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William White-acre

Copyright 2017 by William White-acre

Smashwords Edition

*other books by the author:

Surrounded By Mythology

I, The Hero

True For X

Forgotten Faces

A Rush Of Silence

Memory 2.0

Table Of Contents

Chapter 1 Before The Ending

Chapter 2 Unto Him

Chapter 3 When The Walls Came Crumbling Down

Chapter 4 Spiritual Flames

Chapter 5 God's Custodians

Chapter 6 Found But Lost

Chapter 7 Turn Turn Turn

Chapter 8 Behold Elysium

Chapter 9 Listen To John

And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.

Matthew 11:12

Chapter 1 Before The Ending

The Hawkins were a three member family, with the only child being a son. A daughter had died. Stillbirth, leaving the mother, Deborah, to mourn alone. Micah, her husband, had moved on from the tiny tragedy, choosing to accept God's will. Death, as in life, was preordained, one more minuscule piece in the puzzle that was the Lord's plan. Grief was, ultimately, unproductive. While his wife grieved, he took quiet solace in the words of the Bible.

As if in reward for his implacable stoicism, Ben, the son, had been born a full decade later after a difficult delivery, bearing out Genesis 3:16: I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing, a pain you shall bring forth children. At last joy returned to Deborah's heart, as she clutched her new born son to her chest, returning the mid-wife's smile, who now knew unfathomable relief after the harrowing childbirth. God had blessed them, Micah and Deborah. Their prayers were answered. They had not been forsaken.

Ben grew into a tall young man, with his father's blue eyes and sturdy shoulders. He had also been bequeathed the gift from God, an ability he was to share with the flock because he too had the calling. Religious succession ran in the family, with Grandfather Hawkins having also been a man of the Word. Their congregation had been formed almost a hundred years ago, founded by disillusioned parishioners from several Protestant denominations centered around a small town outside of Oklahoma City.

The more mainstream religions, Methodist, Baptist, and the like, had been abandoned so as to further embrace the dictates of the Bible, establishing a closer connection to Jesus through a Pentecostal interpretation of scripture. "The Methodist are too sterile with the Lord and the Baptist too contradictory," Micah Hawkins was fond of stating, always with a gleam in his eye, like he knew something you didn't. As far as he was concerned, he did. He was a man of the cloth, as they liked to say, but he was a humble servant of God, a man who understood the import of his conversations with the Holy Spirit.

He came from Sooner stock, people who sought out a living on barren soil, throwing caution to the wind, with only their indomitable faith in Jesus and a strong back. Holding firm to the Bible kept them from perishing under the strain of a hardscrabble life where the fierce winds might blow you clear away, scattering your ashes to all corners of the country. It was an existence that challenged you each and every day, bringing your will to a low ebb. Scripture was like an anchor, something that served as their roots in order to dig down deep, deeper, so they wouldn't succumb to the hardship.

Even through the Dust Bowl days, when it seemed as if the Lord was punishing them all for sinful transgressions of every description, they held on to their faith. In a tiny church, no more than a shack really, they listened to Grandfather Hawkins expound on the gravity of the trespasses each one of them had committed. God was angry. The very land was drying up and flying away, leaving behind a frightening subsistence. Then came the plague of grasshoppers, visiting upon them Old Testament horrors. An infestation of spiders followed that and still they clung to their faith.

A once fertile land had been decimated, shorn of all sustenance. Farmers could till no land. Howling winds and blinding sand storms buffeted the region, carrying away more and more topsoil. An ecological nightmare had been visited upon them. People fled anyway they could, riding dying horses off into the horizon, hoping the beast would make it far enough away that they would never have to ever again see nature's apocalyptic mayhem they had left in their wake.

The ones who stayed behind hunkered down, praying for one more day of food and then another. Towns disappeared, buried under insidious dirt, covering up corpses, wasted bodies unable to endure. Grandfather Hawkins, with his congregation having dwindled down to only a dozen or so true believers, finally made a decision. After a marathon of praying, indulging himself in numerous Old and New Testament passages, searching for guidance, he opted to leave.

Like a Captain abandoning ship, he felt the full weight of his decision. Others would be left behind to fend for themselves without his link to the Lord. "My conscience is heavy," he would tell them that last Sunday, looking out into the tiny church, where the congregation coughed and sputtered from the omniscient dust. How many will die? he pondered, as he talked of the writings of Paul and how in times of travail one must maintain their faith. They were all being tested by the Lord, he assured them and would be the recipient of His reward.

Even though it was little solace at the time and didn't ring true, the parishioners clung to the belief that, in due time, they would come out the other side. Sin would be extinguished. God...Jesus would save them.

Grandfather Hawkins packed up his Ford truck and with his fearful wife and two young sons, drove west, away from the sun that was trying to pierce the clouded sky. The dust storm made it seem like night, even though it was just past noon. He drove on, blinded by the swirling dirt, creeping along the unpaved road, hoping they wouldn't fall off the end of the earth. His worried wife wondered aloud about their future, trying to suppress her mounting consternation. "We will know when to stop when we get there," he answered her, forcing a smile, patting the Bible that lay on the seat between them. The plan took them as far as eastern Arizona, where they stopped in a small farming town that had been settled by Mormons in the previous century.

O God thou art my God I seek thee,

my soul thirsts for thee;

my flesh faints for thee,

as in a dry and weary land where no water is.

Psalms 63:1

The Old Testament passage marked their new beginning, a place to raise the family. It would not come easy. Biblical infighting marred their fresh start, with a complicated and uneasy truce existing between the rival religious entities of the area. Distrust amongst the Mormons and the more established Christian religions festered, further exacerbated by the divisions already present between the Catholics and the mainstream Protestant denominations.

Differences were usually put aside in order to compete against nature, which could be, at times, hostile to their pursuits. Life giving rain could be sparse and they still had to withstand the omnipresent wind, which swept across the terrain unencumbered by any mountains. Yet they clung to the land, living from respite to respite, provided by a fickle weather pattern that gave them just enough to stay ahead of the next calamity.

Strong wills grew out there just beyond the Indian land, bolstered by hard work and indomitable beliefs. It hadn't been that long ago that the native population had been herded westward, forced to live cloistered on their reservations, leaving behind lingering resentment and simmering hatred. Battles and skirmishes between the warring parties had flared for decades, instilling in their shared psyches a witches brew of uneasiness. The Whites took to the land, bolstered by their religion, using it to lay psychological breastworks for the community's collective safe keeping.

Micah, the second of two sons, soon adopted his new homeland, forgetting the despoiled prairie land of his youth back in Oklahoma. Arizona brought him fresh adventures as a young boy, where he hunted in the White Mountains for deer and elk, and learned to appreciate the Lord's handiwork, spending more and more of his time out of doors in the wilderness. Then came 1941.

He had been slated to be a farmer, tilling the land that his father had purchased adjacent to his church, The Church of the Apostles. The ongoing family argument had been centered around his continuance of the family lineage, forwarding the Word at the pulpit. It had never been fully discussed, only assumed. Micah would follow his father's example, devoting himself to doing God's work. The gift was hereditary. The Hawkins men had been chosen.

The World War encroached on that plan, leaving Micah with a different pathway. Patriotism had taken root in the country after the attack on Pearl Harbor. There was no question that he would sign up, enlist in the Armed Forces and go fight in the war that had been raging for several years. Except that his father showed no ambivalence about this turn of events. Grandfather Hawkins placed the Bible before national duty. God had not sanctioned any such action. Wanton killing had been decreed by the State, not the Lord.

"But father, the Japs attacked us...I have to go and fight," Micah declared, his face flush with anger at his father's intransigence, unable to understand why he didn't share in his sense of patriotism.

"Matthew 5:44 says: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you," his father stated, holding both of his hands before him in the pose he used every Sunday on the pulpit.

Micah hated when his father invoked the Bible, mostly because he knew that his father could outwit him easily by utilizing tracts from the scriptures. He was at a distinct disadvantage simply for the reason that he knew only a fraction of the Bible that his father did. There was always a certain finality to the spoken word as well, not unlike a hammer being slammed against an anvil.

Drawing on what he knew of the New Testament, Micah countered: It says in Mark 13: When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed, this must take place, but the end is still to come."

Biblical tug of wars were never productive, especially between a father and son. As before in history, religion had been co-opted, molded, fashioned into a springboard for battle. Grandfather Hawkins sensed this, knew that his son would leave, march off to war. Jesus had known it was inevitable. Young men fulfilled prophesy, "bringing evil unto the land" as he liked to say. Darkness was as much a part of creation as daylight.

Micah became a Marine, destined for the select barbarity of the Pacific war theatre. The Japanese fought a hellish, scorched earth campaign. From island to island the war coursed, inflicting death, until an unholy stench rose up over the ocean. Through it all Micah forged ahead, mentally cataloguing the deaths of his friends as they fell by his side.

And then the war was over, extinguished by two dropped bombs of unimaginable dimensions. The aftermath shook Micah to his core, leaving him adrift, grasping at his religion that seemed to be in tatters. He had lived within the confines of the Old Testament dictates and was now clinging to the New Testament for some sort of deliverance, something that would allow him to accept his role in the slow motion horror that he had just participated in. And he was one of the fortunate ones, able to return physically intact.

He was still a young man but with memories that scored the inside of his brain, leaving scars that may never heal. A sense of world weariness followed him back home. Micah had "sown death," as his father labeled it to his wife, fearing that God would extract vengeance in due time. Even though his son possessed a drawer full of medals bestowed on him by the US military, Grandfather Hawkins heard Exodus 22: 21 echoing in his ears: You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him.

The transition from war weighed on Micah, as he rejoined his brother on the ranch. He had lost four years of his life. The Germans, and then the Japanese, had been defeated, sparing the world from fascism. Peace had to be instituted, leaving behind the art of war, where extinguishing life was the object. Although he had been wounded, and recovered physically, his soul had been bruised, abraded by bullets and bombs.

It was hoped that he would join his father at the pulpit. His older brother had chosen not to take up the cloth, deeming himself unworthy of the Word, bequeathing the mantel to his younger brother, Micah. Grandfather Hawkins lobbied hard, directing his youngest son to pray for guidance. "Jesus will come to you," he assured his son confidently.

And it came, his guidance. One cold morning in January, as he was providing hay for the cattle in the fallow pasture, Micah felt a warm breeze on his face. Startled, he looked around, surprised, wondering where the warmth was coming from. Then, as he would later tell his family, he knew.

Like his father, he would be self-taught. A divinity education was irrelevant. The Holy Spirit had chosen him. Grandfather Hawkins recited Second Timothy 3:16: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for instruction in righteousness." It was as simple as that.

His apprenticeship began almost immediately, with him studying nightly with his father. "Like a Bible boot camp," Micah would say to his brother, as they lay in their beds reliving the activities of the day. Grandfather Hawkins was a taskmaster when it came to the dissemination of the Word. Sin had to be elucidated, and combated. The answers were in the books of the Bible. "You must be able to interpret, Micah," he would declare in a stern but understanding voice.

"But Matthew 18:8 says: If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off," Micah countered, confused by the cruel finality of the written Word. "How are we to interpret that?"

There were many bridges for him to cross before he could digest the import of the Bible. Grandfather Hawkins led Micah, patiently providing commentary when needed, nudging his son in the right direction so he could grab a piece of divinity. Mosaic law evolved into the strictures of the Gospels, establishing a foundation for him to carry the load a minister had to shoulder in order to impart Jesus' message.

Micah, on his part, was a natural preacher, able to cross the divide from ordinary citizen, and sinner, to scriptural wisdom. The congregation grew as his reputation began to take hold in the area. Word of a new, young man with a charismatic personality percolated, reaching as far as Phoenix. His sermons took on more and more importance as Grandfather Hawkins relinquished his duties, bowing to his son's prowess up on the pulpit.

Friction was minimal though. It was the natural order of things. Another disciple was taking up the reins. The Lord would continue to be served. Grandfather Hawkins lent a hand when needed, while his son honed his skills. Before long, as Micah's fame as a homespun Reverend reached further and further, tapes of his sermons began to be circulated. "We live in a land without the concept of luck, because chance doesn't exist in our Christian world, where God's intentions are a blueprint," he would preach, drawing nods from the congregation, people who were intimately familiar with capricious nature. "You, my people, are redolent of fear," he would gently chastise them. "I say unto you, let Jesus absorb that fear...replacing it with the joy of his love."

Grandfather Hawkins died a peaceful death, slipping away during the night. His generation had known the travails of the Great Depression, where man and nature combined to "render the land inhospitable," so he would declare from the pulpit. He had been a devout Democrat for most of his life, locked into a vigil against the powers that be who populated the Republican Party and were determined to keep "the common man in their place." FDR was the standard bearer for his kind, a man who saw the divide that existed in the country. As a result, the Democrats controlled the country for a generation, continually beating back the "venal vipers" at the door.

That sentiment changed later in his life, as he embraced the Republicans because he believed that they took the Word of God into account when they governed. The Democrats had become godless, beholden to the secular times. It was a sea change in his personal philosophy, one that he inculcated seamlessly into his homilies on Sunday, bringing his congregation along with him. At long last religion and politics didn't have to be separate. "Caesar is not our God!" he would thunder from the pulpit, as he pounded his fist on the lectern, frightening the children sitting with their parents in the front pews.

Legions of Christians had crossed over around the same point in time, leaving behind their former convictions, shedding them like soiled garments. God would no longer reside outside the State. The United States of America was destined to be a nation of believers again, absorbing the inerrant Word of the Bible so as to lay the foundation for His return. There would be a new covenant, one that would prepare the people.

"In the beginning was the Word, so says John 1:1," Grandfather Hawkins intoned, clutching a well worn leather Bible in one hand, as he raised it over his head. Although he was only of middle stature, with a wiry frame, his voice cascaded off the walls of the small church, leaving all sinners to quake in their pews. "And the Lord said to me, 'Arise, go on your journey,' so be it." His wife muttered under her breath, "Deuteronomy 10:11," as if she needed to be reassured, convinced that what they were doing was right, leaving all of their friends behind.

That was all part of the Hawkins family history, like pioneers looking back on their fateful decision to leave and come West. It defined them as a group as much as their faith. The Lord had brought them to Arizona, a desert land, where they could be a part of His creation. Micah would joke: "It is like having foreknowledge of the preordained." His mild blasphemy would incite nervous giggles among the family, confident of their standing in the Holy order.

Yet there was little or no smugness in the family of self taught pastors, an informal guild of Bible interpreters. Grandfather Hawkins, Micah, and Ben had been selected. In Hebrews 2:9, the New Testament spoke of Jesus' ultimate sacrifice, of how he had tasted death for every man. The Hawkins men were the vanguard from the Holy Spirit, where Timothy 2:2 prevailed: I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.

The Hawkins women were obedient. Micah, after returning from the war, met his future wife at a Sunday sermon. Deborah, five years his junior, was visiting from another congregation in Colorado, traveling with her minister father. She would often tell the story of her first encounter with Micah, who, as fate would have it, was just beginning his ministry. "I was spellbound by his voice," she would go on to say, smiling sheepishly even years later at the memory. "The Bible came alive when he preached," she added, echoing the comments of so many other people who heard him on Sundays.

They were married not a month later, after a world wind courtship, a match made by God, so said their respective fathers. Deborah would serve as his confessor, and silent therapist, able to guide him back when the nightmares of war invaded his sleep. Theirs was a good, solid union, made whole by scripture and the pursuit of God's work.

Ben, the only child, would be born at the tail end of the giant baby boomer surge, coming into the world in 1963. He would be a large baby, with his mother's aquiline nose. The groundwork had already been laid out for him. Micah, now in his forties, was a well known pastor, with a congregation that stretched all the way to Phoenix. His father's voice could be heard on radio and he was often on several TV shows that popped up on the far reaches of cable TV. Destiny had never been so designed before.

There had been rumblings about sending Ben to divinity school when he reached eighteen, breaking the Hawkins mold of autodidactic men of the cloth. In many ways, as their family tradition dictated, finding Jesus didn't come in the class room. You, as an individual, were called to the pulpit. Religious academia was counterproductive. Scripture couldn't be spoon fed. In the end, Grandfather Hawkins and Micah decided to uphold their tradition and Ben entered into an apprenticeship just as his father had done.

They flourished. Their congregation grew and a new church was built, one that housed hundreds of worshippers. Along side the church a compound was erected, housing the Hawkins clan. In time, Ben married Leah and added several children to their number. The new millennium brought their last child, the only son. After the birth of three daughters, they were joyous. Ben and Leah had delivered the next generation of the Hawkins ministry.

He was named Isaac and he was his father's son, tall, slender, with those distinctive pellucid blue eyes. The line of succession was strong. Grandfather Hawkins had left his mark, his legacy. Micah, Ben, and on through Isaac the Holy Spirit would have a representative on earth. As the end times drew near, they were prepared.

Chapter 2 Unto Him

Isaac proved to be different, "not cut from the same cloth," as his mother was fond of saying. Perhaps it was the times, or, more likely, the usual mutation of an evolving gene. Micah and Deborah's prodigal grandson somehow didn't share in their pursuit of the Lord's work. He had been born at the dawn of a new Millennium and the next thousand years stretched out before him like a beckoning siren. Modernity's tech world took precedence.

"Where there is no vision, the people perish," Isaac liked to taunt his parents, chuckling, enjoying his youthful disobedience. "Check it out, Proverbs 29:18. It's in the Bible."

"He will grow out of this youthful disobedience," Micah assured his son, Ben, adding, "Soon Isaac will be called."

Yet, as time went by, Isaac proved to be recalcitrant. "Teenage rebellion," his mother muttered, as she listened to her son decry what was the family business, ashamed by his mild blasphemy.

"The more you know, the more complicated it is," Isaac informed his mother, not wanting to encroach on her sense of spiritual well being. "And that makes the ambiguities of faith worse," he stated, filching an idea from a writer he had read on the internet, at a site no one in his family would approve of. He was born into an information age, one where he had access to thousands and thousands of tracts about anything and everything. His travels on line had brought him an avenue of discovery that his parents had never encountered. They were a product of an insular family structure, one where their roles were well defined and contained. His life didn't need or desire pious validation.

"I think maybe Proverbs 23:14 might have been helpful back before," Micah suggested lightheartedly to Ben, as they both recited in unison: "Thou shalt beat him with the rod and shalt deliver his soul from hell." They shared a laugh, a closed ended joke tucked away within the boundaries of Biblical reference. That time had passed. Isaac was now a twenty-three year old man, with a stint in the military behind him. He was now trying to transition to the next level in his life, hoping to find some definitive direction.

Like his grandfather, he had served in the Marines, doing more than one tour of duty overseas in yet another international skirmish without any proposed parameters. The War was a perpetual exercise in geo-political leveraging, keeping the nation battle ready. Even though the treasury had long since been exhausted, leaving the country's economic stature sapped and continually on the brink of collapse, the campaigns continued. Isaac had served his time, honing his skills, able to escape the madness physically unscathed as grandfather Micah had done.

It was during this stretch of his life that he turned inward, assembling psychological walls to keep the mental realization out, the face to face reality that he was conducting grudge matches against the next amorphous foe. As the bombs went off and the rifle fire resounded in his ears, Isaac began to see that his religion failed to appease the voices that screamed in his head. Each new day brought more of the same, a grinding pursuit of shadows.

His squad leader was a jocular twenty-five year old, who had seen more than his share of conflict around the world and had a uncanny ability to distill life down into a well blended concoction of sarcasm and droll commentary. Life, for him, had become nothing but revolving way stations, places for him to enact carnage to advance a position. "Life is an accidental adventure!" he would invariably shout, as they were called into another dangerous life threatening predicament. "Let's bring peace to these mutterfuckers with a smile!"

The countries changed, along with the villains, each tagged with a derogatory name plate, something to dehumanize the people shooting back at you. Humans were, after you scraped away all the history and applied civilization, mostly tribal by nature. Each locality on the map presented just another friction point, where the power brokers saw a need to relieve the pressure. Man's expanding intelligence had been retarded by an insidious misunderstanding. Simple fear had metastasized and formed into a mutual warping of any shared intent, leaving behind brutal reactions to any perceived divergent views.

Isaac, about six months in, realized the culprits in the deadly drama shared one thing in common and that was a maniacal pursuit of spiritual explanation. Religion, he told himself, was at the root of so much destruction. "It is nothing but an absurd circularity," he told his squad leader one day, as they sat behind the Hescos, a line of sand filled bags arranged for protection, listening to the ordinance being lobbed their way explode nearby.

The squad leader scratched at the two inch scar on his right cheek, a souvenir from another tour of duty in a dusty region he couldn't even pronounce and replied, "What, are you a fucking philosopher now?" They laughed, sharing in that bond young men have who are locked into battle and know that death is less than a fifty/fifty proposition.

Perhaps his parents should have gotten an inkling of their son's slow transformation by the emails he dashed off, arriving in their in-boxes sporadically, each one more disconnected than the last. At first, when Isaac had first arrived in country, and his fatigues were still unsoiled by sweat and blood, he wrote about his duty and how happy he was to be doing something for his country. As with Micah, his parents had been against him enlisting, choosing to believe that his rightful place for home and country was with the Lord. The Hawkins would uphold the bargain they had made with Jesus and bring scripture to light.

It wasn't a month later when they got a video call and got a glimpse of their son they became worried. His haggard face loomed on the LCD screen. His eyes seemed lifeless, as Isaac seemed to stare through them, offering enough of a foreshadowing to see that his mind had been tipped, leading him astray. He said in a monotone, weary voice: "Irony is a concept I am well aware of. Our living over here represents that. We all live in hell. Our daily lives are nothing but survival, as if we have descended into the netherworld. Unquenchable fire, per Matthew 18:8. Who will save our souls?"

A chill went up his mother's spine. Ben told his son to pray, suggesting a few stray passages from the Gospels to heal his mounting disillusionment. Isaac seemed oblivious while his mother fought back tears. "Oh Isaac, our prayers are with you...and your fellow Marines," she told him, as she ran her finger along the screen, tracing her son's face.

The War on Terror had morphed into a revolving ethos, one where the nation sent a small percentage of its population off to foreign lands to prevent the next homeland attack. Each enemy was succeeded by another. Lives were lost, while hundreds then thousands returned home broken and then put back together by modern medicine, where technological advancement kept the human body functioning like mended tinker toys. Artificial limbs and space age grafted skin became common place as the doctors reassembled torn and shredded body parts, making science fiction as important on the battle field as an assault rifle.

Isaac saw it up close. Dying men cried out to their gods, hoping for last minute redemption. He would go on to see five of his friends perish, as the persistent war claimed more and more lives. Yet the bloodlust of the nation wasn't appeased. Organized violence had become ingrained in the national psyche, where the populace expected results and used Biblical tracts as justification for their group think. Blunting the terrorists' resolve had become interwoven with wholesale politics, and politicians inculcated a suitable message in turn.

The citizens, over ninety-nine percent, were never exposed to the scale of reduced turpitude, leaving the small, tiny percentage to wage the battles. Participation had been privatized, incorporated. Treasury had been siphoned off, skimmed by the corporations in order to keep the war machines operational. Butter and guns had become indistinguishable, leaving the economy sputtering along, valiantly trying not to sink under its own weight.

Economists groaned, while they complained about dissected economic models and predicted gloom, accompanied by scientists who harped about ecological ruin. Still, the nation chugged along, one step ahead of the omnipresent scythe swooping over everyone. Two Decades passed. The historical record was constantly being updated, overridden by ideology of whatever stripe was pulling the strings at the time.

Leaders came and went, leaving in their wake broken promises and forgotten plans. The people lurched from belief to faith, and back again. Creeds were fragmented, fractured by competing philosophies and slippery punditry. Money flowed to the next solution, lapping over the edge of reason in a quest to offer deliverance. America's vaunted Constitution was disemboweled in route to another promise land.

Isaac saw all of this unfolding from his perch on the perimeter of madness, a precipice really, one step away from oblivion. More and more of his superiors were becoming disgruntled, letting morale deteriorate more and more. Motivation was scarce, as camaraderie dwindled and marine on marine conflict increased. The enemy had become a shadow concept and they couldn't be assured who it really was.

During his last week, when his tour was rapidly winding down, he had a strange encounter with a Captain. The man was standing outside a village, one they had conquered the day before, wresting it away from mountain tribesmen who had controlled it for hundreds of years. An airstrike had leveled most of the stone hovels, leaving behind rubble decorated with crimson blood stains. A donkey lay half dying a few yards away, snuffling, trying to bray in pain. Black smoke still rose all around them and the smell of burning flesh stung the air.

"Corporal," the Captain asked over his shoulder, "did you do a count?"

Isaac scanned the desolation in front of them, then replied, "Does it matter?"

The Captain turned to face him and said: "Don't count the's still alive."

This was what passed as macabre humor after a year of combat, days, weeks, and months of concentrated intent. Isaac smiled briefly and mumbled, "Let me fix that." He leveled his assault rifle at the dying animal and fired off a round, placing the bullet right in the donkey's head. As the report of the rifle slipped away on the breeze, a pressing silence seeped in. Isaac could hear himself breathing. Then the quiet was pierced by squawking on a nearby radio receiver.

"Another job well done," the Captain stated, shielding his eyes against the setting sun.

Isaac then went on to canvas the village, knowing there wouldn't be anyone alive. "And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors," he whispered, remembering a passage from Deuteronomy, because for him viewing life was always punctuated by a biblical veneer after a childhood among several generations of preachers. Yet, ultimately, war, for him, had been distilled into grisly arithmetic where subtraction was paramount. His comrades in arms thought in terms of: One less. The equal sign always had to precede a declining number. The dynamics of war were simplistic. "Addition by subtraction," so said his Gunnery Sergeant, a man who liked his mind clutter free so he would be able to enforce the next twist and turn in their mission.

I don't think I can recognize myself in the mirror any longer, Isaac thought that evening, as he curled up next to a crumbling stone mud wall, one more night of terror as he waited to depart. His one friend remaining from Basic, Jose, a short, stocky guy from Fresno, California, lay nearby scrabbling around in the dirt, muttering in his disturbed sleep. It was their second tour of duty and their emotions had plateaued, leaving them with little mental reserves to maintain any sense of proportion. Global politics dictated their future, so said the Sergeant, in so many words, smirking, showing the world weariness of a career military man used to being dispatched to unknown parts of the omnipresent combat zone.

Iraq and over ten years of war in Afghanistan, along with unpublicized skirmishes in various continents, left the US Military in disarray, spent by the constant friction of a wartime footing. America had been at war for over two decades. Orwellian speak had become the norm, as politicians and the Brass communicated in a refined form of circuitous vernacular that all circled back to the need for confrontation. Even though the treasury had been depleted and lives extinguished on a steady basis, the momentum of systematic violence had not abated.

"I'm counting the hours," Isaac told another marine, as they sat in on yet another pre-patrol briefing.

"Zounds 'bout right," the other marine said, nodding, hiding his own thousand yard stare behind a pair of new sunglasses his father had sent him for his birthday, which had passed just the week before. He had turned nineteen and already killed four men, snuffing out their lives with the deft pull of the trigger on his sniper rifle. Making a hazy mental note to add that latest kill to his social page, another notch in his virtual belt, he started humming the tune to a song he heard recently, a bleak album of songs by a former marine who had lost both of his legs to a roadside bomb. More and more he found himself humming to himself, even adding lyrics when he could remember any. He still had six months to go on this latest tour of duty.

Huddled together by the command center was a small group of marines, with a stocky lance corporeal speaking in hushed tones. Isaac looked over at them and grimaced, knowing that they would be into their third or fourth string of scripture, anything to bolster their confidence. After a few months of carnage everyone went in search of something to prop up their personal beliefs, to push back against the mounting tide of doubt that was creeping into your over all perception that what they had told you back in Basic Training had been valuable instruction and not vile propaganda.

Isaac too had been among those who reached out to the Bible for guidance in those early days when he was trying to make sense of it all. God, the vengeful incarnation from the Old Testament, steered them in the right direction, allowing any semblance of morality to be tamped down so they could fulfill the mission. Of course the other guy, the one who fit nicely into supplied stereotypes and was intent on your destruction, was simultaneously beseeching his god to deliver him to paradise. It was best not to think about the spiritual competition under way. There was no need for nuance. The struggle was well illustrated, with a surfeit of history to fall back on. Just and Right, so said the poster on the barracks wall, encapsulating all the justification anyone needed.

He would chopper out days later, looking down on the slow motion devastation as the helicopter took him away. A sense of relief swept over him, then a pernicious sorrow enveloped his mind, as he tried not to think about those friends--comrades--who had left before him, secreted from view, swept away in shrouded forensic black bags containing the remains. Isaac hoped it was over, finished. Let the opposing Gods exchange blows. The global chess board had taken its toll for too long. Hardened ideologies needed to be marginalized if there was to be any future.

His family met him at the Phoenix airport. Another returning warrior the public ignored or gave a vague nod of thanks. The war effort had become ingrained in the collective national conscience, a derivative of necessity and inevitability. Centuries of bias had been applied, woven into an intractable culture that relied on ignorance and elementary fear.

"Look at you!" his mother chirped, hugging him again for the third or fourth time, wiping away a tear. "You look so thin, honey. Didn't they feed you in the Army?"

"Marines," Isaac corrected, again, smiling weakly back at her.

"Good to have you back," his father exclaimed, awkwardly shaking his hand, then embracing him. "I'm proud of you, son."

Isaac knew this was, technically, a lie because his father had wanted him to continue the family tradition. Although his grandfather had fought in World War II, the military aspect of the Hawkins' family history was scant, an anomaly really. The real battle was on the frontlines of the spiritual wars being waged out there.

Then there was a chorus of giggling greetings from his sisters, who lined up to offer their homecoming welcome. In tow were a gaggle of children, all wonderfully inattentive to an uncle they had mostly forgotten over the past few years. His absence had made them shy, even bewildered by the all the fuss, more interested in the trip to the airport than seeing someone they barely remembered. It wasn't long before Isaac felt overwhelmed by all the attention, the first sign of his mounting consternation at the immediate transition back into a civilian world.

The long drive back to the homestead calmed him somewhat, as he watched the Arizonan scenery pass by, another desert landscape he was thankful didn't conceal any hidden IUD's or L shaped ambushes. Isaac tried to relax, only partially listening to his family try to engage him in conversation. There was something vastly surreal about the night and day aspect of being back on a peacetime footing. Physically, his body had to readjust, as his mind settled into a rhythm, one that would allow him to accept a different set of stimuli. A counselor back when he was getting separated from the Service, yet another Chaplain fresh out of Divinity school, trained to ease the service member back into society after years of living absent any societal restrictions for the most part, had told him to expect a slow metamorphosis. To Isaac's confused look, the Chaplain had added: "You have done your duty, now it is time to forward your life with Christ."

This was the new Armed Forces, where the Military Code of Conduct had been co-opted by an arm of Christianity that slowly persevered over the other branches of religion, eventually precluding them from having any influence. Although America was ostensibly a country of inclusion, in practice it wasn't. Far from it. The military had been the vanguard of the change in the country that swept through in the second decade of the new century. Waging war allowed a lowering of constitutional safeguards. In time, they were totally abandoned, leaving a hallowed out Bill of Rights, to be replaced by theological stopgaps.

When Isaac had enlisted, signing on to fight the creeping tide of anti-Christian sentiments around the world, he had been told by a Major with a Powerpoint mentality: "I say to you now, Psalm 144:1: Praise be to the LORD my rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle." That was before, when he was just another warm body able to carry the load of the cause. The Bible had been his motivator. Now, as he sat in the family van and anticipated seeing the White Mountains again, he wondered what would come next in his life.

"Dad!" he heard one of his sisters cry out, "I think I see a haboob coming."

They all craned their necks to look towards the southeast, where in the distance they could just make out the outlines of a menacing brown cloud forming, taking shape over the desiccated land. Drought conditions were now an everyday reality for the Southwest, leaving municipalities to fight over water rights and farmers to abandon their crops in mid-season. In the last decade, while politicians and scientists engaged in a battle of words, quibbling about data and ideology, the region was on life support. With water now being rationed and food climbing in price, people suffered as they pursued different approaches to enduring their changed lifestyles.

Climatic catastrophes had become commonplace, from menacingly large Hurricanes that pulverized the coastlines to huge tornadoes ripping through unprepared communities at all times of the year to scorching temperatures reaching well into a rapidly vanishing winter. Biblical proclamations did little to assuage the people's trepidation. Every day someone of note would proclaim the Second Coming, lending very little comfort to those who believed the other side offered a better world.

"Can we out run it?" another sister wondered aloud, with fear in her eyes. "Remember what happened to Constance and her husband."

They were neighbors, who were driving home from Tempe one day the year before and had been overtaken by an approaching haboob. The dust storm had enveloped their car and caused them to crash into an eighteen wheeler. They had died, at the scene, crushed by tons of rolling steel. When the dust storms arrived, like a cosmic monster, wide swaths of swirling dirt where visibility was nil, destruction followed. If seemed as if Pharaoh had returned to earth and the Old Testament God was in a punishing mood. People died from car crashes, while others succumbed to air born particulates full of bacteria, which entered their lungs and sucked the life out of them.

"I think we are far enough away to make a run for it," Ben informed them, stepping harder on the accelerator.

Isaac chuckled to himself, amused by the idea that even at home he faced the prospect of his own demise. After surviving months and months on the battlefield he might be killed by a climatic blob of dirt seemed somehow absurd, some bit of macabre humor he knew his platoon buddies would appreciate. There would be no medals forthcoming for dying on the road from Phoenix, Arizona.

Behind the Hawkins family, as they climbed up into the high country of Arizona, passing through small, desolate towns that were no more than functioning ghost towns now after years and years of hard economic times, the haboob descended on Phoenix like some science fiction creature. The particles of dirt clogged airways and blinded people's eyes, slipping in cracks and blanketing whole neighborhoods. A miasma of pollution coated the area, leaving the frazzled newscasters to report on yet another weather event, the tenth or eleventh of that year, complementing the hundred and twenty degree temperature like another ring of hell.

A perky, bleached blond meteorologist on the local news channel announced: "The haboob is only three miles across this time around. Please try to stay indoors." The sheer ordinariness of the mini-catastrophe spoke volumes about the locals ability to absorb their changing environment. There would still be days ahead where the weather was acceptable, although the ideal Chamber of Commerce day had become a flexible commodity, one where just breathing slightly polluted air was deemed desirable. Life went on, as everyone lived with a lowered standard.

The country had become remarkably resilient in the ensuing decade, as the global weather patterns turned almost evil, where you could be excused for thinking mother nature hated you personally. Floods and droughts went hand in hand in a contrary dance of dueling meteorological climate thrusts. "The Lord is visiting upon the land his displeasure," so said the National Chaplain, a position established in a previous Republican administration when the country had settled into a permanent one party rule. He was a younger man then and was now into the final stages of his lifetime appointment, teetering, wracked by cancer from some unknown environmental cause but widely believed to be from pesticides he used on his family's farm in Iowa. Due to the seasonal increase in temperatures, insects had metastasized into hybrid pests that arrived earlier in the growing season and stayed later throughout the harvest.

God, the Lord, even Jesus had seemed to forsake America, and the world. Isaac remembered as a small boy being told that he was special as an American because they had been selected to be above everyone, examples to the other nationalities of what could be. This egocentric view was a source of pride, something to cultivate and perfect. The men who wrote the constitution had been ordained by God to illuminate, to instruct. They were the extension of the Lord, sent to inform and establish a working order until which time the Savior would return.

Luck was with them, as Ben sped northward. Isaac saw his beloved mountains come into view and was startled to see gnarled and blackened tree stumps where the forests used to flourish. A fire two months before had devastated vast tracts of land, leaving in its wake a sea of charred debris. In among the tar black wood lay rotting animal carcasses. Mounds of ash undulated across the landscape, interrupted here and there by the skeletal scorched frames of ruined homes. The land had gotten so dry that they now had a fire season with a tally of how many acres had been burned, and lives lost. Firefighters had become an army, with a mindset like a combat battalion.

They passed through a small town, one where Isaac had played football in High School. It was deserted, except for two emaciated dogs lingering by a dilapidated gas station. The fire had roared through the town, leaving behind nothing but the "remnants of hell," so said his father in a pensive almost vacant tone. He wondered if anyone had survived, as he stared out the window at the lumps of melted architecture that still remained. In the distance, he could just make out the facade of the High School, the only piece of the building still standing. A charred school bus stood guard at the entrance to the school, the name of the school barely visible on the side panel.

My mood, my state of mind, didn't need to take this hit, he thought, realizing that a different method of war was occurring on the homefront. His reorientation session hadn't mentioned any of this. East, West, North, and South, everyone was experiencing "the ordeal," as he soon learned they were now calling it, the national predicament. Apocalyptic-light, so some humorists were saying, trying to put a happy face on it, the global slow motion holocaust.

Isaac, like so many others, instinctually knew that the world had become a place where the living envied the dead. Life expectancy had for the first time in centuries dropped. Child birth was in decline. War became the norm. Pestilence was on the rise. Even large scale hunger loomed. "It's like being in one of those lame sci-fy movies," he lamented to friends, shaking his head, while his father spent his time thinking of ways to shake his son out of his post combat funk.

That very first Sunday after his son's return from the battlefield Ben spoke behind the family Bible, a large, leather bound tome, telling the congregation: "The Homeland is a mosaic of many pieces, but we are of one color." He peered down at them from his raised pulpit. His weekly sermons had taken on more of a cheerleading aspect in recent months. Homilies went only so far. A bleak reality grew worse outside the church doors. Faith in Jesus had to be a constant.

Yet there was nothing sustainable about institutionalized hate. It rotted the core of people's will, breaking down the fabric which covered the collective mindset. "It's called creative destruction, dad," Isaac had told his father, smirking, secretly pleased by his father's discomfort at the turn of events unfolding everywhere. He now knew that religion had been a catalyst for conflict. It's ingrained doctrine fostered distrust and led to blood letting in the name of a nebulous ideal. Although Isaac didn't think of himself as a philosopher, he sensed the inner trappings of a predicament, especially one that operated on such a large scale.

"Luke 12:48, To whom much is given, of him God will require the more." Quoting scripture didn't have the effect on him that it did on his family. For him it had become the ultimate inside joke, something to recite so he could laugh in silence, appeasing the voices in his head that told him the length and breadth of absurdity.

Back in the war, as mortar rounds eviscerated their firebase, dismembering at random, a marine next to him suddenly started writhing on the ground and babbling. The others thought he had been hit by shrapnel and called out for a corpsman. As it turned out the marine had taken that moment to accept Jesus Christ as his savior and was mimicking what he had seen his relatives doing in his home state of Georgia. "It's called glossolalia," Isaac had shouted out to a confused fellow marine, trying not to laugh. "Speaking in tongues, it's from the New Testament." The marine looked on for a moment, involuntarily ducking as another round exploded nearby, then said, "That's some fucked up shit, dude."

"You got that right," Isaac agreed, pulling his helmet down tighter on his head. His family were "Bible thumpers" but he was glad they had never gone that route. His father and grand father lived by the Good Book but they had never gone to the extreme; but then again it was all relative. He could see that now. When you had seen a military chaplain offer scriptural assurance for the next installment of destruction you knew the rules were pliable.

Chapter 3 When The Walls Came Crumbling Down

"She's dying," Isaac's mother announced to no one in particular, as the family sat around the dinner table, dismayed by the recent turn of events.

"Let's pray," Ben intoned, reaching his hands out and bending his head.

"What for?" Isaac asked, looking at his father defiantly.

He had been back from the war for almost six months and tensions had risen in the family structure. Isaac saw his home life in a different light, one that passed through the prism of the catalogued horror he had participated in. No longer could he ignore what he saw everyday. Since the age of thirteen, when the financial shock of a collapsed economy made its impact on the US, leaving gaping holes in the societal fabric, he had been witness to the dismantling of a way of life. Austerity measures by the new administration wreaked havoc and structural stopgaps that had helped the people in the past disappeared almost overnight. For almost a decade he had known nothing but the slow motion decomposing of a nation. Now, after he had returned to find the homeland teetering, close to ruin, he refused to accept any lip service from Biblical excuses.

"Isaac," his mother protested, aghast, unable to understand why and how her only son had changed.

"Mother," Ben said calmly, forever composed by his strength at the hands of his savior, "Isaac is in the midst of a personal struggle and as soon as he accepts Christ into his heart it will--"

"What, dad? Give me strength...explain to me why your God has seen fit to slowly annihilate all of us...and now one of my sisters too."

"He has His plan," Ben stated, picking up the Bible that was seldom out of reach. "Perhaps we should read some scripture."

"Are you kidding me?" Isaac bellowed out. "That's insane. My sister is dying. Right now...this minute. Don't you get that? Some fucking disease nobody's ever heard of before is killing her. Ask your damn God what's up with that. Do it! I'd certainly like to know why Christ would want to take my sister's life--wouldn't you?"

His sister's husband said in a quavering voice, "Isaac, God has his reasons. It is not for us to dispute them."

"Really," Isaac spat out, laughing. "Why the fuck not?"

"Isaac, your language," his mother scolded.

The changing climate had brought with it untold diseases and maladies, riding the warm currents from the south, depositing bacteria and pestilence into different latitudes. A carnivorous nematode winnowed its way into the desert terrain, infecting more and more people, leaving them with painful boils on their skin, then an agonizing death. Tropical disease specialists strived to keep ahead of the next outbreak but were swamped after most of the Health Department had been reduced due to cutbacks by the State government. Antibiotics were in short supply and most of them had long since been outstripped by the mutating bacteria left behind by voracious insects.

His sister would die in a few short weeks, breathing her last breath in an over crowded regional hospital with a skeletal staff of health care workers. Her last hours on earth had passed in agony, feverish, with her calls out to Jesus going unanswered. A few minutes later her lifeless body was whisked away to make room for the next patient, a man who would go on to die from a home invasion by a roving band of criminals on dirt bikes and ATV's. They lived in the White Mountains and preyed on nearby towns, returning back to the wilderness after their raids. Death had never been so economized, a columnist in the Phoenix paper wrote after his wife had been attacked and killed by a gang of teenagers on a rampage in a park.

The Have nots are coming for theirs, he went on to write in his weekly column, which had become mostly a screed against the prevailing conditions. The sociological nightmare could have been traced to the advent of a new theology, one inculcated by the theologians who perverted the New Testament, turning it in on itself. Wealth and piety had not been so linked since the Florentine era, except that this time in history the wealthy only wanted to amass more capital while they strangled the democratic framework.

A parallel process of class distinction and the diminishing of individual rights worked inversely. Religion, the newly established State religion, worked as the engine that supplied a feedback loop to the culture. The citizenry became docile victims, eager to be included in the freshly birthed regime. Pastors carried the official governmental decrees every Sunday, working as the vanguard to supply orders to the shock troops across the nation. Behavior is driven by personal beliefs, and, as a result of that psychological dynamic, the movement moved to instill a strong core of functioning ethics in order to maximize the effect of their intrusive power.

All of these vast changes could be traced to the Spiritual Consensus Council of 2019, held in Little Rock, Arkansas. Internecine warfare between the religious communities--where the Dominionists and the Reconstructionists battled ferociously for influence--played itself out. From that meeting, attended by almost all of the Republican members of Congress, came a Religious Contract, one that established a committee to oversee the formation of America's New Direction. It was content specific and defined what the United States of America aspired to be.

News of the conference drew many catcalls from the media and was roundly criticized, even openly mocked by Democratic sites on the internet. Cries of Theocracy were voiced by civil libertarians. The American Constitution was ironclad and didn't leave any room for divergent forays into the hazy world of political and religious mixing, or so said a Liberal columnist from the New York Times. Constitutional scholars scoffed. Harrabbi, Moses, even secular arbiters, had laid the framework for the advancement of a Human code of conduct. In those matters, things had been settled. Written law was more than a blueprint. It was the painstaking culmination of civil and criminal prohibition accumulated in the vast arena of human history.

Fear and keep His commandments--Ecclesiastes 12:13 first started appearing across the country sometime in the latter part of 2019, showing up on the side of warehouses, barns, and emblazoned on billboards. Their appearance was, at first, mocked by comedians and late night talk show hosts. They were mysterious in that they were ubiquitous, "Like crop circles on steroids," so joked a pundit on one of the Sunday morning political shows. It was only the beginning.

"I do not pretend to know what ignorant men are sure of," so said a stand up comic, quoting Clarence Darrow, laughing along with the audience, who were blissfully unaware that their lives were about to be co-opted by the coming religious revolution. As more and more politicians and federal judges were elected and selected from the new strain of pious candidates, the dynamics of politics transitioned into a theocratic model of government. The national focus was on the declining standard of living and the slow upheaval in governance went unnoticed. Imperceptibly, the evangelical strain of governance seeped into power establishing a silent coup d' etat. Secularism slowly withered away.

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