by: R. E Hengsterman
“Amongst all the ruin there were rumors of salvation, people searching, desperate, scared and broken. I’d sought the same redemption.” The reckoning is upon us…
“For I am under authority myself and have soldiers under me, and I say to one man, but the children of the kingdom will be thrown out into the darkness.” —Matthew
The lanky young man — the line leader — the Alpha extended his stride with intent, as I struggled to stay within two arm’s length of him.
I increased my pace, fearing abandonment. Over my shoulder there was a lagging procession of humans, three dozen souls lined up single file. Their heads bobbed slowly, fighting exhaustion and hunger. Their faces, shielded from the sun and the poisoned air with jury-rigged turbans, plastic visors, surgical masks, bandanas, and tattered baseball caps, were seldom visible. The looters, the vandals and the malcontent torched the county. What survived, the landscape, the fragments of civilization that remained, and the weather-beaten people, bore a tenacious black residue. It wasn’t long before everything above the height of a man became a smoldering pile of scorched earth.
Exhausted from days upon days of migration, I had nothing but time to rewind my life. I’d heard of men and their deathbed regrets, and I became such a man, full of laments, and of slow death, wishing I had been true to myself, wishing I’d cared for someone other than myself. Until now, I’d been able to dehumanize the collapse. But the last few days I’d had trouble resolving the current state of my existence. The wasteland I now crossed, against my past life, was the ordinary life of a failed man. Was this my punishment? Was this retribution for our past actions?
At the peak of an unrelenting heatwave, I was delirious. Beneath the scorching sun I had a daydream where the hand of God held a magnifying glass, focusing the energy of the sun on me and burning my flesh. I remembered, Camponotus, the carpenter ant, and how as a child I’d taken a magnifying glass, and focused the energy of the sun to torch their tiny bodies. Now, in a place no longer recognizable, I’d found myself in a karmic pinch, suffering, burnt by the hand of God, and needing salvation while learning how to die.
We marched an endless, slow march across the tortured landscape.
Ahead of me was the Alpha, his skin taut, flexing under the weight of the military style backpack he carried. Metal water bottles fastened to his pack with straps, clanked as if he were a goat with a bell strung around his neck. Rope, duct tape, and a blanket hung from the underside of the bag, secured by more straps. Everything of value had changed; knives, axes, machetes, rifles, handguns, water, food, fire and shelter overshadowed what no longer had value, which was, essentially, everything else.
The line found me in Moncure, on the banks of the Haw, filling a water bottle in the slow-moving muddy river. It wasn’t the first time I’d found an assault rifle inches from my face. After The Collapse, anarchy ruled the landscape, as the the human animal self-destructed. We craved violence.
On that day, on the bank of the Haw, I’d been careless, pretending as if life had returned to normal, overlooking the potential of a man under duress.
“Friend or enemy,” the stranger said, advancing the butt of his rifle towards my face. Too exhausted to fight or to fear for my life, I pushed the barrel away.
“Just a man,” I said, “Trying to get to Florida.”
The person, who I’d later come to know as the Alpha, reached out his hand. “You’re welcome to join our pilgrimage.”
Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal. —Revelation 18
How did it come to be that I’d found myself in this position? What cataclysmic event displaced my world? The genesis began as it always had—a disenfranchised state of mind and a distorted, misshapen ideology. Thousands of miles away there was a wrong committed, an unjust act, and an unforgivable sin. There was a man who has experienced suffering and this suffering fuels his rage. He remembered a drone, a missile, no warning and his home reduced to a pile of concrete. What remained as the smoke cleared was a child’s shoe, its rubber charred, and its pink laces bloodied.
In a dark room, shuttered away from scrutinizing eyes, the man has blueprinted an electronic virus, a worm that is a malicious construction of malware. He is Michelangelo and the program, his David. Isolated, his motivation rooted in pain, he had forsaken sleep, food, human contact, and sunlight for weeks on end. His pursuit has made his skin pale, his muscles soft, and turned his eyes a deviled red, as he worshiped the strange bluish glow of the computer monitor—his digital portal to retribution. For months, he nurtures his masterpiece. He’s sallow and unkempt, but inspired.
There’s a rumor in the small town that he has lost his mind. He’s a ghost of a man, an empty shell of skin and bones — no soul. But he is neither, he is just a proxy. In the end the day arrives, and his masterpiece is complete. There is silent celebration, for he alone knows the devastation to come, and he alone has the power to release his vengeance with a single click. He has named his revenge Nebuchadnezzar.
The man sits and waits, as the object of his hate, distracted and bathed in self-indulgence, turns its attention to presidential nonsense — a circus, a farce. This is his moment, he thinks. He clicks his computer’s mouse. The malware move swiftly, working itself through fiber optic cables, across mountains and deserts, beneath oceans, and into an unsuspecting host thousands of miles away.
The result was catastrophic. We were arrogant and had this coming for years. Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the chaos, stripped away the protective film that kept unrest percolating just below the surface. Nations and states decayed into darkness. Then a resurrection arose with many false prophets. There had been no zombie apocalypse, no plague or nuclear attack — it was those who decided, and those who stoked our arrogance that were to blame. Crisis rippled over the lands as if it were an unchecked tidal wave. Amongst all the ruin there were rumors of salvation, people searching, desperate, scared and broken. I’d sought the same redemption.
The path the Alpha followed snaked its way through the oak-gum-cypress and loblolly pines of North Carolina.
“Zechariah?” I asked again.
The Alpha lowered his bandana, wiping soot from his face. He drowned a large gulp of water, an insult to his parched mouth. He was hollow-eyed and narrow-faced, with a long beard to mid-chest, hair unkempt and tangled past his shoulders, and a glint of youth reflecting in his eyes. He was captivating to behold.
It was Zechariah who named him the Alpha because of the way he ruled the line. The way he prophesied to the young men. And when I asked Zechariah why he followed, why he joined the line, he said, “boredom.”
He’d joined the line three weeks earlier not out of fear, or inability to care for himself. It was boredom. A retired engineer from Roanoke, Virginia, and self-proclaimed Rockfish fishing champion, Zechariah spoke softly yet quickly, with words that piled into themselves. He was a nebbish man; gentle and never married. The Collapse for him was an opportunity for excitement and risk. Something he’d never experienced in his fifty-two years of life. He walked with a limp from a replaced right hip and paid little attention to the sun; his dark pigmentation and abundance of melanin affording him a natural sun protection. Zechariah wore no hat, no facial projection and was never without a smile. “I won’t be around much longer,” he said. “I’ve seen others left behind.”
For days, I listened to the Alpha examine Zechariah, picking at his heart and soul as if he was an animal and the Alpha a carrion, a buzzard, clearing the world of unneeded carcasses. With each passing day, Zechariah withered, becoming a husk, a defeated man. “I’m an engineer, not a man of faith. I had nothing to give,” he said.
I had nothing to give were the last words I heard Zechariah speak. Under the watchful eye of the Alpha he vanished into the darkness.
“Therefore, a curse devours the earth, and those who live in it are held guilty. Therefore, the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left.” — Isaiah
“Zechariah went it alone,” The Alpha said. It was the first time he’d spoken in days, and I knew it was a lie. The line, traveling back roads, avoiding the uncertainties that made life after the collapse so dangerous, moved at a brisk pace.
“The world is different now. We must repent for what has brought us to this place. He is waiting. There will be a new heaven and a new earth.”
I’d never been a religious man, never quibbled over the terms agnostic or atheist. In the past, I’d seen the rise in godliness among people in crisis; a God help us spray painted on a rooftop during a massive flood or on a boarded-up window during a hurricane. I was in no position to judge. I’d prayed for the first time in my life during those chaotic days.
I’d assumed the position behind the Alpha after Zechariah’s disappearance. Within hours my inquisition began, subtly, as if the Alpha were picking tender fruit from a tree. I worked to keep the conversations short and on task; the direction we walked, how much food and water we had remaining. I knew nothing of religious scripture, of salvation.
As we penetrated deeper into the lands, I realized my worthiness was in question. I knew I wasn’t worthy, but my journey, this pilgrimage, it was all that I had left. Again, I couldn’t help but think of what Zechariah said the last day we spoke. “I had nothing to give.”
Outside of Wilsonville, the Alpha stopped talking altogether.
So, I began.
“Where are your parents, your family?” I asked.
“Dead,” he said. There was little emotion in his voice.
The Collapse claimed many casualties, displaced families and orphaned children. The line was a byproduct of that catastrophe, the bastardized child of man. A reckoning the Alpha said. Zechariah was wrong about one thing. To the line, he was the Messiah, their savior.
“Zechariah didn’t leave, did he?” I boldly asked. The Alpha, the Messiah, measured my words.
“For evildoers will be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD, they will inherit the land. I will carry you until you are no longer worthy.” was his reply.
I shuddered at his words.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” —1 John 1:9
The line covered vast swaths of land over the next forty-eight hours. I’d kept my position behind the Messiah, and in time we entered Georgia.
“I will deliver them.” he whispered in my ear. I understood his words to be a threat. Not a promise. Once again, I’d felt unworthy. Socrates had said, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” and I’d done my share of self reflection in the face of devastation.
It was several hours before he spoke again.
“Tell me,” he said. “Where’s your family?”
After weeks on end of walking, clothed in a tattered T-shirt, my body marred with red, swollen bites from chiggers, mosquitoes, black flies and the biting midge, I entered the stage of suffering that brought me to my proverbial knees. Everything defeated me, every moment, every step, every breath; everything except the truth.
“I’m alone,” I said.
The line leader, the Alpha, the Messiah, reached into his pocket and produced a pill bottle. He tossed it back in my direction. It was my wife’s Oxycodone prescription. The drug she took to silence her moans, her pleas — as cancer ravaged her body. In the Georgia heat, the final stone was cast.
“I have a daughter. My wife passed away from cancer.” I said, struggling, choking as the truth emerged, as if my words, entombed memories, resuscitated themselves once spoken aloud and released into the oxygen rich atmosphere.
“Why isn’t your daughter here with you?” The Messiah asked.
I swallowed hard, my palate raw.
“It’s a long story.”
“We have time.”
“My daughter, she took her mother’s death hard. Everyone did.”
“I understand. Tell me…why did you keep these?”
I felt my stomach curl into a knot.
“When my wife was dying, I suffered. And I took her medication, to ease my pain, my loneliness. I became addicted. My daughter found out I was stealing my wife’s pain medication. Her mother’s death, and my addiction, destroyed our family.”
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly,” The Messiah responded.
“I appreciate the scripture, but it has nothing to do with my life. I’m just trying to survive.”
The Messiah stiffened.
“Do you consider yourself a good man, an honest man, a deserving man?”
“Deserving of what?” I asked.
“Of life, redemption,” The Messiah responded. As he spoke, I felt the collective whole of myself disintegrating.
“I’d look down on people like me. People who did similar things like stealing pain medication from a dying person, someone you’re supposed love. Those people repulsed me until the day I became one of them. My wife used to say: ‘They are you, just living a different life.’ Now, however, I am that person, living that life.”
The Messiah stopped, turned and looked me square in the face. “When a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all his transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.”
“But this world is different now. It is a new beginning. Those left standing will be the children. And those who aren’t worthy will be judged.”
“But who are you to judge?” I asked.
The Messiah raised his rifle.
As I am the Messiah, I am he. And I judge you not worthy.
Across the mountains, rolling oceans, and miles upon miles of sand, the man who has suffered sits and watches, as he knows the Messiah will be his undoing. And as he waits for death he smiles, for he has set the wheels in motion, a selective slaughter of wild animals — a Cull.
R. E Hengsterman is a Pushcart-nominated writer, film photographer, and flawed human who deconstructs the human experience through images and words. He writes under the Carolina blue sky. You can see more of his work at www. ReHengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @rehengsterman.