Wow! It has been way too long since our last post! Well, we’re pretty sure that we’re not the only ones affected by the circumstances of the world. Speaking of the circumstances happening within the world … for some reason we thought about a story that we had written many, many years ago which ended up being published in Issue #3 of Encounters Magazine back in 2010. Encounters was a beautiful magazine – perfect bound, 8”x10”, and filled with well over 100 pages of speculative fiction short stories. Alas, Encounters no longer exists, having gone the way of so many print magazines. Since it has been so long since the story in question had seen the light of day and it may or may not look sideways at the apocalypse, we decided to share it with this post. We hope you enjoy!
Just the Good Ol' Boys
Michael hated this assignment. He hated the walking, but that limitation was part of the assignment. As well as dressing his best, but that he did not mind. Grousing as he walked, he stepped with precision in an attempt to keep the filth of the dirt road from marring the sheen of his black shoes. Every minute or so he ran his right hand over his suit jacket to shoo away potential wrinkles, his left hand gripping an attaché. Despite his professional attire, he refused to keep his hair short, his flaxen locks glowed from the noon sun while his ponytail reached the middle of his back.
The road snaked through the forest, wide enough to keep the treetops from forming a canopy, and led to a cabin as dirty as the road. Around the ramshackle structure lay accoutrements once meaningful, but now rusted and useless: a dilapidated push mower sans engine, a refrigerator with no door on the crusty hinges, a couch with springs poking from the seat like the hairs of a dying man’s head. Michael noticed a primer gray car as well, but cared very little if it worked or not. He had no affinity for vehicles either.
But there was one useful piece of furniture outside the cabin – a picnic table – and seated on its bench was a bald man, neck as thick as a leg, with muscular arms powering out of a sleeveless flannel shirt. Tattoos of religious symbols: crosses, stars (five-pointed, six-pointed, nine-pointed), an ichthys, a kalmia, an omkar, an ankh, a triskele, a menorah, a khanda, and other symbols of luck and blessing, covered his arms. This monster of a man was one of the individuals Michael needed to see.
Michael approached the picnic table, trying not to think about how crunching through the leaves and twigs scuffed his shoes. The man at the table stared at a little brown cup next to a large brown jug. The veins in his scalp seemed to push his forehead downward, a scowl that cut ravines into his face, ruddy from ire. Hand quivering, he reached for the cup and lifted it only a few inches. The trembling spread through his entire arm, the shaking forced him to yield and place the cup back on the picnic table. Michael wondered how an arm large enough to throw a person could not lift a tiny cup. Then the scowling hulk looked up. And smiled. “Never thought I’d be happy to see you, Michael. Looks like you can help me out here.”
“Greetings, Warren. Should we—” Michael cut himself short due to the shotgun pointing at him.
“Drink what’s in the cup,” Warren said, his voice deep and aggressive, his finger on the trigger.
Michael sighed and rolled his eyes. “Warren—”
“Oh, high and mighty Michael, you know I ain’t got no qualms ‘bout pullin’ the trigger. And it ain’t gonna be pleasant. Now drink.”
Sighing again, Michael placed his attaché on the table then ran both hands over his suit jacket. With great trepidation, he reached for the cup and brought it to his lips. Pausing, he inhaled, trying to determine the concoction. Alcohol wafted through his nostrils and he smiled, remembering the immaturity of the cabin’s inhabitants. Throwing his head back, he swallowed the liquid in one gulp. He wanted to die, even though that was an impossibility.
A conflagration exploded within him as his ivory wings burst from his back, tearing his suit jacket to shreds. The bind that held his ponytail snapped, his hair frizzing, struck by invisible lightning. Tears mixed with sweat as Michael fought with gravity to remain standing all the while screaming, “OH GOD!”
Warren howled with laughter. By the time he calmed himself Michael finished gesticulating. Stray feathers floated from his still twitching wings. His shirt and tie remained on his body, but sweat discolored the whiteness of his shirt. Still trying to catch his breath, he panted, “What … was … that?”
“Just a batch of moonshine we whipped up. Here, my turn,” Warren said as he handed the shotgun to Michael.
“What?” Michael asked.
“I ain’t gonna drink it unless I gotta. And what’s in that gun is special. Can hurt angels like you and creatures like me. Now point it at me!”
Raising the gun at Warren, Michael contemplated pulling the trigger no matter what happened. But the large man poured a splash of moonshine from the jug into the cup and slugged it back. He clenched his meaty fists and held his breath, his skin reddening past the point of burgundy. Veins rippled their way across his muscles. Even his tattoos looked ready to peel from his skin. With one eruption of fury, Warren let loose a roar that rumbled the ground and shook the forest. Branches and leaves rained about the cabin.
Panting, Warren wiped away a tear and laughed. “Now, that’s some good stuff! Roscoe sure knows what he’s doin’!”
As if scripted, the cabin door opened and two scruffy men meandered out, hooting and cheering. One man, sickly and gaunt except for a bulbous bulge from his midsection that looked more like a boil ready for popping than a belly, sidled up to the picnic table and plopped down next to Warren. “Good stuff in there, yeah?”
“Damn, Roscoe!” Warren yelled, still chuckling. “You sure got a way with the hooch!”
“Second favorite thing I invented. After these bad boys, of course,” Roscoe cackled, pointing to his trucker cap that displayed a logo of a cigarette company, and tugged at his ratty tee shirt, adorned by an advertisement for another cigarette company. His teeth yellow and brown, his gums blood red with hints of pus.
Michael grimaced at the man’s visage and sat down on the picnic table’s other bench. Fetching his attaché, he procured a pencil and notepad from it. Old fashioned, but he felt more comfortable with these means than any other technology throughout the years. “Sure are proud of yourself, Roscoe.”
“Ehhhh. Those ain’t the true disease, though.”
“No?” Michael asked.
“Neh. The pestilence is from within. In a man’s heart, his soul. Make him do all kiiiiiiiiiiiinds of crazy things.”
“You had nothing to do with that?”
“Nope. Most I can do is toss a couple germs about. Science kills half and ‘education’ prevents the spread of the other half.”
“So, what about the pestilence from within?”
“That? That’s what man is born with, Michael. Addiction. They all got it. A few can control it. But they allllllllllllllll got it!” Roscoe cackled again. “The best part is if they ain’t addicted to what I got, then they addicted to what Enos got!”
Michael frowned. He turned to Enos and did a double take. Every one hundred years Michael performed this visit and took notes from these interviews. When the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Enos was the skinniest of the bunch, but now … “Enos? You’re … you’re … fat?”
Sitting on the couch, bowing it in center from the prodigious girth, Enos smiled. His thick lips were shimmering from the grease of the fast-food burgers piled on the plate he held. The stained tee shirt, advertising the very burgers he ate, did nothing to stop his imperialistic belly from hiding his lap. Ham hands and sausage fingers picked a burger from the pile and he unwrapped it. His chuckle resembled a gurgle as he said, “Yep.”
“But … but … you’re … you…”
“Ain’t like the ol’ days, Michael,” Enos said in between bites of his burger. “New kinda famine.”
“How? You’re … I’m sorry, Enos, but you’re the opposite of ‘famine’ now.”
“Just ‘cause I’s fat? You thinkin’ too old, Michael.”
Michael slapped his pencil down from frustration. He crossed his arms and frowned. Even his wings angled forward. “Oh, this has to be good. Please enlighten me.”
“Famine don’t mean ‘no food’ no more. It mean ‘no nourishment.’ It mean ‘always hungry,’ Michael.”
Michael leaned forward a bit, now interested in what the obese man had to say. “Go on.”
Enos slurped the grease from his fingers and grabbed another burger from the pile. Holding it in his bloated palm, he showed it to Michael. “This ain’t go no nutrition. Got nuthin’ good for the body. No vitamins. Processed wheat, processed meat. Man killed whatever was good in the pieces parts to make these here burgers. You eat these and you belly fill. But you body starvin’!”
His brows knitting, Michael leaned back. “Now wait a minute, Enos—”
“And then you belly never full! You eat these, and you never satisfied. You eat more, ‘cause you need more.”
Roscoe cackled again. “Ain’t that a hoot, Michael? In the old days, man was scared that one of us would come along and then be followed by the other one of us. We thought that too! But man, he’s combined us! He now got an addiction to neeeeeeeever being satisfied.”
“Man outsmart ol’ Enos. I always thought to take food from man. Ha! To make man hunger, I shoulda give him more food!”
“Don’t you know it!” Roscoe howled. “Mosta the diseases man gets, he gets from food – ‘cause he wants mooooooooooore food and he tries to grow in places it shouldn’t! Swine Flu! Mad Cow! Great stuff!”
Michael stared, trying to take in what he just heard. “You two are trying to tell me you had nothing to do with that?”
“Nope,” Roscoe and Enos said in unison.
Skeptical, Michael continued with his interview, and asked Warren. “How about you? Those tattoos are new. Religious symbols? Doesn’t seem your style?”
Warren grinned and leaned back, crossing his arms in front of his chest, flexing to show off the topic of conversation. “Yeah? Why not?”
Michael snorted and shook his head, amazed at the gall. “Well … how about most of them promote peace?”
Warren laughed, shaking the whole picnic table. “They can promote all they want, but the only thing they’re good for is what I promote. I’m their biggest fan.”
“Frighteningly accurate? Think about it. Name one recent war that wasn’t about religion?”
“That’s ridiculous. Just recently—”
“It’s not about territory or freedom or resources like the old days. Just recently the good ol’ U. S. of A. went over to the Middle East. And ‘won.’ Did they take territory? No. They didn’t even take the resources that they said they were gonna take.”
Michael frowned. “Are you saying that you had nothing to do with any of these recent wars?”
Warren laughed again. “I love startin’ me a good war. I really do, but I never thought to start one by sayin’, ‘My peace lovin’ god is better than your peace lovin’ god.’ That’s just brilliant!”
“I’m not buying any of this from you three. Where’s Dean?”
On cue, the cabin door opened again, giving way to a thin, pale figure wearing a faded overalls over a faded tee shirt and a faded trucker cap. “Hey, Michael.”
“Dean,” Michael moaned his salutation.
Dean strode from the door, carrying a six-pack of beer. He moved like a ghost through a graveyard on his way to the picnic table and tossed a can to each of his friends. With one final saunter he sat directly across from Michael. “What are you doing here Michael?”
“The same thing I do every one hundred years. I’m sent to check up on you four. Make sure you’re behaving yourselves until the appropriate time.”
Dean sipped his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “We been. Nuthin’ more wild than making moonshine.”
“I don’t believe you, Dean. Especially with your likes. Both Heaven and Hell have been getting more souls the past hundred years.”
A raspy chuckle. A sip of beer. “The average life span of man increased by more than a decade between the turn of last century and the turn of this century. Technologies have been growing by leaps and bounds. Longer lives. Greater prosperity. More and more people on this planet means more and more souls. More lives means more deaths.”
“Michael, Michael, Michael. Man is very convenient. The four of us were chompin’ at the bit the moment these monkeys became ‘man’ to get a piece of them. To inflict our ways on them. Little did we know all we hadda do was be patient. They say they fear us, but their actions say they love us!”
“I don’t believe this.”
Another swig of beer. “Look around, Michael. Do you see the steeds?”
Not noticing until now, Michael took a moment to peek around. No steeds. Setting his jaw firm, he looked back to Dean. “No.”
“Don’t you find it odd that the Four Horseman don’t have horses?”
Wings twitching, Michael steeled his gaze at Dean.
Dean continued, “We let them go. We hadn’t needed them for ‘bout fifty years now. We fire up that car now and again to go to town for supplies. That’s it. We’re just good ol’ boys now. You can protect man from us, Michael, but you can’t protect man from man.”
Frustrated, Michael slouched and ran his hands through his hair, searching for answers. Realizing one thing, he sat back up and sighed. “Well, there’s still one saving grace.”
Dean smirked, taking a slow drag from his beer while glancing at his comrades. Turning back to Michael, he asked, “What’s that?”
“The mark of the Beast.”
Chuckling, Dean replied, “Come again?”
“The End of Days. There will be no End of Days until the Mark of the Beast is on everything.”
Laughing, Dean turned his beer can to show Michael the bar code. Warren, Roscoe and Enos followed suit, displaying the bar codes.
Jaw dropped, Michael could only whisper, “The Mark of the Beast?”
Dean answered, “Ain’t many products left without it. How long before man puts it on himself?”
“No,” Michael mumbled, dejected. Even his wings sagged. “It’s not time for the Apocalypse to come.”
“The Apocalypse ain’t comin’, Michael.” Dean’s voice hollowed, an icy breeze across a tombstone. “It’s already here.”
Michael sat for minutes, unable to move, processing all he had heard. Finally he sat straight, fluttered his wings, and ran his hands over his shirt in an attempt to smooth the wrinkles. Once satisfied, he reached for the jug, filled the cup and threw back a swig….