Rick walked along the tracks, wary of snakes, even on a rainy day.
Rattlesnakes. They always appeared when you least expect and want them. Hiding under the rails, soaking up the stored heat, waiting for some hapless rodent, or human, to stroll along.
Rick hated rattlesnakes, even though their names started with an R. The serpentine bodies, slithering motions, the sounds of hell they made caused Rick to double over and vomit.
The tracks stretched out in front of him, converging in the distance like an art class perspective example. The rock crunched beneath his Nike's like so many backs, the scritch, scritch, scritch sounds combining with the sounds of the raindrops hitting the leaves, grass and rocks. Rain made Rick happy, even though it reminded him of blood, like so many tears falling from angels mourning the death of God.
That was probably the reason he liked it.
Sand and coins rustled at the bottom of the pockets of his long black coat, grit sticking underneath his fingernails. His pocket watch slid around in his right pocket, never letting him forget the time.
He stopped long enough to check his pocket watch, and noticed the surroundings trying to flee from him, the hills, mountains and clouds trying to push away from him as if they were afraid of him. He sighed, understood their reaction, and continued his walk home.
His house lay not far away. More like the home he grew up in. The home that raised eighteen years of him before he left for the church. A beacon to his past. He sighed again. An icon of his lost future.
Despite the gray light filtering through the clouds, the house looked colorful, the woodstain walls blaring out to the eyes. The sleeping trees' bare limbs creeped over the house like a bad dream, stretching its soft shadows across the ground, cars and roof. A trickle of smoke dribbled from the chimney in the raining air. A simple house in a valley of farmland.
Some things refused to change.
Rick sighed again.
He stopped to realize how much he missed home, how he'll miss it even more. His stomach ached at the thought and he rubbed his pain, trying to make it go away, trying to rub hope back in to his injury. The rain smacked against his coat, and he checked his watch again, the hand moving slowly toward six o'clock underneath scratched glass.
He moved off the tracks and on to the dormant alfalfa field. He looked up and down the highway for cars out of habit before crossing. From the side of his path he heard a buzzing of a snake, a rattlesnake. The clouds and land, his home and family faded from his mind in an instant, tension building up in his stomach. Stopping in his steps, he scanned the wilted plants, searching for the venomous serpent. The blurred shaking of the tail gave away the snake's location.
Rick stared at the rattlesnake, finding it's camouflaged head, the spade shaped mass of scales flickering it's forked tongue from its closed mouth. The heat seeking pits penetrating the distance between bite and leg. The snake hissed loudly and fluttered it's rattles with hate.
The snake gave Rick an unexpected reaction. He didn't feel like vomiting, or running. Instead, he wanted to kneel on one leg and bow his head. Sweat accumulated on his palms.
Rick stared at the rattlesnake, and realized the slithering reptile laughed at him.
Rick tapped the door softly at first, knowing the doorbell never worked, then knocked harder the second time.
He smiled when Alanis opened the inside door, and an enormous smile overwhelmed her mouth. She opened the outside door, squealed his name and some sort of unintelligible greeting and jumped in to his arms.
"Hello, little sister." His arms tightly enclosed her, afraid of the future, and laughed as she cried and laughed at the same time. "How are you?"
"How am I? How the hell are you?" she asked in his neck.
"I'm alive." He put her down.
"I'm fine," she said. "Perfect now. We're all fine."
"God, you're beautiful."
"I hope so."
A large voice called, "Who's at the door?"
Alanis patted her brother's chest and looked up to his tired eyes. "She's not too happy with you. Give her time."
Rick's mother, Ruby of all the names in the world, came in to sight of the door, drying her hands. She hid her excitement behind a look of disappointment. The mother looked Rick up and down. "There you are. You're whole congregation has been wondering about you. The newspapers won't leave us alone."
"I know," Rick said with equal enthusiasm. "I have some explaining to do."
"The Hell you do." Ruby tossed the towel on her shoulder and walked back to the kitchen.
Alanis waited until Ruby left their vision. "She still has her temper."
"Some thing's refuse to change."
Alanis cast off that thought. "Where have you been?" Her voice was soft and quiet. "You and all the priests and pastors disappeared at the same time you did. Was there a secret convention?"
"No, not really." Rick shook his head. "But I was with them."
He smiled and put his hand on his little sister's shoulder. "Don't mind that now. It'll all make sense."
Her impatient smile glided on her face. "Okey dokey." She rubbed his arm. "I'm glad you're back in one piece. This is a new look for you. You look different without your collar." Her smile faded. "Good God, what did you do?" she asked alarmed.
The little sister grabbed his arms. "Your arms! You actually got muscle on them. A lot of muscle!"
Rick laughed aloud, put his arm around Alanis' shoulders and led her to the living room. "That will all make sense."
She wrapped her around his waist and hugged him again. "I'm sure it will."
Rick scooped the water to his face with both hands, feeling the tap water break up the dust, oils and secrets. The rain was one thing; sink water and being able to wash you face was another. He rubbed the silt from his slight beard and mustache and rolled the dirt from his forehead. He almost giggled; he never realized how unclean he became.
The towel felt good against his face, the Downy soft red fabric soaking up the rest of the moisture his face didn't collect. He caught his reflection in the mirror, his image and all the faces of his fellow holy men, all of whom he'd never see again. For a moment, his reflection and his comrades staring back at him through his eyes sickened him.
The towel fell to the floor and Rick grabbed the side of the sink. His lungs bucked and he cried silently, letting his tears fall and wash away in to the drain.
"Are you going to take that damn thing off?"
Rick looked at his long overcoat. Alanis raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, I guess I could." Rick went the coat rack, looked back to Alanis sitting on the couch, then returned his attention to the hooks. He took a deep breath and released. He placed his white cap on one hook. His fingers cautiously unfastened each button of his coat, out of sight of the sister eyeing the older brother's back.
He let the coat slide off his bulky shoulders, allowing a sleeveless sweatshirt to reveal itself. Alanis gasped at Rick's physique. He no longer resembled the skinny and lanky man as he did when he'd give his sermon. "Jesus H. Christ, Rick! Where in the hell have you been?!"
He removed his coat and placed it on the hook. He ignored her blasphemous exclamations. He turned and unveiled the rest of his form to Alanis. She awed at his body, tall and muscular, almost bulky and clumsy looking. His body almost resembled an ogre if his walk weren't so graceful.
The front of his sweatshirt was shredded, the edges discolored by black and red, the same colors staining his stomach and side.
Alanis jumped to her feet and dashed to his side. "Good God, what happened to you?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Doesn't matter?! The hell it doesn't"
"Trust me. It doesn't matter."
Alanis stepped back and stared in to Rick's endless eyes for several moments.
Fear dictated her voice. "Where have you been?"
Ruby handed Rick some clothes.
"I don't know what you've been doing in the last several months, but have been selfish. Keeping us in the dark, not letting us know where you've been," Rick took off his shirt, "and...Jesus. Look at your stomach."
Alanis gasped from the doorway.
"It's nothing. I survived." Rick tried to cover his embarrassment.
Ruby didn't let up. "You didn't even call. If you were hurt, you should have had at least the decency to call. Everyone thinks you're dead." Rick wiped the damp washcloth across side and stomach.
"Mom, leave him alone."
"Leave him alone?!" Ruby kept her eyes on her son. "I think I have a right to be angry. Even if he is a priest. I can be angry with a priest!"
"Mom," Rick said. "It's kinda' complicated. It'll all make sense."
"Every priest, pastor, preacher, nun and holy person disappears of the face of the planet, my son is one of them, and you say it'll all make sense?!"
"Yes, it will."
"Goddamnit Rick! Where have you been!!!"
"MOM!!" Alanis screamed. "Leave him alone! He just got back! He's home now!"
"What happened to you?! How did you get that scar?!"
Rick's composure didn't change. Calmingly, he said. "I'll tell you. But want Dad and Mark to be here. They need to hear this too."
"I called your Dad. He's on his way." Ruby began to leave the bedroom. She turned to Rick and pointed a finger. "This had better be good." With that said, she stormed away.
Alanis shifted her focus back to Rick. "She has a strange way of saying 'I love you.'"
Rick put on the shirt. "I don't mind. I miss her subtle ways."
Alanis snickered. "Isn't that Dad's shirt?"
"Yeah," Rick said. "My old clothes don't fit. My guess is, Dad didn't lose that weight he said he'd lose."
A warm smile formed on Alanis' face. "Some thing's just refuse to change."
"Hey boy," Dick said, a grin stretching from ear to ear. He crossed to Rick and hugged him. Dick stepped back and scanned his son from halo to sole. "Good God, Rick, where have you been? That shirt fits you."
"That's a tall tale."
Dick squeezed Rick's arms. "I'll bet."
Mark hugged Rick next. "Hey bro. It's been awhile."
"Too long." Rick tightly hugged his little brother.
Dick and Mark stepped back, taking in Rick's new build. "Gosh boy, you've got story lines written all over you face." Rick smiled. "Where are all the others? Did you see them?"
"Yeah, I did. A few made it back."
"Back from where?" Mark asked.
Rick patted Mark on the shoulder. "Let's eat first. Mom's cooked quite a meal."
"She always does, boy, she always does."
"Some things just refuse to change, " Mark said.
Rick did his best to smile.
Locked steam from Rick's roll lifted it the air as he split the bread down the middle. He held the roll close to his nose, drawing in the aroma of homemade food. He placed butter on the halve, then dipped it in to his vegetable beef stew. He scooped up the soup chunks and ate the roll and soup in one bite.
Ruby hid her smile.
The rest of the family watched Rick gleefully eat his supper, tasting the food as if he hadn't eaten in months. The family did not bother Rick as he ate. Nearly six months had gone by and today, the family ate as a whole again.
Rick glanced to all the faces of his family and smiled, his cheeks swelled with soup and buns.
They smiled back at him.
Rick soaked up the rest of soup from the bottom of his bowl with the last roll, the last of many he devoured during dinner.
Ruby couldn't contain herself any longer. "Now are you going to tell us where you were?"
"Mom...," Alanis began.
Rick held up his hand, chewed his food and checked his watch. "Yeah. Now I can." He sat back and stretched. "Terrific meal. I'm going to miss them."
"Now what the Hell does that mean," Ruby said, anger slipping in to her words.
"Let me start from the beginning." Rick poured himself a cup of coffee.
"The night we all disappeared, I woke in my dream. A dream all us men and women of the cloak had. Not only those who believe in the Bible. All the holy men and women of all people in the world.
"During that dream, we all converged in a massive open field, all us mortals being lit by the angels that hovered above. Above them, God, the Originator, spoke to us. He said, 'It is time.' My first and only religious experience and he sounded desperate."
"About what?" Alanis asked.
Rick sipped his coffee, then took a drink. "The Armageddon. The war to end all wars. The final battle between good and evil." Rick paused. "The way I had been preaching it is different from what the Bible said. Two thousand years is a long time, plenty of time to rewrite a book to fit your needs.
"However, the Armageddon was mostly true. God came to us, saying it had begun. All of us, from around the world, were pulled from Earth, into the battle of Heaven and Hell."
"Hold on boy. You mean to tell us that you fought in Armageddon?"
"Yes I did. For the last six months, in the afterlife, we'd been fighting straight, trying to win the war." Rick stood up, checked his watch, finished his coffee, and motioned everyone to stand up. "I need to show you something."
Rick led his family outside. Alanis tried to protect her hair from the slight drizzle. They walked out on the lawn and faced east, the valley directing their vision.
Rick faced his family, checked his watch creeping to six o'clock and said, "We fought for all the souls in the world, the souls in Heaven, the unborn souls, the innocent souls, all of them." Rick paused again, looked at the sleeping grass, kicked a rock, and then raised his sight back to his family. They stared back at him, trying to decide in their minds whether or not Rick hadn't lost is mind and gone completely crazy.
"I'm sorry." Rick held his hand in front of him. "We lost. God is dead. Heaven has fallen." He checked his watch, the hands only moments away from spreading equally from one another. He turned to the east. "The meek will not inherit the Earth."
Ruby shook her head. "I can't believe that. That's bullshit. You've gone crazy!" Ruby shook with anger, her face trembling. "Where in the hell have you been?!"
Rick closed his eyes. "Mom, listen to me. I know this is hard to believe..."
"Mom!!!" Alanis' voice pained.
"You have to believe me. The end is near. I came to say good bye."
For several moments, noone said a word. The eyes of his family looked upon with fear, of the truth and of his questionable sanity.
"Jesus Christ, Rick. What has happened to you?" Ruby said in a low, mean voice.
"It can't be true," Dick said looking to the ground.
Rick checked his watch for the last time. The hand struck six o'clock and the blood filled underneath the glass. "I'm sorry." He turned to the east and pointed to the sky.
A hole spread in the cloud, red furious light blasted from above, fire bursting toward the Earth.
From the hole, objects dropped like stones in water, spread their wings and flew in every direction. A few fell first, then they swarmed. The dark beings poured from the sky like bloodthirsty hornets, their long dark leathery wings flapping like bats. Humanoid bodies hung from the wings, misshapen faces leading the trailing edge of the swarm. The clouds moved back as more and more demons poured from the sky.
Chaos, death and despair beat from the demons, an unending stream fell from the clouds, spreading towards every spot on Earth. Silvery, rusty, leathery, rubbery and slimy demons of every shape came, the sky growing black with winged evil. Some bore in to the earth, slicing the roots of trees, most overwhelmed the land with their wings, cutting and shredding limbs and trunks, animals and formations from their origins.
Fire and light burst from the fallen sky, lighting some of the devils on fire. But they flew anyway, the sound of their wings flapping in the air, combined with their destruction and laughter. Behind the edge of the swarm, the Earth, turned gray and brown with death, all the plant and animal life destroyed beyond salvation.
Rick turned to his family.
Dick, Ruby, Mark and Alanis stood, motionless, fearful and unbelieving eyes wide with shock. Ruby quickly crossed herself.
"Don't bother Mom." Rick said calmly and matter-of-factly, "God died, Heaven fell. No one can save us. We have no place to go."
Alanis screamed and fell to the ground.
"You can't run, you can't hide." Rick stood still. He let the drizzle hit his face. Droplets of sky water collected on his dying skin, beading in his hair, the sound of the drops quickly fading behind the screams and laughter of the hellish army. The slight breeze cooled his face. Rick pointed to the approaching demonic cloud. "Our souls are theirs."
The demonic swarm filled up the sky. The mountains, hills, and clouds disappearing behind the victors of Armageddon, the screams, laughter and howls intensified, the faces of the demons becoming more apparent. The demons shredded the hills Rick grew up with, pushed the clouds away and destroyed all the trees in their path.
"I'm sorry. I love you my family. But they were too strong." He looked to over his family's horrified faces one last time. "Things change."
A scream from nearby stole Rick's attention. He turned one last time to see a smiling demon coming at him, it's steel wings tearing the vehicles apart like tin foil, it's fingers open for an easy kill.