group, “Anywhere else we could maybe move this discussion?”

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“Oh yes, yes!” Jimmy Lee replied, “There is a food cellar beneath the kitchen. There is an exterior wall, but it should

be much cooler than here under the glass ceiling.” Jimmy grabbed a few hymnals to prop open doors along the way and motioned for the others to follow. The kitchen area was clean, white, and spotless. A hinged

door in the tile floor lead down a set of stainless steel stairs and down to a poured cement floor. Jars and cans of all types

of fruits, vegetables, and pickled meats lined the aluminum shelving – alphabetized and uniform. The walls were painted and The

sealed cinder blocks that spanned from floor to ceiling.

room was cramped, but offered ample relief from the scorching sun. Jimmy scaled the stairway behind Cynthia, Marshall, Sandy, and Rupert – juggling a coiled extension cord and radio boom box. He plugged the device in and tuned it into an AM station to keep up with updates. prayer?” “It couldn’t hurt,” Rupert smiled, “Shall I?” “Please do, Reverend,” Jimmy Lee replied approvingly. The “Perhaps we should engage in a word of

group formed a ring and clasped hands. “Father in Heaven, we come to you with sincere gratitude for sparing our lives thus far through these dramatic examples of

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your wondrous power.

May we not take for granted the divine We stand here together to

governance you hold over our lives.

ask for your blessing on this day in whatever may come of these events. May we stand together at the end of this test of our

will to fight for your honor and glory as we await the return of your Son to defeat the great evil that will dominate in the years to come. Spirit – amen.” In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy

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Chapter Nine

My is it ever scorching out there!

Today goes into the record

books for the highest recorded heat wave in Colorado since the measurements have been kept. It is a blazing one hundred

thirty-five degrees in Denver, one hundred thirty-nine in Hooghan, and Fort Collins just broke one hundred thirty. With

temperatures around the world still skyrocketing, meteorologists and climatologists planet-wide are scrambling to uncover just why – and how. Joining us now from the American Meteorological Society is Doctor Kayla Freed-Hodgkins. I apologize in advance for the

quality of the call, but we are lucky to have a cellular signal at all right now…

“Dr. Freed-Hodgkins, thank you for taking the time to join us this afternoon,” Stone greeted his guest as he tried to push out the distraction of having been taken captive by his deranged producer. “I’m glad to do it. It certainly has been a big day at the

AMS headquarters!” she replied with barely-muted excitement.

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“So tell us uninformed masses exactly what you have been monitoring up at your facility. make it so gosh-darned hot?” The doctor laughed as she began, “Well, it was an interesting week altogether, actually. Tuesday we monitored some of the One What’s going on out there to

largest solar flares we’ve seen in the last few decades. was even large enough to permanently damage a Japanese communications satellite that happened to be in the way.

Right

now, though, we are monitoring something a bit different – something not yet recorded by modern meteorologists. Right now

the sun is spitting out a barrage of smaller solar flares – in the thousands, in fact. Each one has an incredible intensity, More and more of

and it’s doing a number on our ozone layer.

the heat and radiation is getting through the atmosphere and hitting the land and seas and dispersing into the air. Our

atmosphere is still steadily bottling up the energy, though, so temperatures are continuing to rise. Oddly enough, even solar

flares firing from the top and sides of the sun seem to be arcing toward the planet, as if being pulled by some heavy gravitational mass.” “So from your description this sounds a lot like the global warming hysteria from about twenty years ago?” Stone asked hesitantly.

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“In a sense, yes,” she replied, “But not in any natural sense. It’s almost… What’s the word… Contrived? Created?”

“You mean artificially?” “Oh, heavens no. Not by man, anyhow. And our sun is nowhere

near the point that it would be transitioning into a red dwarf. That won’t happen for billions of years. No, I honestly believe it is directly tied to the other events taking place today.” Stone groaned – it was the same answer he kept getting from every expert brought on the show that day, “You think it’s God’s wrath unleashed on our planet?” “Well, yes. that. There’s no astronomical evidence to contradict

Our sun is acting unnaturally for its age, and somehow

the balance of gravity and fusion reactions has been offset by some force greater than any other in our solar system. It’s

like the sun is ill and it’s trying desperately to vomit.” # Sunshine could not help but worry about Erica’s safety. had been checking his cell phone every few minutes since the boys left the house, but all the towers in the area seemed to be down. Is she with that woman? Did she make it to the shelter? The questions He

Does she still care about me or how I’m doing?

loomed over him like a long shadow – clouding every other

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thought that he knew should take priority.

He wondered why he

and his friends had even chosen to make the trip to Newpine when the shelters would have been only a couple miles farther. The boys had finally made it to the Newpine property, and though several cars were parked outside, not a soul could be seen. A rectangular pit of coals smoldered on the lawn – There

seemingly out of place in front of a church building.

were lights on in a house next to the building and the shuffling of shadows could be seen within. Someone’s in there, Charlie

thought, Somebody is here and still alive! “Let’s go to the house!” he yelled, “Maybe they can help us out. Maybe they at least have some water…”

“Sounds good,” Jován agreed. The young men scaled the steps of the small home. The

exterior walls were covered in weather-resistant, dark cherry stained wood siding. maintained at all. It was old and decrepit – not wellCharlie rang the doorbell several times He called out

before banging away on the frame of the screen. loudly for anyone within.

Jován peered into the windows, but

the low lights offered no clues as to the identity of the occupants. service. Sunshine flipped open his cell phone – no bars of

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“Who is it?

What do you want?” came a voice from inside. The

Allison walked to the screen door to meet the visitors.

boys quickly introduced themselves – and the girl could see that each was inflicted with the same plague of lesions that she had been struggling against. Allison made their acquaintance,

though she was in no mood to be making friends. “It’s Sunday – where is everybody? Did they get taken to

heaven too?” Charlie nearly pleaded as he spoke. “No, I’m afraid not. They’re in the church getting ready to

go down to the campgrounds.” “What?” asked a stunned Jován, “How’s that possible? thought this was the rapture or whatever.” Allison sighed, “I’m pretty sure it is – but this isn’t the typical church. reverend.” “So none of the people have vanished?” asked a less-thanenthusiastic Sunshine. “No – and why should they have? They were just as guilty of The pastor is more of a cult-leader than a I

spreading the inaccurate message as he was,” lamented Allison. “So that’s it then? and a bunch of sheep? We came all this way for a cult leader Shit! I knew we should have gone to

Perry Park!” Sunshine growled at his friends.

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“Hey!” Allison snapped, “That cult leader happens to be my father – and I don’t know what he’s planning, but I don’t think it’s gonna be good…” Charlie grew curious, “What do you mean? here?” “My dad loaded up one of his carts with a bunch of weird stuff and he’s taking the parishioners down to the campground storm bunkers. I think he’s gonna do something bad. I don’t know – What’s going on

kill them or something.

I mean, I don’t wanna say he’d do

something like that but…” Allison began to cry, “I just don’t know…” Charlie stepped up and brought Allison’s head to his shoulder. She broke down – the stress and frustration had finally become too intense for her to fight off her emotions. She blubbered

and moaned into his arm, weeping for several minutes as Jován and Sunshine looked on in disgust. Sunshine broke his silence, “Look, we need to get to that shelter in town. The sores, the heat, the pain – it’s just

getting too bad too quick.” “Yeah Charlie, come on. want,” Jován added. Allison you can come with if you

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“No I’m staying,” Allison said confidently through eyes glazed in teardrops. “I’ll stay with you,” Charlie said with a quiver, “Whatever’s going down out there – I’ll go with you.” “That’s not necessary – I’ll be alright,” Allison trembled a bit as she spoke. “Yeah man, don’t bounce on us. You need to come with us.

Think about yourself – think about your family, man,” Sunshine urged his friend. “What’s the point anymore? I probably wouldn’t even make it I’m staying here.”

back to town in the condition I’m in.

Allison broke a faint smile as Charlie made his decision – she would not be able to stop her father on her own. The company

would be nice too – Allison had so few friends and figured that it might be nice to spend some time with an attractive young man. She noticed the congregation moving from the church into

the yard. “Go!” she whispered to Jován and Sunshine, “Get into the woods before they see you! it.” “You sure about this, Charlie?” Jován asked as a last effort to convince his friend of his poor choice. I don’t want you guys getting caught up in

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“I’m sure man – we’ll see you at Perry Park in no time. worry about us.” “Good luck, bro,” Sunshine sighed, “Good luck.” #

Don’t

The arm was so swollen that it began to stretch the gauze wrap that covered it. The doctors had set it hurriedly with no

anesthetic – telling Erica that it would need to be set again when she could be tended to in an appropriate environment. It

hurt with a stinging, gnawing pain that gave no relief or mercy. Erica rubbed it lightly with her good hand. The puncture wound

had been mended with a sort of super glue that bubbled up to fill the gap and seal it off from the outside. The bump

protruded under the bandage and felt funny as she rolled it under her palm. Lana turned and placed a hand on Erica’s knee. She could

sense that the girl was in pain, but wondered if there was more to it than the physical ailment. scalp with grime. Erica’s hair was matted to her

Lana combed it gently with her fingernails to The girl was so weathered but still so

straighten out the mess. beautiful. to hear.

Her eyes told a sad story – a story that Lana longed It killed her inside to see her young friend – her

crush – in such agony and distress.

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“Hey,” Lana whispered as she took the girl’s hand, “What’s wrong?” “I’m tired and stressed… I just… I don’t know what’s going

on or what I’m even doing here…” “I’m here if you need to let it out. here for you.” Erica looked into the teacher’s eyes and saw nothing but a kind, caring individual full of compassion. She knew that The Know that, okay? I’m

Lana’s heartache for her was genuine – her motives sincere.

woman loved her and cared about her wellbeing – something that she had only experienced with one other before. about Sunshine is killing me. Not knowing

How can I just sit around here

while he’s out there probably suffering? Lana placed her fingertips against Erica’s jaw and turned the girl to face her, “Look, there’s something I’ve needed to say for a long time. I may never have the opportunity to say it Erica,

after today, so I’m just going to put it out there. you’re the most incredible person I’ve ever met. smart, and you’re so incredibly gorgeous. I’ve ever wanted in another person. complete.

You’re funny,

You’re everything

Everything I need to feel

Everything that I wake up for in the morning and I don’t know how you feel about me – or any of

crave at night. this.

But I just have to let you know that I love you.”

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“Lana…” Erica trailed off in thought. “Yes?” “Lana I care about you – a lot. but I just… I’ve had my feelings for you, I’ve wondered –

I could never be that with you.

and I’ve been in doubt.

I’ve been really susceptible, But today has been more

impressionable, and vulnerable lately.

of an affirmation for me than a tragedy.” Lana’s voice waivered as she whispered, “What are you saying?” “We aren’t meant to be with each other. I’m supposed to be

with Sunshine,” Erica replied with a half-smile. “So you’re leaving? warned. “I know,” Erica said with a long exhale, “But I have to go. have to know if he’s okay.” Lana piled onto Erica with a hug, “Please be safe. You may I You’ll never be safe out there!” Lana

not feel the same about me as I feel about you, but just know that I care about you. means letting you go.” # I want what is best for you – even if it

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“How long are we gonna sit here like this, Boomer?

Seriously

– how long are you willing to sit here holding me hostage for a silly radio show while the world is falling apart out there?” “However long it takes for this shit to stop,” Boomer replied as he lit a thick cigarette and held it at the corner of his mouth, “How long you gonna sit there and bitch about it?” Stone tried to read the man. He had long considered Boomer to

be a good friend, but the ravaged heap before him was no longer the man he had grown so fond of. This person was different – Boomer had moved Stone

even his eyes shone with a new anguished fire.

from jolly radio producer to unrecognizable lunatic.

watched the cigarette burn slowly between the man’s lips – the thin veil of smoke doing little to hide the frantic intensity in Boomer’s scowl. What has happened to him?

“How many bullets are in that gun?” Stone asked to break the silence. “Three,” Boomer hissed, “But it only takes one to give a man a very bad haircut.” “I’m still trying to wrap my head around this craziness. Could you honestly kill a man to save your career? Look at us

both – I’m nearing retirement and I’ve gone nowhere in my career. I host a radio show that has an audience of a few I live with a dog

thousand people with very few diehard fans.

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who only cares about pooping and eating and then pooping again. You’re very similar to me in a lot of respects – but look what you’ve got. You’ve got a wife and two beautiful daughters. I’ve never even come close to being You

own a house and a boat. able to own a boat!

Boomer, man, you’ve got so much going on! It just doesn’t make any

Why would you risk it all for this? damned sense, man.”

Boomer closed his eyes for a moment before pulling the cigarette from his lips, “Hazel left me two weeks ago and took the girls with her. got. She’s gonna take me for everything I’ve

This station is all I have and I’m not gonna let anyone – You’ll see when this is all over.

not even you – talk me down.

The accolades from this coverage are going to make Hazel wish she hadn’t skipped out on me. face!” “Boomer, buddy… I’m so sorry to hear that. But acting out I’ll shove it right in her damned

like this isn’t going to change how she feels about you – nor is it going to be some kind of revenge. family. Think about me and my Doesn’t

My mother is out there alone in all of this.

that bother you at all?” “Sometimes we have to make sacrifices to get ahead. all people, should know that,” Boomer groaned. You, of

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“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” growled Stone, “You talking about Chaz?” “He was your best friend and you dumped his ass in a heartbeat when the offer for the morning show came along. had – just like you’re all that your mother has. You were all he You dumped him

like a dog on the side of the road when you get bad news from the vet.” Stone grew cold, “Are you blaming me for his suicide? You

know he had a lot of instability in his life – that situation did very little to—” “To what?” laughed Boomer, “That put him over the edge! even made it into the goodbye note! You

You dropped Chaz for an

extra two grand a year – why the hell are you so concerned about your near-death mother?” “Today has given me a lot of perspective, Boomer. On my

relationship with Mama, my friendship with Teeter, and on you. I had a lot of misperceptions and a lot of wrong ideas before today and I don’t plan to let any of that get in my way any more.” “Well,” Boomer chuckled, “I’m gonna stand in your way. deal with it.” # So

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“The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire. They were seared by

the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him,” Jimmy Lee read from his large leather-bound Bible, “I must say, Brother Rupert, this is a good find. You are

certainly on to something about the correlation here.” “I was always under the impression that these plagues would be the final punishment of dissenting man prior to the last battle,” Rupert remarked. “Indeed, as did I,” Jimmy tugged on his beard in thought, “But as we both know, the Bible is open to many interpretations. Perhaps the world’s population is being pared down to make it easier for Satan’s mouthpiece to gain a foothold with the UN and the FNP.” Rupert turned to look the man in the eyes, “The Antichrist. wonder who it is…” “I honestly don’t think that matters. Whatever human form he You I

or she takes, it is the embodiment of the devil within. know that there are few of us left to fight. believers,” Jimmy Lee lamented. “Are you suggesting that we fight?” Very few

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“They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings – and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers, says Revelation 17:14,” quoted Jimmy Lee. “And that refers to us – those of us that remain on Earth?” Rupert shook his head, “Of all people to lead a resistance – a disgraced group of fallen ministers and sinners?” “I believe so,” whispered Jimmy Lee, “We have to stand up against this evil – or our entire lives and careers have been for naught.” “That is assuming that we survive the day,” grumbled Rupert. “Our best chance is to get down to that shelter in Perry Park. It’s apparently where everyone is going. and rations down there. They’ve moved doctors

Some of these folks – Cynthia in

particular – need that transfusion they’ve been talking about on the radio. We all dearly need help, and we aren’t going to get

it in this little cellar.” “The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness,” quoted Rupert effortlessly. “Verse ten – precisely. should die down. When the sky goes dark the heat

We should be able to move easily over to the

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shelters – after all, they’re only about a mile over,” explained Jimmy Lee. Cynthia and Marshall sat across the room from the two ministers. They were huddled over a radio listening to the There had been an airline

latest updates across the news wire.

crash in the northern residential area in a neighborhood called Buenos Acres. The population there was largely Hispanic and The death toll

home to dozens of friends of the Torres couple.

was anticipated to be catastrophic as the fires spread, highly undeterred, from home to home. “Cynthia, they need help out there. – they’re dropping like flies. can get!” Cynthia sighed and tugged on her husband’s arm, “Now is not the time to be playing superhero! going to die!” “If I don’t go out there, a lot of people might die! This is You go out there and you’re Cops, firemen, paramedics

They need every warm body they

not the time to be selfish, it’s the time to do the right thing.” “Look Marshall,” Cynthia began, “I know that you no longer love me. I know that our marriage has fallen completely apart.

But there for a few minutes as we walked down Washington Boulevard, side-by-side, fighting against the odds, I felt

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something. perhaps.

It was something I had not felt in months – years I felt companionship.”

Marshall moved his gaze to the dingey concrete floor, “This isn’t about you or us, Cynthia. answering my calling.” Marshall stood up and climbed the short wooden staircase. cracked the door and turned back, “Cynthia… right time… But I felt it too. He It’s about doing my job and

This may not be the

Just know that – I love you.”

She watched her brave husband as he lowered the door to rest. Quickly the room returned to a mellow darkness. do love him. # Jacobs counted the white jugs in the rear of the batterypowered cart. There were twenty-six – four filled with diesel I love him… I

fuel, four with a goopy white polymer, twelve with aluminum powder purchased second-hand from a fabricating shop, and six with fine shavings of rust particulate. the tarp and took the driver’s seat. The parishioners were gathered together at the north side of the church building near the campground trail. Each had Jacobs tightened down

developed rashes of the skin plague that had become so widespread that day. They ached in the searing heat. Several

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of the older parishioners had taken to wrapping their heads and arms in torn scraps of clothing to shield their open flesh from the laser-like rays. Jacobs kept his emotions within. The scraggly man was guarded Every move was

and careful – both in his actions and his words. calculated and considered.

Though he had been planning for the

worst for several months, he had never anticipated that it would come from his God rather than the law enforcement or Department of Homeland security. His interpretations of the Biblical texts

were highly literal – and that went in direct disagreement with the current presidential administration’s more standardized approach to Christianity and religion as a whole. President Singh had worked to make religion more palatable and approachable by the masses by working with churches and denominations to become conglomerate organizations. It blurred

the lines between church and state – but offered significant benefits to both. The churches received increased tax

leniencies and a greater hand in shaping legislation, while the government gained the ability to monitor the various Christian denominations for dissent and activities deemed as ‘terroristic’ in nature. Terrorists, Jacobs thought, we believe what we feel

is right and they want to put us in prison for it.

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“Alright, let’s move out!” Jacobs announced, “We can be to the storm shelters at the far end of the grounds in under fifteen minutes. They’re underground and should be plenty cool – much

cooler than the sanctuary building or my home.” “They’re leaving!” whispered Allison from behind the trash cans at the rear of the house, “We need to get into the woods and follow them from a distance so they don’t hear us.” “What’s the plan when we get there? How are we gonna stop him

if shit gets bad?” Charlie whispered back. “I don’t know… We’ll think of something. He’s my dad, if

anyone could ever talk sense into him it would be me.” “If he’s half as crazy as I’ve heard he is that might not be possible… No offense.” Trust me,” groaned

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before. Allison.

“What’s all that junk in the back of the cart?” Allison bit her lip for a moment, “You know – I have no idea. I looked in there but it was just shavings of metal and stuff. I have no idea what he’s doing with all that.”

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Charlie thought back for a moment to his chemistry class – which had been a favorite, “What kind of metal? or zinc?” “I don’t know, maybe. rust,” Allison offered. “Weird… Sounds like a combo for thermite…” One batch I looked at looked like Maybe aluminum

Allison curled her brow, “What’s that?” “It’s a mixture of metals that is highly combustible under the right conditions,” explained Charlie, “It looks kind of like fireworks when it goes off.” “Well, that sounds pretty scary – I wonder why he would have that laying around in storage?” Allison wondered aloud. “Your guess is better than mine, but I think we should definitely find out,” replied Charlie with a grimace. that his decision to stay was the correct one. # “I think we’re headed the wrong way,” Allen mumbled. “I’m starting to think that myself. sky to tell. The sun’s too high in the He hoped

I could have sworn we would be to the edge of the

woods by now,” agreed Jeff with a frustrated candor.

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The men had been trudging through the scorched forest growth in a southwesterly direction for nearly an hour. Had they been

heading directly south, the pair would have reached the forestline in just forty-five minutes. The mistake was

troublesome, but the remedy troublesome more. “So which direction do you think we’re headed? we turn?” asked Allen in distress. “Now calm down,” reasoned Jeff, “Looking at the sun it seems like it’s hanging a little low in that direction. means it’s south right?” “I guess – I don’t know, I never paid attention!” “Well, I think we should just turn a sharp right and we should be headed south again.” “Are you positive?” Allen moaned. “No, of course not, but it’s better than doing the same thing and still getting nowhere.” Allen sighed, “I guess you’re right. Let’s do this thing.” Usually that Where should

The right turn set the new friends unknowingly on a path toward the northwest – directly toward the heart of the Reeve Forest Reserve and away from the safety of Hooghan. #

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“Get da’ safe phreaka’ on dis ting an’ let’s do some damage!” Crosley yelled to Damerae. “Yah, mon I’m on it. annoyance. They had broken into Kash’s Cash Advance and busted down the door of the small office. The safe was an older model – The electronic locking Though the technology Chill down braa,” Damerae replied in

manufactured in the summer of 2018.

algorithm had been hacked in early 2019.

to crack that particular model was not widespread, a former employee of Kash’s – also a friend of Damerae – had tipped the off the gang to the security fault. Damerae had been waiting

for months to get a shot at opening the safe. A spliced USB cable provided a quick tool to monitor the current of the lock. An alligator clip on the end of one of the Two of the

wires was grounded to a nearby file cabinet drawer.

other interior wires were soldered to tiny aluminum probes. Damerae inserted a probe into a small hole near the safe’s door handle. The other probe was inserted into the small gap between Damerae watched a meter on his laptop He moved the

the door and the frame.

computer screen for any indication of current.

probe up and down, left and right, until he finally found the point that he was looking for. The software registered a series

of pulses and recorded the readings.

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“Okay, bredren, we got da’ numbers!” he announced, typing the hash eagerly into a decrypter. “How long dis’ gon take mon?” Crosley hurried his friend. “Not long, braa. Cool down!” grinned Damerae, “Dis’ comp’ny All were broken a

only had thirty hashes made fa’ dis’ model. decade ago!”

The software flashed a message of success and asked for permission to transmit the callback to the locking mechanism. It all worked in a similar fashion to the telephone ‘phreaking’ phenomenon of the 1970s wherein devices called ‘blue boxes’ were used to emulate tones utilized by phone companies to route landline calls. The signal sent from Damerae’s computer through

the USB cable emulated the counter-call required by the safe to release the locking mechanism. Usually that call would be Unfortunately for

provided wirelessly by an electronic key.

store owners with aged equipment, the signal could also be easily sent through properly placed wires. “Here we go…” Damerae held his breath as he waited, “And bingo!” Suddenly the safe door swung open. The metal box was filled Crosley

with stacks of five, ten, and twenty dollar bills.

guessed that there was probably well over five thousand dollars piled inside – not bad for fifteen minutes of work.

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“Great, great!

Pile it up naw, da’ jewelry place up da’ strip

is callin’ mah name, mon!” Crosley cheered. “Hey, check it out guys!” Eddie hollered from the window at the front of the store. “What is it dude? Cops?” Rome asked.

“No, there’s something in the sky!” Rome followed Eddie out and into the street. The sky had

grown a dark blue – the sun half-bitten by a large anomaly in the sky. It appeared as the beginnings of a solar eclipse, but

the disc shape the young men watched seemed significantly larger than the moon ever had. It glided with an incredible lack of

speed between the Earth and Sun, sending blinding bolts of sunlight darting around the sky. The heat in the air began to

dissipate rapidly and a chill bit the men’s necks. “That’s not the moon, is it Eddie?” “I don’t think so, Rome.” “Is that a mothership?” Rome asked in a stunned shock. Eddie laughed a little, his head still aimed at the sky, “What? No – I think it’s a planet. It looks like it’s slowing

down, too.” “Shit, it’s getting cold… And dark…” Rome groaned.

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“Yeah, and check out the thunderheads rolling in from the west over there. Some major shit is about to go down, bro,” Eddie

warned, “We gotta convince Cros to get us out of here before shit gets serious.”

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260

Chapter Ten

At this point in the day nearly every communication mode is down aside from radio transmissions and a few scattered municipal wi-fi signals. The death toll has reached one billion

fatalities worldwide in a range of various collisions, illnesses, and heat-related ailments. though. It hasn’t been all bad,

The western United States is experiencing light showers

that are providing fresh water to many dehydrated refugee camps. Doctors at the nation’s capitol have quickly approved the emergency use of sanitary transfusions of plague blood as a cure for the widespread skin lesions. And Science and Technology

Czar Remi Dewitt has offered up images and an explanation for the new phenomenon taking place over our heads. Here’s a clip

from his press conference just a few minutes ago… Thank you for joining me. As I speak you will see images from

the Integrity Space Telescope of a rogue planetary mass that has entered the space between Earth and the Sun. As we can tell,

the object does not pose any immediate danger to our planet. The object is moving in an elliptical orbit, as best we can discern, and there was no sign of the its presence until just moments ago. In a few hours, the Earth will move out of the

object’s shadow and light should return.

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Okay, stop the clip right there! minds?

Doesn’t this blow your

A planet larger than our own has somehow appeared from

nowhere and our astronomers had no signs of its presence? Either the budget cuts at NASA have severely affected the competency in the organization or this is yet another of the miraculous plagues to descend upon humanity this troubling day. God bless you all out there, and if you have not yet left your homes – please move to your nearest local shelter facility at your earliest ability. with you shortly… # “It’s getting cold in here,” muttered Cynthia as she turned down the volume of the radio. “Sure is,” replied Rupert. He walked to the exterior wall and It felt like ice. He This is Stone Silvers, and I’ll be back

placed a hand against the cements blocks.

slowly drew his gaze upward to where the wall and ceiling met. A dust of white crystals grew slowly from the concrete ceiling down the wall toward his hand. Rupert drug his finger through

the white powder and watched it melt into a drop of water that ran down into his palm. “What is it?” asked Cynthia as she moved to get a look.

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“Water…

Well ice, anyways… It must be freezing outside…”

Rupert trailed off. “I suppose this is our opportunity to move down to Perry Park,” Jimmy Lee offered. Rupert scanned the room in a panic, “Wait – where’s Sandy?” “Relax, she went to the restroom,” Cynthia replied. “When?” “I don’t know,” Cynthia groaned, “Probably like ten minutes ago.” “We should find her – make sure she’s alright,” Rupert replied as he thrust himself up and out of the basement. Rupert burst through the kitchen doors and down the main church hallway. He instructed Cynthia to check the women’s Both came out with

restroom while he went into the men’s. nothing.

The group searched Sunday school rooms, the choir Each room was empty and untouched.

room, and even the nursery.

“Do you think she went out on her own?” Jimmy Lee asked. “No, I fear worse. She was hiding a lot of anguish. I’ve

seen it many times on the streets before. rooms?” Rupert blared frantically.

Are there any more

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“Yes, two restrooms at the front of the sanctuary to the left of the entrance…” Jimmy Lee offered. Rupert and Cynthia took down the corridor, through the sanctuary, and each into a restroom. Cynthia. Rupert emerged first, then

The look on her face was bleak as she handed a small It was an church flyer – several It had been

scrap of paper to Rupert.

months old – promoting Hooghan First Assembly.

signed on the front by Rupert along with his cell phone number. Rupert, I met you several weeks ago in a soup kitchen but never thought to call. I never thought to come in. And maybe now I’m

glad that I didn’t.

It seems that you and the Mexican man don’t Why should I? Why would I want

even buy what you’re selling.

to live in a world and worship a god that punishes people who didn’t even get the chance to hear about him? and I want out. It’s fucked up

Call it the coward’s way, but I’ve had enough. I learned a lot about myself today – mostly I was useless before today It’s my time, and I’ve put

Thanks for trying.

how little I matter in this world. and will be even more useless after. that off long enough.

Maybe I’ll see you again in another life.

“She was still clutching the pill bottle,” Cynthia sighed. “Jesus, bless her,” whispered Jimmy Lee.

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Rupert shivered in the chill from the outside. see through the large glass windows was darkness.

All he could The fifth

bowl, Rupert thought, We’ve got to downtown before the next bowls pour. This is our only break… # Marshall had only made it a few blocks up the road. devastation around him was nearly overwhelming. the streets. The

Bodies littered

Blood ran in streams from the fire hydrants.

Vehicles sat smashed into buildings or in the middle of streets – driverless with doors wide open. It reminded him of images of

the streets of New York City after the terrorist attacks of 2001. A once bustling town had been reduced to nothing but an

empty disaster area. There was a rustling hum growing from down the road. A row of

blue and red lights flickered over the horizon and sped toward Marshall. It was one of the battery-powered fire trucks – and He ran out in the road and waved his It slowed and a grizzly man

Marshall wanted on it.

hands as the vehicle approached.

rolled down the passenger side window. “What do you want? You need help?” he growled.

“Where are you headed?” Marshall asked loudly.

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“Buenos Acres, dipshit. radio?

Haven’t you been listening to the

Damn passenger jet crashed up there,” groaned the The driver pressed forward on the gas. I used to be

firefighter.

“Wait!” Marshall yelled, “I want to go with you! a cop – I can help!”

“Whatever, get in the back,” replied the man with a roll of his eyes. Marshall climbed in the rear of the truck and sat between the ladders and tanks. A young fireman was hunched, shivering in a His dirty blond hair blew in the His blue eyes sparkled in He was young and Marshall felt

nook next to a large hose.

wind as the truck picked up speed.

the light of each lamp post that they passed.

small, but dressed head-to-toe in standard gear.

like he was staring, but the cold air had nearly frozen him stiff. “You’re that cop from the trial in Denver, huh?” the young man asked. “Yeah,” Marshall replied honestly. “Did you do it?” It was an odd question to lead a conversation with, but one that Marshall had not yet been asked in such a direct way. He

had been questioned about the crime by his fellow officers, the

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district attorney, the court, and his wife – but he had never been asked the simple question of if he had actually committed the crime. Marshall smiled at the inquiry.

“No,” he said shaking his head, “I didn’t do it and I don’t know who did. It was such a measly amount of money – right I was set up, but I have

underneath the limit to get jail time. no idea why.”

“That sucks, bro,” the young man replied, “After today you can only go up, huh?” “Yeah,” Marshall grinned, “Can’t get much worse than this!” # The sudden nightfall made the journey through the woods difficult and treacherous. The lights on the front of the cart

Jacobs rode were the only indication of the church group’s position along the trail. Allison led confidently as Charlie

followed – ducking under limbs and rolling quietly over large fallen logs. It was a dangerous walk – the thought of all the

beasts that could be roaming around the darkness looming in the back of Allison’s mind. Charlie was more focused on the danger of confronting the rogue pastor in the man’s moment of desperation. on killing those people? Killing himself? Is he planning

How do you stop

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someone that might stop at nothing to carry out what he believes is his mission? Someone who is willing to die for their cause?

I’ve never even been in a real fight before – what if the guy is armed? Damn, Allison is cute, though. Focus! No, no! Stop thinking

that way!

“You’re lagging back,” Allison whispered, “Keep up!” “I’m trying! What’s your plan anyways? We can’t just run in

there and convince the people to leave if something starts to go down!” Charlie replied. “We’ll cut him off and confront him before he goes inside. Just stay behind me when we get down there and let me do the talking, okay?” Charlie rolled his eyes. background! his walk. All this way to stand in the

He grabbed a large stick and used it better balance The boy figured that he would use it protection later I’m not going through all this mess and

if necessary, as well.

suffering the whole day to get whacked by some spindly little minister… That is… If I can make it there.

The cool air had been a welcomed relief from the heat that had caused Charlie to pass out just an hour before. The chill had

become more intense, though, causing the liquid that had once pooled and dripped from his sores to freeze solid on his skin. It pained him as his muscles flexed with each step – the shards

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of frozen blood breaking and tearing the healthy flesh around the wounds. It was agonizing, but he put forth a calm façade

for his newfound friend. “How much farther is it?” he whispered while sliding underneath a woven mesh of vines. “About five more minutes. The trail bends up here before it There’s picnic tables,

opens up into the campgrounds. volleyball, cabins…

All that crap.”

“I’m still unclear about my role here,” Charlie remarked. Allison shrugged and stopped to let the caravan down the hill move around the bend, “If he gets violent or crazy, just hit him with your little stick there. to come along or something.” “I know, I know… here.” “Proverbs 21:23 says: Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles,” whispered Allison with a wink back at her walking mate. “Did you just use scripture to tell me to shut up?” Charlie grinned. She’s feisty – I love it. I just want to make sure I’m gonna be useful Jeez, it’s not like I begged you

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“Here it is up here,” Allison quietly announced as she tugged Charlie down behind a large rock. Jacobs dismounted from the battery-powered cart and punched in a key code on the storm bunker door lock. The parishioners

entered one by one and lights could be seen through the door as the generator was fired up. Jacobs began handing the jugs to

the men to carry inside, giving the last man orders to stack them at the rear of the facility within. “So the thing has an electronic lock? Hope we get to him Allison

before he closes the place down,” groaned Charlie.

jumped up and burst through the undergrowth toward her father. # “Dude, I cannot believe that poser ditched us for a girl!” Jován ranted as he and Sunshine worked their way toward the aged Highway 191. “Forget about it. Just focus on staying strong. Besides –

it’s not like I’m not in the same shoes. and make sure that she’s okay.”

I’ve got to find Erica

Jován shook his head, irritated, “Dude, Erica is worthless. She never did anything but steal you away from us guys. She was

clingy and arrogant and her leaving you was the best thing that has happened to any of us in a very long time. Screw her!

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Think about yourself.

Think about me.

Don’t be standing out

here without your head off your shoulders and dreaming about some magical reunion with your girlfriend. Life don’t work that

way and you’ve gotta stop living in denial, bro.” “Wow… You just cut right to the bone, huh? Not pulling any

punches today, are we?” “Sorry to be blunt, but it’s something I’ve been needing to get out for quite a while, my friend,” Jován sighed. “I feel ya. I do. But what if, man?” Sunshine pondered,

“What if I do find her and she’s ready to get back together?” “I’d be just fine with that – but you have to be aware of how she treats you – and us. You have to realize that she’s gonna

have to make some changes or we won’t be hanging around anymore.” Sunshine smiled at his friend, “You know, I appreciate your honesty. Good talk, man.”

The boys crested a hill and saw before them the most disturbing obstacle of the day. It was Willow Falls Creek – and Sunshine

it was flowing with a slow slurry of coagulated blood.

took a sip from one the water bottles given to him by Allison and surveyed the dark landscape for a way across. creek bent toward Highway 191 was its widest point. Where the It pooled

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in the small valleys before picking up speed and narrowing closer to the western edge of town. “Well the good news is – we’re close to the highway,” Sunshine murmured, “But it looks like we’re gonna have to ford this river.” “Really? Jován. “We’d lose valuable time looking. Let’s just do this,” Maybe there’s a land bridge up farther up,” wondered

Sunshine ordered as he removed his shirt and wrapped one end tightly around his fist, “Grab the other end and hold on tight.” “Yuck, it’s like room temperature,” Jován moaned while his foot sank into the murky ooze. “It’s actually not so bad,” Sunshine laughed, “It’s better than the outside air!” “You’re sick man. Shut up.” The deepest

The boys moved slowly through the weak current.

point came just to their armpits at the center of the creek. Perished fish and rodents floated in clotted masses like little drifting islands. his shoulder. Jován shuddered as a dead snake bumped past

I never thought I would see the day, he thought,

This truly is the most disturbing thing that I have ever experienced.

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The blood tingled and fizzed as it moved past the boys’ open wounds. It reminded Sunshine of hydrogen peroxide when poured He could feel his fever begin to subside – and a It was soothing As he and Jován

onto a cut.

warm calmness raced through his bloodstream. and relaxed him as he trudged across the muck.

exited, they each noticed that the sores had subsided on their arms and the flesh had begun to scab and heal. “Whoa!” yelled an excited Jován, “That’s miracle blood!” “Yeah! I wonder if anyone else has noticed that too? We’ve

got to get into town quick, we could save a lot of lives if we hurry!” Sunshine enthused as he and his friend took off in a healthy sprint toward the highway. finally within sight. # “We’ve got to stop and warm up,” mumbled Allen, “I can’t feel my toes anymore.” “Buenos Acres should be just ahead, don’t give up, man,” Jeff lied. He had no idea where the men were and knew only that they It was just ahead – and

should have cleared the forest’s edge more than an hour before. We’re way lost, he thought, but surely we’ll make it out soon enough. Hope was all that Jeff had to cling to.

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“You keep saying that, man.

You keep saying it over and over. I really want to believe

But I’m starting not to believe it. it.

The farther we walk, the less likely it seems we’re going

the right way,” moaned Allen. “Well whichever way we’re headed – it can only lead out. Rockwell is north, east would take us back to the lake, south leads to town, and while it would suck, west would eventually lead to the interstate and Green’s Auto Emporium. Any way that

we go leads somewhere that’s a point of reference,” Jeff reasoned. “Alright, I hear that, but let’s just take a second to warm up. Hell, we could use some torches out here anyways!” Maybe it’ll help us move a little faster,” Jeff

“Fine, fine. resigned.

The men collected nearby brush – Allen excitedly and Jeff reluctantly. Much of the crispy foliage crumbled in their

grasp, making it tough for the men to carry loads larger than simple handfuls. After an enormous amount of tinder had been

piled up, all it took was a spark from Jeff’s lighter to set the pile ablaze. The flames climbed high into the canopy before Jeff fed the pile almost

settling down to a low roll.

constantly while Allen sat with his back to the flames weaving a pair of torches.

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Allen had torn scraps of cloth from his shirt sleeves and tied the pieces around the flayed ends of a pair of broken limbs. stuffed punky wood into the cavities he had created and slathered it in lip balm for fuel. A short dip into the blaze He

lit the tinder inside the torches and start a slow rolling, steady flame at the torches’ tips. Discovery Channel actually paid off! “Crazy… the heat. A half an hour ago we were begging for relief from Now we can’t get enough warmth,” Jeff laughed. Beautiful! Watching so much

“Yeah, God’s really laying it on thick today…” Allen trailed off. “You ever been a religious man, Allen?” “I grew up Catholic. The whole nine yards – lent, Even went to the Catholic boys I never really bought

confirmation, all that mess.

school in Aarontown through high school. it, though.

And when my grandparents died, it was kind of a They had always put so much When they died

relief on the rest of the family.

pressure on us all to go to mass and everything.

it was like we were all free from that and my parents, aunts, and I – we all just went less and less.” “I was Episcopalian,” Jeff chuckled, “We had all the robes and stuff too. it. All the traditions, the rituals – I never got into It all seemed so phony and forced.”

Too weird…

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The men sat in thought for a few minutes.

Each wondered how

their lives might be different had they continued their church attendance and found faith in God. I’d probably be up there

with Carl right now sipping wine and walking the golden streets, thought Jeff. Instead, he and Allen’s fates were in their own

hands – and their skill at survival. “Do you think we should pray?” whispered Allen. “What good do you suppose that will do?” Jeff asked with a roll of his eyes. “I don’t know… How could it hurt?”

“I’m not saying it could hurt anything,” replied Jeff, “It just seems like the time for prayer has sort of passed us. whatever, go for it.” Allen closed his eyes and folded his hands awkwardly, “Dear God…” Jeff snickered, “You’re not writing a letter!” “Hush!” Allen whispered, “We’ve got a long ways to go out here and we really need your blessing as we try to get into town. Please put a hand of protection over us and guide us on our path toward safety. majesty today. We have experienced firsthand your power and You have shown us your presence in a way that no But

one has seen in thousands of years and we are humbled by your

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grace in sparing our lives thus far. the Son, and the Holy Ghost… Amen.”

In the name of the Father,

“Great, now let’s stomp out this inferno and get moving.” # “What’s da’ inventory Dam? called to his friend. “Bout sixteen in cash… Maybe fourteen or so in goods,” the What we take in so far?” Crosley

man replied between puffs of thick hemp smoke. “Cros, I’m telling you, bro – we need to get downtown. looking serious out there. Shit’s

Some kinda planet or something just

blocked out the sun!” yelled an enraged Rome. Crosley smiled, “Calm down and have a smoke, mah bredda. Ain’t no help down der for folks like us, mon.” “I don’t want to smoke – I want help! My skin’s fallin’ off,

I’m thirsty, and I’m freezing my ass off!” Rome hollered back. “Look, Rome – I like ya, okay? argument braa. takin’ dey shit. mon. I don’t wanta get in an

All dem people are downtown and we’s up here When we done, we go down an’ we get some meds,

But nah da’ priority is in profits,” Crosley explained

calmly.

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Rome became furious, “I’m tired of listening to your shit, man! People are dying out there – the bodies are all up and We’re gonna be next if we don’t get our asses

down the streets!

down to that shelter!” “Take it down a level, Rome,” Eddie cautioned. “Listen to ya friend, braa,” Crosley remarked. “No, I’m tired of this whole thing. It’s bullshit! You’re an

idiot and yet I continue to trail you around whimpering for scraps. No – I’m done with the whole damned thing. Done! I

want out and I’m getting out. whatever.

Keep your cash, your gold – A vein in his neck

I’m out!” Rome roared every word.

pulsed in a fury. flesh. light.

Bloody sweat rippled from the pores in his

The whites in his eyes glowed blue in the dim florescent He reached around his back for his Glock. His hand

patted around the beltline in a mad search for the weapon – but it was missing. Crosley pulled the confiscated gun from within his shirt and slammed a magazine into the butt, “Lookin’ fa’ dis, Rome? Should know by nah’ to keep ya eyes on ya gun, bredda.” raised the weapon and fired. Croley

A full clip tore through Rome’s

jaw and cheeks – tearing the flesh from the meat and the meat from the bone. His lifeless body tumbled backward on the

linoleum floor of the jewelry shop and spewed spurts of hot

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blood high into the air.

The tiny droplets speckled the ceiling It was a grisly Jackson

and walls in a gruesome display.

Pollock masterpiece – and the remaining Blackheart Men a silent audience to the showcase. Eddie became hysterical.

“Shut ya mout’ right nah ‘fore ya next, Slug,” Crosley ordered. Eddie’s lower lip trembled, “Cros… “He was a useless guy. Man, why?” No need

He whined like a battybwoy.

fa’ dat in dis game,” Crosley sighed. “He was my best friend!” “He was not ya friend, bredda. Was just usin’ ya da’ same way

ya usin’ us,” Crosley grinned, “We all jus’ tryin’ ta’ make somet’ing o’ ourselves, mon. I know dat’s why ya wit’ us. I

like dat in ya – ya not afraid ta’ get ya hands dirty ta’ get ahead.” Eddie was torn between certain death and moral flexibility. He knew Crosley was serious and would blow his brains out in a heartbeat if the smell of dissent wafted his way. this shit’s over – I’m out. As soon as

I’ll just book it to Atlanta and He’ll forget about me

disappear where Cros can never find me. in a few months.

I just gotta get through today in one piece Why – why did I ever think

and then I can turn myself around.

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this was a good idea? It never was me. one…

The gang, the thug life – it’s not me. Now I may never get

I just wanted a chance.

“Fine,” Eddie resigned, “Let’s get moving.” “Dat’s what I wanted ta’ hear,” Crosley said nodding his approval to Damerae, “Der’s a little grocery down da’ strip. Let’s grab some munchies an’ den finish dis ting.” # Erica had made good time on her journey to find the boyfriend she had neglected for weeks. She was moving at a steady pace

east toward Highway 25, which intersected a half a mile farther south with the interstate. From there she would be able to take

the service road down to the street where Sunshine and his parents’ house was located. about two hours. At this pace I can be there in I hope he

God – I hope he’s still there.

hasn’t gotten himself killed. She crossed onto Highway 25 and looked out across the landscape to the east. It amazed her in its abandonment. So

many people – drifters, immigrants, and merchants – once lined the streets of the small commercial oasis. It had been emptied

out with not so much as a silhouette of life to cast a shadow under the dim streetlamps. There was an odd allure to the

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silent lifelessness.

It’s kind of magical, Erica thought, like

an abandoned movie set. Her skin had become remarkably clear after receiving a large injection of the plague blood from a doctor at the shelter. had the unfortunate effect of switching her mind from the devastating sores to her nagging hunger and thirst. steal anything, but I’m freaking starving! I hate to It

There’s no one here

anyways, what could it hurt to grab some pretzels and a Coke? Erica darted down to Keye Street. There was a convenience

store nestled between two gold buying outlets that would have something to stop the hunger pangs. door slowly open. She pushed the unlocked

There was no one behind the counter – and no She reached into a cooler

lights or machines were powered on. and grabbed a can of soda. within it.

Ice crystals could be heard sloshing

There was a plastic strap of pretzel bags hanging Several of the snacks found their way into her

near the cooler.

purse, but one was opened on the spot for instant gratification. A rustling from across the store and around the corner caught her attention. She stepped slowly toward the sound until a Crap!

faint hushed laugh could be heard from the back office. Somebody’s in here!

Her feet shuffled slowly and quietly across

the linoleum floor toward the door until – she backed right into

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a display tree knocking dozens of postcards and shot glasses crashing down with her. Three large black figures emerged from the office and hovered over her. they wore. Their skin nearly matched the hooded sweatshirts that One leaned in close enough to smell the side of His breath tickled the tiny hairs of her neck as Erica felt disgusted and tried

Erica’s face.

he let out a slow eerie chuckle.

to pull away, but the man’s right hand had already grabbed her wrist and his left hand the inside of her thigh. “Just where da’ ya tink ya be goin’ Glamity Jane?” Crosley laughed hard, “Ya don’t wanna be my new best friend?” “I’m sorry!” Erica yelled frantically, “I didn’t know you were here… I never ever steal and I—” We here to teif duns and not’ing make da use of

“Dis in’t my store, girl. more.

But since ya came in, I might as well

ya,” Crosley hissed, “Grab her and take her ta da back!” Eddie and Damerae grabbed Erica by the wrists and ankles and drug her across the grimy floor to the office where they had been picking the lock of an electronic safe. Crosley cleared

the top of the desk with the sweep of an arm to make way for the struggling girl. Erica was slammed onto her back and held with

her upper arms against the desk’s surface.

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Damerae pulled his weapon and held the shaft to her temple, “Don’t struggle or we’ll haf’ta persuade ya to keep ya mouth shut.” Crosley fumbled with his belt buckle and snickered eagerly, “So glad ya came in today. service…” Let me give ya some customa’

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Chapter Eleven

Rescue efforts are underway in the north Hooghan neighborhood Buenos Acres. A commercial airliner has crashed after a

decompression event reported by the Federal Aviation Administration. The aircraft continued at cruising velocity for The descent

several hours while gradually losing altitude.

ended at 4:36 PM with the aircraft tragically crashing into the heavily populated Hooghan residential district. There has not

yet been an official estimate of the number of casualties. The Perry Park storm shelter has nearly filled to capacity. With interior rooms and hallways spanning far underneath the hospital and surrounding area, the facility was built to shelter as many as six thousand people. As the plagues continue to take

lives by the minute, bodies are being transported to the YMCA next to the hospital to make room for new arrivals to the shelter. Folks, never before have any of us seen devastation on such a remarkable scale. My hope – my prayer – is that every survivor

will continue to press on with the good faith that we will pull through this nightmare. We can persevere. We can triumph. It

is within us all to strive for survival and carve out a future

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for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren that is both safe and satisfactory.

Stone watched his producer’s eyelids flutter and settle.

His

upper lip twitched twice and his bouncing right knee slowed and stopped. The glint of metal in his hand relaxed and slid

between the chair and his leg – the barrel hanging just an inch past the seat. A moment of vulnerability for one – an

opportunity for relief for another. Stone quietly rolled his chair forward. Boomer sat still.

With a swing of his saddle shoe, Stone connected with the tip of the gun and sent it clanging against the rear wall. The

producer’s eyes flared open – his gaze fixated in a confused shock. Stone thrust a fist into the man’s jaw before reaching

underneath the swiveling chair and throwing him to the floor. Boomer’s head bounced off the thin carpet with a muffled crack. Stone leapt across the room and landed on the gun. Boomer was

on his feet and carrying the office chair above his bleeding head. Stone spun around, his back against the wall, and fired a The man released the chair and Blood spurted from the wound

slug into Boomer’s left kneecap. collapsed onto his right side.

with each adrenaline-fueled beat of his heart.

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“What the hell, man?” Boomer roared, “What the hell are you doing?” He clutched his knee in stinging agony. The blood had

begun to thicken and slow. “I’m leaving, you son of a bitch!” Stone growled, “Do your own damned radio show!” He kicked the toppled office chair at the Boomer’s eyes glowed in an

man and threw the gun to the corner.

angry determination, but he could not muster the willpower to rise onto his good leg. Stone pulled the sound booth door

closed and kicked the stainless steel handle to bend it past the door frame. Boomer watched through the small window as his

once-friend slipped out into the hallway. Stone rushed up the stairwell and stormed past the few interns and production staff that remained in the ground floor of the station. He moved down the hallway, tearing coats from their

racks, scarves from abandoned desks, and a stocking cap from atop the water cooler. He knew it was bitingly cold outside and

was prepared to run full stride across the mile expanse between the station and his mother’s house. He prayed a silent prayer

for her well-being but prepared himself for ultimate disappointment. # Erica closed her eyes and tried to black out everything in the room. She knew what the large Rastafarian thug was about to do

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to her and all she wanted was not to remember it.

Her body

froze and her head seemed to spin as the adrenaline flowed through every vein and capillary with her racing pulse. muscle in her body clenched and contracted as she felt a switchblade slide into the side stitch of her pant leg. slowly traversed the seam with an eerie rhythmic pacing. Eddie was torn apart inside. He had been part of such It Every

activities in the past, but there was something inexplicable about the tension hanging in the room. With the events of the His

day, his doubt in his path to success had been magnified.

decisions so far had all been in the name of the Blackheart Men. For a decade he had fought for their survival. the daughter or sister of a rival gang. fighting for her own survival. But this was not

It was an innocent girl

She did not deserve to be

forcefully relinquished of her innocence, and Eddie had made the snap decision to tip the scale in her odds. Like the crack of a

bullwhip, Crosley was staring directly down the barrel of Eddie’s pistol. He pulled the knife from the seam of the girl’s pants and laid it gently atop the table, “What da’ fuck ya doin’ Slug?” “This ain’t right, man. She’s done nothing, we ain’t got no Let her go.”

beef with her, and there’s no point to this.

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Damerae raised his Glock from Erica’s temple toward Eddie, “Put da’ damn gun down or I blow ya’ fuckin’ head off, mon.” Erica opened her eyes and witnessed the following seconds in a silent, blurred slow-motion. trigger of his pistol, As Eddie began to clench the

a spatter of grey brain matter erupted His knees bent forward – his His jaw smashed Assuming

from the front of Crosley’s skull.

pants still clinging around his lower thighs.

into the edge of the desk as he toppled to the floor.

Eddie had shot his long-time best friend, Damerae pulled the trigger of his Glock repeatedly. Casings tumbled to the floor.

Blood spewed from Eddie’s chest, arm, and neck as he collapsed. Erica hunched up as bullets tore past her right knee and into Damerae’s torso. He clung to the edge of the desk for a few In the

seconds before falling into a pool of his own fluids. doorway stood Lana, a gun still smoking in her hands.

Before Erica could speak, a clip of bullets streamed into Lana’s chest cavity. Damerae held his gun extended toward the It was at

woman until she fell back against the hallway wall.

that moment that he exhaled his final breath and went limp in a disheveled pile. unrecognizable. Eddie quivered and seized. Crosley’s face was

Lana still breathed, though a trickle of blood

danced down her chin.

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Erica jumped from her place atop the desk and rushed to the dying teacher. The woman’s flesh was as cold as ice. Her

wounds poured life through her shirt with disheartening speed. Her eyes had already become glazed as she began to let go of her existence and come to terms with the reality that she was slipping from one world and off into another. A forced smile

painted her face in a façade of joy, but the tremble of her palms told another story. acceptance. “You followed me?” Erica whispered, “Why? thinking?” “I… I worried… About you…” I What were you She was resigned and near delirious

“But I told you that there was nothing between us, Lana. told you that—“ “I know, E. I just…

I knew it was gonna be dangerous,” she

coughed a burgundy mist into the chilled air, “I just wanted to make sure that you made it. “But why?” Lana heaved uncontrollably before focusing on Erica’s beautiful sapphire eyes, “I wanted… wanted to feel complete… Closure… I wanted… I I I wanted to see you happy.”

In the thought that I had lost you…

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love you, E…

And I just needed to…

Needed to know that you

were going to be happy.” Erica sighed and embraced the teacher. soul escaping from her. She could feel the

It wanted to be free of the broken She was fighting to

vessel, but Lana was holding it back.

express her final thoughts in a way that Erica could never forget but would never dwell upon. It was painful for Erica to

witness, but she could only appreciate and cherish the gesture that Lana had handed over so selflessly and gracefully. For

someone who had been deprived of the solitary treasure that she sought, Lana emanated only love. “I loved you Lana, but only as a mentor and a friend,” Erica whispered softly into the teacher’s ear. “I know. I sort of always knew, E. But…” she coughed hard,

“I thought I could move it farther.” “Thank you,” Erica cried, “Thank you for everything. wish that… I just

I wish that things could have been different.”

“I have no regrets, Erica,” Lana’s eyes closed, “I only ever wanted what was best for you… both.” Lana relaxed against the hallway wall. Her shirt clung to the In the end, it’s best for us

wall’s textured finish as her lifeless body slumped down with

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relaxed muscle.

Her right foot fell effortlessly to the side She was dead – but not

with a tap of the toe of her shoe. without valor.

She had risked everything in her life to protect Even after receiving a

the girl that she so desperately craved.

shattering dismissal, her affinity for the girl only blossomed. Erica was so thankful for the gesture and wondered if ever she would see the woman again, perhaps in another existence. I can’t dwell, she thought, I have to keep moving. Erica

pulled the still-loaded pistol from Lana’s grip, kissed the woman on the forehead, and left the convenience store with renewed vigor and an appreciation for the untainted life she still could lead. # Charlie gasped for breath as he chased the girl across the field toward the shamed cult leader. He worried that a

confrontation was imminent and tried to center his thoughts to prepare for what might come. Allison was graceful in her stride

– her figure striking in the dull light of the yellowed, bugfilled lights of the campground yard. youthful – but not childlike. She was young and

She was smart and peppy – just She

the type of girl that Charlie lusted for and dreamed of.

was full of zest, life, and adventure – and was not afraid of proving her devotion to her decisions. This was a girl that was

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about to call out her father on his indiscretions and wrongdoings – and she had no reservations about doing so. “Dad!” she yelled through a firm glare. “Ally, what in God’s name are you doing here?” Jacobs yelled at his daughter. “Dad, I know what you’re planning to do to those people! them out of there! Don’t you dare hurt them. Let

They trust you!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about Ally,” Jacobs sighed as he threw the keys to the battery-powered cart into its seat, “You need to go into town and get help for yourself.” “I’m not leaving until you tell those people the truth!” Allison growled. “Young lady, you have no idea what fate you have been spared from. Go to town now. You will not enter this shelter under

any circumstances.

These people are my flock and I have a debt

to our Lord and Savior to protect them from ill circumstances.” “Do you really believe the garbage you’re spewing? insane!” You are

Allison groaned, “Get over yourself and do what’s best

for them!” “You’ve gone too far, girl,” Jacobs sighed, “Take that back.”

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“I’m taking nothing back!

You’re a self-centered asshole who

does nothing but what benefits himself!” “Ally, watch your damn mouth!” “Don’t tell me what to do, old man! taking moral lessons from you. success. I am past the point of

You aren’t a role model for

You’re an example of the failure of man’s ability to

self-govern.” Jacobs grew furious. his veins. His anger boiled over and pulsed through Allison was

It became consuming and overwhelming.

no longer his daughter – she was the enemy.

She was just like

the intrusive government that had tried to tell him what he could and could not say to his congregation. She was like an He had no

animal out of control and in need of sterilization.

feeling for her – he was numb to the familial relation that the two shared. Jacobs had never laid a single hand on his kin,

but as his fist rose into the air – the man lost all control. His fist smashed Allison’s jaw with a force not unlike a freight train with spent brakes. His swing continued past her head and

through the air with such velocity that he nearly lost his balance. It was far too much for Charlie to bear. He rushed the man

from the shadows and pummeled him into the side of the storm bunker. Jacobs kicked the boy with a low blow to the groin and

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raised to his feet. face was menacing. need to.

The confusion and anger painted across his He did not know the young man – nor did he

As far as Jacobs was concerned – the boy was nothing Was he the boyfriend of his daughter? To Jacobs it was irrelevant.

more than a distraction.

The relative of a parishioner?

The man was determined to teach the boy a lesson in respect. “How dare you come in here thinking that you can interrupt me, you little jackass!” Jacobs roared as he kicked the boy in the stomach. Charlie rolled and bit the man in the calf. Jacobs

took a handful of the boy’s hair and received a firm grip to the neck. “I refuse to let an abusive asshole off with a free ride!” Charlie growled. Allison was hysterical. She tried to pull her Jacobs tossed her

father off of the boy but was unsuccessful. to the ground like a sock monkey.

“Fuck you, asshole!” Charlie screamed, with a full-on punch to the man’s lower torso. Jacobs grabbed Charlie and rolled him Steam spewed from his nostrils

across the campground grass. into the sub-freezing air.

“You’re going to die, young man!” Jacobs announced to the devoid darkness.

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“Go to hell!” Charlie screamed as he rose to his feet, “It’s what you deserve for what you’ve done to these people! own fucking daughter!” Jacobs ran toward Charlie – but the boy ducked. The aged To your

minister spun around and caught a crack to the jaw with a tree limb that the young man had held behind his back. His jaw

unhinged – but it did not dissuade him from attacking the youth. Jacobs pulled a ball peen hammer from the back of his belt and swung it around to his Charlie square in the temple. His body

fell numb, blackness crept in from all sides, and his legs felt weak. The young man bobbled from side-to-side, but ended up on

his right shoulder and buried in the thick grass. # Sunshine and Jován had cleared the forest and come upon the old highway. The unkempt concrete shifted beneath their feet as

they crested the hill and stumbled onto the shoulder of the road. Cars were wrecked and their radiators steamed high into The drivers and passengers hung from the Cuts and abrasions littered their plagued

the early night sky. windows and doors.

torsos atop the open lesions. “Are they still alive?” whispered Jován to his friend. “I don’t know. This is a serious mess…” Sunshine sighed.

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A man noticed the approach of the two boys and pulled himself from the wreckage of his pickup truck. A few cars down a woman

saw the emergence of the man and threw her legs around the passenger-side frame of her seat. face. The shock was apparent on her

With pale scarred skin and tattered clothing she looked Her gait was wide and slow. Others

like horror film zombie.

emerged from their vehicles and rose from their seats in the median. “Help us!” yelled a plague-ridden man from a group toward the edge of the road. “You don’t have these sores! secret!” a woman beckoned. “The water! The water is the cure!” Sunshine called. Tell us why! Tell us your

“No, you are the cure!” an elderly man called from the assembling crowd, “These boys are hiding something!” “No seriously!” Jován beckoned, “Just dip yourself in the water – it’ll make the disease go away!” “Don’t listen! Get them!” growled the woman. The group chased

Sunshine and Jován took off in a sprint. after.

Down the hill and toward the small business section The highway Sunshine wished

north of the road the group ran in panicked fury. victims were delirious, confused, and in shock.

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that his legs could move just a bit faster.

The crazed victims

were gaining on the boys – and in their insanity they were out for blood. The victims had resigned to death, but with the new What

promise of salvation, their resolves had been renewed.

they were searching for they did not know – some secret the boys carried, perhaps. They had to have it.

“These people are nuts!” Jován screamed. “Tell me about it!” The boys’ legs and muscles were strong. The swim through the

creek had relieved their ailments and infused their bodies with vital energy. It was not long before the moaning, crying, Huffing and

hapless riot fell into the blackness behind.

puffing, the young men stopped for rest beneath a dried-up oak tree. “That was wild,” laughed Jován out of breath. “Yeah,” chuckled Sunshine, “But we made up a ton of ground.” “Definitely. Jewelry shops and crap are right over there.

Hook left for about a mile and a half and we’re at the storm shelters.” #

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The scene was nothing less than hope-shattering.

Amongst

swing sets, tricycles, yard sale signs, and picket fences sat large sections of fuselage, engines, and scattered luggage. A

once-beloved and integral neighborhood had become a scrap yard. Marshall had trained for the very situation a number of times in the academy, but the rich scent of charred flesh and burning fuel had never been so real. Firefighters and police rushed around him. Marshall sucked The man

back his nausea and grabbed an officer by the shoulder. turned around and met Marshall with surprise. “Marshall Torres – what the hell are you doing here?” “Chief Sanderson, good to see you. I’m here to help.

It

looks like you need every man you can get out here, huh?” Kieran Sanderson had been the police chief in Hooghan for thirty years – including the time that Marshall served on the force. He was a man of great build. Tall, slender, and The two men had

muscular, he was an intimidating character.

never spent much time together outside of work, though they shared a friendship on the job that was envied by Marshall’s peers at the time. been exchanged. “Well, I’m glad you’re here. There are still some people in Since Marshall’s conviction, few words had

the large passenger section over there,” Sanderson said pointing

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to a portion of the plane amidst the wreckage of a small burning house, “They’ve been pulling them out, but there probably aren’t any survivors.” “I’ll head in and check it out,” Marshall said dutifully, “It really is good seeing you again.” Marshall navigated the heavy foot traffic with all the grace that he could muster. He remembered the powerful images of the

Agent Orange devastation in Vietnam, the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and the suitcase nuke massacre of the Third Iraq War – all had been just lessons in school. disturbingly similar. direction. The scene was so

It was chaos – in every face and every

Marshall fought back his despair.

The fuselage had been severed both from the plane’s tail and cockpit. It lay as a giant windowed tube across the center of a Flames climbed from the sides of the Crash

small two bedroom home.

craft and sent billowing smoke high into the clouds.

victims could be seen motionless within – their seats torn from the floor and toppled. Marshall entered the wreckage to an immediate rush of withering heat. – as if he had opened a hot oven with his face hanging above the door. He quickly counted thirty-seven rows of

seating and saw that several of the remaining passengers in the

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rear had been cleared.

The situation was triaged in his mind

and he quickly decided to run to the front of the plane. The heat was searing. His scabbed wounds immediately burst He checked each One, two, three, In

open and began to inflame and ooze as he moved. passenger toward the front for signs of life.

four, he counted as he moved, My god, so many lives lost.

the sixth row a woman coughed as he placed his fingers to her throat. She’s still breathing! Thank God!

He lifted the survivor into a firemen’s carry across his shoulders. his back. She audibly winced as her weight bared down across The walk down the center aisle was difficult – there

were so many bodies and obstructions littered across the path. Without fail, Marshall reached the end of the plane and met the icy outside air. It felt like success – like relief. He handed

the woman off to a pair of waiting paramedics and turned to enter the plane once more. She was number twelve. Number twelve. Number twelve. He

counted the passengers from the front and jumped to the next body that he saw. Dead. Damnit! Then the next. Dead too. He

moved to each remaining person – suffering through the intense heat and smoke as he moved. out to catch his breath. Halfway through the plane he rushed

Two officers passed him as he exited.

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“Start at aisle seventeen counting from the front,” he coughed to the men, “Everyone before that is gone.” Marshall watched the officers scour each aisle for survivors as he coughed up thick wads of black mucus. They moved rapidly.

Marshall lost hope with each fleeting moment as the officers moved row-by-row without lifting a survivor from the wreckage. As they exited the plane fruitless, Marshall fought hard to keep his composure. “She’s flatlined!” yelled a paramedic from the back of a nearby ambulance. “Charging the paddles!” cried another. It was the woman that Marshall had pulled from the plane just minutes before. expose her chest. All the medical workers threw their hands up in the air, “Clear!” The paddles hit the woman’s chest and her body leapt from the stretcher in a strong convulsion. “Nothing! Hit her again!” A paramedic pulled the woman’s blouse open to

Marshall watched for a few more minutes until the sheet had been pulled over the woman’s face. Just as he threw his head

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back in grief, a small noise caught his attention from the right. Is that… is that crying? It sounds like a child, but…

In this mess? Marshall spied a stroller alone beside a mailbox to the side of the street. carriage. He walked briskly, but cautiously, to the

Pulling down a thick fleece blanket, Marshall She

uncovered a newborn baby – not more than a few hours old.

was nude save for her diaper, and laying in a cool puddle of water – residual from a bag of ice that she had been laying atop. “Where are your parents?” Marshall asked the child, “How could you be left all alone?” He pulled his outer shirt off and wrapped the child tight. I’ll save at least one life tonight. # “Are you ready to admit that we’re headed the wrong direction?” Allen sighed as he inspected the orange embers of his makeshift torch. Jeff rolled his eyes, “I know, man. Believe me, I know. But

like I said, we can still hit the interstate.” “It’s so damned dark. damned thing.” Even with the torches I can’t see a

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It was more than dark – without the aide of the artificial glow of street lamps, each step was risky. The forest was not

only known for its population of snakes, vermin, and other dangerous beasts, but also for its treacherous terrain. Nearing

the more mountainous region in the northern part of the forest were rocky crevices that bled eventually into hills, ravines, and peaks. The reduced traction caused the men’s feet to slip

and shuffle as they traversed the landscape toward their unknown destination. “I’m too damned fat for this,” Allen huffed as he nearly lost control of his left foot. steps. “The hell is that?” pondered Jeff as the men came upon a void beneath the fog before them, “Looks like a ravine or some shit.” “Snitch Creek runs through a ravine north of Reeve and down past Green’s Auto Emporium.” Jeff lowered his torch and nodded, “True – and that’s the only creek I know of north of Hooghan until you get to Rockwell.” “Thank God and hallelujah!” Allen yelled with an enthusiasm he had not felt since his phone moment with Stone earlier that day. “Be careful now,” Jeff cautioned, “It’s been quite some time since I’ve been down in these parts – since Cub Scouts, I’d His torch bobbled with his wavering

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reckon – but from what I recall, these ravines feel a lot steeper than they look. We need to walk down diagonal if

possible, unless you think you can run down this stuff.” Allen laughed a guttural, relieved chuckle, “I think we’d better walk!” Jeff led as the radio personality followed – their torches extended far before them to illuminate each crack and bump in their path. The ground became more barren and sparsely grassy

as stones and large outcroppings began to increasingly litter the path. Trees faded behind as the men cleared below the

underbelly of the thick fog and across the steep, loose ground of the ravine. Allen’s feet slip from beneath him and he slid a meter and a half down the slope. He had caught himself with the soles of

his boots against a slab of well-anchored rock. “Nice save, Teeter!” Jeff laughed as he helped the man to his feet with a firm grip, “Don’t wanna break your ass out here!” “Heh, yeah,” Allen groaned while rubbing his behind, “I think I might have!” “Oh shit! The men shared a hearty laugh. Jeff barked as he noticed a bush

Grab your torch!”

begin to catch flame.

Allen rushed for it but the dry brush

began to take on flame as if it were drenched in gasoline.

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“Help me stomp it out,” Allen called calmly to his traveling mate, “Come on!” “We can’t put it out!” Jeff shrieked as the thin, dried-up

layer of underbrush caught fire and began spreading about the ravine wall, “Run, damnit!” Jeff took off down the crevasse with all the speed he could muster. Allen walked briskly but carefully – weary of each step The expanse grew orange with the introduction of

as he climbed.

fresh light into the valley – the fog burning visibly above the men’s heads as they traveled. cliff faces opposite the men. “Allen, you poor bastard!” Shadows danced tangos across the It was a picture of hell. Jeff yelled as he turned to catch

site of the man, “Hurry your ass up, you’re in the thick of it!” Jeff turned and caught his foot in a vine that extended from beneath one rock and around a small stump. hit the ground first – then his head. His right shoulder

He spun onto his back As he

with the momentum of the impact and continued to slide.

noticed that his velocity was not on the decrease, he dug his fingers into the soil in attempt to find a hold. Each time his

fingers caught the rock, the force of the slide would jar away chips of nail. He tried to rotate forward, but he was sliding

down a particularly steep section of incline.

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He suddenly stopped. jabbed with a hot poker. slurry inside his mouth.

His jaw began to sting like it had been Teeth sloshed in a metallic-flavored Half were swallowed in a gasp for

breath – the others spit far into the night sky in a burgundy spray. Clouds began to close in on the night sky as Jeff lay He wondered for a moment if the obstructions were But he became overwhelmingly sleepy and had

motionless.

real or imaginary.

not the time to decide for certain.

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Chapter Twelve

Good evening to those out there who are still with us, my name is Boomer O’Neal. I apologize for the abrupt broadcaster

change, but in light of the situation, Stone Silvers has been given the day’s reprieve. It is with sincere sadness and a heavy heart that I must report to you this evening that the President of the United States has been assassinated. President Juliana Singh had just

arrived at the Camp David presidential retreat on a flight from the Middle East when the gunman – an executive assistant who has worked closely with Mrs. Singh for several months now – shot the President four times at close range. The man – twenty-eight

year old Thomas Allen Brown was himself shot by Secret Service agents and tackled to the ground. He was reported to have He and the

screamed “Death to the beast!” prior to collapsing. President both died at the scene.

Vice President Douglas

Chalmers will address the nation with in the hour. It has been a whirlwind day as—

Suddenly the sound booth shook wildly under the clash of thunder. Boomer stopped moving and looked around to scan for

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damage.

There was another clash of thunder – louder than the It

first, followed by the creaking of metal and a shrill pang. felt like the whole radio station shifted to one side as the floor began to tremor beneath Boomer’s firmly planted feet. doorway began to shift until the side struts were diagonal. floor dropped a full two inches on its foundation before the quake quickly shifted in its intensity.

The The

Wall paneling collapsed

in atop Boomer while compact discs and broadcasting equipment fell free from the shelving. The glass in front of Boomer’s

desk crushed in, but it held together like a smashed car windshield might after a collision. Still silence swept the building. Boomer checked the computer for signal strength. on the air. “I apologize for the brief interruption,” Boomer remarked He was still

through a nervous exhale, “It seems our station has experienced a slight earthquake, but all functions appear normal and we will continue to stay with you on the air – God willing.” Boomer

sighed and switched to the emergency broadcast channel so as to recompose himself. He looked to the doorway. The door was off its hinges, The man lifted

compressed inward by a toppled filing cabinet. himself to his feet to inspect the damage.

I’ll never be able

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to push that shit out of the way, he thought as he noticed the compounded problem – a large steel desk had slid behind the cabinet. His leg was still bleeding from the gunshot wound and That bastard left me here to die. Several

he felt weak simply standing.

Boomer hobbled his broken body toward the door.

panels of soundproofing material had to be cleared before he could reach it. This crap is heavy, he thought as he inspected With a few tugs he His leg burped a Holy hell

the wood frame behind the foam boards. cleared the larger pieces from the path.

bright red splatter with each effort of exertion. this hurts!

Once cleared, Boomer took his first peek at the busted wood before him. There would be no moving it – that much was clear.

The cabinet had smashed through the midsection of the door and in turn bent the hinges to the side. The two were melded I’m gonna friggin’ die

together as one lump of steel and wood. in here. # “Marshall! Get your ass over here!”

It was Police Chief

Sanderson – he was holding a large, fallen satellite dish just inches above the bloodied and battered police officer that it had landed on moments ago.

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“Coming Chief!” Marshall replied as he sat the infant down in its carriage, “Hold tight! I’ll be right back!”

Sanderson winced under the weight, “It fell in the quake. From on top of that damned apartment building.” Marshall pulled the man from beneath the dish and surveyed his wounds, “Lacerations to the face and right arm. left leg. Serious, but not life-threatening.” Gash in the

“Cobra, we need an EMT to Sixth and Juniper, code yellow, copy,” Sanderson barked into his radio. Within minutes a pair of men in blood-stained scrubs rounded the corner. kit. One carried a thin stretcher, the other a first-aid

Their assessment of the damage was brief – only enough to

make a tentative triage placement. “He’ll go in transport three,” said the taller of the men, “He should be to the shelter within the hour.” “We’ll take him down to the hub, it’s only a half a block from here down Juniper,” said the other. “Thanks,” Sanderson sighed, “You do good work.” With a thankful nod, the EMTs hoisted the man up and trudged away.

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“Thanks for the help,” Sanderson turned to Marshall, “That was JD Rolfe – your replacement.” The men walked to the carriage and Marshall pulled the baby into his arms. It was cold and shivering. Marshall swaddled

the baby tighter in the shirt and tucked it close. “Marshall…” began Sanderson with a hand laid atop the shoulder of his former employee, “Look – with all this God-craziness going on today, I’ve been doing a lot of re-evaluation on things I’ve done. I’ve just realized what’s important in life isn’t

always what’s good for myself, you know?” “Believe me I know,” Marshall said with an exaggerated groan. The child in his arms smiled at the gruff noise. “No, I mean I’ve made some really bad decisions – stuff I regret. And to people I love and people I’ve worked with…” There was a

Marshall’s expression grew long – his eyes cold. cold tingle of uneasiness that grew in his gut. “I’ve got to come clean.

I know it means nothing to you if

nobody knows it – and how will anyone know it with a shitstorm like today but—“ “Spit it out, Chief,” Marshall whispered.

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“It was me – I set you up.

I heard they were looking to I made it look like you Instead of

replace me with you and I panicked.

took the cash and I submitted the anonymous report.

getting the forced resignation, I got a private congratulatory ceremony.” “And you lost a friend, you son of a bitch,” Marshall muttered in hushed dismissal. Had he not been nuzzling the newborn, he

might have used harsher words. “I’m sorry…” “Screw you, Sanderson. How?! You ruined my life! For what? I always trusted you. How could—

My wife and I almost split up over

this mess.

Friggin’ job security?” It happened and I fucked up. I

“I can’t excuse what I did. fessed up.

What more do you want from me?” I don’t want to see You have no

“I don’t want anything from you, damnit. you or hear you.

I want to forget I even knew you.

idea the impact this has had on my life! hirable because of you!” “I’m sorry!

I’m unemployed and un-

Damn it!” Sanderson yelled, “Sometimes you do I wish it hadn’t happened! I’m friggin’ sorry!” I wish I

shit you can’t take back! had been more of a man!

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“Go to hell!” Marshall retaliated before turning to walk away. He had only taken a few steps before Sanderson called out. “The police force is a brotherhood. himself or every man by himself. It’s not every man for I I am.

It’s every man united.

broke that bond, and I am so regretful of that mistake. I wish I could take it back, Marshall.

Just understand that I More

am more committed after today than I ever was before.

committed to serving and protecting not just the civilians, but my brothers as well.” Marshall sighed, held the child close, and continued his walk toward downtown. # Stone was experiencing his first visual taste of the devastation in lower downtown Hooghan. unhauman, and detestable. It tasted, dirty,

The dead lay cold and isolated with

grotesque lesions stricken across their bodies like the marks of a bullwhip. Those in better condition roamed the baren streets Those with any mobility

crying out like lambs at the slaughter.

at all seemed to be concerned more with looting the abandoned businesses and higher income residences than with reaching out to the ill. imagine. It was worse than Stone had the capability to

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A shock ran up his leg and through his spine.

He looked down

to see a disheveled heap of a woman with a firm grip on his left pant leg. Her face was nothing more than exposed meat. Her

arms were bare of flesh save for the skin of her hands that appeared as a pair of tattered gloves at the ends of her shaking limbs. The veins of her forearms were exposed and slowly Stone could see

pulsating with an hauntingly rhythmic throb.

hints of rib meat through the blood-soaked shirt that clung tight to the moist wounds strung across her torso. “Mister… please…” “There’s nothing I can do for you,” Stone replied with a solemn gaze into the woman’s hurting eyes. “Mister please take me with you…” “There’s an EMT tent set up a block up the road by the radio station, you need to go there.” “Take me, please! Please sir!” She begged. Mister…” she whispered in a strained bellow, “Mister

“I can’t, I have to get to my mother’s house to check on her. I promise – it’s right up the road! The EMTs will take care of

you,” Stone said with a somber sternness as he tugged his leg free of the woman’s grasp. “You bastard!” She cried, “You selfish bastard!”

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“I’m sorry,” Stone backed away, “I am – but this is important and help for you is just up the road…” The woman’s agony-stricken face crinkled, “Go to hell!” Stone turned from her and broke into a jog toward the next block. Stone’s mother’s home was nestled amidst a seemingly endless stream of cookie-cutter townhouses along an older strip of residences in south Hooghan. The neighborhood had existed prior

to the boom of the downtown area that had occurred several decades before. Despite the massive earthquake just minutes

prior, most of the houses looked unscathed – aside from a few wrecked cars alongside the streets. The population there was Stone wondered

nearly as old as the houses that they inhabited. if anyone had made it out of the neighborhood.

His mother’s house, a small pink and white two-bedroom home, appeared trouble-free on initial inspection. Her driver’s-side

car window had been smashed and the center console and glove compartment rifled through. The mailbox hung open. But the

windows and doors of the home itself were untouched. Is she here? Is she okay? Stone scrambled to find his copy

of the house key amongst all the mess attached to his key ring. The key slid in effortlessly and the door swung open freely on its well-greased hinges. The house was like a vacuum for sound.

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The reality of the moment hit Stone like a wrecking ball that knocked the tears from his head with immediate force. “Mama?” he beckoned aloud, “Are you in here?” His call was

met with pure silence – silence of the sort that stings the ears like a shrill high-pitched whine. still and stale. The air in the house felt

Stone wondered if it was the anticipation of

the moment or reality. As he rounded the corner into the lush kitsch of the main living room, he saw exactly what he had expected to find. The

lifeless vessel of his mother sat nestled in a crochet afghan, reclined to one side as if sleeping. without breath. Her chest lay motionless She

Her face was scabbed, but not severely.

had passed before the infliction had grown too severe. “You were weak,” Stone cried as he embraced her body, “I should have been here! from his sobbing eyes. Damnit, I’m so sorry!” Tears poured

“Why God?!” He yelled the question into How dare

his mother’s still shoulder, “Why would you do this?! you! You call yourself a compassionate God?

Why the hell would

you do this?!” Stone wailed hard into the blanket. The pain was severe – He was not quick

worse than any wound he had taken that day. enough.

Regrets burst through his mind more rapidly than the

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bloody teardrops from his face. shouldn’t have blinked!

I should have been here!

I

I should have come immediately! It almost appeared as though Perhaps it was the final

He composed himself and stood.

his mother was smiling a faint grin.

thought of her son surviving the catastrophe – or possibly the sense of pride she felt as she weathered the storm on her own. Stone kissed her lightly on the forehead and pulled the afghan over to cover her. “I love you, Mama. you again.” # “Is everyone alright? Does anyone need help?” Rupert yelled I’ll see you again. I pray that I’ll see

into the darkness of the streets.

He, Jimmy Lee, Cynthia, and a

few other survivors had been plotting their journey to the Perry Park shelters from the stoop of the grand church building. The

rocking quake had torn a scar diagonally through the church and out across the road. Jimmy Lee stood at the edge of the fault and whistled down into the crevasse. At the wider parts of the crack, he could Water pipes spewed onto sparking Not only

peer several dozen yards down.

electrical wires deep in the freshly opened earth.

were earthquakes rarely thought of Colorado, tremors of such

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magnitude were never considered.

The moving ground had

literally split apart in a deep gash. “Any guesses to how long this fault is?” Jimmy Lee wondered aloud. “No idea,” Cynthia groaned, “But it’s gonna cut us off from the park if we can’t find some way to cross.” Rupert’s grimace showed his frustration, “I’m tired of waiting. I don’t think anyone can hear me. We can pick up

stragglers along the way.” “I agree, Rupert,” Jimmy Lee replied, “Let’s just get a head count and get moving.” Cynthia took charge, making note of the seven other warm bodies that had assembled on the church steps. Considering what

we still have to get through, she thought, I wonder how many of these folks are going to make it there. The group walked – making certain to maintain a safe distance from the gouge in the earth. They were a diverse amalgam of

Hooghaners; an overweight divorced mother of two whose children had disappeared earlier in the day, an elderly Korean gentleman with the musculature of a man half his age, a pair of African American high school-aged lovebirds clutching hands, and a young, Caucasian EMT who had experienced more than he could

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handle during the preceding events.

But with bloodied faces,

the ethnicities were almost negligible. “No parents?” Rupert asked the young black couple in attempt to ignite conversation. “Gone,” muttered the boy. Rupert turned to look at the kid, “Not you, though. that?” “You tell me. They went to your church,” the kid popped back. Why’s

“Well,” Rupert struggled in thought, “We all make mistakes, that’s part of being human. I suppose it’s learning from our

mistakes and learning not to make them again – or make them into habits – that makes us Godly. My biggest mistake was looking to

substances to get through my problems rather than to look to God to overcome them.” The young man’s lip curled a bit as he spoke, “Sounds like you’re saying that sometimes we don’t realize what we are doing is wrong until it’s too late.” “I think today is a pretty significant example of that – for a lot of people. Take Mr. Sanchez there,” Rupert offered as he

pointed out Jimmy Lee, “He’s ministered his church for a decade now, lead a lot of people to Christ. But it only takes one

unrepentant mistake to ruin your relationship with the Lord.”

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“And now we are going to have to die for God aren’t we?” Asked the girl. “It’s possible. We can’t even hope to understand God’s We can only look to His word for Revelation chapter 14 states that: There

intentions or direction. guidance at the point.

is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name. This

calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus. We can only

hope, then, that providing our devotion and servitude during our remaining days will gain us favor with God.” The girl’s expression grew grim, “But they’re gonna kill us if we speak out about it – if we rebel.” Rupert nodded slowly, “Such is the fate of a martyr, I suppose.” # “Jeff!” Huffed Allen as he crab-walked down the ravine wall, “Jeff are you alright?” Despite his careful maneuvering, Allen’s foot caught in a thorny vine that spanned the gap between a pair of rocks. attempt to remove the spines from his bootlaces his balance tipped. The effort to catch himself resulted in a hard crack of In

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his shin bone against the smaller of the rocks.

He tripped

backward, the boot wedged beneath the smaller rock, and his tibia and fibia burst through his flesh with a loud crack. The

bones had snapped clean in the middle over the sharp edge of the stone. Allen wailed out in agony.

A shot of adrenaline released into his veins and sharpened his focus. A look behind revealed the entire ravine to be catching

fire – which was quickly closing in on the man and his friend. Allen used the rocks to right himself and snapped a sun-baked, brittle sycamore trunk at the ground with which to steady himself. You can do this Allen, he assured himself, You can

totally do this. “Jeff, buddy, I’m coming!” Allen lurched forward with his weight planted on the stick. His hobbled frame was silhouetted by the roaring inferno that trailed him. No earthquake, no fire, no plagues, no nothing is I’ve just about had my fill today! The

gonna screw with me.

steps were slow and painful with barely any weight forced onto the broken leg. Snap! The walking stick broke under the force of Allen’s heavy frame – just beneath his firm grip. His good leg slipped down the Just twenty more yards. I got this.

slope and the broken end of the stick pummeled his forehead with

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a near-blinding force. ground.

He fell with a thud to the calloused

“Al— Allen?” Jeff mumbled through a gummy gurgle.

His front

teeth were gone – the molars in back split from the force of the impact. Where the hell am I? Fire! How the hell? Shit… The ravine. Fuck… And – oh God…

The torches…

Why does my head hurt

so damn bad?

Jeff reached up to the left side of his scalp and

felt the interior of the deep gash that had been carved into it. Holy crap… of here. Jeff rose to his feet. A brief survey of his body revealed no God, where is Teeter? We’ve got to get the hell out

significant injury below the neck – a fact that made him at least a tinge thankful. His eyes moved from his torso and limbs Illuminated by the roaring forest

up the side of the valley.

fire was Allen’s large, flannel-adorned abdomen peeking up from the brush. Jeff scrambled up the hillside and fell atop the man. Shaking

Allen’s face wildly and slapping him full force, Jeff yelled at the top of his lungs for his walking mate to wake up. The calls

shot from his mouth like a laser, penetrating Allen’s eardrums and rattling his subconscious mind from its shock-induced slumber. Allen’s eyes fired open and his pupils bounced from

large to small and back again.

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“Holy jeepers!

We’ve gotta run!”

he yelled. Look at your

“You’re in no condition to do that, old man. damned leg!”

Allen forced a hearty laugh that bellowed from deep within him, “Yeah, I’d rather not look – the feeling of it is plenty for me!” “Throw your arm around my shoulder and let’s boogie! Fire’s

rolling this way mighty fast and we don’t want to meet up with it!” Clinging to each other made the journey down to the creek bed incredibly slow and arduous. They could nearly feel the flames

licking the backs of their necks as they traversed the rocky terrain. Every move – every single step – had to be discussed

as the men moved with stuttered synchronicity toward their hopes of escape. “Allen! A loud noise broke their stride. Look out!”

A tree trunk had burned through behind the pair and sent it falling loftily toward them. The leafy embers from its branches

drifted like glowing fireflies up into the cloud-covered night sky as it swung downward with increasing velocity. Jeff shoved

his friend aside, sending Allen into a slow tumble and halt against a mound of earth.

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The flaming upper branches of the tree landed square atop Jeff, pinning the man to the ground. The glowing sticks burned

little stripes in zigzags across his face as he tried to brush them away. The hair around the gash in his head burned quickly The smoke from the

off, and his clothes began to catch fire.

inferno pained his lungs with near the intensity that the heat did his flesh. Allen crawled on his two hands and good knee to where Jeff lay. He reached his hand – despite what his nervous system was He clutched Jeff by With all of his

telling him – directly into the inferno.

the wrist and received a firm grip in return.

might, Allen pulled the man free from the main trunk and away from the flames. to the dirt mound. “Cripes, man, you saved my life!” Jeff laughed, “Even with the bum leg.” “Just glad you had my back in return! I don’t know that I Jeff rushed to his feet and pulled Allen back

would have had the energy to get away afterwards!” Allen replied. “Let’s just keep moving!” Jeff said with a renewed enthusiasm as he pulled Allen off the ground. There was a sudden firm smack against Jeff’s leg – then another. He looked down to see the head of a large diamondback

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rattlesnake strike him an additional three times in the left calf. Jeff doubled over in shock – the snake struck him a last

time in the neck before he could remove his foot from its tail. Allen stood shakily in a stunned horror as he watched the beast slither away – and as Jeff began to convulse while his limbs flexed tight. He reached for his chest, but collapsed

before he could grasp at his seizing heart. # She was blurry, but beautiful – like an angel nestled amongst a sea of clouds. Could he touch her? Perhaps, though his arms

felt heavy and full of sand.

She was so charmingly cute – her What was that

golden hair almost reached out for his touch. noise? It sounded almost like song. Charlie!”

“Charlie!” it sang,

“Charlie!

It was a long sort of urgent tune.

“Charlie!

Damnit, get up!” Allison yelled at the halfHis head cleared its daze and he quickly

conscious young man.

realized that the situation was not as pleasant as his jilted psyche was leading him to believe. “What the heck happened?” Allison groaned, “My dad knocked you the heck out and ran inside the bunker. There’s no other way in – those people are

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screwed.

And there was an earthquake – but that’s not totally

uncharacteristic of today.” “Crap, really?” Charlie muttered as he blinked rapidly in attempt to focus. “Yes, really.” “What should we do?” “I don’t know,” Allison trailed off for a moment, “I guess we should head into town. Those people in there are so clueless –

maybe they deserve whatever their fate may be.” “Town… Yeah, good idea. We can probably catch Sunshine and

Jován…” Charlie checked his cell phone – no signal, “Well, maybe we’ll see ‘em at the shelters.” Allison scanned the area for options. There was a rusty old The battery-

tractor to the side – that would be no help. powered cart! to the highway! “Can you walk?” Charlie wiggled his legs, “Yeah, why?”

There’s definitely enough juice in that to get us

“We can take the cart back to the house, grab some water, and make it pretty close to town on that one battery. think?” What do you

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“Yeah, that could work,” said Charlie, rising to his feet and bobbing to and fro to regain blood flow in the limbs, “Wonder how bad things are down there.” “Probably about as bad as they are here,” Allison moaned, “Let’s get going.” # “Do you see that, bro?” asked Jován with a slight excitement in his inflection. Sunshine grinned, “I do.” The boys felt strong. They had escaped the plague of sores

after the dip in the bloody creek and outrun the maniacs at the highway crossing. The day had brought them oddly closer –

despite the shared feeling that they were already the best of friends. After Charlie had ditched them – an occurrence not too

uncommon in recent months – the young men had been forced to join together to survive. The mutual encouragement had served

only to enrich their relationship and bolster their shared respect. “That’s Jewelry Row,” Jován stated confidently, “We’re almost there! We’re almost freakin’ there!”

A shape appeared in the darkness near the edge of the back lot behind the row of shops. It was a person – holding something

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shakily in the boys’ direction. its free hand in the air.

The figure stopped and waved

A faint holler could be heard.

“Looks like a woman,” Jován commented, “But what’s she saying?” “Sounds like she’s saying to stay back,” Sunshine whispered. “Is she holding a gun?” “I think so,” replied Sunshine with a raise of his hands above his head. The young woman walked slowly toward the boys, checking to each side as she moved. with the stirring winds. Her matted, dirty hair blew in clumps There was something familiar about

her, and Sunshine quickly recognized it as a flash of lightning illuminated the figure for just a brief second. looks like… “Erica! That shirt… It

I bought that for Erica at the Imperium concert! Erica! My God, is that you?!”

“Sunshine?!”

She dropped the revolver and began a sprint

towards her lost companion. The two met in a long-anticipated embrace. They pulled back

briefly to inspect the damage the day had taken on them both. Erica’s face was still clear of sores, and other than some tattered clothes she looked remarkably pristine. Sunshine

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showed no signs of the disease, though Erica noticed that his clothes were dark red and moist with an iron-rich funk. “Your face!” She remarked, “You don’t… You’re not…” The blood healed

Sunshine smiled, “We went through the creek. us somehow!”

“They were doing transfusions at the shelters to heal people…” “You’ve been to the shelters?” Jován piped up, “Why did you leave?” Erica turned, bemused, to her boyfriend, “Sunshine wasn’t there. I had to make sure that he was okay.”

“Where the heck did you get a gun?” Sunshine wondered aloud. Erica’s eyes turned downward, “Lana… the shelters to make sure I was alright. but she intervened before it was too late. including her.” “Erica, that’s terrible,” Sunshine whispered with another embrace, “I’m so glad you’re alright.” “I hate to break the moment, but we’ve got to move,” Jován beckoned. She had followed me from Some guys grabbed me – They all died,

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“The back side of Perry Park is a mile or so away.

We can

make it in less than twenty minutes if we book it!” Erica said with a grin. Jován sighed with a tinge of relief, “Good, ‘cause from the looks of things – it’s about to get worse out here.”

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Chapter Thirteen

Unfortunately, the wire service is still down.

News on the

national level is only trickling in with the limited communications still available, but we are hoping to have a recorded copy of the Vice President’s message by the end of next hour. Due to the nature of my recording studio after the

massive earthquake experienced in Hooghan last hour, I have yet to have any word with the staff here at the station. I can only

encourage anyone out there still listening – please think of your safety and get yourself and loved ones to a safe place immediately. It’s times like these that make us reevaluate our priorities. What is important to us? educations? Our families? Our careers? Our

What has been important to us previously that is

perhaps not so significant now? Many people have passed on today. their essences – gone? Where have their souls – Is there a

Is there a heaven or hell?

purgatory or some sort of probationary area? pretend to know?

Can we even

It seems both sick and unfair for such a But

judgment to be placed on us without warning or hesitation. perhaps that is the mark of a truly just God.

With a random

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immediacy we have all been subjected to the same duality of fates. Just, though possibly without sufficient warning. I’ll return shortly with the latest

This is Boomer O’Neal. safety advisories.

# “So then they shot Lana?” asked Jován with a shocked inflection. “Yeah – it was all so fast. seconds.” The trio had made it back to Jewelry Row unscathed and were trudging slowly up the on-ramp to Highway 25. They planned to Four people dead in a matter of

follow the road to the edge of Perry Park and hop the fence. From there the group would have a straight sprint across the park grounds and to the storm shelters – if only they could make it before the elements of the day consumed them. It felt like the cold had intensified after the quake. air was filled with a dense, blowing fog that swirled like clouds that swept across the ground. As she walked behind her It The

boyfriend, Erica crinkled the frozen blood in his clothes.

fell toward the ground in a shimmery dust, but was caught by the winds and carried off into the night. Her eyes followed it up

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into the sky, but something distracted her. blinking light off in the distance. “What is that?”

It was a faint

She asked with a point toward the sky. Or maybe a plane?” Sunshine

“Looks like a helicopter… guessed.

Jován stopped to look, “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen anything in the sky all day.” “It’s getting lower,” Erica mumbled in thought, “Do you think it’s a helicopter coming in to land?” “Maybe a hospital transport chopper?” Jován speculated. “I can see the FAA wing lights – that’s a plane,” said Sunshine with a squint. Jován spoke softly, “It’s definitely getting lower. hear the engines now.” The plane was bobbing side-to-side as it dropped drastically in altitude. distinct. the tail. tips. The running lights grew brighter and more I can

One red light sat static on the nose and one white on Alternating white lights blinked beneath the wing

The kids could see specs of light dancing across the

propeller blades as it neared them. “It’s gonna hit us!” Jován yelled.

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“No!

No – it’s gonna pass!” Sunshine barked back.

The plane bobbed lower – so low that Sunshine could see the registration numbers on the side of the small craft. larger in the youths’ view as it approached. lightning revealed it to be pilotless. It grew

A bright flash of

As the aircraft

approached at the highway overpass where the group stood, the starboard wing smashed into a light pole, sending the plane into a spiral. It pitched upward. Sunshine pulled his two friends

to the ground – barely ducking beneath the vehicle’s tail. Up it went at a forty-five degree angle before spiraling down right into the edge of the commercial district on the northern side of Highway 25. The fuel erupted into flames and the

building that had been the plane’s cushion crumbled in around the aircraft. “Holy shit,” whispered Jován. “Should we go help?” Erica asked in a still hushed astonishment. “There wasn’t a pilot – and I doubt anyone in that building would make it through that fire,” Sunshine reasoned, “I think the best thing we can do is keep moving – maybe tell somebody at the shelters about it.” #

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Marshall looked on, helpless, as the flames licked the angry sky. Though he was nearly two miles away from the airplane as

it crashed, he witnessed it vividly as it had streaked across the sky, fluttered upward, and nosedived into the eastern side of the city. The thought that someone in the craft or on the

ground might be injured and in need of help tore at his giving heart. He heard a stuttering noise alongside the road near a pile of bodies. Immediately he recognized the sound – it was the static The baby was tucked into Marshall’s

fuzz of a police radio.

half-unbuttoned shirt so that he could sift through the heap of carnage. The radio was strapped to a traffic enforcement Marshall

officer near the bottom of the cluster of corpses.

slid it respectfully from her shoulder clip and adjusted the frequency. … All available respondents to the corner of Rothmire and Freedom. Center. There has been a code one thousand at the Hooghan Rec Repeat code one thousand at the Hooghan Rec Center.

Rothmire and Freedom… “Emily. I’m gonna call you Emily,” Marshall laughed to the

baby girl, “Emily, I’ve got to get you to the shelters so I can do my job better.”

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The baby yawned and briefly opened its eyes.

Marshall had not

made much time to examine the child – but in that short moment it occurred to him that Emily was very well-behaved and nontemperamental. together. She had not cried or whined once in their travel

Even in her unfed and almost-frozen state, she lay

still and satisfied. “Have you ever heard of Emily Dickinson?” Marshall asked rhetorically – he was not accustomed to talking to children, “She was a poet. A fine poet in fact. She wrote a whole slew

of poems about rough times, struggles, bad days, crap like that. Emily, there’s one I’ve been thinking about all day. It’s about

despair and lack of understanding in trying times – my grandma used to sing it when she was very sad. It goes: pray is left, is left. thy chamber is, O Jesus! in the air, At least to

I know not which

I’m knocking everywhere.

Thou stirrest

earthquake in the South,

And maelstrom in the sea; Say, Jesus

Christ of Nazareth, Hast thou no arm for me?” The baby girl lay sleeping without even a whimper in response to the poem by the author of her newfound namesake. Marshall

poked her lightly on her tiny nose and made kissy noises with his mouth. She’s out cold, he thought with a near-paternal

smile painted across his face.

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“Anyhow, I’m gonna get you down to that storm shelter so I can stay busy out here. This is no climate for a kid your size.” # “So this is what the house of a cult leader looks like?” asked Charlie, casually handling all the adornments strewn across the handmade mantle above the bricked-off fireplace. “Don’t touch any of that,” disciplined Allison. “Why? “Maybe. Coming back for it later?” laughed Charlie. Don’t touch it.” Several

Charlie leaned in close to inspect the trinkets.

varied cross sculptures lined the wall – some leaning against the white-washed brick and some in little stands made of wood or ceramic. In front of the crosses were a variety of religious

symbols, coins decorated with foreign script, and some small framed photographs. “What’s this from?” Charlie asked, being certain to point rather than touch. “That photo is from a church camp we hosted about ten years ago. I was a little girl then,” Allison sighed and firmly

clenched her eyelids, “If only I knew then what I know now.” “You’re the one in pink, huh?”

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Allison opened her eyes and moved to the mantle, “Yeah. shirts and pigtails – all up into about seventh grade. was blue shirts and French braids.

Pink

Then it We

That camp was so fun.

swam every day in a creek near the campgrounds, spent the nights under the stars. story.” Charlie scanned across the other photographs, “Seems like you were a happy kid… Is this one your mom?” Every morning we put on a play of a Bible

“Yeah,” Allison wiped a tear with the wrist of her shirt sleeve. The memories of what had been were painful – even when

compared to what she knew was to come. “What happened to her?” “She died not too long after that summer camp happened – brain aneurism. After that, Dad just kinda… Melted down, I guess.” She was nursing a

Allison turned to leave the conversation.

growing uncomfortability in her gut that she knew would only amplify if she kept dwelling on it. Her mother was gone – She

something she had worked every day to make peace with.

would now have to do the same with the likely demise of her father. It was a fate that Allison would always wonder if she

could have prevented.

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“I like the pigtails,” Charlie snorted, “You should go back to that. It’d be cute.”

“Calling me cute?” asked Allison with snicker as she poured distilled murky water from the coffee pot into a thermos. “Well, no – I mean yeah – you know, well,” stuttered Charlie – caught off guard. “I’m screwing with ya,” laughed Allison, “Have a look in the pantry for snacks.” The house rocked under a roaring burst of thunder. Charlie

shivered a bit and picked at his scab-covered face as he navigated the dark hallway to the pantry. The choices within

were limited – it was filled primarily with canned and dry goods. “Y’all don’t go to the grocery store much, huh?” “There should be some peanuts or granola bars or something in there.” Charlie grabbed a bag of trail mix and shut the pantry door. Allison stuck out her tongue, “Trail mix? the shelter!” bag. Bleh – I’ll eat at

The pair shared a laugh as Allison zipped up her

He’s not so bad, she thought, And sorta cute, too… #

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Stone had walked a mile across the decimated residential district of southwest Hooghan. The riots and mob-mentality that

had started off the day had left much of the younger demographic neighborhoods in near-ruins. Houses burned, vehicles were

flipped in the roads, and nearly every window that could be seen was broken. The people of the quiet, low-crime city had changed From the sheltered glass box

– become savage and uninhibited.

in which he had sat for the majority of the day he had not gained as much perspective as in the last hour. He noticed a group of about a dozen people moving along what appeared to be a large gash in the ground. Probably from the

earthquake, he guessed, Amazing amount power for something like that in this state. He began to flail his arms against the Two of the travelers pointed in his

light of a smoldering lawn.

direction and began to run toward him. “Hey there, brother in Christ!” yelled one. “Are you in need of assistance? other. In need of help?” asked the

As the two men reached Stone, they immediately

recognized him. “Stone Silvers!” Jimmy Lee yelled with an enthusiastic glow. “Guilty as charged,” Stone sighed with a somewhat relieved exhale.

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“This is The Stone Silvers Newstalk Hour with your host Stone Silvers!” announced Rupert in his best impersonation. Stone feigned a laugh as if he had not heard similar impressions a thousand times in the past, “That’s very good, perhaps you have a future in radio!” “My name is Jimmy Lee Sanchez—“ “I thought that was you,” interrupted Stone, “What the hell are you doing here?” The three stood in silence for a moment. his gaze to the group and back again. “We can discuss it as we walk if you’d like. to the Perry Park shelters,” Rupert interjected. Stone looked the two men over. The black man was dressed up He’s probably a Stone pulled a We are en route Jimmy Lee shifted

with a white collar, black shirt, and slacks. minister too – never seen him before, though.

pack of Morleys from his back pocket and fumbled with his cigarette lighter. Ten flicks later and the butt was ignited.

Stone blew a firm, thick stream of tarry smoke from his flared nostrils. He looked down at his shivering hands – hands that

had shot a man just an hour before. “I guess I could use the company,” he muttered.

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# Burning. A black spot beneath a sea of orange. Black. Crisp. Burned. Burning – Dead. I’m

just burned up. alone out here. Shit.

He’s gone.

Jesus, he just burned up.

Just like that. He

That could have been me. I saved him.

Shit that coulda been me. Gone.

saved me.

He just burned up.

My God, why

couldn’t I do anything?

I stood there with this gimp leg just God, what have I done?

watching him burn like that.

Allen could do nothing to subdue the anxiety and worry that had overcome him after having watched his only friend within miles burn alive in the forest fire that he had helped to start. He sat hobbled against the opposite side of the ravine – across the creek – and out of harm’s way. The scourge down the

hillside had not been easy, but hand over hand, he had made it over in a lame man’s crawl. Though his leg was still badly

injured, Allen had noticed that his sores had subsided after fording the bloody water. I should kill myself. woods. I’m out of the fire but not out of the I

It’d be the easiest way out of this wretched torture. Shit. No way in hell

don’t have a gun, though – or a knife. I’m throwing myself in that fire. Sit here and wait to die?

What am I supposed to do?

I’ve given up on getting my fat,

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busted ass out of these woods.

How does a poor bastard in the

forest with no weapons and no tools do himself in? A pair of lightning bolts streaked across the sky and flickered out above a dark outcropping. focused on the spot. Come on. Allen turned and He waited for what

Do it again.

felt like several minutes.

Come on, sky, you’ve been angry all Come on! A lightning bolt What the hell

day – what’s stopping you now? flickered in the distance. was that thing? No!

Damnit, closer!

I need to see it, damnit!

A lightning bolt That’s

flashed from above – illuminating the spot just briefly. a cabin. That’s a damned cabin!

Allen dug his elbows into the soil and dragged himself along the creek shore. A hundred yards. Let’s see, I get about eight Four hundred fifty Two seconds

inches per stride of each arm. or so strides. per stride. though. So…

That’s uh…

Allen tried to keep his mind busy. Shit… Fifteen minutes.

Maybe I’m wrong

Maybe it’s only fifty yards.

So that’d be like seven This is

and a half minutes. ridiculous.

I wish I was just dead.

Allen tugged on the earth. inches per stroke. dirt.

He worked desperately to gain more

He felt as if he was trying to swim through His fingers bled. His elbows

His shoulders ached.

cracked and the thick skin at the tips began to peel.

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It felt like an hour – but he made it. “Hiker’s Shelter,” he read aloud from the signpost, “Heh – must be some sort of survival cabin. Tax dollars at work.”

With an outstretched arm, he grasped the latch and swung open the door. Inside were a desk, chair, cot, wood stove, and an Allen slid over to the crate.

egg crate full of supplies.

Crackers, granola bars, canned meat, bottled blood water, matches, starter logs, hunting knife, memo pad, and – a Bible… Well at least there’s food. Allen grabbed a sleeve of crackers Wonder what’s going down next… # The parishioners stood single file, silently waiting to take a white robe from the pastor. after each person passed. He stroked his weathered beard

and pulled himself onto the cot.

The flock assembled row by row,

sorted by family as if preparing for a typical Sunday church service. As the last parishioner found his place, Jacobs raised The congregation kneeled in front of

and lowered his arms. their concrete pews.

“The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being,” Jacobs quoted from the second chapter of Genesis as he nodded to two young altar attendants on each side

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of the room.

The boys began to empty the brown dust from the

containers into large crater-like pits in the cement floor. Jacobs took in a deep breath, “These are the words of the Lord in Genesis. He formed man perfect and free. But man turned

against God, did he not?” the congregation.

There were shouts of agreement from

The boys began opening the containers of

shimmering silvery dust. “Man turned his back on God by eating from the tree. thinking that he knew what was best for himself. By

By wanting to Adam and

become Godlike in such a way as to make God obsolete. Eve took the fruit from that tree. They ate it.

They ate the

thing – think about this now – they had all of this food out there and they ate this thing that they were told not to eat. All of this food – plants and animals. forest of goodies – and they ate this. The crowd sat silent. “Was it because they were hungry? tempted them? No! Was it because the serpent It was a feast. Why?” A

It was because these two people – these two

wretched people – weren’t satisfied to just follow God and live in peace with Him. These people needed more. They were envious

of God and his power and turned their backs on him!” The boys poured the shiny silver dust into the pits. Particulate from the flows gathered in thick clouds that wafted

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up but quickly flowed back down and settled in a sort of film on the cold floor. “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce

thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field,” Jacobs again quoted the Bible, “God made life rough for us. He made things difficult. Wars, famine, disease – it’s all

because of humanity’s insistence on being more and more powerful and less and less satisfied with the works of God!” Again there was a round of Hallelujah! and Amen! from the crowd. The boys began mixing the dusts together with long

wooden rods. “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return, sayeth the Lord!” roared Jacobs, “Our country is in crisis, we are going to be hunted, and we are destined to return to the earth because of the trespasses of our unsaved brethren! Repent, believers! Repent

now because the Lord will judge us soon!”

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Chapter Fourteen

Douglas Chalmers has now been officially sworn in as the residing President of the United States of America. And now,

exclusively in Colorado, KHOO brings you President Chalmers’s address to the nation: Greetings fellow Americans on this, the worst day of recorded history. Treacherous plagues of Biblical proportions have

rocked our country – as well as the world – with a changing force. to face. This is a different planet now. We have new problems to solve. We have new challenges For so many centuries

man’s will has been to make life easier – make sustainability the norm. Now we must strive just to make life go on.

Many events of today have been nothing but unpredictable – tragically so. may come next. We cannot even begin to wonder or assume what Many have pointed to the sixteenth chapter of

the Biblical book of Revelation as a resource to explain these occurrences. I have read this passage myself, and I can only It is tragic, but seemingly true.

agree with these assertions.

The disappearances, the plagues, the suffering – all are remarkably troubling – but they serve a purpose. They confirm

the existence of a jealous but compassionate creator.

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With today’s tragic death of our beloved President Juliana Singh, I now step forward as the country’s Commander in Chief. With our God – the God this country was founded on – proving without a doubt his existence and command, I have a renewed vigor to continue President Singh’s crusade for religious encouragement. We will rely on every available resource of

theology and Biblical understanding to make changes to our legislature and infrastructure to better suit God’s plan for us as a people and make way for the return of his Son. You will see and hear a lot of me in the coming weeks and months as we strive to get our country back on track. rebuild. We will refocus. We will

We will survive the day and through

the night. As a species that understands, fears, and worships God our Savior – we will persevere to join our relatives and loved ones behind the gates of Heaven. Good night, good luck, and God Bless America… Big words from an otherwise small man. And the world.

Sounds like he’s

planning some sort of religious overhaul of the government. We’ll see how much luck he has with that. Though perhaps he can

ride the high of today all the way through the re-election cycle. Perhaps that’s what he’s counting on. Whatever the case

– if the liberal left was worried about the downfall of separation of church and state under President Singh – they

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better get ready to pull out the protest signs.

If Chalmers is

serious about this – the line between the two is about to become so blurred that they may become inseparable.

Boomer examined his leg while mindlessly commentating on the new President’s address. atop the gunshot wound. He moved the makeshift bandage from The blood had clotted into a thick He wondered briefly

globular mass that filled the hole nicely.

what might happen if he were to pull the ball of coagulated goop out of its resting place. The meat around the injury looked

like rough hamburger – the skin at the edges tattered and maimed. He had lost a significant amount of blood, but felt as though he was functioning well enough. Not a single person had come to He had used a Texan radio

check on him since Stone’s departure.

station’s satellite uplink to pull down a recording of the new Presidents speech because he could not reach anyone on the second floor of his own building. and left – or if they’re dead. over to the emergency band. I wonder if everyone just up

Boomer flipped the broadcast I’m

That would be about my luck.

the only loser who probably still gives a crap about this place. Boomer pulled the bandage tight and gave it a good-luck pat. Looking down, he noticed an object peeking out from beneath a

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pile of shuffled papers. it was free from the mess. “My revolver…”

He scooted it with his good leg until

# Allison and Charlie had traveled up the dirt drive, north on the old county road, and were headed west on Highway 25 on the battery powered cart. The all-terrain vehicle was slowing in Despite the failings of

speed as the battery’s charge lowered.

the vehicle, the pair had traversed a distance that would have taken them an hour by foot in roughly fifteen minutes. “With all the parked cars on this road – looks like we’re lucky to have a vehicle!” Charlie laughed. “I wonder how your friends are doing. Coming all this way on I’m assuming they Can you

foot must have been a real pain in the ass.

cut corners by heading through the woods – but still! imagine walking all this way?”

“Believe me – I’ve been thinking about it since I woke up from the knock-out,” joked Charlie, “I hope they made it to the shelters okay. If not – I hope they’re alright.”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Allison reassured her new friend. She took his hand in hers. her chilly extremities. It was warm – a sharp contrast to

She watched his profile as he drove.

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He looked confident.

His eyes were intent – his jaw sharp, as Their meeting

if pointing toward their intended destination.

had been a chance encounter, but it already felt right – as much as it could under the circumstances. “I’m sure they’re fine,” Charlie assured her, “They’re young, strong, pretty smart when it comes to surviving the woods. When

we were younger – in high school – we would do these campouts where we would only eat what we could kill. it was a blast. It was rough, but

If anyone could handle themselves out there in

the elements – it would be those two.” “Hey!” came a voice from behind the cart. “What the hell?” Charlie moaned. “Hey you! Stop the fucking cart!”

Allison turned to see a gun pointed at the cart, “We’d better stop. He’s got a damned gun.”

Charlie let off the acceleration pedal and stopped at the roadside. He got out first, motioning for Allison to stay in His eyes squinted to refocus as he peered into the

the vehicle. darkness. him down.

A white man with a face darkened by stubble stared He wore a dark, navy blue hooded sweatshirt and a He held the gun high –

pair of skinny, acid-washed jeans. toward Charlie’s head.

The eyes – peeking out from behind a

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bloody, scarred exterior, were tense, nervous, and almost happy. The mixed range of emotions on the man’s face confused and alarmed Charlie. It was difficult to read.

“Get out!” he yelled, “Your girlfriend better get the hell out!” “Allison, come on,” Charlie whispered, “This dude’s pissed.” Allison climbed out of the cart and walked around the back to meet Charlie. The gunman’s grotesque sores appalled her. His eyes glowed Pus

ran down his face in thick oozing rivers.

bright in the streetlamps – despite being obscured by the hood of his sweatshirt. He was desperate.

“Look, I don’t want to hurt you,” he explained, “I need the cart to get to my ex-wife and kids. all be fine.” “Sir, we can travel tog—“ “No!” the man interrupted Charlie, “There is no ‘together’ today! kids. off!” Charlie and Allison moved to the left, backing away from the vehicle. Charlie groaned at the thought of having to walk Fuck you! All I wanted to do today was see my damned Hell no! Now back the fuck So don’t you move and we’ll

Did I get that opportunity?

through the brewing storm toward the shelter.

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“Hahaha!” the man laughed hard, “I don’t have any fucking kids – you morons! I’m just screwing with ya! I’m gonna take this You

cart and get myself down there to get me some help. bastards can fend for yourselves.”

Suddenly the man’s knee erupted in a spray of blood and microscopic bone fragments. Allison’s black jacket. her in a firm embrace. White and red speckles littered

She screamed loudly as Charlie grabbed The pair was horrified and shocked to Shit, thought

hear the repeated blast of gunfire before them. Charlie, Is this how it ends? damned cart?

Why didn’t we just stay in the

The man’s left elbow became a flow of dark red fluid – his head a cloud of misty burgundy fog – his chest a spewing geyser of maroon spurts of milky froth. He collapsed, dead and alone,

in a pile of limbs and abdomen along the center line of the highway. His clothes grew heavy and shined under the

streetlamps as a torrent of blood escaped his mangled corpse. “Hi, I’d Eddie,” came a soft voice from the darkened roadside field. ditch. “Thanks for the help, Eddie,” Allison calmly offered. “Not a problem,” Eddie whispered from the darkness, “Was hoping I could join you on the way to town. I was looking for He tossed the empty-chambered Glock Model 22 into the

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someone, but I think she’s made her way a hell of a lot quicker than I can.” He stepped out of the blackness and into the His white athletic tank was He had been shot – grazed — by

orange lights of the highway. stained with dark read blobs. several bullets.

Though it appeared that none had caused

serious injury – several holes could be seen in his left arm and shoulder. “I would love to make it into town – to the shelters, “ he muttered, “I need medical attention. And I’m so tired.”

“Sure,” mumbled Charlie, “Hop on the back – we’ll make a road trip of it. # Allen finished off the last wheat cracker and began shuffling through the supply box. The sound of the growing rain echoed The memo pad

off of the interior walls of the thin cabin.

looked particularly interesting – its tattered pages were filled with writings of past visitors. On the cover was a pencil

drawing of a mighty deer – thirteen points on its rack. Wouldn’t that be a hell of a kill, Allen thought. He began to thumb through the pages of the tiny book, reading the hand-scrawled messages on each page.

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Thank God for this cabin! tent to the wind! “Huh… loud.

The storms were so bad we lost our

We left some snacks behind as our thanks!

Wonder if I just ate their crackers,” Allen laughed out

Thunder roared above him and he heard the wind change

sharply – blowing rain hard against the west window. What a nice hiker’s shelter! Just stopped in to have a look. It’s such

My wife Cynthia and I are hiking for the weekend! beautiful weather this month!

We could not resist the

opportunity to gaze upon the wonders of nature together. – Marshall Torres “Young love,” snickered Allen with a crunch of a granola bar. Mom says we’ll have our home back some day soon. This place is stinky and there’s no TV or internet. “Homeless… My, how sad,” Allen thought with an audible sigh, Hah!” But now we I hope so.

“That’s cute, though…

No internet!

We have been so dearly blessed by this shelter. must leave. We have stayed for so many nights.

We are lost – So

my husband Robert and I. thirsty.

We are desperate for food.

We cannot wait for help any longer.

If this note is

found and we are not, please call Rashida Espinosa at 303-5924621. This is Maggie and Robert Linderman. Praying and

believing Joshua 1:9 – “Be strong and courageous. Do not be

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terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go”. “Maggie and Robert Linderman,” whispered Allen, “That was two or three years ago. I remember it like yesterday though. Poor bastards were never found.”

National news, that story.

Allen read the scripture again: Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. Allen scanned the lines over and over again. Catholic – but with little grasp of scripture. He had grown up After his

grandparents had died the rest of the family had all given up on the church. Allen fell out of Christianity early – but was He wondered where he

realizing quickly that it was the one way.

might be had he been more involved in church. The Bible was tattered and worn – probably left in the shelter by a Gideon or Jehovah’s Witness. Its cover was light blue,

save for some wear – patches of burlap weaving shown through where some of the finish had rubbed off. There were several

tabs placed in pages – each assumedly pointing to an important passage. Allen flipped the pages back and forth.

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Revelation, he thought, That’s the book with all the apocalyptic stuff in it. to today. I wonder if there’s anything relevant

Surely there is. Introductions, letters

Allen read quickly chapter-by-chapter.

to churches, the number seven repeated over and over again, dragons, beasts, and angels. of God’s wrath. Chapter sixteen – the seven bowls

Painful sores, seas into blood, rivers into

blood, a scorching hot sun, immediate darkness, unrest in the Middle East, earthquakes and storms… is it! This is it! My God, this

Allen’s eyes fell upon one passage in particular: Blessed is he who stays awake and

Behold, I come like a thief!

keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed. The meaning was so clear – he wondered Stay awake – keep God close. I can.

briefly if he had heard it before. Pray. I can do this.

I can survive. #

“He’s a police officer – well he was,” Cynthia corrected herself, “He had a bit of a run-in with a scandal.” “He wouldn’t happen to be Marshall Torres, would he?” asked Stone with a short drag on his cigarette, “We ran a crapload of stories on him…” “The one and only,” she laughed.

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Stone looked the woman over, “Did he do it?” “No. He assured me he didn’t. If he was gonna lie – he

wouldn’t lie to me.” “So why isn’t he here now?” asked Stone with a sarcastic snarl. Cynthia smiled proudly, “He’s out helping with the relief and recovery effort. I thought he was just chasing after a memory I mean, I don’t

of what he used to be, but I can see it now.

want him out there, but I know he’s doing what he loves.” “Is he?” asked Stone, “Or is he running away from you? Running away from his responsibility to you?” Cynthia cocked her head to the side, “What are you saying?” “Just, what if he’s not?” Stone wondered aloud, “What if he’s made a break for it in the only moment he’s found that accommodates it?” Cynthia smiled, “That’s not his way – he’s honest. been.” Stone smirked – it was rare for him to hear a story of a truly honest police officer. The group had been walking for nearly a half an hour over the rough terrain on the back side of the central residential Always has

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sector.

Survivors were found every few hundred yards – the

group had grown to almost twenty members as they neared the southern-most tip of Perry Park. Jimmy Lee and Rupert had been

over-exerting themselves to evangelize to each new walking partner. With the excitement on the two men’s faces – Cynthia wondered if it was an act or if it was sincere. If one of these guys is The rain

lying – faking – would God not strike them down? intensified. flesh.

The drops stung as they struck Cynthia’s frozen

The tips of her ears felt as if they might break off as

she brushed the frozen ice crystals across the side of her face and into her wadded-up hair. These jokers are so enthusiastic, Maybe they’re

she thought, Maybe it’s like Stone’s saying…

faking ‘cause that’s the act they think God wants. But would they do such a thing? In these, the first days of a

new world – a planet run by theocracy and fear – would this be appropriate for a pair of ministers? Surely these men would

receive a worse fate than the average person, Cynthia wagered, Worse than someone like me. I’m just trying to survive, damnit.

But no – these guys have to be legit – I mean, they’re prosthelytizing to every person we meet. just putting ideas in my head. “What brings you to this group?” asked Cynthia. This radio-jerk is

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Stone looked to the ground, “My mother just died. have been there, but I wasn’t.

I should

I was screwing around at the I started off toward Perry

station with my dickwad producer.

Park – I’ve been hearing about it all day from the emergency broadcast system. the fold. It was the two preachers who brought me into

I’m not at all a religious guy, but it seems like

these guys could lead the pack if necessary.” # The rain poured in waves across the concrete highway. Erica,

Sunshine, and Jován struggled against the wind as they leaped the barrier onto the unlandscaped slopes that led to Perry Park. The ragtag group was less than a mile from the shelters – so close that if it were daylight outside they would be able to see their destination. Erica could not wait to get back to the Jován was excited to

presumed safety of the underground bunker. look for family members.

Sunshine would have been satisfied if

only to have had the opportunity to sit. “Not long now,” whispered Sunshine, “It’s less than twenty minutes away.” Jován breathed relief, “We’ve been on foot all friggin’ day. It’ll be so nice to just relax.” “Tell me about it,” groaned Erica, “From the bus to the shelter to now – my ass feels like it’s gonna fall off!”

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The threesome walked briskly through the brush.

Each could The long

feel that his or her journey was close to completion.

day, the painful plagues, the worry and guilt – the rain was washing it all away and bringing with it the cleansing rush of illuminated sky and rumbling earth. comfort – so close to reprieve. The kids were so close to

Each pictured the perfection

that waited for him or her at the end of the journey. “What the heck is this?” asked Sunshine with a stunned halt. “It’s the fence that runs along the perimeter of the park,” replied Erica. “No worries, man, I got this shit down ace,” Jován roared with a renewed vigor. He took three steps back and ran hard to move As he landed with toes against the

up the chain-link wall.

fence, Jován was blown back and slid across the grassy field. He remained conscious, though the hit threw him for a serious loop. He shook his head, rose to his feet, and grabbed Sunshine

by the collar. “What the fuck kind of joke is this?” Jován yelled, ”A friggin’ electric fence? Seriously? Around a park?!”

“Think logically!” yelled Sunshine – grabbing his friend by the shoulders, “Maybe some power lines fell on it or something!”

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Erica quivered with the shivers of piqued nerves, “Calm down guys…” “We’ll go around. “Not a big deal? It’s not a big deal,” offered Sunshine. I’m so done with this! Where’s Charlie?

Where’s my damned family?

What are we doing still traversing

the woods after ten hours of this crap?!” yelled Jován. “Listen!” Sunshine shook his friend, “We’ve got this! gonna make it! We’re

Just shut the hell up and think for the team –

rather than yourself.” “Interesting words coming from you,” Jován barked back. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Jován cocked his head sideways with a snide roll of his eyes, “The whole friggin’ time we’ve been out here you’ve been in this for yourself. You’ve been out here trying to find her – I’ve Charlie’s off doing who

been nothing but a traveling partner.

knows what and you haven’t given two shits about him!” “Take that back,” Sunshine growled. “No! Fuck you, man! I’m not folding to your shit. Not now.

You need to grow the hell up and learn to focus on what you’re doing when she’s not around. When we’re making videos in the When

backyard – you’re screwing around trying to text her.

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we’re playing video games you’re online trying to email her. It’s all Erica all the time for you – like you’re friggin’ married! What about us, Sunshine? What about the ones who have

been there for you since grade school?” Jován was soaked head to toe. Water poured from the tip of

his nose and point of his chin as he stopped in a cold stare at wavering friend. He could see a shift in Sunshine’s eyes –

subtle but distinct – his pupils shrank minutely and turned just slightly toward the ground. man. He had gotten through to the young

He had called Sunshine out on something that should have

been discussed long ago – in a way more direct and confrontational than their conversation an hour prior. felt terrible for having chosen such a moment to do so – especially with Erica present – but at the same time the rush of relief to have finally opened the floodgates. “You’re right. You are,” Sunshine admitted, “Today has shown Jován

me more than I could have ever seen that I need to reevaluate my priorities. moving. It has. I’m sorry, alright. But we need to keep

We’ll find a hole in the fence and when we get to I love you guys – all of you – and

shelter I will hear you out.

I don’t want to lose anyone as a friend because of my own ignorance.” Jován’s grimace faded slightly, “Alright. Let’s roll.”

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# Marshall struggled to keep baby Emily dry. He had swaddled

her in a rain poncho that had been found in the trunk of an abandoned car. But as his clothes soaked through with the

pounding drizzle it became increasingly difficult to ensure the child’s comfort. It’s not far now. I can do this. The

hospital is just a few blocks away – the shelters just a bit farther. His frozen legs trembled as he pressed on.

From within a rocking burst of thunder came a shrill, highpitched whine. Marshall turned to see one of the batteryIt

powered police vehicles tearing down the street toward him.

swerved around a toppled shopping cart and screeched to a halt in the center of the street. The window slowly receded into the The man leaned

door to reveal a familiar face in the darkness. over and popped open the passenger side door. “Hop in!” Sanderson yelled. “What the hell are you doing here? alone?” replied Marshall. “You saw the twin-engine go down – didn’t you? get there before everyone dies? Get in!”

Can you not just leave me

You want to

Marshall groaned and jostled Emily to bring her to Sanderson’s attention, “I need to get the baby to the shelter first.”

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“People are gonna die out there if we don’t hurry, cap.” “One life at a time, Sanderson. instilled in us on the force. vulnerable first. “Fine. That’s what you always

You save the weakest and most

It’s barely out of the way anyhow.” But we gotta Well they

We’ll take the kid down to the shelter.

hurry – if anyone is still alive under that mess… won’t be for long.”

“Just so you know,” groaned Marshall as he passed the child into the vehicle and climbed in, “In no way does this make up for what you did.” “I know,” Sanderson nodded as he handed the baby back to Marshall, “I don’t know of anything that could change the mood between us. I can only hope that I can show you that I am

different now.” “I always thought you were so selfless – that it was all about your men and women on the force – about the civilians in the field – about helping others. But now when I look at you – all You

I see is a selfish, conniving, career-focused egomaniac. say you’re different. Let’s see you prove it.”

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Chapter Fifteen

For those of you just joining us, I will again reiterate that there is now word leaking out via the pirate channels of the world wide web that the U.N. has sanctioned – at least preliminarily – the triage of plague survivors. The controversy

is in what some on the left are already dubbing “societal value death camps”. If the ill or handicapped are being deemed

unusable to this new way of life they are allegedly to be moved into the secondary tier of refugee camps as U.N. marshal law begins to take effect after the day’s events wind down. Now to many, this sounds like complete conspiracy – but let us keep in mind the concentration and internment camps of the second World War, the lawless Guantanamo prison camp after the 9-11 attacks, or the police-postings at Catholic parishes after the Catholic fundamentalists of “Society Aleph” waged their armed ground attack on the Supreme Court in 2017. preposterous – but it is always possible. It sounds

I would encourage Keep your

everyone out there to be aware in the coming days. eyes open. Question authority.

And never forfeit your

Constitutional rights! This is Boomer O’Neal. I have been proud to have been

standing by all day and to have served you personally these last

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couple of hours.

We at KHOO AM 1200 value your listenership and

as we head into radio silence to join our families and loved ones in these final hours of the night – we wish you all the best. May God be with you and yours. Good night, Colorado. His He

Boomer was tired.

He was tired, alone, and imprisoned.

leg ached and oozed a green mucus that signaled infection.

knew that the disease that had been feasting on his flesh had invaded the open wound and had begun to spread internally as well. He could feel it gnawing away at his organ meat, veins, It was as if bleach or ammonia had been pumped

and muscles.

through his veins and spread to every extremity. His only contact with the outside world had been mostly oneway – downloads from the satellite wire or occasional bursts of internet access. Had anyone been listening to the broadcast or Did anyone know that he was No one could ask for much

were their priorities elsewhere? trapped? more.

I did my job until the end.

Now I can sit here and wait for help – or sit here and

wait to die. Boomer slid onto the floor and backed against a wall. lights flickered and went out. pain in the ass for everyone. The

Damned storms – gonna make it a One damned thing after another. One

The lights popped on but settled into a state of brown-out.

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of the bulbs popped in a bright burst of electricity. dark again – but Boomer could still somewhat see.

It was

I’m never getting out of here – don’t know why I would even try to fool myself into thinking I would. insides are gone, and I’m a basket case. My leg is trashed, my I screwed up. He

pulled the revolver up from the floor and checked the carriage – two bullets. I really messed it all up today, God. I did. Can

you fault me if I wanted to kill myself, though? a man to hell for ending his own suffering? God you are? Is it?!

Would you send

Is that the kind of

He spun the carriage and locked in the first bullet. leave a man to do his job. out there. To help people!

You

To inform people of what’s going on You give a man a microphone and a Boomer held the gun The bullet ripped

transmitter and say ‘Make it happen’! toward the lamp and pulled the trigger.

across the room and the last remaining light bulb erupted in a spray of sparks and glass. The sound booth fell black. Boomer placed the barrel shakily between his lips. He could

feel the sharp metal sight scraping against the backs of his front teeth. The flavor of gunpowder still sat at the end of

the barrel – a smoky, sulphuric, nauseating film that begged his body to reject the foreign object at all costs. Boomer’s gag

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reflex fired. again.

He shoved the gun in further.

The reflex fired

He coughed and forced the barrel upward into the soft His finger quivered – it fought back.

flesh of his palette.

Flashes of memories and loved ones ran through his mind: his parents, sister, dog, first date, graduation, marriage, divorce, daughters, nieces, vacations, awards ceremonies, his BMW… finger jumped back on the trigger – pulled tight. stopped. floor. His

The thoughts

The gun bounced lightly across the thinly carpeted Boomer’s slumped figure sat motionless in the abandoned He had brought upon himself a relief – but at a price

building.

none could pretend to fathom. # Allen hobbled atop the egg-crate to peer out the small rectangular window in the side of the hiker’s shelter. Sleeting

rain had begun to fall and line the windowsill with an icy glaze. The rumbles of thunder in the distance were constant –

occasionally accented by flashes of lightning and loud bursts of eardrum-shattering beats from above. He hopped down and stumbled across the cold cement floor to the cot. The small bed was low – requiring a bit of exertion He sat with his back against A lot

for Allen to lower down onto it.

the chilly brick wall and stared out around his shelter.

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of history here, he thought.

This place has saved a lot of

lives – and apparently claimed a few. Allen lifted up the hunting knife, examined the blade, and placed it point-down on the cot. He spun it in circles as he It

watched the glimmers of lightning dances across its blade.

had been less than an hour before when he had tussled with ideas of suicide. Having found the shelter – just the slightest The inspirational

comforts had reinvigorated his will to live.

nature of the thoughts scrawled in the memo pad had fired up his initiative. The warnings of Revelation had encouraged Allen to

make better of himself and to fight. “Dear God,” Allen muttered through closed eyes and folded hands with clenched fingers, “I know I’ve done wrong. I fell

out of church with my family when I was a kid and it was inexcusable that I never came back. I could not begin to There are just

recount my individual sins to you one-by-one. too many wrongs over too many years.

Please know that I Know that I am

sincerely apologize for these misdoings.

apologizing from the deepest depths of my heart with the utmost sincerity. I know that I am now stuck here until the conclusion I know that to prove my worth I will I am prepared to make the I

of this period of turmoil.

have to go through hell on Earth.

ultimate sacrifice in exchange for your mercy on my life. know now your power, majesty, and authority.

I want to be your

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servant and mouthpiece of valor in this terrible new world. Save me. I want to save others for you.” Though the He was not

Allen looked down to watch his hands unfold. prayer felt natural, it also felt a bit foreign. accustomed to praying out loud. – confessional. listening. more?

It felt conversational, though

He felt as if there really was someone

Was it the newly discovered faith – or something

It felt like the words meant something – went somewhere.

Though it was strange, new, and shaking – Allen found himself with a feeling of peace that he did not fully understand. # “So you’re from some kind of church,” asked Eddie from the small flatbed of the rear of the battery-powered cart. The

blood from the gunshot wounds had soaked the entire front of his clothing – Allison and Charlie were surprised that the man still had consciousness. With the decrease in physical activity,

though, it seemed that his condition had begun to worsen. “Yeah, something like that,” Allison hollered back. “He looks like shit,” whispered Charlie. “I know – I thought he looked alright, but now he’s bleeding a lot…”

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“Hey – hey this little ice shit hurts!” Eddie groaned under the increasing spray of sleet. “There’s a tarp back there,” pointed Allison, “Cover up with that!” Eddie pulled the plastic and mesh blanket atop himself and curled underneath it. He had been searching for the girl – the Eddie had turned on his friends After the

girl Crosley almost destroyed.

in the firefight and nearly lost his life for it.

girl had escaped, he made sure to check for life from the intruding woman – she was dead – and to put one last bullet in the heads of each of his former gangmates – just to make certain their fates. But he had wanted to apologize. He had wanted to

make the situation as right as he could – just to explain his role and clear his name. But he had become lost in a fleeting

glimpse of Erica’s visage disappearing into the southerly night. “He’s gonna die before we get to the shelters. There’s no way

I’m carrying him across the park lawn,” Charlie snipped. Allison shot the young man a glare, “He killed that gunner up the road for us – we owe him the chance, if nothing more.” Charlie sighed and lifted his eyes back to the road, “Wait! Look!” The cart slowed to a stop.

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“No I mean keep going!

Just look!”

“I can’t keep going,” Allison yelled, “The damn battery’s dead!” “Doesn’t matter!” Charlie laughed a loud rejoicing chuckle, “Friggin’ Perry Park! It’s right up there! That’s the highway

intersection, the south side of the park is nestled right there!” “You’re right! exclaimed. Charlie blinked a couple of times and focused, “Wow, you’re right… “Are… Earthquake must’ve done that – you think?” Are we there already?” Eddie muttered from the back. And look! Look at the damage!” Allison

“Sort of,” Allison called behind her, “There’s gonna be a bit of a walk, though…” # “Right up there! Look, where that chunk of concrete is

sitting on the fence!” yelled Sunshine. Erica squinted, “Looks like part of the bridge fell off.” “Bingo!” Jován enthused, “That’s gotta be our way! around or under the fence – then over it.” If not

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Near the southern tip of the Perry Park fence line, where the two highways intersected, the overpass of Highway 25 had crumbled under the tremors of the massive quake. The large

section of the road had crumbled – rebar webbing was exposed at the ends of the immense fractures. Part of the overpass barrier

– a large section of rectangular concrete nearly twenty feet long and three feet wide – had fallen separate and stuck into the ground. It was leaning just slightly against the tall chain

link fence – and it looked as though it could be possible to give it the shove necessary to topple it on top of the park fence. Erica grabbed Sunshine’s shoulders and hiked herself onto his back. The girl’s legs were tired and trembling. Her boyfriend

was happy to piggyback her to make a quicker dash to the pile of rubble. Jován shouted gleefully as he sprinted. The sleeting rain had

grown in size over the last several minutes and it stung like needles as it spackled his face with little red inflamed bumps. The pain was nothing compared to the enrichment he knew that he would feel from finally catching sight of the storm shelters. He knew that his family would not be there – they were all gone. It was all but certain that they had gone in the disappearance. But the prospect of surviving the day, making things right in

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his spiritual life, and fighting to see his parents and family some day – it invigorated his soul. Sunshine knew that he was all that Erica had left. Unless his

parents had made it into the shelter – she would be all that he had to live for as well. As he again felt her touch after an

entire day’s worth of looking, wondering, and suffering – it made him suddenly question their attachment. It felt almost

hollow as he experienced it for the first time after so much longing. He knew that he had missed their friendship – her She was a fantastic friend, a true confidant, But as a lover, she now felt

companionship.

and a wonderful human being. shallow.

Was it that he had clung to the memory of the

freshness that the relationship once had – rather than the feelings she had given him prior to their separation? He felt

that she was still that wonderful friend – but the love seemed to no longer exist. It felt forced. He was delighted to be

with her but had begun to doubt the solidarity of the intimate attraction. “Look!” Jován yelled excitedly, “If we can shift that hunk of concrete over it should flatten the fence and let us right through!” Thunder erupted over the youths’ heads. Sunshine sat Erica

down onto her feet and stretched out a hand to feel the cement

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slab.

He leaned a bit on it to test its solidity.

It did

indeed feel like it could be shoved off its resting place against the bulk of the overpass rubble. could finally be it. We’re so close. This

My God, we’re so damned close.

“Hey!” came a voice from above, “Hey, is there a way through the fence?” The group turned and looked up. They could see two heads Sunshine cupped his

peeking over the busted overpass railing.

hands around his mouth and hollered, “Looks like it – if we can shove this piece of concrete on it!” “Holy shit! Sunshine Boy is that you?!” You sorry son-of-a-bitch!

“Charlie!” yelled Jován, “Charlie!

How the hell did you get here so fast?” “We got a pair of wheels!” Charlie roared in a delighted response, “Allison is with me! We’ll be down in a second!” Allison and Charlie each grabbed one of Eddie’s arms and tossed it around their necks. They made quick time down the And a new friend we picked up!

merge ramp and through the tall weeds that lined the sides of the Highway 70 underpass. Charlie nearly dropped Eddie onto his Allison aided the

face as he ran to greet his hapless friends. wounded man the remainder of the jaunt.

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“Charlie!

Holy hell, man!” Sunshine laughed as he hugged his What happened?”

friend, “How was it?

“I got in a fight!” Charlie laughed as he turned his sorecovered face to display the shiner that Pastor Jacobs had given him, “Then he locked them all in a bunker so we left. look good as shit – ‘cept Erica – no offense.” “The blood in the water does something to the lesions. wild. Erica says there’s transfusions available at the It’s You guys

shelters.” “I’m surprised you found her – found each other – you know… That’s really cool,” said a supportive Charlie. “Nice to meet you!” Erica called to Allison. “Likewise,” Allison smiled. Charlie apologetically introduced the two – in his excitement he had nearly forgotten that he had traveling partners. Eddie tilted his tired head up from the ground to look at the gathered teens. Erica immediately recognized him.

“You!” she shouted as she paced briskly toward the disheveled man, “You were at the gas station with those… Assholes!” “Look, I’m sorry…” Eddie trailed off, “I tried to…” Those…

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“I know.

I saw.

You shot your friend for me.

But how many

little girls did you not save before that?” Sunshine stepped forward, “Erica, is this one of the guys—“ Erica ignored Sunshine’s interruption, “How many? you stand by and watch something like that? part of an act so despicable?” Eddie groaned, “I can’t begin to make excuses for what I did before. I can only try to make a better man of myself now…” You tool! You think you How could

How could you be a

“You gang-banging son-of-a-bitch!

get a reprieve because you spared one girl’s innocence?” “Erica,” Charlie interjected, “He saved our lives.” “I don’t fucking care! through today, Chuck? You want to know what I’ve been

I was walking down the road – minding my I stop to find

own business and just trying to survive.

something to drink and this douchebag and his buddies corner me, hold me down, and one of them tries to rape me. This unhuman

bastard was going to hold me at gunpoint while his friend penetrated me. Then what? Were you going to kill me?”

Dime-sized hail stones began raining down from the sky and bouncing about the group’s feet. They stood, together but

alone, and motionlessly watched the confrontation unfold.

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Thunder roared, rain poured, and lighting lit the sky with varying irregularity. “Not to interrupt any more than necessary, but we’ve got to get the fuck out of here. Please,” Jován begged.

“How dare you think you could get away with simply apologizing? Fuck you – fuck you, your friends, your family, There is no fate bad enough for someone like

and your faith. you.

I have to believe that no just God would forgive the sins Go to hell – you rotten

that someone like you has committed.

piece of bottom-feeding filth,” Erica roared. Eddie was struck to his core. such a way before. He had never been confronted in

He felt sick – nauseated – at the thoughts He cringed

of the crimes he had both committed and witnessed.

at the thought of how he would be judged for those events. Erica had opened a window for Eddie that he had thought he had already peered through – but the view was now clear. could never make right by what the young man had done. Repentance Only

servitude, submittal, and – if necessary – martyrdom could show Eddie’s devotion to his quest for forgiveness. But he wondered

if it was the heaviness of the day or if the sorrow would pass. Could one day change a man? anymore, he thought. I don’t know what to believe

I was certain I knew how to make it right

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– but now it seems like it’s gonna take a dedication that I don’t know that I have. # Rupert and Jimmy Lee led as the refugee group walked in a sweeping line down Highway 70. They walked to an acapella

chorus of Swing Low Sweet Chariot – which felt appropriate for the mood. The migrants carried an assortment of illumination

devices – lanterns, lamps, flashlights, and more – each looking side-to-side for survivors to add to their growing numbers. The hail had grown to near-golf ball size and nearly doubled in volume with the sheets of rain. Lightning almost never left

the sky – the growl of the thunder a constant reminder of the boiling, angry storm overhead. Wind whipped the trees to and

fro – sending branches and leaves smacking into the weary travelers. The determined survivors continued to press on –

hoping that the earthquake that had kicked-off the foul weather might have left enough highway debris to allow them passage to the other side of the crevice. “There is so much for us to attend to when we arrive at the shelters,” Jimmy Lee said with a glance at his newfound cohort, “We’ve got to find out if any of our brothers and sisters in the ministry have been passed over – politicians too. Surely the

mayor and city council have made it to the shelters by now –

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providing they’re still on Earth.

Reorganizing the political

environment to accommodate for increased evangelism will not be quick or easy.” Rupert nodded slowly, “I agree – but with so many people angry at God – do you think it will even be possible?” “I believe so. This climate should be very conducive to People will have to understand

mixing in some theocratic law.

that this is a sign that God is real and will be returning to this planet in the near future. They must understand that this

is His indication that His law is golden and must be followed if us who remain are to join Him and our loved ones in the afterlife.” “I certainly hope it is that clear cut, though I doubt very much it will be…” “Don’t start doubting now, Rupert—“ “I don’t doubt the necessity,” interrupted Rupert, “I doubt the logistics. I am committed to doing my part to call as many But shifting legislation to

lives into salvation as possible. make that easier…

It would take a monumental shift in the

thinking of our nation – as well as the U.N. and F.N.P.” “But it can – and must – be done,” Jimmy Lee said, unwavering even under the barrage of pelting ice, “If we are going to unite

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against the evil that is about to erupt in this world – if we are going to fight for our God – we must do it quickly and with immediacy! We can not wait for even a moment or we will be

trampled before we can begin!” “I just thought—“ “Look over there!” Cynthia interjected, “There’s a bunch of kids trying to move that block of concrete!” “Looks like they’re trying to crush the fence to get into the park,” Stone added. A large section of the Highway 25 overpass had bridged the gap left by the tremor. Jimmy Lee and Stone took the hand of each

traveler as he or she would step up onto the makeshift bridge. Rupert and Cynthia assisted the refugees down at the other end. When Stone had made it lastly across, he hollered out at the kids in his booming radio voice. “Check it out,” Jován winced while straining with his back against the cement slab, “There’s a shitload of people headed this way. Sounds like one’s yelling.”

“He’s asking if we need help,” replied Erica, “Seems like they might be useful about now.” “We need to move this block!” yelled Sunshine, “Can you folks give us a hand?!”

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“We certainly can!” Stone responded, “Come on, men! into that park!”

Let’s get

A half dozen men – young and old – broke the fray and joined Sunshine, Jován, Charlie, Allison, and Erica at the fence line. The group took their footholds and began to rock the hunk of rebar-reinforced stone from side to side. Fingers slipped as

the freezing precipitation ran down the face of the barrier and left icy trails beneath their grips. It tipped – nearly too far

– toward the road, but rocked back with a firm shove and fell flat onto the chain link and barbed-wire fence. “We did it,” Sunshine whispered to himself, “We’re here. We’re finally here.” # “Please be seated,” Pastor Jacobs urged his followers, “I want to read to you from the fifteenth chapter of the gospel written by the Apostle John.” Jacobs pulled a large, worn Bible from beneath his brick podium. A handful of tattered note cards marked his place. He

tucked the notes neatly on the pulpit next to the holy book. His breath blew in a thin haze from his whisker-covered lips. The stage was set, his props prepared, and his people ready to listen.

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“If the world hates you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you,” Jacobs quoted from verse eighteen, “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you,

The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will

they do unto you for my name's sake, because they know not him that sent me.” Jacobs looked upon each individual face – one by one – as he scanned the families. young boys. An aged father sat with his wife and two

A single mother rubbed her palms together for A young

warmth as her teen twin girls held her from each side.

married couple held hands crossed across their laps – their expressionless faces signaled neither fear or excitement. An

elderly man – frozen and alone – sat in the back row whispering prayers in tongues. “These were the words of our Lord Jesus Christ. These words

were spoken to his gathered disciples shortly before his arrest and crucifixion. He was telling his disciples to take the word And he predicted that the rest of They would despise the They would be hated! Jesus

– to go out and evangelize!

the world would call them crazy. disciples and all who believed.

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Christ used the word ‘hate’! to our lives? forces of evil.

Can you see how this is pertinent

Our country – our world – is under attack by the The devil has unleashed his mouthpieces into

this world and they have struck – like the proverbial thief in the night. From out of very little hostility we now have an

all-out nuclear war being waged over our heads!” A chilling shudder rippled through the congregation. reality of the words frightened them to their cores. The

After

years of investing their faith in the small Newpine church, logic had begun to fail them all. The ridiculous claims made by

their unwavering leader fell as truths into their hungry ears. “Let us move on to the sixteenth chapter,” Jacobs said in a hushed decrescendo as he turned the page, “These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended. They shall put

you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these

things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me. But these things have I told you, that when the And

time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.

these things I said not unto you at the beginning, because I was with you.” Jacobs snarled and slammed the Bible shut. Without moving his

eyes from their glare out across the flock, he slid the good book back into its storage place. His notes shuffled into place

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between his fingers as he prepared himself for the message. Jacobs’s eyes darted down to the first card in his deck – then back to the crowd. “The disciples were told by Jesus that they would be killed. They would be killed for their services to God by others who would be under the false impression that their intentions were Godly,” Jacobs explained, “This is so pertinent to our lives, my friends. So very pertinent. Those people out there – priests,

politicians, terrorists, professors, scientists, doctors – none of them or any of their followers are following the true, unadulterated word of God! and twist it! They bend it, taint it, break it,

They use it how they want to trick others into What do we do? What have we always done?

doing what they want.

We have taken the word literally for what it is, taken its meaning into our hearts, and used it to better our lives for Christ! We are like those disciples! This is not a time to be

frightened or scared!

This is a time to be aware of our Godly

motives and be prepared to die as martyrs for the Lord our God!”

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Chapter Sixteen

Spheres of ice pounded the ground and pummeled the remaining foliage off of the trees. The hailstones had grown to over Though the

baseball size and fell with a battering force.

amassed group was anxious to get out of the elements and into the safety of the shelter, the entire group paused to take hands together beneath the overpass for a prayer before traversing the park. “Lord,” Rupert began, “Today we have seen your works and your power. We can see your might in every rain drop and every We pray

hailstone you hurl at this beaten and broken planet.

today, as we finish our journey to the safe confines of the storm shelters, that Your hand will protect and guide us. our steps will be Your steps and our path Your path. That

In the Now

name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – amen… everyone grab a buddy and run safely!”

The north side of the park – where the storm shelter entrance could be found – was three hundred yards if traversed directly. The land was primarily open fields with few obstacles – aside from the playgrounds and statues. in turf-covered waves. The hills rolled up and down

The steepest hill crested at the park

entrance and led directly to the group’s destination.

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The travelers divided into teams and left the safety of the overpass bridge. The hail stones – some as large as softballs – Each pair of

battered the group with an unrelenting force.

refugees took off in full stride across the crushed fence and into the park. Suddenly a massive object streaked into view and

embedded itself half in the ground. “What is that?” Sunshine yelled over the growing rumble of hail and downpour. Jován darted to the impact crater and peered in, “My God! It’s a hailstone the size of a fucking beach ball!” A crushing crack at the rear of the group caused all to spin around. Stone Silvers lay in a mangled heap beneath a one His traveling mate – a The

hundred pound sphere of cloudy ice.

young man with a thin stripe of a beard – stood astonished. man barely took notice of the dislocated shoulder that the hailstone had caused to his own body. be read on his face.

Shock was all that could

“Run!” yelled Jimmy Lee, “Get to those shelters immediately!” # Jacobs walked slowly past the altars at the forefront of the room. He placed a small tea candle every few inches along the The

concrete worship slabs and lit it with a red stick lighter. orange glows dances like the illuminated shadows of demons against the grainy, dingey cement walls.

Jacobs dipped a hand

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into the pocket of his robe and pulled out a small handful of shimmering dust. With a deep exhale, he blew it wistfully Upon ignition, the dust

across the tops of the candles.

sparkled with a series of bright white crackles and sent a thick green smoke into the air. The scraggly-haired Pastor resumed the podium, “Please kneel before your pews and bow your heads as I pray.” The congregation complied. The men, women, teens, and

children dropped from the concrete slabs and onto the uncarpeted floor. Each parishioner became enveloped in the fabric of his The members of Newpine Baptist Church were

or her robe.

accustomed to being referred to as a cult – but never before had they appeared so much like one. “The Lord our God, we come to you on humble, submissive, bended knee,” Jacobs prayed dryly, “You are wise, all-knowing, and gracious. everything. You are the creator of life, the universe, and You are the Father of both the real, the unreal, We worship your grace and delight in your

and the undiscovered. mercy.

I come to you today to beg for your heavenly

intervention on behalf of the souls of my congregation and myself. It is not inevitable that we could meet our demise due

to the events taking place above our heads at this very moment. It is highly probable that our friends and family members have already done so. I ask you as we prepare ourselves for the

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fight that is to come – the fight for our fates and the fight for our lives – I ask your for your grace and mercy.” A large container sat at the left side of the room. Jacobs

instructed the parishioners to bolt their eyes shut and pray with every ounce of gusto they had. He sauntered leisurely to The container was

the vessel and lifted it from the ground.

tipped sideways and poured into a shallow trough that surrounded the pew area of the bunker. quickly with the liquid. The large perimeter trench filled

A haze – like that off of a hot It smelled rotten and

asphalt road – hovered above the fluid.

vile – but that fact was lost on the preoccupied congregation. # Allison and Charlie darted in and out of the massive hail. The stones fell like boulders all around the young couple. The

teens could hear metal breaking and bones crushing all around themselves as they sprinted with every fiber of their beings. Charlie knew that the carnage all around would only frighten him further – so he refused to acknowledge his surroundings. Sunshine and Erica okay? going on out here? Allison’s foot caught in a slurry of sandy silt – it was a sandbox in the middle of the south playground. face-down into the muck. She had fallen What about Jován? Are

What the hell is

Her arms suctioned hard into the muddy Charlie turned and

liquid as she fought to free herself.

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grabbed the girl by her armpits and yanked her up onto box’s wooden frame. She exhaled a gurgling breath that released an

expulsion of mucky mire. “Can you walk?” Charlie asked in a holler. “Yes! Let’s go!” # In the scramble to pair up, Jován and Eddie had been joined together as traveling buddies. Eddie was barely able to walk –

Jován wondered if the pairing had occurred because both boys were black or as a simple matter of coincidence. Whatever the

case – he was disappointed that he had been given the partner he had. Eddie’s injuries would significantly impact his speed.

Having to look out for the wounded man was making Jován quite the target for abuse by the smaller hail stones. “Eddie, bro, you gotta move your ass!” Jován yelled. “I’m trying, man. I’m busted up, though!”

Of all the groups, Eddie and Jován had covered the least ground. Jován briefly considered the immorality of ditching his

partner and making a break for himself. A hail stone cruised across Jován’s path in a blur and hit Eddie directly in the left calf. tumbled into a swing set. He toppled end over end and

The chains of a swing wrapped around He pulled himself free and It was

his arm – lacerating his flesh.

turned for a glance at the ice hunk that had hit him.

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more than two feet in diameter – and it was firmly planted in the mucky topsoil. Jován roared at the young man, “That thing could have killed you! Get off the damned ground!”

Eddie struggled to his feet and wrapped an arm around the boy, “I don’t know if I can do this, dude. “You can do it! right up there! Don’t worry! I dunno, man.”

Look, Erica and Sunshine are

Just keep your eyes on them!” #

The small hiker’s shelter rocked under the force of the immense winds. Allen could hear what sounded like the thud of It was all around the cabin – Rain was

cinder blocks hitting soft earth. and loud.

The man pulled himself up from the cot.

leaking under the door and running in thin streams across the cold stone floor. onto the small bed. Crash! A three foot diameter orb of ice smashed through the It skidded across the wet Allen groaned and tried to hike his legs up

aluminum door of the small shanty.

floor, bounced off the wall, and spun to a stop in the center of the shack. “Holy mackerel!” Allen exclaimed, nearly falling back onto the cot, “What in God’s name is that? Allen looked to the doorway. Hail?”

It was wide open – the door was

bent at the middle and hanging loosely by its bottom hinge.

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Allen shuffled over to the doorway.

His broken leg caused him And the view was

agony – but he simply had to look outside. haunting.

Allen stood in the doorframe silhouetted against near-constant lightning. A barrage of ice chunks rained down from the Allen watched trees crumble under the impacts Branches splintered,

stirring heavens.

of hundred pound spheres of frozen water.

craters filled the landscape, and parts of the hillside sheared off in mudslides that poured down the landscape. Horrified, the heavyset radio host plopped to the ground and drug himself to the cot by his elbows. It did not offer

significant protection in the event that the shelter began to crumble, but Allen tipped the cot to its side and rolled himself beneath it. His portly legs poked out as the thin bed rested This is ridiculous, he thought,

against his protruding gut.

This is how they’re gonna find my body – laying on my back with nothing between me and the elements but a thin layer of nylon mesh. # “Have you been hit yet?” Charlie yelled the question to Allison as he jumped over a wooden park bench mid-stride. “Not bad! A smaller one grazed my elbow but I’m okay!”

Allison replied.

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It seemed like the enormous balls of ice were crashing down all around the couple. The impacts would spit mud and grit onto

their faces as they ran past – darting in and out of potential hazards. The youths had made it nearly a third the way across Both knew it was

the park and were still at near sprint speed. only a matter of time until – smack!

Charlie was hit!

The youth tumbled to the ground after a strike to the shoulder. He could feel the smashed cartilage in his joint

shift up and down as raw bone in the shoulder socket began to rub together. hit. His face planted firmly in the grassy muck as he

A cry of torment escaped his lips – followed by a groan

that would make even demons turn away. Allison fell atop him, “Charlie! alright?!” “Gaaah! Fuuuck!” Charlie moaned before taking in several long breaths, “I’m good. I’m good. Let’s fucking do this.” Shit! Charlie are you

At that moment, Allison suddenly shifted sideways under the incredible impact of a hailstone the size of a small refrigerator. It was a blue blur in a haze of dishwater blonde

hair when her neck became jelly as the ice shattered every vertebra and split every artery in her neck. Her brainstem

became dislodged from its socket deep within her spine. Her face twisted and contorted in what felt like slow-motion as Charlie watched her skull implode and her gray folds of brain matter

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become fused to the frosty outside of the orb that crushed her torso nearly two feet into the earth. “No! mucus. God, no!” Charlie shrieked through a spray of mud-mixed Tears began streaming from his eyes as he watched this

girl – this beautiful, young, headstrong girl – meet her fate in a fleeting second. was dead. # Sunshine and Erica ran briskly – as fast as any other group speeding toward the Perry Park shelters. Some of the younger She was dead. It was his fault – and she

refugees ran to the flanks and just behind as the youths made good time dodging the massive amounts of heavy debris that burst forth from the heavens. Erica tripped over an untied shoelace, but she corrected quickly after being pulled to her feet by Sunshine. As they

lost ground, she noticed a boy – probably in his mid-teens – break off from his running mate. The kid darted beneath a large

slide in one of the smaller playgrounds that dotted the interior portion of the park yard. “That girl – she’s not turning back for him!” Erica yelled to her boyfriend. “That’s his problem!” hollered Sunshine in response. Erica groaned and swerved to go help the young man. reluctant, but Sunshine followed. He was

Though it was a terrible

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place to be – the slide did offer decent shelter from the pummeling storm. Sunshine watched the pounding ice projectiles

as Erica tried to reason with the kid. “Come on!” she yelled, grabbing the boy by the arm, “We have to go to the shelters! long! that! You’ll die if you stay out here too I promise you

This slide won’t be here in ten minutes! Come on, you can do this!”

The kid shook his head, “It’s too much! anymore!” “Don’t give up!

I don’t want to try

We’re halfway there!” Erica yelled with an

authority that she could only guess came from her experience in substituting at the elementary school. extended his arm for help. Sunshine watched two dark figures blazing across the yard. Suddenly, one was felled by a hail stone nearly two feet wide that impacted squarely with his pelvis. The force of the weight Trembling, the boy

drove his abdomen into the ground and pinned him with no way out. Sunshine bolted from beneath the slide and ran to the That’s Eddie and… Oh my God – it’s Jován under

young men. there!

“Jován!” Sunshine screamed in a stomach-turning shriek. “S—S—Sun… Sunshine,” Jován stammered through coughs of blood and flem, “Hel—Help me… Sunshine…”

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Jován’s legs were shaking wildly behind him – the nerves crushed in such a way that the seizes were uncontrollable. shirt had ripped past the middle of his back. His

With the force of Ribs and

the impact, the ice had sheared flesh away from bone.

vertebra could be clearly seen in the lightning-charged illumination as Jován struggled to free himself from the weight. It was clear to both Eddie and Sunshine that there was no hope for Jován to walk – much less run – to the shelters. had been sealed. Sunshine stayed – fixated in a stare of disbelief – as Eddie hobbled toward the north side of the park. “Jován,” Sunshine yelled to his comrade, “I am so sorry.” “What… Wh—What the hell,” the young man gurgled through a He spit a wad of the fluid onto His fate

mouth full of mucus and blood. the ground at Sunshine’s feet. “Man, I am so sorry…”

Jován saw the look in Sunshine’s eyes, “You—You’re n—not gonna h—hel—help me? What th—the fu—uuck?”

“Jován, look, man—“ “F—fuck you! agony. Help me! You bas—bastard!” Jován screamed in

He could feel the blackness creeping in around him as he His vision was cloudy and focused toward

fell away from life. the center.

His ears felt clogged – hearing grew oddly “Sunshine, damnit! I kn—

difficult – as if he was underwater.

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knew y—you couldn’t ch—cha—change! fu— fu—“

I knew you w—were the s—same

Sunshine bit his lip as he backed away. “Get back here!” Jován screamed, “I hate y—you! fucking h—hate you!” # Jacobs paced up and down the aisles as his flock called out loudly in wailing prayers. their families. Men begged the Lord for mercy for Sunshine! I

Women pleaded for safety for their children.

Many of the teens and kids shouted the Lord’s Prayer in unison with folded hands and tightly closed eyes. A general feeling of

anxiety and fear filled the room with a thick, nauseating tension. Jacobs knew that it was time. He had done all that he could

do for himself – his fate was almost certain to be an eternity of torment. But in his mind – and in his best interpretation of

the Word – his sacrifice of himself would spare the parishioners the same torturous fate. He knew that he had led them wrong – Jacobs had

but he had led them to the best of his ability.

always wondered if his interpretations were flawed – but had done with his parishioners what he thought was the way. Maybe

now, Jacobs thought, Maybe God will see that these people are deserving of a finality in Heaven. I may not be worthy – but I

will give up my own eternity for the good of these people.

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With that last thought, the plan of Pastor Jacobs – the contingency plan kept secret for years – went into motion. Jacobs knew that he would not be headed to heaven – but could only hope for divine mercy as he convinced his parishioners to confess their sins and give up their lives for God one last time. It was the only way – in his mind – to make certain the

fates of his flock. Jacobs pulled a small torch from within the podium and flashed it into ignition. He walked slowly to the first dust-filled pit The dust ignited into a sparky

and dipped the flame into it. spray. ceiling. well.

White, jagged flames climbed high to the wood-paneled Jacobs sauntered to the second pit and ignited it as

The two thermite-filled basins erupted with heat that

rivaled that of the surface of the sun. A single spark flew outward to the side. It bounced and

skidded across the stone floor until it halted in a teeter on the edge of the trench in the floor. The gasoline fumes ignited The ceiling

and the flames quickly encircled the congregation.

became a roaring sheet of flame above the congregation’s heads. With all the noise, the heat, and the impending disaster – not a single person raised his or her head from the prayer. # With every step it felt as if Cynthia’s feet were going to slide out from under her. The grass in the fields had begun to

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break free in large swaths – muddy flows running through the gaps in the earth. The ice-cold, bubbling, brown slime squished

between her toes – and made her question her choice of open-toed shoes. Cynthia kicked the flats off and decided to run

barefoot. She ran alongside the young bearded man that had been standing next to Stone during his sudden demise. The young man’s hair

bounced in braided locks as he jogged lightly. Cynthia looked up to catch the man’s gaze. but turned to focus on navigating the terrain. He smiled at her Cynthia turned

forward in time to hop over a large hailstone that sat in her path. Excited about the leap, Cynthia turned back to grin at He was gone. There – about ten feet

her running partner.

She spun quickly to scan for him.

behind her – lay a hundred pound chunk of ice with a quivering arm poking out from beneath. Cynthia threw her hands to her Vomit spewed between her

mouth – but could not hold it back. fingers and ran down her arms. head violently.

She cried and spit and shook her

The death was so gruesome that it turned her

senses against her. A hand grabbed her upper arm and pulled her hard. Eddie. It was

He looked deep into the horrified woman’s eyes and shook

her with a firm grip. “I— Uh— He died,” Cynthia babbled.

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“No shit!” Eddie growled, “You will too if you don’t move your ass!” # The battery-powered vehicle had taken an immense beating from the hail storm. There were dents as large as bowling balls all The benefit to such a

up and down the exterior of the car.

vehicle was not only that it did not use water-based lubricants and coolants – but that it also contained the entire drive and power mechanism in the chassis. The vehicle could endure a

severe beating from above and still continue on course. “How far to the shelters?” Marshall yelled across the cab. Sanderson shook his head, “I don’t know – I can barely see a thing! Maybe another hundred yards?” His grip

Baby Emily lay nestled firmly in Marshall’s arms. was sturdy and unwavering.

She slept through the loud downpour

of rain as well as the bone-jarring thuds of falling ice – Marshall wondered why all kids could not be so well-mannered. Her closed eyes barely twitched even as the sky fell and lighting streaked all around her. A mighty bolt of pure electricity fired down from the clouds and scarred the pavement just in front of the craft. Sanderson

jerked the steering wheel to the right in a panic and the vehicle tipped on its driver’s side wheels. He nervously

slammed a foot on the brake pedal – throwing the car onto its

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side and sliding it abruptly to a halt at the side of a small café. Marshall tucked Emily tight into his abdomen and held

firm until all movement of the craft had stopped. Sanderson looked himself up and down – then looked to Marshall and the baby. Everyone had survived the impact without fail.

He kicked hard on the plexiglass windshield – over and over and over until – smack! It broke free from its rubbery seal and He and Marshall unbuckled and

plopped out onto the roadway.

climbed out – their faces still frozen in shock. “You okay?” Marshall examined the infant briefly, “Yeah, we’re fine. You?” “Yeah, I’m good! Let’s go!” By their

The men darted in and out of the enormous hail.

luck, they were headed south – the large balls of ice were falling toward their direction. their vision was finally clear. Out of the safety of the car The destruction was atrocious –

buildings caved in, cars reduced to scrap, the asphalt roads torn to rubble with muddy creeks forming in the cracks. would take a decade to repair all the damage. “We need to find cover!” Marshall yelled to the chief. “Tell me about it! Take cover wherever you can find it!” The rain had It

Marshall sprinted down the slick sidewalk.

frozen into a sheet of solid ice that had accumulated more than

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an inch thick.

He danced across newspapers, clothing scraps, A

and even bodies – anything to keep friction beneath his feet. volleyball-sized chunk of ice impacted with his thigh at over one hundred miles per hour. He slipped onto his rear – but Sanderson had Shit – is he

quickly recovered and continued to run. disappeared from his flank. dead? safety.

Where did he go?

I’ll have to come looking for him once I get Emily to God, why is this happening? He

Marshall broke off from the sidewalk and into the street. saw something ahead – the wreckage of what once was a Hooghan Elementary School bus. It sat cocked to one side against a That’s it!

waist-high wall of poured concrete. it! Just another fifty feet!

My God, that’s

“Emily, baby, we’re almost there!” Marshall was struck hard in the back by a passing hunk of frozen water. lifeless. the ground. It knocked him flat – and his legs fell numb and

Emily bounced awake in his arms as he cradled her to Her cries were blood-curdling – but she had been Her young bones were too limber to break.

spared injury.

Marshall tented his body over the child and crawled with all his might toward the bus, “You’re gonna be alright Emily! You’re gonna be alright! Don’t worry!”

Just as he pushed the infant girl safely under the enormous metal frame of the vehicle, a second giant stone hit Marshall

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square in the shoulders. might frighten the girl.

He gasped to hold back a scream that With his final fleeting burst of

strength, Marshall thrust his left arm outward to shove the baby deeper beneath the makeshift shelter. for the day – a life not his own. # Sunshine and Erica ran hand-in-hand – the young man that Erica had coaxed from beneath the slide now paired up with an older woman whose running mate had been struck by lightning. Erica’s He had saved his one life

stride had begun to slow as she ran alongside her boyfriend – her joints had begun to lock up from the stress. “Erica! You’ve got to move faster!”

“I can’t! I—“ She dropped to the ground under the force of an immense meteoric block of ice. Sunshine felt her grasp quickly jerked

from his outstretched arm – it nearly pulled his own shoulder out of its socket. into pieces. Erica’s legs had been pinned and crushed

Underneath the ice, she could feel the shards of

solid matter within her legs shatter and diffuse into the meat of her muscles. Sunshine slid to a halt in the muck and turned quickly around to dive by her side. “Sunshine! Damnit, Sunshine! I’m stuck!”

“I know – let me try to pull you!”

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He grabbed firmly around her wrists and tugged with all the force that he could muster. His feet slipped and slid in the It was

murky, moving ground as he tried to gain a foothold. useless.

He ran to the side of the massive stone and planted With his back he shoved hard against Erica’s screams in pain were

his feet in the ground.

the object – but it barely budged. too much for him. from the pin. “Erica, I can’t do it. “I know…

He knew that there would be no removing her

It’s too heavy,” he resigned. Maybe I can hold

You should run – go save yourself.

out until the hail stops…” Sunshine watched blood spew out of the broken arteries in her legs. It mixed with the icy rainwater and tinted the mud with a

tinge of pinkish hue. “No – I’m gonna stay with you!” he yelled. “Sunshine – I never had the chance,” she paused and winced in pain, “I just want to tell you that I love you. sure about it before today – but I do. He looked into her eyes. I was never

I love you, Sunshine.”

They shone with more hurt than hope.

He looked at her scarred face – still beautiful in the eerie light of the lightning storm. But he no longer saw a girlfriend He had been

– only a friend confused about her emotions.

confused about his own – but having spoken throughout the day about Erica – after hearing the words and warnings of his

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friends – he now saw Erica differently.

He loved her – but not The look on her face

in the way that she thought she loved him. turned dire as he sat silently by her side. “I love you, Sunshine! I do!”

“Erica,” Sunshine choked back a flood of nerves, “Erica… can’t…” “What?” the pain nearly drew the breath right out of her, “What are you saying?” “Erica, I’m not in love with you. can see it clearly.

I

I thought I was – but now I

And I know this isn’t at all the time to

say something like this – but…” Erica’s expression moved from hurt to dread, “How could you? How? you!” “And I’ve been chasing after you too – but it was a memory I was chasing – a feeling. anymore.” “Then why are you staying?” Erica spit the words at his face. “Because you’re my friend – and I have abandoned too many friends lately.” # “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be your name,” recited Jimmy Lee as he ran with his cross pendant outstretched And I don’t have that feeling I’ve been chasing after you all day! Sunshine, I love

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in his hand, “Your kingdom come, your will be done – on Earth as it is in Heaven…” Rupert’s plump abdomen made it no easy task to keep up with his cohort as the men traversed the terrain. He huffed and

puffed as he ran – wondering if the years of cocaine smoke inhalation had damaged the delicate lining of his lungs. did I disobey you, God? Why

Why did I lead the life of a hypocrite? I can only hope that I

Why did I put myself in this situation?

can be spared to lead your people through these difficult times to come. With a striking, blunt force, a spherical projectile of ice and debris slammed into Rupert’s left arm. It was sheared clean

off at the elbow – leaving only the exposed joint and a flapping strip of skin that had once been attached to his forearm. He

called out in a shrill scream of agony as he took sight of the limb laying limp on the ground. “Holy Moses!” he exclaimed, “Jimmy! My arm!”

Jimmy Lee dropped his pendant into the grass and grabbed the appendage in a panic. With his empty hand, he grabbed Rupert’s

intact arm and barked an order, “Come on, Brother Rupert! You’re okay! We must keep running!” # Charlie still sat staring at the crushed skull of the girl he had befriended just hours before. The look of shock was frozen

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into her ice-covered face. she’s really gone. Why God?

I can’t believe it.

She’s gone –

Why would you do something like Why? I thought you were a

this to such a kind and good person?

compassionate god, but you didn’t even give her a chance! Charlie wobbled onto his shaky legs. he began to stumble away from her body. He fought back tears as He had fallen for the

girl – felt something for her – he wanted her to live to see the next day as bad as he wanted it for himself. so quickly and unjustly. She had perished

It was far from fair. He looked

There was a crackle in the tree limbs to his side.

to the sky to catch sight of the largest hailstone he had yet witnessed that night. The murky white blob of frozen water and

particulate shattered tree limbs like toothpicks at it hurtled his direction. It collided with his head before the boy could Its force met with his

even consider which direction to move.

firmly planted body with such magnitude that it separated his neck from his shoulders. His body continued to stand for a A second, smaller

brief moment before tumbling to the ground.

ice chunk fell to rest atop his torso – nailing the remnants of the boy’s body firmly into the ground. # Sunshine held Erica’s trembling hand. He could feel that

there was still life in the girl – despite the extent of her injuries. Her face grew determined as she strained to keep her

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mouth and nose above the rising torrent of water that washed down the slopes of the park fields. A rumble grew at the rear of the park. it might be a second earthquake. around the large stone of ice. his will to survive. Sunshine guessed that

He leaned to one side to peer

The view astonished and refueled

A wall of the massive balls of ice was Trees disappeared under the torrent. Slides and swing sets were

quickly moving their way.

Statues crumbled into dust. flattened in seconds. “Erica, come on!

We have to go – now!” Sunshine yelled as he

began to again tug on the girl’s arms. “Sunshine! No! Go alone! Save yourself, damnit!”

“I can get you out of here!” Sunshine barked back. “No! I love you – I want you to go!,” Erica yelled through a

mouthful of silt, “Just go!” Sunshine fell back to his seat on the ground. nearer and nearer with unrelenting speed. The orbs poured

Illuminated by the

constant lightning, it appeared as a hazy white light that rushed his direction – like the shockwave of a nuclear explosion. His eyes closed and his muscles relaxed as he

accepted the inevitability of his fate. “Goodbye, Erica,” the boy whispered, “You were my best friend. Thank you for everything.” #

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Just four refugees pulled themselves up the final hill of the journey. Eddie and Cynthia reached the precipice first – As the ragtag group took

followed by Rupert and Jimmy Lee.

notice of the ice wall headed their direction – each person took to banging on the large reinforced doors and clambering for the refuge that waited within. A tall, slender man opened the door

and the survivors slipped within. “Get these guys on stretchers – quick!” yelled a nurse as she took notice of the waning conditions of both Eddie and Rupert. The nurse grabbed Rupert’s severed arm from Jimmy Lee and tossed it into a plastic container. The men were rushed into medical

care with a burst of immediacy. “Hey you! Ma’am!” yelled a man close by, “My God, you’re

Cynthia Torres!” “Yes, that’s me,” she replied, turning to see who spoke. “My name is Kieran Sanderson, Hooghan Chief of Police,” the man announced. In his outstretched arms he held an infant girl.

He nodded for Cynthia to take her. “Excuse me,” she half-laughed, “What is this?” “Marshall saved her. life.” “Marshall…” Cynthia began to tear. “He was a good man, and I was proud to serve with him today. I hope you can give this girl the glimmer of hope that your Called her Emily. He died to spare her

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husband did.

He loved you, Cynthia.

And somewhere now I think

he’s looking down on us – cheering us on to continue fighting.” Cynthia held the baby close to her bosom and fell into Sanderson’s arms. Her husband was gone – she would have to But with the gift of a child –

begin a new life without him.

the girl the couple had always talked of having – a part of Marshall would always be with her. It was the first feeling of She only wished it

comfort that she had experienced that day. had not come at such great a cost.

A few yards away, a bearded man in suit pants approached Reverend Jimmy Lee. The man’s white shirt was freshly starched

– the sleeves rolled up to three-quarters and the top two buttons undone. His posture was confident and fearless as he

met the pastor with a steady, reserved, closed smile. “Pastor Jimmy Lee Sanchez?” he asked. “Indeed,” replied Jimmy Lee with a confused curl of his brow, “How have you fared today, Mayor Livingston?” “Fairly well, considering,” the mayor replied cordially, “They whisked me here as soon as the news broke. here all day.” “Consider yourself lucky,” Jimmy Lee smirked, “It’s been nothing short of hell out there.” “So I hear,” Livingston paused, “The question now is – how do we move forward?” Been cooped up in

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“We need legislation that is in line with scripture. God in every school – every institution. second-guess the Lord’s intentions.

We need

We can no longer

We can only work to

maintain his reign and pray every day that he spares our souls for eternity. It’s no longer about saving lives on Earth. It’s

about making certain that every soul is pure for what is next to come. If today has taught us anything,” Jimmy Lee sighed, “It

is that we cannot get inside the mind of God – we can only fight to ensure that He stays within ours.”

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Epilogue

Happy Monday – well as happy as it can be, I suppose. be with you here at the top of the ten o’clock hour. Allen Teeter, and you’re listening to KHOO AM 1200.

Glad to

This is

Today is already being referred to as “Day One” in reference to the Biblical “Great Tribulation” – an alleged seven year period of time following the Biblical “Rapture”. more about that in the next hour. But we’ll talk

We have a slew of Day One

news to talk about – but before we jump into the news, I thought I would talk about my personal experience yesterday. I was out fishing yesterday morning when the plagues began to fall. I was joined by a friend shortly after the incident began Jeff and I heard the updates on this

– a man named Jeff Walton.

very station – KHOO AM 1200, the only station nationwide that broadcasted throughout the entire day yesterday. We decided to

make the trek from Reeve Lake all the way down to the shelters at Perry Park. We went through a lot – a bloody lake, the Jeff perished in that

searing heat, and even a forest fire. fire.

I found refuge in one of the hiker shelters that are I rode out the entire hail

scattered about the woods up there.

storm inside that tiny cabin without incident. A few hours after the storm stopped and the skies cleared, I was lucky enough to be discovered by one of rescue choppers that

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came by to survey the fire’s damage.

They had seen the flames

and smoke from the northern neighborhoods of Hooghan but weren’t able to make it up to the north hills until the storms passed. I really lucked out yesterday – many of us did. so lucky. I would like to recognize the emergency workers that gave their lives in service to our fine state yesterday: Merle Riddel of Rockwell perished in a house fire. He was Some were not

twenty-seven and is survived by his wife Shirley and twin teen girls Jesse and Spirit. His son, Brock, vanished in the global

disappearance yesterday morning. Ronisha Whitley of Denver was caught in a levy collapse near Houghton. She was forty-one and is survived by her mother, Her husband vanished in yesterday’s

Claire Hughes. disappearance.

Carrie Sherman drown while assisting a crash victim out of the car he had driven into a creek just outside of Grand Junction. Carrie had no known relatives. Joshua Howard of Hooghan passed away from the skin plague while on paradmedic duty. He was nineteen and is survived by

his girlfriend Joni Marquand and his parents Philip and Jeane. Lastly – and this one might perk some ears – anybody remember the Marshall Torres trial? He was found guilty on misdemeanor This

theft charges and booted from the Hooghan police force?

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guy jumped in gung-ho yesterday – helping pull victims from a plane crash in Buenos Acres among other things. Marshall died

in yesterday’s hail storm as he ran for cover with Hooghan Police Chief Keiran Sanderson. Cynthia and daughter Emily. old. KHOO AM 1200 also lost a pair of comrades yesterday… Stone Silvers was in broadcasting most of his life and worked for this station for more than a decade. He left the station Stone was in He is survived by his wife

Marshall was thirty-seven years

yesterday after broadcasting most of the day.

Perry Park when he was struck by one of the large balls of ice that fell in that tragic hailstorm. Stone was forty-five years

old and a dear friend to everyone here at the station. Boomer O’Neal was KHOO AM 1200’s station manager for seventeen years. He tragically took his own life yesterday as he was He

trapped alone inside the station’s lower level sound booth. was an ace at organizing broadcasts and discovering untapped talent. His attention to detail and dedication to his

broadcasts was unparalleled and will be dearly missed.

Boomer

was fifty-eight years old and is survived by his ex-wife Hazel and daughters Flora, Sienna, and Diedre. miss you. In national news – as many of you are now aware, President Juliana Singh was gunned down at the Camp David Presidential Boomer, buddy – we’ll

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Compound.

Twenty-eight year old Thomas Allen Brown was himself

shot by Secret Service agents and tackled to the ground. Investigators are now attempting to sift through Brown’s psychological, medical, and background files in order to determine the motive. President Douglas Chalmers has demanded

answers and promised the nation swift closure of the case. Memorial plans for President Singh have yet to be announced. The Middle East peace agreement – which was expected to be signed and ratified by the end of the week – is officially off. Israel, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian territories backed out due to reservations brought on by the events of yesterday. Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Syria dropped out of the negotiations shortly after the Palestinian press conference. President

Chalmers, in his radio address this morning, stated that he is confident that the negotiations will go forward as the shock of Sunday’s events wears off. Then there was that freak planetary mass that passed between Earth and the Sun – blocking out the sun for nearly eight hours as it slowly passed. Astronomers are still baffled by the

anomaly – said to be approximately twice the size of our own planet and the probable cause of several of the natural disasters that occurred yesterday. Presidential Science Advisor

Lynn Adams put out a statement on the White House’s official web publication with full details and imagery of the planet. Adams

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speculates that the planet has an elliptical orbit that is diagonal to those of the other planets in our solar system and states her inclination to believe that it may have an orbit of several thousand years. There is still much to learn about

where it came from, why astronomers did not discover it sooner, and if it will cause any further trouble to Earth. Yesterday was quite the news day locally as well. Hooghan

Mayor Victor Livingston has ousted his closest advisor and replaced him with – get this – disgraced Reverend Jimmy Lee Sanchez of Hooghan Evangelical Fellowship Church. In a closed-

door press conference this morning, Livingston had this to say: We need legislation that maintains the integrity of Biblical scripture. We need God in every school, every level of God’s law must be on

government, and every legal institution.

the forefront if we are to spare our souls in what is to come. Time is now limited and we cannot be afraid to show our devotion to the Lord and his intentions for us. Either Livingston is riding high on the knowledge that he has three years left in his term – or he is setting himself up for political suicide. Either way – it will be interesting to see

what comes of the mayor’s new ideology. A man taken in by the Perry Park medical team last night has confessed to a whole host of crimes – robbery, gun-running, sale of illicit drugs, being party to rape and homicide, murder, and

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grand theft auto.

Edward “Slug” Harris is being treated under Police Chief Keiran

police supervision at Markham Hospital. Sanderson had this to say:

Guys like this – the things he has done are unimaginably tragic and detestable – but you have to respect him for coming forward with his confession. We’ve been looking for the

Blackheart Men for quite some time, and it’s good to know that Hooghan is now free of their ilk. Harris pointed authorities to the bodies of the other three Blackheart Men. Apparently they each died in a pair of

shootouts yesterday afternoon. Something terrible went down at Newpine Baptist Church in eastern Hooghan on Sunday. Authorities had been searching all

known storm shelters and bunkers in the area in hopes of finding additional survivors that had not made the trip to Perry Park. Searching the premises at Newpine Baptist this morning, police came across the bodies of nearly three dozen parishioners in the storm bunkers at the campgrounds. The bodies showed signs of The lead

burns, smoke inhalation, and asphyxiation.

investigator assigned to the case, Charity Nichols, suspected the deaths were voluntary suicides by a well organized and private cult acting out as yesterday’s events unfolded. time will tell as the investigation moves forward. Only

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There was an apparent last rush across the Perry Park lawn last night as that unbelievable hailstorm poured through. Over

thirty bodies were recovered from the park grounds as clean-up and recovery efforts began in central Hooghan early this morning. A single survivor was found amongst the carnage – a Erica Hoover is expected to lose her

nineteen year old girl.

legs, but was spared by the sacrifice of her now-deceased boyfriend. The young man covered Erica with his body as the

storm passed – taking the full impacts of the large projectiles. Ms. Hoover has not yet spoken publicly about her experience, but is conscious and in stable condition at Markham Hospital. The

recovery effort will continue outward from the heart of Hooghan and is expected to last about a week. Three Amigos Incorporated has been awarded the contract for the temporary fence that must be built around the massive scar that opened after yesterday’s incredible earthquake that registered a 7.3 on the Richter scale. The county opened

contract bids at eight o’clock this morning and had made the decision within a half an hour. Bids were rushed due to the

incredible danger that the gash poses to both people and animals. weeks. Finally, in more light-hearted news, local sculptor Lewis McGrath and his wife Nell are requesting donations of hail The build is expected to be completed within two

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stones that are left over from the storm.

McGrath plans to

collect enough of the giant ice hunks to sculpt a thirty foot tall ice replica of the Christ the Redeemer statue that is a popular landmark in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The massive ice

sculpture is expected to be featured at a charity event to be held on the one month anniversary of Sunday’s events. Before I throw it to the wonderful Amy Van Dyke with your traffic and weather updates – I just want to say one last thing. Hug your family members tight. have. Be thankful for all that you

Yesterday was more affirmation than any of us could ever Pray with your

need that life is brief, fleeting, and fragile. loved ones. too late. Pray with your church.

Find God now – before it’s

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