I am neck deep in carcasses.
All are charred, decapitated, or blistered and broken, while the stench of death on a genocidal scale is indescribable. Armageddon has come and gone.
They were right, the ‘Governing Body', about it all. The faithful servants have been rewarded with survival, and the Paradise will soon arrive. But first, some people, including myself, have been tasked with cleaning up. Namely, doing away with the corpses God has left behind. My, he was ruthlessly busy. I didn’t actually consider there would be this many bodies.
The teachings never did the math for us, but we're talking about billions of people here. Lord only knows how other survivors are coping across the globe. I wish I was born and raised on a small island somewhere. The clean-up would have been easier.
Forgive me, father, for my selfish thoughts!
As I vomit for the hundredth time today, straight into the wide gaping, agonised mouth of a dead child that God murdered in his love (which evokes another jet of puke from my over-nauseated stomach), I pray for his forgiveness and wisdom to guide me through these trying times.
An Elder approaches. I don’t know his name yet. During this most difficult of tasks, we simply refer to each other as "Brothers." "That’s good work, Brother," he informs me as I push the small boy and my spew into the giant unceremonious pit we’ve dug over the last few days.
I watch his body roll over the others before settling clumsily on a dead family of four. You can tell they are a family, Mum and Dad are still holding smouldering hands while the two pretty little freckled girls are twins.
Were. I choke back tears and stop my mind from folding in on itself. God won’t like me thinking this way. I instead try to turn my mind to the paradise awaiting us, although I am a little confused about how homes and land will be rebuilt when most of the raw materials are now fatally damaged along with the required expertise. Perhaps it’ll be like the Matrix movie, where God simply downloads all knowledge of such matters directly into our heads. Yes, that’s probably it.
"You can take a break now, Brother," informs an Elder.
There is water and bread waiting for me at the clearing. I nod in relief, although hunger has deserted me somewhat. As I leave, the Elder stops me, tightens my neck tie, pats my shoulder, and blesses me. At the clearing, the Sisters are handing us cups of water and some bread. They’ve also been working at the bodies but get to finish early so they can wait on the Brothers when our break is due.
We are so well-organized, whereas the Sisters, despite being the weaker vessels, as the Bible teaches, demonstrate their worth and selflessness once more. I take a cup of water and a meagre slice of bread, before taking another piece on a Sister’s insistence. I wouldn’t want to arouse suspicion. Besides, I am happy. Praise God. He saved me, my Brothers and Sisters.
I take a huge gulp of water that has already formed a thin film of dust atop of it, swallowing with it any questioning thoughts that might anger Him. Except the thoughts do keep popping in. It must be Satan’s work. Apart from the fact he’s now been banished by God as part of Armageddon. Now that is worrying. Perhaps it’s his echo?
"What is, Brother?" There is a young Sister caked in blood and grime, standing to my side. I must have been talking aloud. I'm certain she is beautiful under all that filth. Her eyes sparkle in the deepest blue. Her cheeks are kind and lend her a seemingly permanent gentle expression.
"Oh, was I speaking aloud?" I reply nervously.
"Yes, you mentioned something about an echo."
I study her closely. Her hair, although roughed up with clumps of mortar and dried blood, is long and if clean, would shimmer like the setting sun reflected in the calmest waters. I feel an instinctive need to grab her, hold her and ask her to run away from this relentless stench of death. She stares back intently and smiles gently, "Are you feeling alright, Brother?"
"Yes of course, just a little tired, but I’ll be fine. May I ask your name, Sister? "
Don’t I know her already? She exudes familiarity, love even.
"I’m Judith." And what is your name, Brother?"
"Nice to meet you, Sister Judith. My name is..."
But something has caught our attention. A loud shriek from within the clearing. A Sister is on her knees, wailing at the sky, which I note is cracking open again. The fear in all of us electrifies the air, which is already starting to crackle.
"Why!!?? How can you do this to me? To him!"
I rush over and ask a Brother what she is referring to, mindful of the sky tearing further overhead while the ground rumbles around us. Something similar occurred just hours ago when a gaggle of Brothers, huddled together and seemingly planning something, found the flesh falling from their bodies before they combusted. Whatever the plan, it seemed to have annoyed God. Again.
"She just discovered her husband is dead. See that burnt limbless fellow over there with a briefcase? He was a Brother, but must have sinned in a manner she knew nothing about. He... didn’t make it through. "
I wonder if he was the lucky one.
I look up to the sky and spy winged shadows racing towards us, or more accurately, the Sister. We all fall to our knees, but the Sister remains defiant, filled with a rage that I can feel within myself. She sticks up one middle dignified finger, "Oh fu..."
The shadows take an arm each after filling her mouth, muffling her rebellion. They lift her into the air before pulling her body apart and scattering it to the four winds. Her body parts turn into butterflies and some of the Brothers and Sisters applaud and exalt at the miraculous sight.
"Well, break time is over, Brother," says the Elder lightly, who I’ve taken to be the foreman of this operation.
"Let’s do some more of the Lord’s work, see if we can’t make a bigger dent in the debris."
Some of us stand around stunned, others smile blankly as if the horrendous supernatural murder didn’t just take place. Some even start singing one of our congregation's songs in unison. I zone out for a moment, the song’s sparse words flitting into my mind occasionally, words such as hate, fear, despise, torment, wrath, and death. Righteous stuff, you know.
The Elder, the foreman, places a hand on my shoulder. The other hand, he was washing the grime from his face with the water I had been drinking. I see now who he is. One of the Governing Body members. My heart flutters while my stomach summersaults. To tell the truth, I’m not sure if my reaction is awe or revulsion. Maybe both. But it is him alright.
Brother Simon Dealt. He’s instantly recognisable. I should have known it was him by the voice alone. He always reminded me of a weird playdough animation character during his television sermons, with his gooey eyes and wild gesticulating hands. His voice often sounded a little put on, but then he is a man of God, so I’m sure if he was hamming it up, the ends justify the means. That man has likely saved millions of lives. Or thousands, maybe hundreds. Who knows? His voice has a deep, cuddly feel, like a wise old marshmallow sage or a wizard. A ‘you can trust me and my cartoon eyes. See?’ type voice.
"Brotherrr," he says, rolling his R’s. "Are you feeling alright, my son? Are you ready to carry on or is something worrying you? " I laughed involuntarily.
Is something bothering me? Hmm, could it be the genocide, the end of the world, or the fact that even believers keep being murdered every hour or so in a variety of mind-shattering ways? What could it be?
I shake my head.
"Brotherrr, you seem most nervous. Do not worry, my son. If you are true to God, then the same fate or similar will not befall you," he states magnanimously as he wafts his hand over the appalling, never-ending smoking scenery surrounding us. But he's not finished yet, "Remember Brotherrr, ‘By his mouth, the one who is an apostate brings his fellow man to ruin, but by knowledge are the righteous rescued.’ From the book of Proverbs. My friend, you have no need to fear or share the fate of all these apostates. If you keep your thoughts towards God pure, and don’t think for yourself. Understand Brother? God is love, and He and I will do the thinking for you. "
My temples throb in response, and I can feel my finger nails digging into the skin of my tightly balled palms. God is love. If love is conditional and extremely murderous on an unprecedented scale, then I guess He is.
I smile vacantly and nod. He embraces me, claps me on the back and points me back to work. Over his shoulder, I see Sister Judith. She is pale and walking in tiny circles. I need to get to her and save her before Brother Dealt notices. He truly seems to be the right-hand man of God Himself.
Odd choice. Heavenly Father, please forgive me!
I follow Dealt’s instruction and walk towards my work, ensuring I collect Judith on the way. Her mind is about to break and I can sense an outburst in her, which will of course mean her demise, maybe mine too. "Shush, Sister, it's all right, come with me now. We’ll work together for a while," I state reassuringly.
I can feel Dealt’s eyes burrowing into the back of us as we walk off, so I shout out in my best impression of righteous enthusiasm, "Eh, Praise Him!"
I take her to some rubble from a building, its twisted foundations jutting out of the scorched ground like accusing fingers. Sister Judith is starting to whine while tears form freely, ready to gush forth. "Sister, please, stay calm."
"This is not paradise. I didn’t really think it was all true. That he would inflict such horrors on humanity. It’s just not very lovi…"
"Shut up, Judith," I whisper harshly.
I can’t die here like this, at the hands of a cruel and spiteful God. Not like all the others. Another thought hits me with sickening force, out of nowhere. The Resurrection. We were taught that all of his faithful servants who have died throughout history will be resurrected. But that would mean infinitely more people than have just been slain, and we were already over populated before God’s merciful act of blood-drenched genocide. It was already unsustainable. How on earth can we maintain life under His new system when we’d barely be able to walk without bumping into each other? We’d consume more oxygen than is available.
He has all the answers, don’t doubt it. Not now.
But then, is this all leading to paradise? Really? No free thought or speech? Fear of a horrendous death constantly hangs over us. Where was the part when we were supposed to be made perfect too?
Clearly that hasn’t happened yet, but does perfection actually mean, in this context, dumb vacuous compliance? I turn to apologise to Judith and can’t help but notice we’re holding hands and sprinting away from the levelled city, screaming at the top of our lungs. I can hear giant wings beating behind us and feel the growing heat on our backs.
All I wanted was peace, love and eternal life for me and mine and some close friends perhaps, who I was sure would make it through just by being decent enough people. What we’ve got is something truly worse than any imagined Hell.
I turn to face the heat, holding Judith’s hand. I just see her hand. The rest of her, I realise in numb fear, is some ten yards behind me.
She has been set upon by dogs and what looks like a lion. Where did that come from? The lion glances up at me and smiles a toothy grin, its Disney eyes returning to its feast. I thought all carnivores were going to turn into herbivores after Armageddon? That is what they taught us, though now I think of it, that is also extremely stupid. Will God adapt their digestive systems to live off only vegetation? I push the question away. It seems academic now as I watch the lion chew on Judith’s face.
The sky is falling in, and I spot Brother Simon Dealt pointing at me and howling with glee. He is riding a celestial horse and chariot. Leather tort wings and talons burst from his body, tearing through flesh and laughter, his once kindly eyes are running a foul black fluid.
Hands burst through the ground beneath me, grabbing my ankles and winding their way up my legs, followed by bodies pulling themselves out of the ground. The resurrected are here then.
I see my own mother, her face emerging from under a rock that stays grotesquely balanced on her head like a piece of try-hard avant-garde fashion, as she scrabbles her way out of the dirt. Her eyes are layered with a thin cold ice and yellowed corneas. That's just how she looked when I sat at her bedside. She is trying to speak to me, but I hear only the death rattle that haunted her last hours on earth before she finally succumbed to the cancer that God had so lovingly tortured her with.
The ground opens up and I feel myself sliding into the endless dirt below as my mother climbs up my legs, her dead iced eyes forming life again. "You should have listened, son. God is love," she cackles as everything starts to go dark...
My eyes open sharply and I look around desperately. I am safe in my seat as I look to the front of the Hall, the speaker droning on about the dangers of congregation members murmuring and letting in Satan before the end times. My wife Judith is staring at me, mouthing ‘Are you alright?’
I nod, smile. I’ve never felt better. I feel like an enormous weight has just been taken off my chest, I can actually breathe again. I knew the overwhelming pressure was always there but pretended otherwise. There are epiphanies in life and then there are visions like this one.
Life-saving, freeing, and it came from my own spirit.
How absurd that I believed any of this claptrap for all these years. Contradictory nonsense, veiled coercive teachings, all of it nearly destroyed our entire life without any of my own insight or that of my family. I see now how they indoctrinate the young, ready to keep the next generation subservient and their organisation numbers up in the process.
"Honey, we are leaving. Grab our daughter. We’re not listening to another word. Ever again."
I see the confusion on Judith’s face before utter relief and truth take hold. She grabs our daughter’s hand and we get up to leave. I feel the stares of the congregation members, as I often did anyway. We all did, for perceived wrongdoings or out of sheer unspoken paranoia. I hear the harsh whispers as we make our way out of the Hall.
I want us to be outside to breathe free air. I need to be away from this stale and dangerous place.
The speaker addresses me, "Uh, are you going somewhere Brother?"
I look at my daughter. She is only eight years old but is grinning ear to ear. I think perhaps little Milly always knew this was all wrong from the moment she could think. I’ve never seen her look so radiant, so light. The three of us, without uttering a word to one another, know what we’re doing.
"We are indeed. We’re off to live our lives, relish the moments and find the beauty in them all. I’m so tired of being scared and small. Living in constant fear of a great hoax. And even if it were true, Brother, I’d rather die now than live another heartbeat serving a cruel, puerile, petty-ugly God. So in the words of The Terminator, my former brothers and sisters, come with me if you want to live."
Gasps turn to feigned cries of horror amongst some of the congregation members. We stride towards the Hall exit, the three of us holding hands, immersed in our own love and belonging.
An elderly, permanently anxious Sister stands up, her hunched back nearly pulling her back down as she totters angrily on tiny feet. "You are in league with Lucifer Himself!" she spits through yellowed teeth, pointing with a gnarled finger.
My daughter flinches. I laugh as the congregation members all gaze on, some horrified, some staring with more than a hint of intrigue, perhaps spying their own escape one day, "If so, Sister Rose, at least the Devil is consistent. I know where we are with him. Now goodbye, all of you, and I hope one day…the truth will set you free. "
We walk out through the double doors and into the summer air. The sun is blooming and lights up our way. It seems the sun doesn’t shine only on the righteous... Or maybe it does.