Chapter 34: Reunited
People filter in from the offices down the corridor to have an audience with The Sin Preacher. This side of the church has no back exit unlike where the preacher and her “Inner Circle” dwell. The only way out is back the way they’d come. “Good Morning everyone we have visitors.” She calls out motioning those gathering around to come in closer. Sara takes notice that there aren’t any tables lined with food and clothes on this side of the church. The mood in this section of First New Faith is subdued when compared with the family picnic atmosphere they’d left. She also notices what she terms “a splash more of color” among this grouping. There is a cross section of the surrounding towns and cities taking refuge here. Private Lockett catches a few rogue stares at her uniform and more disturbingly at her weapons. Slowly those who are sitting about break into hopeful smiles their eyes upturned towards the preacher. “Beginning tomorrow morning we will be assigning chores after breakfast.” Ben didn’t know what to think about the scene before him. And why weren’t they using the rest of the church to give these people more room to breath? “I just wanted to give you all a quick update on our current situation. I picked up a few more survivors today and we have had very little activity thus far today from the unclean.” A few cheers go up along with sporadic high fives around the room after The Sin Preacher speaks. “Now for those of you that are new … “She turns to Benjamin and Sara. “We need to make sure we are as quite as possible from sunset to sunrise.” She pivots like a human sprinkler head making sure to address as man people as possible.” I will also be preaching all night from dusk until dawn. We will have the church PA system on but turned very low.” Ben’s first thought was “I’m not planning on being here at sundown.” “Miriam …. Um pastor.” Ben interrupts he decides not to broach the subject of leaving just yet. “Why aren’t you guys using the rest of the church …. “ Ben points thick finger up at the stained ceiling. “You know upstairs?” People in the crowd look down as if they had thought of the question but were afraid to ask. “Mr. James …” The Sin Preacher turns to face him. “The sanctuary is for worship and we do not enter unless we are engaged in worship or in my case preaching.” Ben suddenly feels small in the woman’s presence even though he dwarfs her in reality. “Good day everyone and God bless.” She says exiting the room with Ben, Lockett, and Brother Deacon trailing her. A few minuets later Ben finds himself along with Lockett reunited with his kids, Carson and Jamal. “Everyone please make yourselves comfortable I must attend to some things but we will talk in a bit.” With that she saunters down the hallway back towards her office.
Several hours later the cluster of survivors has separated themselves from the cliquish workings of First New Faith. Ben is been anxiously awaiting the Sin Preacher’s return. So far the group has managed to hold him at bay. They are aware of the late hour but aren’t overly concerned knowing they are at the very least secure and so is everyone else at White Magic’s place. They are holding up an office converted into a dormitory style room. Chip and Belinda doze softly on a beat up old orange couch. “We are relatively safe here so if we have to wait until morning then so be it. “Sara says intentionally keeping her voice low. She doesn’t want to be heard through the paper thin walls as she talks. “As long as White Magic makes it back safely they will be fine at the house. “ “That’s the problem Lockett what if he didn’t and he turns? “ Ben interjects. There is a knock at the door Cody nods to Lockett then opens the door. Colonel is standing there filling the doorway with his bulky frame. “Crap Lockett wasn’t kidding.” Private Carson thinks. “The Sin Preacher requests your immediate audience in her office.” His hands are folded over his barrel chest. “All of you.” He overly emphasizes the last part of his statement. He spins on his heels walking away. Jamal peeks out of the door Cody Carson bumps him from behind. He stumbles into the hallway followed by Carson who takes long strides falling in step with the brute known as “Colonel.” Sara moves in closely Jamal trails looking back waiting on Ben James. It takes Ben a bit longer he has to rouse his children. Add to Ben’s list of chores he has to help Chip into his wheelchair. Jamal is ready to go back to lend a hand to his new family when Chip wheels around the corner. The boy prods his wheelchair forward his dad bringing up the rear. Ben is cradling a half sleeping Belinda in the safety of his beefy arms. He is the last to come around the corner running into a log jam of people. He can see everyone’s back as they pack the doorway of the Sin Preacher’s spacious office. “Mom!” As Chip exclaims the stationary bodies’ part like the Red Sea for the boy. Chip rolls through Ben trots by before the opening closes. “Chip …” Anne James cries out. The pair embraces Anne coming down to her knees to hug her son nearly pulling him from his wheelchair. “Daddy …daddy!” Ben sees his baby boy Brandon breaking away from the three way hug. The boy leaps into his dad’s arms Belinda’s adorable hazel eyes open wide. “B-Rand!” She shouts the sets about kissing the boy on his cheek. Anne rises at the sound of her baby’s voice. The tears in her eyes now spill down her cheek. “Oh God my baby ….” Ben shifts the girl in his arms angling her out towards her mother. Anne is running towards her daughter’s out stretched arms. “Mommy … Mommy … Mommy!” The girl calls out. Anne James latches onto the girl pulling her from her father’s arms. She spins around in place with the tiny girl covering her in joyful kisses. The tears Anne cries are of sheer unadulterated happiness. She stops staring at her burly husband she can see he is trying desperately to hold back his emotions. Anne steps forward moving right into her husband’s arms kissing him deeply. “Thank you Benjamin James ….” She pulls back breathlessly. “Thank you for saving our babies.” Ben looks down his chest hitching. “Baby all I did was and go get them Ben Junior did all the real work.” He tells her not out of modesty but amazement. “It wasn’t me honey it was all junior baby and the story he has to tell you.” Ben trails off. “Well it will show you how strong our boy truly is. I am in awe of him Anne I truly am.” Anne looks back to her son the family comes together in the center of the room oblivious to everyone else. Medina comes over to her unit mates exchanging slaps on the shoulder. Jamal smiles politely at Bianca who moves into the circle with the James family. “What a truly blessed occasion and proof of the power of God.” The Sin Preacher blurts out. Once again she has the attention of all present. “James family and friends welcome one and all to the First New Faith Baptist Church. Hopefully the discussion about leaving us can wait until morning now Mr. James. The hour of the day is late and we don’t want to compromise your safety or ours.” Ben gazes down at his wife and daughter. His eyes scan his boys then Bianca and the rest of the group. They look exhausted and at least they are safe and together again. “Miriam I believe that can wait until morning as you suggested.” Ben tells her Miriam claps her hands together with a smile. “Excellent we will make things more formal in the morning. Now if you will all excuse me I have to prepare myself for tonight’s sermon.” Anne looks perplexed. “Ma’am if you’re going to have a sermon tonight my family and I need to give thanks.” Anne squeezes Belinda in her arms.
The Sin Preacher pushes her glasses up with her index finger. She grins bashfully. “Please Mrs. James call me Miriam.” The women walk to each other the shake hands politely. Anne breaks the silence glancing back at her heroic hubby. “We feel obligated to praise the Lord tonight. He has delivered us from evil no two ways about it.” The Sin Preacher takes in the crowd around her. “Mrs. James I am truly touched but my all night sermons are not for the congregation.” She stands before Anne beaming. “They are my penitence part of the duty I have inherited to lead my flock in the ways of the Lord.” She places a hand on Bianca’s shoulder as she stands next to Anne. “What a gorgeous baby Ma’am.” She tells the recently widowed mother. “I preach all night in order that God may hear the voice of his child and place his protection around his house. It’s exhausting but serving the Lord and leading men usually is.” With that The Sin Preacher dismisses everyone in the room. “Mr. James will you and Sara hang back with me for a moment please?” Miriam turns to her flat footed subordinates. The men stand about smirking amongst themselves. Colonel kneads a damp toothpick back and forth between his unevenly spaced teeth. The large man fills up the room like a piece of borrowed furniture. He has a smug looks of satisfaction etched on his face. “You may all leave as well.” The men’s faces all droop as they are dismissed by the Sin Preacher. Lockett looks between Carson and Medina her eyes imploring “Save me from this bitch. “ The young soldier is guarded she knows the preacher mistrusts her which puts them both on equal footing. Ben has his eyes locked on his wife’s face. Anne doesn’t want to let her husband go their family has spent too much time apart. Ben senses his spouse’s hesitation “Honey please give me a few seconds?” Anne looks hurt stung by Ben’s words. He reassures her with a comforting hug burring her in his thick arms. Anne relents watching this mysterious woman’s hold over the men around her. She knows that she has to guard her husband against this strange woman’s manipulative wiles. Then a light flickers on in Anne’s mind as if she is waking up from the seductive trance of a hypnotist or the song of a Siren. Here is Brother Gustavo‘s puppeteer slyly working in plain sight. Lockett rotates around to face The Sin Preacher placing a hand defiantly on her hip. She keeps a gloved hand wrapped around the grip of her assault rifle. “Hey guys show them back to the room we were in earlier.” Ben instructs Jamal and Carson as the group of survivors exits the room. Three completely different people stand there with but one thing in common. They have all managed to survive “The Event” and the subsequent chaos that has befallen the world. Miriam walks closer in her meticulously clean office that smells slightly damp like a well kept basement. “I want to ask you both a favor.” She stares at Ben her head pivoting slowly almost mechanically over to Sara‘s face. The Sin Preacher can see Ben is far less defensive than Sara. Miriam seizes in on Ben focusing her words in his general direction. “Now that God has brought you and your family back together by the hands of Brother Gustavo. I would like you two to consider coming into my inner circle.” Lockett rolls her eyes which Ben realizes she must do subconsciously. However when she sees the look on Ben’s face she becomes concerned. He has the gleam of a man about to be offered a promotion and the big corner office by his boss. She is panics “He’s falling for this shit” her mind screams while she scratches her head comically. Miriam moves in close extending a hand. She touches a shoulder on each of them with a slight bob of her head. “You don’t have to answer me tonight. I want you, your friends and your family to enjoy our hospitality.” Miriam squeezes Ben’s shoulder letting her hand slide off Sara‘s. “Take time we’ll talk in tomorrow after I rest up.” Stepping back Miriam takes a mental snapshot of each of the brown faces looking at her. Ben smiles almost gushing but Sara tugging his elbow has already made to leave the room. Ben snatches away from Sara angrily stomping his feet. There is nothing odder than watching a full grown football player sized man throw a temper tantrum. The pair exits the pastor’s office separately. She is finally left alone to her own devices the woman retreats into her own thoughts. She looks up at the ceiling moving behind the desk picking up her Bible. She scans around the spacious windowless office. The woman’s eyes beam one would think there were still people gathered about the office. Her cot sits in pressed into a corner unused today so much had happened that she hadn’t planned. She needed a moment alone with God to cry to him for his mercy and guidance. Tonight would test her pushing her faith to its limits but if she was successful. The Sin Preacher would rewrite the Book of Revelations. Changing forever they way Christians and the world saw the Rapture. From outside barley audible in the distance the roar of Brother Gustavo’s monstrous ice cream truck. “Good.” She remarks out loud to the empty office as her time draws nearer. Miriam runs her hand over the ancient intercom equipment. She traces the cracked black cord snaking from the mic as it trails over the edge of her desk. The old cord drifts skyward like a black spider web disappearing into the rafters. Soon Miriam would see if her words and faith were powerful enough to keep the unclean wolves at bay.
“Ok so we are all agreed?” Private Carson speaks under his breath in the cramped room. Private Lockett has taken up post her back to the flimsy door. This way if anyone were to attempt to gain access to the windowless office they would rouse her. “We leave as soon as we get our bearings tomorrow.” He asks for answers from those around him. “Mr. James what do you think?” Carson looks to their undisputed leader. “Umm … “The husky man stammers. “Mr. James please tell me you’re not buying this chick’s bullshit?” Sara mutters from across the room. She turns to eye the flimsy door she’s propped on. There is a visible gap between the door and the joist where she can see a thin sliver of the outer hallway. “No offense big man but you looked like you were ready to ask for her autograph.” Ben swallows a lump in his throat scanning the room his eyes landing sheepishly on his wife. Anne James folds her arms across her chest. She strikes that prototypical pose a woman does where addressing the idea of her man’s affections for another woman. Every married man knows “the pose.” It means you have about ten seconds to explain yourself or catch all sorts of matrimonial hell. “I … I ….” he blurts fumbling over his tongue. “So far” Ben thinks “not so good.” “I just think we should hear her out. I mean imagine if we have found a secured place to hunker down and ride this thing out.” Anne is less worried about her husband’s amorous intentions than she is about his gullibility. “But at what price Benjamin James?” Anne crawls from the tangle of her children over to her husband’s side. “You would have her subjugate you for a ’safe’ place to lay your head?” Anne stands to her full height but even sitting in a folding chair her man is taller than she is. Ben takes her hands gently in his work calloused paws. “No honey I wouldn’t but for you and the kids I would.” Suddenly all of the air is sucked from the room. Ben’s head hangs low Anne takes her husband’s head in her hand. “Honey you have done fine … done fine by all of us.” She nods around gaining the approval of those whom her husband had collected on his post-apocalyptic journey. “Ben … “Bianca Fullerton places her hand on his wide back. She rubs in a circular motion cradling her infant in her other arm. “Carl told me when he got home that morning after he got bit that we should have stayed with you guys.” Her face contorts emotions long pinned up along with tears burst out. “I know you and Chip …..” He can hear the phlegm clogging her throat. “I … I know you and Chip killed him that night. I also know you had to do what you did to protect us.” Anne squeezes down onto her husband’s broad pier of a lap. She was mad alright mad at this “preacher” who made her husband doubt himself. This woman comes bearing her “Surviving the Apocalypse Made Easy With Jesus Handbook” and peddling easy answers. Ben can’t look Bianca in the face as she speaks. He still feels the guilt of killing Carl eating at him. “Ben …” He drags his eyes about halfway up towards Bianca. He stares instead at baby Cammy nestled in her arms. He longed to exist as the baby did a life of blissful ignorance and when the end came. The baby would only have to endure a few seconds of brief of agony then it would be all over. “Ben if you hadn’t made that shelter we would have been dead the first day.” Bianca regains her composure to a small degree. “Jamal would have made it home only to be ambushed by zombies and these soldiers. “ She nods at the Privates situated around the room. “Well they would have never made it off that bridge.” Carson hunches his muscular shoulders. “She’s kinda right big guy.” Cody Carson gives Ben a hearty pair of thumbs ups. “It’s like six degrees of Benjamin James.” He chuckles. Ben pounds a fist into one of his beefy legs. “It’s been two days people and I feel like giving up. Just let someone else make the life or death decisions for a change.” Anne grabs his chin yanking it towards her. “These are your kids, your friends and I am your wife.” She whispers harshly. “We are your responsibility damn it and you’d better get that straight. I don’t give a shit who’s leading who you are the head of this little group here.” Ben knows his wife doesn’t curse often but when she does she means it. “Look Mr. James … “Sara says rising to her feet. She throws Carson a raised eyebrow and the corn fed farm boy in camouflage quickly takes up her position at the door. “Dude look say what you will.” She moves in close to his ear Bianca Fullerton takes the hint and retreats to a ratty orange couch. Dakota immediately lays her head on her mother’s lap. “I get it this is stressful sir but you can’t tell me you’re buying this righteous horse crap?” Ben tries to look away from the ebony skinned solider. “That whole ‘I want you two in my inner circle’ bit is clearly meant to inflate our egos. Rule number one when you want to conquer a people. You take out their command and control.” Sara Lockett takes her voice back down an octave in case anyone is listening from the other side. “That’s us Mr. James me and you. If she gets us under her thumb she believes everyone else will follow.” She continues to tick off points. Anne jumps in talking through clenched teeth. “Follow my ass” She spits. “Then there’s the little thing of the people locked up on the other side of the church. Don’t for second think they are free to come and go as they please. There’s only on way in or out of that section of the church.” Lockett’s words push Ben’s mind back to their earlier tour. She’s right the people across the way their eyes told him the truth. They all looked drained like whatever they were fleeing from outside is the only reason they choose to stay here. “Let‘s not forget the strange faceless guy in the carport.” Lockett reminds those who have yet to meet Brother Gustavo of the creepy voice from the garage.
“Oh … oh!” Medina yelps from the corner covering her mouth instinctively. “Hey …. We met the presumed owner of said voice.” She rummages through one of the bags she’s leaning on. “He beat the ever living shit out of White Magic.” “What?” Sara and Ben call out in unison. “Yeah he did really bad honey. He accused Magic of blaspheming.” Anne gazes down at her dumbfounded husband. “Magic stumbled down into his cellar. His face was a mess and he told us this guy in a ‘souped up ice cream truck’ was waiting on us.” Anne James holds Ben’s gaze a burst of static startles everyone causing baby Cammy to cry out. “Sorry …” Medina blushes scratching the fuzzy gauze wrapped around her head wound. In her hand she covers the radio Anne’s father had given Ben on the porch as he fought off death. Her fingers twist the radio’s tiny black knobs as she holds a torn sheet of paper up. “Hey … hey White Magic you out there?” She calls hunching over the radio attempting to silence the device. Medina stands dialing down the volume on the radio. She comes to the center of the room for everyone to hear. “Des … I … am.” Magic’s voice burst from the radio in all of its smashed nose glory. “Are you safe Magic? We are at The First New Faith Church with a lady named The Sin Preacher.” Medina holds the chipped black radio tightly. The sound that escapes the radio is harsh braying laughter. “Yeah I’m safe y’all the Sun is down and I’m locked up tight.” A collective sigh goes up from most of those present. “I know her …. Everybody here does. She’s one o’dem Bible nuts …. Only talks about the bad parts though.” Suddenly almost on cue a burst of feedback squeals from a mounted brown speaker over head. All eyes scan the ceiling in the corner they find the old battered brown dust covered speaker tucked in the corner like a barn owl. There’s a crackle “Yeah …. Though I… walk …. Walk … I walk through the … the … valley of …. The shadow of death,” The Sin Preacher’s voice spills out the tinny sounding speaker. Her breathing comes in panting gasps. She must be right upon the microphone of the out dated sound system. There is apprehension in her normally fluid voice. More feedback as the woman stammers into the microphone. “I …. I … I will fear ….no evil!” She yells the last two words. “For thou …. Thou art with me; thy rod and thy …. Staff they comfort me.” Her breathing slows down becoming less overbearing. Private Lockett cuts her eyes at the speaker. “I’m here to tell you if she’s going to be doing that.” She exhales dramatically. “It’s going to be a long night people.”
So our favorite family of the post apocalypse has been reunited. The Sin Preacher has managed to bring all of the member of Benjamin James' group together in one place. The problem may or may not be the place in which this coming together has happened The First New Faith Baptist Church. They all find themselves making plans to severe their uneasy alliance with The Sin Preacher.
Come back the week of June 23rd for Chapter 35!
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