Chapter 19 – Observed
“Observed?” I muttered and wondered at the awkward process we were being subjected to before entering. I watched as the lengths of chain were untangled and removed, the lock disappearing into the shadowed outlines beyond the fence. Finally the gate screeched slowly open to reveal a trio of people. The two on either side were burly folks, a man on the left and a woman on the right, whose muscles seemed built from daily labor and not athleticism. Both were armed with a shotgun which were each aimed at the three of us with clear and intentional threat.
Between the two armed guards, was a portly older man. His dark grey suit did not quite fit properly, slightly too tight around the waist and a bit too loose about the shoulders. The suit’s jacket hung open, revealing much of the dull white shirt underneath. A flash of silver, barely visible from beneath the overflowing girth of the man’s belly, revealed the belt buckle kept his loose and short pants from falling. His shoes were shined to perfection and glinted beautifully in the never-setting sun. I was so distracted by the shoes and the man’s size that I did not immediately notice his head and face.
His face was broad and framed by rolls of fat which encircled his chin. He was scraggly and clearly unshaven for days. His thin white beard gave his face a strangely shadowed look about his cheeks. He was balding and his hairline had already retreated as far as the center of his head, the white hair only highlighted that there was less off it. Most stunning of all, however, was the man’s eyes. One eye was steely grey, which scanned each of mine and my companion’s faces with a cold and calculating precision. The other was missing and scarred. The scars covered the empty socket but only seemed to draw attention to the surrounding scars.
This cyclopean man spoke with the same booming voice which had resonated through the gate moments earlier. “Well, you certainly look human enough.” He smiled broadly, the folds of his face spreading wide. He waved dismissively to his companions. “Settle down, settle down. They got the right looks and they got the right sound to ‘em. I think we got honest to god humans here.” The two armed guards glanced to each other before nodding to the large man and lowering their weapons slightly. I couldn’t help but notice that they kept the weapons at the ready nonetheless.
“Well, now. Welcome to Paradise, my friends! We’ve built ourselves here as a sanctuary from the beasts and demons that run amok across the countryside. We have protected ourselves from the corrupting influences of this twisted landscape and we have separated ourselves from this debased world…” He swept his hands around him in a flourish.
“Okay…” Bobbi was looking at the man with incredulity. “Sounds like some kind of cult.”
The man released a loud belly laugh which caused his rolls to jiggle frantically. “No, no, no. I assure you, we are no cult. We simply wish to remain untainted by this world’s madness.” He smiled, causing his scars to crinkle oddly. “You cannot tell me that you have not noticed the impossible creatures that plague the lands beyond?”
We looked at each other, remembering the conversation we had shared only hours before about just such a topic. We said nothing, but our silence was enough for the man. He laughed once more and continued. “I knew you had. It seems impossible to swing a dead cat around without hitting some impossible monster. This place was established to keep ourselves apart from all that could corrupt or change us.” He paused, looking each of us in the eye in turn before continuing.
“If you wish to enter you may, as our honored guests of course. We ask nothing in return but for you to respect our ways and refrain from unnecessary vulgarities. And, of course, we are always willing to welcome new and pure individuals into our flock, all you need do is ask.” He smiled and turned, presenting the open gate to us and nodding to his guards to step aside.
Bobbi turned to me and we shared a look. I could clearly see her surprise at how well this initial meeting had gone and she was unsure if we would accept the offer. I personally had suspicions about this place. Experience and my parents had long ago taught me that most offers that promised no strings often had enough hidden lines to wrap tightly around the unwary. That said, we were in need of some form of vehicle and a warm place to sleep would be kind of nice. Especially after all the the cold stones and dirt which had been our beds. Finally, with a glance to Rick, I stood and nodded. Taking my cue, Bobbi turned and nodded to our host and made a few steps towards the gate before pausing for us to catch up.
As I approached the man and his gate, I looked him directly in his solitary eye and said, “I don’t believe you mentioned your name. To whom may we address our thanks for your hospitality?” I did not intend any threat, but even I could hear the hint of suspicion and aggression in my voice. The man, however, either did not notice or chose to ignore my tone.
“Name’s Alexander, my good woman.” He smiled broadly. “I am the leader of this colony of sanity. These two lovely guards are members of my council of Brothers. Brother Jacob and Brother Jessica.” I lifted an eyebrow in response to the titles. “The term is unisex of course. A Brother is a Brother, no matter the details.” He chuckled. “I assure you that we do not discriminate. Physical sex, age, race, and other such nonsense means nothing in the face of Armageddon and the fall of humanity…”
I merely nodded dismissively at what sounded like the start of some crazed rhetoric and glanced at Rick. He seemed worried. I had noticed an increase in his spirits since we had left Denver, but he now seemed as worried as I felt. It was a sense of dread which only grew as we walked through that gate. Something seemed wrong, something I couldn’t put my finger on. I could feel it was something about the very nature of Paradise. I resolved to keep my eyes and ears open and try to ascertain just what was going on.
I couldn’t contain a wince when I heard the gate slam shut behind me. I felt Rick’s hand upon my shoulder as the chain wrapped around the gate’s beams and the padlock clicked shut. It would not be easy to leave here, not without permission and knowledge of our hosts. A fact that I found horribly unsettling. I said nothing however as we followed our host into town.