Chapter 35: Laying Our Cards on the Table
“Hey …. Hey James clan you out there?” White Magic’s voice echoes out of the handheld CB. Around the musty room in the basement of the church the survivors begin to stir. The first thing they notice is the Sin Preacher’s voice is no longer crackling from the speakers overhead. “Yeah … yeah we’re here Magic. How are you holding up how’s your face buddy?” Medina fires questions into the radio without waiting for an answer. She wipes the sleep from her eyes waiting for Magic to respond. “I’m fine guys.” Laughter spills from the radio. “I only lost like one tooth.” He updates everyone on his health since sustaining a fierce beating at the hands of Brother Gustavo. “Hey who changed my hydroponic pharmaceutical garden into a regular garden?” Medina chuckles at the question. “I did figured you could use some food instead of all that weed.” She waits for him to let loose but before he does there’s a robust knock on the door. Private Lockett springs to her feet awakened from a deep restless sleep. “Yeah what?” She shouts at the door looking back at Ben James then back at the door. She checks her constant companion the rifle slung over her shoulder. “Time to get up we are assigning chores.” The deep voice calls back ensuring everyone who may have been sleeping is now awake. Sara knows the owner of said voice is the man called “The Colonel.” They had all agreed if there was going to be trouble it would be led by him at the Sin Preacher’s direction. “We’ll be out in a second relax.” She makes it known to the brute in no uncertain terms. “Yo I’m all for helping out these folks for saving us but I say we blow this joint by this evening.” She speaks in a more guarded tones directed at the group behind her. “Well get a move on we are waiting.” The Colonel speaks causing everyone to stare back at the door. “He was listening.” Sara’s eyes narrow at the thought. “Hey Magic we have to go the church folk are summoning us.” Medina slightly hunched over whispers into the radio. “Hey I don’t know what y’all got planned but them mofo’s was off before the zombies came a knockin’” White Magic offers is assessment of the members of The First New Faith Baptist Church. Ben stands up stretching “Tell him we’ll be coming back to his place initially.” Medina shakes her head in agreement “Magic the big guy says we are coming back to you place for now.” She raises up her grimy head bandage coming undone from the edges. “If that’s ok with you?” Private Medina doesn’t just assume they are welcomed. “Geez I guess.” He tells them his tone is less than enthusiastic. “Will y’all leave my weed alone this time?” He asks. Medina looks around the room at the people preparing to leave. “Tell him we can compromise.” Anne James speaks up while smiling at her husband. “Alright Magic we’ll talk later get some rest. We will try to get there as soon as possible.” Private Medina relays across the radio. “We have to go!” She speaks snapping the knob into its off position.
“Hey is it wise for us to keep toting our guns around this is still a church?” Carson pulls the attention in the room squarely onto his broad shoulders. Lockett having just completed her routine weapons check flips off her rifle’s safety. “You can leave yours if you want Carson.” She smirks grabbing the doorknob her head turning back to the group. She twists the handle pulling the door open quickly. “Jesus Christ!” Sara yelps stumbling backwards her hand instinctively moves her pistol. Towering there in the doorway hunched over is Brother Gustavo. His face flashes from a blank slate to confused mask of anger. His arms stretch for Private Lockett like gangly octopus tentacles. Brother Gustavo’s spidery fingers catch Sara by the collar. He draws her face slowly up towards his. “Thou shall not take the Lord’s name in vain …” Gustavo’s words are cut off mid-sentence. Ben clamps down on the Ice Cream Man’s arm like a vise. “You’re the voice we heard in the carport yesterday aren’t you?” Ben James has spent a lifetime working with his hands. His massive arm flexes and a ripple passes from his arm muscles up Brother Gustavo’s frail arm like a current of electricity. “Yes I am ...” Brother Gustavo grimaces letting Private Lockett slip from his grasp. “I’ve heard about you my good man.” Ben speaks his words low and hot. “Seems I have you to thank for reuniting my family but you also made a mess of my host’s face in the process.” Ben relaxes slightly. “That’s the only reason I haven’t broken your hand yet and thrown you through a wall.” Ben gently nudges Sara aside which she doesn’t take kindly to. Having to be saved is not something she is comfortable with. “Take your hands of him now!” The Colonel growls bulldozing into the room from behind Brother Gustavo. Sara takes the opportunity to reassert herself into the fray. She steps forward blocking the burly man’s path. “Hold tight ole Hoss.” She says sarcastically. The man stops looking Private Lockett up and down. In his hand minus three of its fingers he clutches two crumpled sheets of paper. “Little girl you have got to be kidding me.” He offers up with a dismissive grin. “I will break you in half.” He spits locking his cold vacant blue eyes on her. “Doubt that …” Carson says his voice is tense with anger as he yanks Lockett from behind. He immediately places himself where Sara had once stood holding her ground. The odds favored Carson a tad more should this situation spiral out of control. “Mrs. James I apologize I was simply eager to speak with you is all.” Brother Gustavo’s pleading eyes wash over Ben searching for his wife in the room. This causes Ben to release his grip but he doesn’t drop his guard. “Brother Gustavo I don’t understand what you want.” Anne weaves her way through the bodies clogging the doorway. “Just wanted a word with you is all Ma’am and then this young lady here she took the Lord’s name in vain.” Brother Gustavo absently wipes his throbbing hand across his mouth. “So that gives you the right to put your hands on a woman?” Ben interjects into the conversation. “No … No … No.” Gustavo stammers defensively. “My zeal for The Lord sometimes gets the best of me.” Ben doesn’t like this man and now that he’s met the legendary “Brother Gustavo” he likes him even less. Out of curiosity Ben James peers back at his children Anne had long since told him that his temper scared “their kids.” Belinda sits curled in Chip’s lap her eyes never leaving the ghoulish butler looking man dressed in white. Brandon’s positioned behind Chip’s wheelchair glancing over his big brother’s shoulder. The Colonel sighs loudly rolling his eyes. “Can we get on with this the rest of us have things to do and a Tribulation to prepare for?” He squeezes his big body back out the doorway parting the gawking crowd of church members. “Brother Gustavo I told you that you’d have to learn how to apply the Lord’s word.” Anne moves in to face her husband placing a reassuring hand on his dark cheek. She finally manages to break Ben’s hundred yard voodoo hate stare. Ben looks at his wife her beautiful face tilted up to his. He realizes again how lucky he was to have her end of the world or not. “It’s ok babe.” She tells him laying her head upon his heaving chest. “Brother Gustavo we can talk later before we ….. “ Anne trails off choosing to guard her words rather that reveal their true plans. “Excellent Mrs. James I look forward to it.” Brother Gustavo smiles stepping back with a bow. The doorway clear he directs the survivors out of the room like a maître d pointing to the main communal area of the church’s basement. Ben doesn’t like this man nor does he trust the way this ‘Brother Gustavo’ simply dismisses him in the presence of his wife. Sara is the first to exit their cramped accommodations she feels Benjamin James clap her across the back. When she looks back he is smiling at her. Carson moves out next and Ben gives him the same acknowledgement.
“Alright gather round and hush up people.” Colonel calls out positioning himself in the center of the common area. Ben leads his group into the room packing together with the other survivors. He points to the tables still lined with food and motions over to Bianca. The woman carrying the baby weaves through the densely packed people. She begins to secure food for all the children. “First off we survived yet another night thanks to the grace of God Amen.” The crowd chimes in with a rousing chorus of “Amen.” He turns about making sure he has the group’s full attention. Sara can tell the man has spent many years giving orders and having other jump when he gives the word. “We also have to thank The Sin Preacher. As you all heard over the church’s PA system. She spent the night in fervent prayer beseeching the Lord for his mercy and grace.” He starts to clap crushing the paper between his large damaged hands. “It worked the Unclean did not bring their plague to our door. She put the mark of the lamb on our doorway.” Colonel makes a vague biblical reference to drive his point home. The crowd chants and wails the noise rising up to the dank basement rafters in the basement. “Shhhhhh ….” He smiles attempting to stifle the noise in the room. “Alright now let’s keep it down Pastor is trying to rest people.” Raising his voice admonishing those around him. “Our first order of business before we assign task inside the church. We need volunteers to labor alongside Brother Gustavo outside the gate.” He falls silent as does the rest of the room. People fain distraction one man finds now to be the appropriate time to tie his boots. “Now don’t forget folks we have to get this done for everyone’s safety. So don’t everybody jump at once. Colonel chuckles. “It’ll only be a few hours this morning ladies and gents and if I don’t start seeing volunteer’s. Ole Colonel is gonna have to draft some of you fine folks. The Preacher won’t be pleased if she wakes up and this aint done.” “Dad.” Chip tugs his father’s arm. “Yeah son …” Ben kneels down keeping his eyes on the man in charge. “Didn’t you say we were going to be around here for a few more hours today?” Ben looks confused hunching his shoulders. “Yeah Son and … “Ben doesn’t finish his sentence. “I’ll go with Brother Gustavo.” Chip shouts out lifting Belinda from his lap placing her on the floor. “Woooo …. Wooooo now son the hell you will.” Ben words haven’t cleared his mouth as he steps into the path of Chip’s wheelchair. “Ok so let me get this straight.” Colonel hold his hands up to quite the murmurs. “The men of First New Faith are such fraidy cats. They gonna send a boy to do a man’s jobs and a boy in a wheelchair no less.” Ben turns his eyes squinting filled with hate. “Watch your mouth hillbilly.” The people between the two men part like the Red Sea. Colonel takes several bold strides towards Benjamin. He meant to challenge this man who dared square his shoulders at him in his house. Ben doesn’t flinch holding his ground as the retired soldier bares down upon him. A blur passes Ben Chip comes to a stop sideways between his father and the Colonel. Chip points a gloved hand at the missing fingers on the Colonel’s left hand. “We crippled can do anything. You most of all should know that.” Chip tosses his frizzy brown hair from his face grinning. “Night before last me and my baby sister held off an army of those damn zombies until day light.” He says leaving out the seizure, the crushing fear and the part where they almost died. “Can any of you ‘real men’ top that?” Chips asks making air quotes using his fingers. “Didn’t think so.” The room is still Chip can see his mother move to his father’s side. She takes Ben Senior’s hands in hers to calm him. “I accept his offer.” A voice cascades over the crowd from the back of the gathering.
Brother Gustavo moves up the crowd giving way as he passes. People avoid the quirky man as if he were one of “unclean” undead himself. “This young man is industrious and shows great courage. The rest of you cowards stay here with the women and children while we men tend to the fields.” Brother Gustavo throws out his words like daggers into the men sitting slovenly around the room. He comes to Chip hand extended “Brother Gustavo pleased to meet you son.” Chip shakes the man’s hand. “Benjamin James Junior sir pleased to meet you as well he responds. “I wanna go too daddy.” Brandon shouts skipping past his parents. Ben catches the boy by the back of his shirt lifting him from the ground. “Hold on Champ I haven’t decided your brother is going yet.” He places his youngest son down at his feet. “However I know there’s no way in world you’re going.” “Awwwww …“Brandon moans comically drawing laughter from the crowd. “Mr. James I assure that my truck is safe and I will allow no harm to come to your son. He will be under the protection of the Lord All Mighty first and myself second.” Brother Gustavo presents himself to the couple. “Dad … “Chip speaks up causing his father to look past the man before him. Ben sees Chip holding the pistol he’d given to the boy in one hand and his “Lucky Mallet” in the other. “Do not let these pompous fool sit in judgment of your son Mr. James. The boy wants to pull his own weight.” Brother Gustavo pleads with the James’. “Therefore doth my father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again John chapter ten verse seventeen.” Ben pulls in a deep breath slapping his hand to his face. He longs for the sanctuary and solitude of his basement shelter. It seems like years have passed since he’d dwelt in the relative comfort of his own home. He looks down on Anne through his fingers like a kid peering out a screen door. Anne bobs her head in agreement and Ben reluctantly relents. “I’ll go with them.” Carson jumps in the conversation. “I’d love the fresh air.” All eyes turn to Brother Gustavo. “Fine Colonel I bid you farewell I have all the help I need. We go forth boldly in the Lord Thy God assures our safety.” With a smile that completely unnerves Ben Brother Gustavo bows slightly from hunched over stance. “Thank you both.” Now he faces the members of the church. The same town’s people who benefit the most from his dangerous self-appointment tasks. Yet they forced him to sleep in his shed out back rather than allowing him in their midst. Fixing The Sin Preacher’s enforcers with look of disdain. Brother Gustavo scans the room looking for the men as he shouts. “Understand, ye brutish among the people: and ye fools, when will ye be wise? Psalms chapter ninety four verse eight.” He departs the room with Carson and Chip in tow. Chip takes the opportunity to stop his chair in front of his parents. They come down to hug their eldest child. Soon Chip feels Brandon’s arms encircle his neck and B moves in planting a kiss on his cheek. “He scares me Chip.” She whispers the way all little girls do moving her entire body in an overly exaggerated motion. “I will be fine baby sis.” Chip tells her looking up at his parents. “Are you sure about this son?” Ben clenches his jaw as he speaks. Chip shakes his head signaling his commitment. “You watch that creepy bastard you hear me?” Ben whispers. Private Carson comes into the discussion. “We will Sir and I will watch Chip’s back too.” Chip cuts his eyes back at Carson. He stares at the boy who is slightly older than he is with envy standing over him on his strong piston like legs. “Yeah don’t be so sure big boy.” Chip propels himself forward gliding through the crowd with ease. “I might save your butt.” Ben and Anne watch their son head out of the church. “We just sent our son that I took my time to rescue off with a zealot in a battle equipped ice cream truck to do what Anne?” He begins to clench and unclench his meaty hands. “Tell me honey what exactly did you say to that lunatic that he wants to talk to you so bad.” Ben’s head slowly cranes down until he and his wife are staring into each other’s eyes. As Ben watches Chip and Carson depart he catches a glimpse of the Miriam standing almost out of sight. She is wearing a white robe Ben guesses this is what she wore when she preached. Miriam summons Ben to her with a discreet wave of her finger almost as a lover would. Ben looks about and walks toward the Pastor’s office. He feels warmth slip into the palm of his rough hand. A quick look back reveals his wife holding his hand keeping stride hot on his heels.
They turn the corner heading into the dimly lit office. The Sin preacher ushers them in standing behind the door. “Come in please.” She says hand gesturing in the direction of two chairs sitting on the opposite side of her desk. Ben pulls his wife’s chair out like a gentleman and waits for Miriam to take her seat. “Good morning Mr. and Mrs. James I hope it’s not too early for you? I wanted to speak with you before I get some rest.” Miriam leans back her chair squeaks loudly. “We are fine Miriam how are you? I can’t believe you preached from Sundown to Sunup” Anne responds she had heard most of the pastor’s sermon in passing. It seemed to Anne the woman had a decidedly Old Testament apocalyptic view of the Bible and it reflected in her sermon. “Yes Anne it was very refreshing to cry out to the Lord and have him respond.” She grins somehow managing to show humility and arrogance blended into a cocktail of self-righteousness. “Your sermon was full tilt fire and brimstone preacher.” Anne cracks a thin weary smile. “Yes …. Yes Ma’am I believe the Old Testament is the way to lead the world back from the brink.” Anne’s head moves up and down slowly. “And so you know that was the way I preached before The Rapture too.” “Do you really believe we have just lived through the Rapture Miriam?” Anne pounces on the word like an apex predator. “The reason I ask is there’s a lot of things that don’t fit what we know of the Rapture.” Ben watches as Miriam’s brow furrows deeply. ”How so Mrs. James?” She says through her thin fingers spread out before her eyes like a church steeple. “Well for starters my children ….. Any children for that matter why are they still here?” The Sin Preacher and Anne James engage in a good ole fashioned stare down. “Mrs. James do you realize that we who are born of men are born into sin? Do you believe that the purity of a child is derived from its parents?” Miriam rises from her seated position. She strikes Ben as the type of person who stands when they speak because she believes conveys authority. “Yes I do know all men are born of sin Miriam but Christ died for our sins and they were forgiven.” Anne briefly cuts her eyes at her husband who is sitting like a goof with an awkward yet comical smile plastered on his face.
“You know Mrs. James you and I are alike.” The Sin Preacher begins to move around the desk sitting just in front of Anne. “There was a time when society would not accept us. Me being a female preacher and you with your …. “The word hangs in the air as Anne moves to the edge of her seat. Ben knows from past experiences with his wife the use of the term “apex predator.” Will morph from a metaphor to a reality in his wife if she deems a line has been crossed. “Marriage and its byproducts.” Anne is on her feet as the last syllable slips from the librarian like woman’s lips. “Well this just went to shit.” Ben thinks to himself. One thing about his wife he knew above all else. Nothing would draw her blood to a boil faster than mentioning the kids in a less than positive light. Except pointing out their interracial marriage as if were somehow or another less valid than any other. Ben goes to stand he meets his wife’s hand firmly on his shoulder as she shoves him back down into his seat. “Mr. and Mrs. James I mean no disrespect Miriam holds her hands up the pale palms turned outward. “All I am saying is if you call everything written in the Bible with a rigid eye. Then neither of us would be in the positions God has bestowed up on us.” Anne lets the woman have her say even as her tongue fights to loose itself. “You know what I think Ms. Sin Preacher? I think you are no different than those horrible people from that God awful church that protest those children’s funerals.” Anne is shaking with rage and now nose to nose with Miriam. The Sin Preacher pushes back from Anne James. She walks briskly around the desk snatching up a worn brown Bible and her gold rimmed glasses she clears her throat. Miriam’s left hand is shaking noticeably as she places her glasses on and starts to read aloud. “And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet and their eyes shall consume away in their hole, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth.” The cadence in her voice increases until it is ricocheting of the drywall all around them. “And it shall come to pass in that day, that a great tumult from the Lord shall be among them; and they shall lay hold everyone on the hand of his neighbor and his hand shall rise up against the hand of his neighbor.” The woman snaps the Bible close in Anne’s face. “Zechariah chapter fourteen verses twelve and thirteen. Now you tell me Mrs. James you stand there and tell me that is not what is happening just outside this very church as we speak. We have been judged and found unworthy Mrs. James.” The Sin Preacher shouts slamming the Bible down on the desktop. “Say what you will about me Mrs. James but unlike you I am not running to live. I have stood my ground and protected the sheep. I give shelter to those unworthy in God’s eyes. This includes you and your group along with that descendant of Lot you have brought into my church.” Anne replays decades of Sunday school and church services in her mind. She knows the reference to Lot but can’t place it. Then it dawns on Anne “she is talking about Jamal and his Middle Eastern heritage.” “This is my flock I tend these sheep.” The woman rolls on in her impromptu sermon. “Here I am the Shepherd.” Anne is breathing through her nose only. Her nostrils flare out with each burst of air that escapes her lungs. “The Lord …. Is my Shepherd.” Anne stabs her words like a sword into the heart of The Sin Preacher’s bold claims. Turning she leaves the office without uttering another word. Oh her way out Anne somehow manages to slam the plywood door far louder than Ben would have believed possible. Ben sits glued to his chair with the look of a man whose wife has just insulted his boss at the company picnic. “Clearly you haven’t given any thought to staying with us as members of my inner circle of trust?” She folds her hands in front of her face as she takes her seat once again.
“Mr. James I rescued you …. Brought you and your family here sheltered you all shared with you and for what?” The Sin Preacher slams one hand down causing the desk beneath to rattle. Ben attempts to speak but Miriam stifles his words with an accusing finger. “You rebuff my offer, your wife insults me and my church. If you want to leave that is fine Mr. James but you owe me and you owe The First New Faith.” Ben sits up straight in the small chair. “I know that your son and the other young man from you party went to assist Brother Gustavo with chores. I have taken this into consideration as I have prayed over your debt to this house of God.” “We appreciate what you have done for us Miriam.” Ben takes this time to speak realizing he was letting The Sin Preacher take the upper hand in the discussion. “We would like to leave and I humbly ask that you allow us to use a car which we will return.” He was just wishing someone else would take the lead in their quest to survive. After watching his wife and Miriam go at it. Ben James slaps himself mentally he’d spent his entire life in charge of his own destiny. His mind races back to everything he had done before “The Event” and then after. “Anne was right and so was Sara we need to go.” Ben thinks White Magic’s place is a far better shelter. The tactless dreadlocked pot dealer was a far better host. “Tell me how we can repay you and the church Miriam. We will gladly do whatever you ask in order that we can leave before sundown?” The Sin Preacher’s face goes cold she removes her glasses in one swift motion. Exhaling loudly the petite woman rears back in her chair closing her eyes. The Sin Preacher rubs the bridge of her nose with her head tilted back facing the unfinished ceiling. “These end days are hard on everyone Mr. James.” Her head still pointed upwards. “Supplies are extremely difficult to come by they are the key to life. I like you I respect what you are trying to do Mr. James from a survival standpoint and from a biblical standpoint.” She brings her dead down like drawbridge lowering itself one tick at a time. Ben suddenly sees the woman before him in a different light. In same the way one does when a criminal dramatically rips off their ski mask in a movie. The Sin Preacher stands her eyes never leaving Ben’s. She drives both palms down onto the desk. Miriam leans as far across the desk as she can on her short legs. “Life is survival, survival is life Mr. James.” Her teeth curl back over her lips in a snarl. ”I will pray the Lord is merciful and protects you and yours. Once payment is rendered you free to leave First New Faith and never look back. You owe me Mr. James as payment you will give me the infant and the pagan from your party.” Ben falls backwards from the chair as if the words have a concussive blast force behind them.
First of all we apologize for the delay with Chapter 35. Sometimes real life has a way of really messing things up.
Now as far as the story goes what else can we say? Chip and Private Carson are out helping Brother Gustavo do God knows what. Ben James has literally just had the wind taken out of his sails as he learns the Sin Preacher truly isn't what she pretends to be.
We will see you the week of July 14th for Chapter 36. So hold on tight, read, like and share!
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