Peace Be With You -- by Shane Neufeld

A stranger walks the sands of the afterlife in search of souls in peril. Death is just the beginning. All sins are paid for in blood and tears. Everyone knows that. But not everyone knows that in Hell you might have an audience.
___________________

The sun beat down on a desert plain. Its only defining feature the spiders web of cracks that split the reddish brown dirt. It was silent, not even the barest wind swept through the eternal oven, waves of heat rising off the scorched earth being the only movement here. If you were to gaze deep into the endless plain of writhing silent heat you may just catch a glimpse of a dark figure, the mirage of a
weather-beaten man walking across the desert.

No one was around to witness him however. No one walked the endless expanse of their own accord but him, and if you encountered him out in the wasteland it wasn’t by chance, and definitely not by luck. He was the silent observer, the watching stranger, the chosen one whose job it was to bare witness to the punishments visited upon the damned. Meeting the Stranger was comparable to a date with the Reaper, only worse. You were already dead if you met the Stranger, your afterlife just beginning. .

He had been called many things by many people over the years; heartless snake, cruel bastard, the Devil himself. Those that crossed his path often blamed him for having found themselves in this place. They assumed he had engineered this afterlife and ruled over it as a dark lord. They could believe whatever they liked, made no difference, He’d still tell them in all honesty, “I’m just a witness here." Whether they believed it or not, that was his only expected roll here. He would observe the struggles of man and woman who had broken life’s sacred rules and now suffered the consequences in death. His job was to watch and the fact that he enjoyed it was his secret to keep.

He stalked the desert sand, encountering remnants of humanity along the way; unfortunate souls
always in the midst of some dramatic scene of peril. Either fighting against the harsh environment or the monstrosities that called the desert home, or even themselves and each other.

This place had no shortage of terrors to throw against the soft flesh of the confused humans deposited here, and the Stranger lived to watch those nightmares realized. He lived to see the damned reap the bloody harvest they had planted in their former lives . These encounters always had a narrative quality to them if you knew where to look. A keen eye could discern the story being played out and guess at its inevitable conclusion. Often times they were humorously ironic punishments and very entertaining to watch. No matter how many encounters the Stranger had seen he still looked forward to the next one, ever since the beginning of time.

Part of the game he’d play was to offer little hints on the situations that the damned had found
themselves in, foreshadowing what fate would inevitably push them to do. They never listened. They would deny it right up until it was the only option left to them. Debts here are always paid.

The stranger could share useful information with the people he met if he wished. He could set them up on an easier path, no force stood to oppose him here if he did. He wasn’t in the business of redemption however. His prerogative was to watch. And he liked that arrangement just fine.

His steps traced a straight line across the lifeless dirt. His leather boots, worn and tattered, were just another shade of brown in an endless sea of the same color. He sauntered as if on a casual stroll, never showing signs of tiring. There was no need to hurry. He had all eternity.

He’d been collecting the stories of the doomed for as long as time remembered; centuries, millennia. Since Cain killed Abel, maybe. Or since the first ape killed another with a rock. Who was to say, really? The Stranger knew, but he wouldn’t say. That would spoil the joke.

As he walked on the corners of his mouth tugged upward of their own accord, an ugly smirk forming as if remembering an age old joke. He was nearing the next show, the next episode, the next perilous drama with all too real players in all too real peril. Anticipation grew with every footstep. What form would this coming attraction take?

Before long a church steeple was visible on the horizon and then the black painted church it stood upon, a grim beacon in the wasteland for bringing in lost souls. It looked more like a place for funerals than for worship. That worked just fine for the Stranger.

He approached a mob of crumbling tombstones that surrounded the church. He could hear the corpses scratching against their coffins beneath the stone markers. They were vengeful and accusatory for the lives they had lost and for the peace they had been denied. These unfortunates held little interest for the Stranger. Theirs was a timeless story. Just run of the mill sinners, held here an eon or two to reflect on their wasted lives down in their holes. Nothing remarkable.

The graveyard was observed by an ancient oak tree, dead and bleached grey over years of drought. The blackened corpse nailed to the tree was an oddity. Around its neck hung a sign that read: non-believer. But it was not the target that had summoned the Stranger. The fact that all animation had left the corpse proved that the man had believed in something after all, and found peace in it. That only left the church to be investigated.

The Stranger jumped up and balanced on one of the grave markers, stepping from tomb stone to tomb stone until he was deposited at the back of the church. He sidled up to a filthy window and cleared enough grime with a gloved hand to see in. Rows of pews were filled with normal looking parishioners who sat facing the pulpit where a fat Preacher was vigorously pumping what could only be assumed was a bible. It all looked fairly normal but the Stranger knew better. He was summoned here for a show, not the regular Sunday service. The glass was too dirty to get a good look so he stalked around the building looking for an entrance.

“Brothers! Sisters!” The Preacher bellowed in a baritone that commanded all ears to listen. “It seems that another of our flock has gone astray. Brother Clyde has not been heard from all morning. Snuck off in the night, away from the safety of our holiest of chapels”

The crowd erupted in noises of disdain. “His faith was always weak,” one rang out. ”Non-believer! Hope he gets what he deserves,” a woman spat.

“Friends, friends. Let us pray that our wayward brother returns to the path of salvation, and let us think kindly of him as we partake in the sacrament”

The Preacher turned from the pulpit to the over-sized wooden cross behind him. A man was nailed to it, his eyes and mouth sown shut. Despite the pound of flesh that had been cut from his side he still wriggled around, The bloodied coveralls he wore read Clyde embroidered on the breast. The Preacher selected a carving knife from a metal cart and studied Clyde with a butcher’s eye, deciding on which cut of meat would be on the menu today.

A cold chill ran up the Preacher's back, hairs standing up on his neck. He turned to see what unholy presence he knew would be standing at his church's door. He adjusted his small round spectacles. Most of his nose had been removed violently at some point so the spectacles just balanced precariously on a small nub of flesh above his exposed nostrils.

He was momentarily alarmed when the smiling Stranger came into focus but he didn’t break character. “Welcome traveler. Have you come to join our merry congregation?” He took a step to the side, making half an attempt to cover Clyde from view. “And to hear the word of Our Savior?” Fat cheeks smiling innocently.

The throng of listeners turned in their seats to see the newcomer but the Stranger could see they had all had their eyes sown shut.

“I’ve just come to... watch," he grinned at the assembly of the blind.

“What did he say?” one whispered. 

“Does he believe?” asked another.

The Preacher spread his arms in welcome. “All may listen who have ears to hear the word of Our Lord." Ironic words coming from him. The Preacher didn’t seem to have much for ears left, just rat chewed little nubs big enough to hold up the arms of his glasses.

The Preacher continued: “Let us forego the sacrament until our new friend has heard today’s sermon. He hasn’t come all this way to share food. He wants the ember of belief stoked to flame inside him once more!”

Sounds of discontent followed this proclamation.

“Forego the sacrament?!” one voice called incredulously.

“Not how we’ve always done it," another spoke sourly.

“I can count all my ribs,” one gritted angrily between clenched teeth.

It was odd how the Preacher made calming gestures though none but the Stranger could see them. Force of habit for a long time con-man he supposed.

“People, people. Nowhere in the texts are we directed on the order we undertake these holy proceedings. Only that we do undertake them.”

The Stranger stalked the perimeter of the assembly towards the stage. He observed it’s patrons with an ever widening grin. The Preacher was a corpulent mass of mottled skin while his listeners were a starving flock of blind sheep. The narrative was unraveling before his experienced eye. The Stranger savored the thrill of discovery. This was a new one.

“Tame your greedy appetites and let us show this newcomer why we are the chosen people. Let God speak through me to set this man on the proper path, as I have all of you and then we will eat. What meal could be worth more than a soul saved?”

Murmurs of acquiescence accompanied the Preacher's short monologue.

The Preacher was momentarily perplexed when the Stranger ascended the raised steps of his stage and stood behind him, peering over his shoulder at the open pages of his Bible. There were no lines of text on its yellowed pages but instead crudely drawn sexual acts that the obese man could only imagine ever taking part in.

The Preacher snapped the book shut. This man was becoming a nuisance but the Preacher was a consummate professional of his craft and wouldn’t let this disconcerting Stranger rankle him.

The Preacher was gathering breath in preparation for what would no doubt be a lengthy soliloquy when an unseen voice rang out from the crowd. “Have we been saved, Preacher? I haven’t seen anything for a long time but I’ve heard the same sermons over and over. Same promises, too. I don’t feel saved, Preacher”

All heads turned to acknowledge the skinny young woman who had spoke in challenge.

“You’ve told us to be patient. We’ve been patient. You’ve told us to believe. We’ve believed. You’ve claimed God told you the exact day and hour He would return to take us to heaven, but when the time came and the church bells rang we remained here.” 

Some of the crowd was nodding with the woman’s words.

“Our children are gone and we’ve done nuthin' but sat here for weeks, blind and starving while all you do is talk, Preacher”

The Stranger leaned over the Preacher's shoulder and whispered, “You’re losing your flock, Preacher.” His forked tongue wet his lips. “I once saw a blind man beat another man to death. Took him a few tries to figure out what was working before he got it right.” 

The Stranger's smile nearly split his head in two and the S's and C's in his words had taken on a hissing quality. ”What do you think a whole mob of the blind could do?”

Against his better judgment the Preacher turned to face the man, seeing the snake-like skin and slit pupil eyes in terrifying detail. Then a strange thing happened. A finger-length grub with a disturbingly human face crawled out of the Stranger's ear, The look on its tiny face a mix of confusion and terror like it just crawled out of a nightmare. The Stranger plucked it off his cheek and threw it in his mouth, sinister fangs visible for a second before he crunched down and swallowed.

“Devil," the Preacher said under his breath. His glasses slid off the nub of his nose and fell towards the ground but the Stranger caught them. 

“Me? No." He positioned the glasses back on the Preacher's face. “I’m just a witness here.”

The Preacher collected himself, a consummate professional of his craft. He gathered breath like a forge bellows preparing to stoke the fires that could melt iron. “I will not be accused of blasphemy in my own church!” His face gained shades of red as he addressed the crowd, the instigator in particular. “All that I have done I have done for this church and it’s people! Have I not toiled in the dark to supply you your daily sacrament! Performed miracles in stretching the church's food stores to keep you all fed when I could have hoarded it all for myself!”

The sour expressions of the crowd softened and grew a little fearful at the sheer force and vehemence of the Preacher's words.

“Your children have gone to meet God! Their pure souls did not require the cleansing this blighted congregation needs before approaching the holy gates!"

The Preacher was momentarily distracted by a metallic clang when the Stranger kicked the waste bin full of small bones beneath the podium. He winked at the Preacher and smiled as if sharing a private joke. 

A bead of sweat rolled down the Preacher's forehead but he continued. “We all have been blinded by glimpsing the face of the Holy Ghost when He first returned to smite the non-believers and take the purest of us home. Our sight will be returned to us when we have proven our devotion and take our rightful seat at God's table. That will only come about with me to shepherd all of you to the proper path. Mark my words, or may God strike me down!"

In the crowd one man touched at his eyes, obviously questioning why the Holy Ghost used a needle and thread but he dared not voice this curiosity. And neither did the others.

The Preacher glanced sideways to see the Stranger laughing silently. He stopped and mocked wiping a tear away from his eye.

“Enjoying yourself are you?” whispered the Preacher from the side of his mouth.

Then the Stranger pantomimed a game of peekaboo with the Preacher. A different face revealed every time his hands opened up. They were the faces of the sacramental children underneath the podium. Was this demon trying to distract him? To throw off his tangent?

The Preacher hoped to whatever higher power there might be that the Stranger would remain complacent with his little jokes and not intervene further. He didn’t want anything ruining what he had built here. This was his church. He was starting to lose steam. He had to set the hook back into the crowd quick.

“You’re right that I have claimed before that our time was upon us, and when that time came and went we were left bereft, I’ll take responsibility for that." He placed a palm against his own chest and nodded solemn acceptance. “Yes, I believed our congregation had achieved God's favor and would be returned at the time foretold to me. I was wrong. One or more of us has not yet fully accepted God's grace into our hearts and has made me the fool for my confidence in all of you.” He swept an accusing finger over the crowd.

The Preacher's voice became accusatory. “Who here is weak of heart? Hmm! Is it you!?” Projecting his immense voice about the room to make every blind parishioner think the accusation was leveled at them personally.

The faces in the crowd were mortified and remorseful now. He had them.

The Stranger left his side and began walking amid the rows of people, shaking his head slowly, smile faded and just a little resentful at the pitiful sight. He stooped to look into the face of the woman who had spoken up earlier. Tears bled out between the stitches of her sown eyelids and streaked down her dirty face. The Stranger loomed within inches of her, forked tongue darting out from cracked lips to gently lick away the tears. She didn’t notice.

“But take heart, brothers and sisters. This is the sermon we needed to hear today. To illuminate the shortcomings we have all grown blind to. We can thank our mysterious friend for prompting this talk we so desperately needed.” He pointed to the Stranger who ignored him. “Furthermore, now that we have gained this knowledge, now that we have humbled ourselves and accepted the load we must bare!” The Preacher had worked himself into a fervor. At times like these even he started to believe the stories he told and just like the times before he couldn’t help but promise that which he could not deliver. “Hear me now! I promise you that by my next prediction we will be taken home to our place in heaven, just as promised!”

A hardness came into the face of the woman the Stranger stood over, her tears cut off like a water pipe run dry. “Your next prediction was for today," she said.

The Stranger’s face took on a rarely seen look of surprise and turned it to bare on the Preacher.

The Preacher dug a finger between the collar of his shirt, suddenly finding it hard to breath. “Did I?” he choked out.

“Yeah, today. At the toll of noon, you said."

The Stranger started a slow walk towards the door, apparently having seen all he cared to. He waved a hand in farewell that only the Preacher could see.

“Today? At noon? Are you sure?” the Preacher was cracking.

“God told you, Preacher. You should know." The woman was visibly angry, trembling in her seat. “What time is it, Preacher?”

The Preacher made burbling noises as he struggled to find words. “I-I-I don’t don’t know, child. I’m as blind as all of you. All I can do is wait to hear the bells.” He chuckled unconvincingly, grasping the edges of the lectern with white knuckles, deflating under the weight of the lie that would soon be realized. Maybe he had time to sneak away. He tried walking softly towards the podium steps but his traitorous weight forced loud squeals from the wooden floor. He couldn’t sneak away, fine. He just needed a few minutes to think. Time to cook up another lie to feed these gullible fools. He had done it before. He just needed five minutes.

“Five minutes," said the Stranger flatly from the doorway.

Had the Stranger read his mind? “Wh-whats that now?”

The Stranger stared deep into his eyes.“Five minutes 'til noon," the snake smiled.

The Preacher couldn’t help but stare back into those eyes where, to his horror, he could actually see the hellfire that burned beneath the skin of this timeless creature. This snake that had watched through countless years as man killed fellow man, watching and smiling and remembering every cut and stab. A library of horrors that walked the earth on two legs. The snake of Eden that convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and share it with Adam, and had watched delightedly as God had punished them. The original sin and punishment.

No more thoughts of talking his way out came to the Preacher. He just stood staring at the monster that had come to call, the herald that signaled the end of his kingdom. This place wasn’t heaven at all. But it had been his domain, his own slice of heaven. He was distraught to see it come to an end but he was resigned in the knowledge it was all part of a bigger plan, a plan that would not be kind to him. He had more sins than he cared to think about that he’d have to answer for. He started regretting some things. There was nothing to do now but wait, and not for long. Mid-day came, the bells tolled and the church and its occupants remained in their seats. Also not for long.

The Stranger walked outside, hand brushing tombstones as he passed. He stood before the oak tree again, studying it. The sound of rending stones could be heard in the direction of the church. He turned to see cracks in the earth forming a circle around the church. Black behemoth tentacles attached to unknown subterranean horrors rose high in the air and fell over the church in a crushing embrace. The black wood buckled and splintered but the old church was for the most part intact as the leviathans dragged it down into their hole.

“Would you look at that," the Stranger smiled. “Preacher was right.”
 
He could hear the screams from inside the church and even saw a horrified face in a broken window before the building was lost from view. Down into the deep dark earth.

“Guess they’re going home after all. Where they belong."

It was really a shame that the Preacher was in too many pieces to see. The Stranger imagined the look of shock the man would have had upon learning one of his predictions had actually come true after all. He had just been off by a few minutes. Oh well.

The Stranger looked back to the dead man on the oak tree. He made the sign of the cross on his chest and said, “Peace be with you.” He tipped his hat and walked on into the desert. He wasn’t in a hurry. He had all eternity.


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