Chapter 40: The Congregation
He feels his head spinning as if he’d spent the day drinking then hopped on a Tilt a Whirl. Ben is so woozy that the world before his eyes appears as a shapeless blob of white. His head flops about on his shoulders like he’s an infant. His mind cleared slowly so he focuses on the one clear memory drifting among the mental fog in his head. The Sin Preacher his mind meandered she had threatened him. The woman had revealed her true colors by telling him she “wanted Jamal and baby Cammy as payment or something equally as heinous.” Ben’s stomach reacted bitterly to the vertigo seizing his senses. He fights to clear his mind he needed to find his people and get the hell out of First New Faith. Ben pulled himself together staring at the blinding white light before him. He sees the silhouette of an angel floating in the midst of a fiery ring of light shining through an amber colored stained glass window. “Come on Ben.” The man prods himself mentally to get going. Gravity pulls his head to the left causing Ben to struggle to hold his head up. The blurry outline of a man appears to his left. Ben ignores the figure he instead puts all his efforts into standing up. His hands feel heavy his arms moves as if he’s swimming in tree sap. Indecipherable words filter into his ears as background noise. It drifts up sounding like a crowded train station around him. Ben stands to his feet by clamping down on the chair in front of him. He sways in place fighting the effects of the blow to the back of his head that had rendered him unconscious. He felt as if it had reset his brain nothing moved at the correct speed. Ben had that sensation of being in a dream trying to move while being held back. His knees buckle painfully slamming into the back of the wooden bench he clung to for support. He barely manages to remain standing glancing down at his hands. What he sees puzzles him his hands are clasped together as if he is praying. He must be still suffering from being knocked out. He believes his hands are bound at the wrist.
Ben casts a drunken sideways gaze at the man standing to his left. They are eye level with the man being slightly taller than Ben. With all the background conversations and mumbling going on Ben can’t make out the man’s words. He sees the lean gaunt fellow dressed in stained bright orange clothing. He stares at the man they catch each other’s eye Ben’s head tilts to the side similar to a confused dog. Ben shakes his head vigorously back and forth attempting to snap himself back to reality. The man’s orange jumpsuit is filthy with deep crimson black stains covering him from head to toe. What perplexes Ben the most is the man’s eyes they seem diseased and dull with a slight shiny hint of orange. Ben’s subconscious begins to scream at him from the foggy haze of his mind. He can’t make out the voice which seems to call to him from down a long dark hallway. He looks the man up and down leaning in to get a closer look. He can see inside the man’s mouth. His crooked yellowed have tatters of something caught in them. “Must have ... just eaten.” Ben thinks leaning in to examine the red sauce coating his new found friend’s face. The voice in his head grows louder but can only hear snippets of the words it screams at him. In his dream like stupor Ben becomes painfully aware of a gnawing hunger in the pit of his stomach. He is literally starving without thinking he raises his hands to the man’s face as they both rock in place. The man turns his mouth hanging slack as he playfully nips at Ben’s finger like a puppy. He misses providing Ben the opportunity to jab his finger at the man’s cheek. Ben drags his thick index finger through the stain on the man’s face narrowly avoiding his wild blond facial hair. The man’s skin is cold and clammy. His skin feels rough like old wet leather. Ben’s finger comes back slick coated in a sticky red goo. Ben stares down at his fingers as he rubs them slowly together. He can see now his hands they are bound with a thick dirty piece of rope at the wrist. Down further he can see the naked brown meat of his thighs. Is he naked “why in the hell would I be naked?” He thinks to himself climbing out of the dissipating murkiness enveloping his mind. It is replaced with that illogical confusion one feels during a particularly lucid dream. Ben touches his thigh smearing a red stain across his brown skin. Unlike the man besides him his skin is warm to the touch. Benjamin James panics he becomes acutely aware that he is more coherent than he thinks he is. “He’s dead!” The voice in his head screams with such ferocity Ben’s head snaps back. He’s looking the man in his face and only now does he take in the sickly greyish color. A groove made by his finger is visible in the blood slick on the dead man’s cheek. The man in the gore covered orange jumpsuit turns to face him on heavy feet. The dead man utters a low guttural moan sending Ben tumbling backwards in terror.
Ben lands hard on his back his head scanning the room. His vision having cleared Ben is aware there are people swaying in place all around him. The mumbling that had filtered into his ears plays from speakers overhead. The Sin Preacher’s voice pours from the rafters raining down in a hypnotic sermon. There are old brown wooden pews on either side of him as he rolls about on the floor. He is laying naked on a filthy frayed red rug. Looking over his head he spies two doors bolted and chained shut. Ben sits up panting “I’m in the church sanctuary!” He spins back in the direction of the figure he assumed to be an angel. It steps out of the halo of early evening sunlight at the end of the aisle. The Sin Preacher saunters down the aisle in a full length white robe with gold trim. She carries a small black microphone her arms outstretched like a bird seeking to take flight. Ben has found the source of the voice he heard filling his concussed mind. Her smile seems to outshine the shaft of sunlight behind her bathing the small chapel. Another moan pulls his attention back to the zombie in the prison jumpsuit. The walking corpse takes a few unsteady steps in his direction. Ben’s glances to his right looking for a way out. Seated with her bound hands nestled in her lap is Private Sara Lockett. She sits nude staring straight ahead shaking uncontrollably. Ben guesses the girl’s shivering is due to fear rather than the temperature. “Sara …” He wheezes as if his voice would set off an avalanche of the undead. Her head turns mechanically in his direction. Her eyes are wide and her cheeks are wet with tears that have spilled down onto her breasts. Sara silently shakes her head “no” deliberately mouthing the word. Her lower lip quivers with such force Ben doubts she could actually speak. She mouths the words “help me” then robotically turns back to face the front of the church. A long bone chilling groan erupts across the aisle. Ben whips his head back in time to see the undead convict attempting to navigate his way out of the pew. “Easy my child ….” The Sin Preacher says walking smoothly into Ben’s nightmare. With mannerisms more suited to a mother she prods the fussy zombie back into the pew. “Mr. James …” She turns showing no fear of the living corpse. “Welcome you have met my flock now let me introduce you to my congregation.” She announces with glee. Alarmed Ben looks around the room finally. The pews are filled with zombies all standing swaying in place like obedient dogs waiting for their master’s command. Ben gasps aloud there at the end of the aisle backlit by the waning late day sunlight. He makes out the outline of a person chained to the floor. Ben sits gazing past the Preacher’s he recognizes the man chained to the floor before a small pulpit.
“Jamal!” Ben screams having found control of himself. He struggles to heft his girth up and onto his feet. “You sick bitch let him go.” Ben demands storming towards the woman who simple pushes her glasses up on her narrow nose. “Stay where you are fool and still thy tongue in this house of worship.” The Sin Preacher commands as Ben continues in her direction. When he shows no signs of stopping she raises the microphone in her hand. Miriam quickly flips a switch on the bottom of the mic and the prerecorded sermon wafting from the speaker’s stops. Suddenly the once docile moaning zombies become enraged caged beast. Snarls echo out as every zombie in the room starts to moves like a pack. They stumble for the warm living morsels of flesh locked in the church’s cramped nave with them. Benjamin’s feet won’t budge from the moldy carpeted floor then he finds the reverse button. He begins to back pedal from The Sin Preacher as she stands up boldly defying the zombies to attack her. She doesn’t flinch as they living dead begin to encircle her. Ben trips over a body on the floor he lays out in the air landing hard. His tender head impacts the floor but this time Ben fights to maintain his consciousness. He is eye level on the floor staring into Sara Lockett’s terrified face. A blast of feedback rattles from the speakers mounted around the hall. “At first light ….” The Sin Preacher speaks softly into her microphone. “The king came unto the lion’s den.” The riled up zombies cease their aggressions almost immediately upon hearing The Sin Preacher speak. “He called out Daniel has your God protected you from the lions this night?” The woman chuckles softly into the microphone. She spins about joyfully like an amused child. The Preacher raises her microphone flipping the switch once more. The church’s sound system plays Miriam’s recorded sermon for the undead masses. She takes several steps forward as the zombies around her wander back into the pews. “So Sara do you still fancy me fool?” She asks kneeling down getting in close to Ben and Sara. “You believe these poor folks to be dead to be … zombies.” She spits the word out with a sneer. “You couldn’t see the truth and for a while ......” The Sin Preacher looks around the room. “Neither could I. The Lord he opened my eyes as surely as he made the blind man see.” The Sin Preacher takes a few short steps over to a tall brutish zombie. The huge walking corpse is dressed in sand covered bloodied military fatigues. He is missing his right arm it looks to have been chewed off above the elbow. The Sin Preacher playfully runs her fingers through his spike salt and pepper hair. The zombie cast his dull gaze upon her like a dim witted dog. A spark of intelligence flickers across the dead man’s jellied eyes. “You girl you mocked me.” Pointing an accusing finger at Sara who lays trembling curled in a naked ball on the floor. “You were right to mock me young Sara. For I myself initially missed what God was trying to reveal to me.”
The Sin Preacher turns back to Ben and Sara. “One of my first encounters with the Unclean was right here in this sanctuary.” She waves a hand about causally talking. “One of our members was bitten when she came to us after The Event.” The Sin Preacher moves back to where Ben and Sara are cowering. “She succumbed to her injuries that day. So we lay her down here in the pulpit.” She motions over her shoulder at Jamal. “She lay right there where the heathen is chained to the floor.” Jamal moves slightly the steel chains locking each arm to the floor rattle. Ben feels helpless looking at a beaten Jamal laying in what appears to be the remains of a butcher gone mad. “When she was raptured her body was resurrected without her soul. I was preaching in the pulpit my flock deserted me they fled in every direction. So I kept preaching and as she drew nearer to me I could see a spark.” Miriam stops looking back out the high stain glass window. The Sun was preparing to relent to the moon for yet another night. “Her eyes weren’t just dull and lifeless. So I preached to her fed that need in her to be nurtured by the Word. When Brother Gustavo happened upon us. I had him restrain her until I could formulate a plan.” The Sin Preacher strolls slowly down the aisle. As she passes Jamal he pulls back from her like an animal in fear. She glides smoothly up the three short steps taking up position behind her white podium. “You see not all of the Unclean are truly soulless my friends.” She raises her voice over the playback hypnotically keeping the dead at rest. “I sent Brother Gustavo out to do my work so that I may do the Lord’s work. He gathered all of the Unclean who showed the spark of a soul from near and far. Then he brought them to me here to be ministered to …. To be shown the light so to speak.” She claps her hands together pressing them to her lips attempting in vain to suppress a smile. “When I speak it soothes their tormented souls. They listen to me, they hear me and they obey the sound of my voice.” The last part she pronounces with such self-righteous grandiosity Ben expects her to take a bow. “I protect them during the day when they are at their most venerable and they return the favor unto me at night.” The Sin Preacher scans the room looking out over her congregation with a certain sense of pride. She keeps the audio of her mock sermon just loud enough to be heard like background noise at a party. Downstairs is another matter entirely she has commanded the volume be raised nightly. This way it masks any wayward noise the congregation might make that would alert the flock. Her eyes sink to the naked olive skinned young man at bound in sacrifice before her. One last glance back at the fading sun and she knows it’s almost time.
“There is only one drawback tour little arraignment Mr. James. You will find out what this unfortunate drawback is like every other person in that room downstairs has.” She presses her glasses on her nose again. “My congregation can’t overcome the one major side effect of their current condition and that is the need to feed on warm human flesh.” She holds her index finger up as if she has just gotten an excellent idea. “They have to be fed like any good guard dog to ensure not only their obedience but that do not turn on their master. My flock who were with me before this all came about are exempt. However those folks like yourself Ben who have found themselves in need of shelter during this time of Tribulation. Well they my friend must choose from among themselves a sacrifice whose death will pay for their safety.” She turns her finger down at Jamal who begins to tug at his restraints. Ben leaps to his feet unsure of what to do next. “Now Ben before you act know this. This filthy heathen and that fatherless infant will pay for your family and the rest of your group’s passage here at First New Faith. Would you sacrifice them all for one who is ignorant to the ways of the Lord and a child who is granted automatic passage into the Kingdom of Heaven?” Ben’s words fail him as he looks at Jamal’s bruised body. He finds himself glaring at The Sin Preacher his eyes bubbling with hate. The Sun throws off its last light before sinking down below the horizon. As the sun fades he is drawn to the face of the zombie nearest him. It was his old buddy in the orange prison jumpsuit. The corpse’s molted sunken upturned face slowly comes to life. Its eyes loose much of the cloudy as an orange flecked glittery light seeps into them from the edges. The mouth which had hung open like a putrid fly trap turns into a bone chilling sneer. “Awwwwwww fuck yeah!” The dead man burst to life along with the rest of the congregation. He leaps for Ben cackling like a madman. “Stop Ian.” The Sin Preacher shouts from the behind the podium on the stage. “You will not harm these two do I make myself clear?” She tells the ghoul as the rest of the Unclean now mill about uncharacteristically repressing their murderous cannibalistic ways. “What why the fuck not?” The dead killer snarls moving in close enough to cause Ben’s bladder to go. “Ha he pissed himself.” The zombie missing an eye and most of the bone in the surrounding socket standing over Ian’s shoulder laughs. “Hobart shut the fuck up I want to hear why I can’t skin tinkles or this bitch on the floor here.” The Sin Preacher comes down from her perch undead part allowing her to pass. “Ian you and Hobart have served me well and you have helped me do the Lord’s bidding as he has instructed me.” She pats the dead convict on the shoulder. “These two are far too troublesome to allow refuge among us. So I am casting them out for they are non-believers who shall reap what they have sown. I want you and Hobart to provide them safe passage. Take them out into the wilderness leave them to wander as God did Moses and the children of Israel.” The Sin Preacher steps to Ian Lawson poking a finger into his chest. “My word is my Bond Ian and as so it cannot be broken. Ensure that no harm comes to them by your or Hobart’s hand I will reward you most handsomely my child.” Ian shoot a glance over at Hobart who simply hunches his shoulder. “How handsomely?” He asks running his dry discolored tongue over his jagged teeth. The Sin Preacher pulls Ian by the collar bringing his ear down mere inches from her lips. “In my office I have a plump innocent morsel that you may have for yourself. A baby Ian for you and you alone my most trusted disciple.” Ian Lawson rights himself lost in the Sin Preacher’s eyes. “Deal …..“ He says grinning.
“Mr. Lawson …. Mr. Hobart our guest if you please.” The Sin Preacher points to Ben and Sara as she heads back to the altar. The ghouls each grab a human Lawson grabs Ben roughly by his neck. Hobart is not as gentle “C’mon bitch” he blurts snatching Sara off the floor by her hair. Sara screams in agony as she is yanked to her feet and drug down the aisle. “We have two orders of business.” The Sin Preacher says walking ahead oblivious to the throng of dead on either side of her. Climbing up the small stage coming to rest behind her podium again. “First ….” She motions into the crowd. The Frankenstein like soldier plods up to join her. “Ma’am yes ma’am.” He calls out falling in a to a parade rest even with his missing limb. “Sargent Glass has been kind enough to supply us with a little information about our current situation and how we may better it.” Ben and Sara are dropped to their knees almost literally face to face with Jamal. The Sin Preacher looks to the soldier only to see rage building in his decaying face. “Sargent is there a problem?” She turns to the big zombie. “Yes Ma’am this coward left me to die!” Sargent Glass advances pointing down at Private Lockett. Sara reels back “Staff Sargent?!” She utters in disbelief. “Do tell Sargent?” The Sin Preacher says a look of concern etched upon her face. The angry zombie closes the distance hopping of the stage in two great strides. “Yeah it’s me you cowardly whore.” He says slapping Sara across the cheek so hard she rolls over into crowd of zombies. “You and your unit hauled ass out of there without looking back.” He shouts standing over as Hobart giggles jumping around like an evil sidekick. “You left us to die we were slaughtered.” He unsheathed a sinister looking combat knife with his remaining hand. “Now Sargent I can see you were wronged ….” The Sin Preacher speaks up. “But let’s not forget that vengeance is mine. I say you will have you vengeance my child but not here not now.” She says dismissively. Sargent Glass looks back at here then down again at Sara as if he was torn by his choices. “You were delivered to us last night for a reason Sargent Come now Sargent tell us of this Operation Bullfrog.” The tension in the zombie’s muscles relax he snaps his combat blade back into its sheath. “Operation Bullfrog …. “ He calls out to the undead gathered around him. “It is a protocol the United States Government put into place during the Cold War.” He joins Miriam on the stage once more. “Operation Bullfrog has gone through many upgrades in the past fifty years. Its primary goal is to ensure that the U.S. Government could communicate in the event of a nuclear attack or any other event that would cause a total communication blackout.” Murmurs from the zombies begin to fill the room. The Sin Preacher raises her hands and they all fall silent at once. “The Bullfrog is a massive all terrain self-sustained mobile combat platform that has a sophisticated satellite array atop of it. Imagine a train comprised of tank like vehicles on steroids that don’t need a tracks. Now there are five Bullfrog units strategically placed across the country. Each one is designed to allow communications to leapfrog from across the country to coordinate any remaining assets in play. There is one not far from us and it was to serve as our forward base of operation from our post at St. George.” The Sin Preacher reaches up placing a hand on the dead man’s shoulder interrupting him. “Now my children the fun part. Each of these vehicles also acts as a pseudo ark of sorts. It ferries any survivors back to its base or burrow as the Sargent told me. These fortified bunkers can hold up to two thousand souls. We will commandeer this behemoth and ride it back down into its burrow delivering my vengeance …..“ “What does that have to do with us we don’t need shelter?” A woman missing most of her scalp call out. “Can you imagine any reason why the Government would want to coordinate its assets?” Glass responds “If they get their shit together it is us … our kind …. “ He pounds his broad chest “…..That they would seek to exterminate. We cannot allow this my brothers and sisters.” He says to the snarls and shouts of the zombies listening to him. “I will not allow this transgression against my people.” The Sin Preacher shouts raising up her hands. “We will take their sword and turn it on them. We will ride the beast down into its lair and bring my word unto the living masses. We will use our weapon to strike down each of its kin for none shall stop the Great Tribulation.” The Sin Preacher brings her voice down several octaves. She slaps the side of the podium with an open palm. “My children take solace for those who turn a deaf ear to me and the salvation I offer. Well they will most assuredly fill your bellies.” The decaying horde of zombies milling about raise their hands skyward falling to their knees.
The Sin Preacher looks out over the sea of hands watching as her new congregation pledge their devotion to her. The members of First New Faith Baptist church huddled below her in fear “were never this zealous.” She muses as her heart soars filled with a joy so fulfilling Miriam knows this is why she became a preacher. Well she actually became a preacher to piss off those who said she couldn’t mostly but this was a close second. “Now my children it is time it is time for you to take sacrament before you head out to minister my Gospel.” She steps around the podium making her way down to the last tiny stair. She positions herself directly behind Jamal. From here she can visibly see the young man trembling with dread. More importantly she could see Benjamin and Sara’s faces as they looked upon their friend. “Brother Lawson and Brother Hobart please ensure our guest of honor have a clear view of the sacrament.” Hobart wastes no time driving a knee into Sara’s back. The girl reels pitching forward as he throws his full weight on her back. He reaches down grabbing a hand full of her hair yanking her head. Sara cries out her eyes tearing from the pain. She can see the tears she has shed are nothing compared to the cascading stream of tears coating both Jamal’s cheeks. “Well ole Hoss …. “ Ian Lawson squats down next to Ben. “I aint gonna be all over eager like my friend here.” He cocks his head in Hobart’s general direction. “But know this my brother …. “ He comes in close and whispers in Ben’s ear. “If you so much as flinch or turn away at any point. I won’t keep my word my deep dark brother and when I get y’all out away from here. The things I’ll do to you will make you wish you were this camel jockey here.” Ben wretches feeling bile travel up from his stomach. “You understand me boy?” Ian Lawson asks. Ben can only nod his head as he begins to weep uncontrollably. He prays that the salty tears will obscure his vision.
The Sin Preacher steps down placing a hand on Jamal’s sweaty back. He is shivering so hard she feels as if she has her hand place on a large speaker. She closes her eyes throwing her head back raising her other hand in prayer. The living dead congregation do the same as well. “We take this living sacrament as a show our faith. A bond that shall not be broken as we seek to seize control this new world from the nonbelievers whose mere presence is an abomination before my God almighty. We spill this heathen’s blood as they did in the Old Testament oh Lord that you may see our willingness to slay your enemies.” The room goes quite the only sound is Miriam’s disembodied voice oozing from the PA system over head. “Amen …..” She says opening her eyes after a long pause. “Flesh of my Flesh …. “ She pronounces dipping her head down. She allows her hair to fall over and cover her face tightening her grip on Jamal’s shoulder. By the time Ben’s mind can process the image lain bare before him. The Sin Preacher has her mouth buried in the side of Jamal’s neck. He shakes trying to throw the woman off but to no avail. The Sin Preacher pulls away with a wad of flesh in her mouth. Jamal’s blood spurts out in thick rivulets covering Ben and Sara both. The Sin Preacher staggers backward vigorously masticating the meat in her mouth. She swallows hard her face a mask of pleasure as she wipes her chin dropping more blood on her once white robe. She comes to rest on the stairs of the stage panting like a satisfied whore. “Partake my children ….” With that the dam of savagery burst. The zombies tear at Jamal’s chained body in a frenzy of such ferocity it would make a great white shark jealous. Ben watches in horror as Jamal closes his eyes one last time. The young man vanishes under a pile of screeching zombies. They beset Jamal with teeth, hands and a ravenous sinister hunger. Ben watches the mass of bodies writhing on the floor. A rush of blood seeps from under the snarling zombies. The chewing starts causing Ben to vomit over the crowd of feasting ghouls. They begin to rip Jamal to pieces the whole macabre looks like a group of zombies wrestling in a pool of human viscera. Ben wants to recoil to look away in horror but he doesn’t. Not even when Jamal’s still warm blood washes over his knees flowing at like a small red tidal wave. He catches a glance at Sara as she is bathed in the same flow except she is laying flat on the floor. A female corpse falls inches from Ben she clutches a slab of raw meat hissing like badger. Suddenly Sargent Glass looms over the fallen zombie. He smashes a large black boot into the middle of her face the way one stomps out a cigarette butt. He twists his massive foot mashing down until the dead woman’s head resembles a pulped watermelon. He callously reaches down pulling the prized meat from her still twitching hands. The big dead soldier walks away chewing without looking back. “Brothers take our honored guest and cast them out of my congregation.” “Yes Ma’am …..“ Lawson hoots. “Remember let no harm come to them by your hands my brothers. For God had decreed that they be cast into the wilderness and left to their own devices like Lot.” Ben and Sara are drug from the rear door of the church into the humid night air. Overhead the dark black sky is awash with orange ribbons of light. In the distant thunder rumbles across the back hills of the farm country. Lightening flickers briefly illuminating heavy black rainclouds. Hobart and Lawson take a few seconds to stare in wonder at the orange lights before dragging their captives away in to the night. They make a pit stop at the carport behind the church before setting off into the night.
Looks like things have come to a fairly disturbing head within the walls of The First New Faith Baptist Church. The Sin Preacher has shown where her loyalties are. Other than Ben and Sara no one under her roof has any idea of the depths of her depravity. As for Ben and Sara they find themselves at the mercy of two psychotic zombies. What will happen next in The Living Dark Comeback the week of November 17th and find out.
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The Living Dark