Chapter 20: Welcome to Paradise
The town itself, which I noticed began just under two hundred yards from the fence line, was quaint enough. . The grass beneath our feet was thick and a vivid green color. The smattering of trees that we had seen outside the fence were even more numerous within its walls. Nearly every house had a yard and every yard had at least two or three trees jutting up towards the sky.
Thus the town seemed like a pleasantly shaded island within a sea of rolling waves of grass. The houses looked modern to me, squat and simple things that would seem equally uncommon amongst the suburbs of a large city or a small farm community in the countryside. Each house was perfectly trimmed and painted, though some showed a bit of normal wear-and-tear. Yards were all perfectly manicured and tended. To the South side of town, a school building could be made out, wedged up against the edge of the town. It appeared empty and unused, but it appeared well maintained. Through the trees, I may have even glimpsed a large plaza in the center of the town.
Paradise. The name seemed appropriate. It seemed as if the white picket fence American Dream had come to life here. Without the literal fences at least, barring the ugly but effective wall around the community. I could see a few individuals out and about, moving through the town with some degree of focus. Some mowed their lawn, others carried bags of produce, and one little girl ran past with a little dog. Nothing seemed odd or out of place in this town. So why did it all worry me?
I felt a gentle sensation on my back, causing me to jump. A second later I realized our host had placed his hand on my lower back and was gently urging me forward. “Come along now, I’m sure the others will be glad to meet you. It can get quite dull around here with only the same old folks to talk to.” He nodded towards the center of town and started to lead us towards the plaza barely visible between the trees and houses.
“How many people are there?” I glanced over at Alexander, hoping that my attempts to make conversation would be taken as benign. Or at very least disguise my reflexive recoil from his touch.
“Oh, at last count we were about eighty, I believe. That’s counting the children. It was closer to three hundred before the madness started, but we lost nearly all of them in the chaos. Some disappeared, others mutated, still others went mad. Either way, they were gone in a matter of a few weeks before we began to build the fence. It took most of our city’s fences, and some of the local farmers had to sacrifice some as well, but we managed to build it up over time and we’ve been here ever since.” He chuckled. “We rechristened the town Paradise only a month ago, just after our first elections. That would be when I took over as leader of the flock.”
“So it’s been about, what, three months? Since the Chaos then?”
“I’d say closer to four by this point. About to come up on half a year since everyone began to change.” He bowed his head slightly, whether out of regret or showmanship I was not sure. “Damn shame. I can still remember the screaming as their own bodies betrayed them.” He shook his head and looked back at me. “We were down to only about fifty by that point, but we soon found others to join us. Coming from far and wide, the normal people sought us out like moths to a flame. We offer protection and the only price is cooperation. It’s a good system and everyone knows it. We’ve had some from Kansas, Dakota and Iowa stumble up to our gates before, and each was screened as you was, and allowed to enter. Each and every one stayed.” He beamed with pride at that.
“Eighty people, though, that must be hard to keep everyone fed?”
“Not like you’d think. You see, we keep gardens, all throughout the town and around it. We position crops carefully, placing delicate plants in places that ensure they do not get scorched by God’s Eye and sturdier plants in other places, now that it never sets. We’ve found a never setting sun allows us to grow food at an alarming rate. And, of course, we supplement our resources with foodstuffs from outside the walls. We take that truck,” he pointed at a large black truck that was parked near the edge of town as we approached it. “And we venture out into the tainted lands to find foods that we cannot raise here alone. We do so once a week, and only the purist of us is allowed to leave, for fear that any weakness will expose them to corruption.”
I looked the truck over, eyeing it all over as we walked past and into the city proper. It was the first vehicle that I had seen in weeks that looked like it could run. I wondered they found the fuel to use it, but I chose not to ask right then. Instead, I turned my attention to the townsfolk.
As we walked through the town, each townsperson we met reacted in the same way. They would smile warmly at me and my companions, giving us words of welcome and good cheer. They would smile and politely bow their heads to the Brother guards and saying some variation of “good day.” Finally, when their gaze fell upon Alexander, they would drop to one knee and greet him thusly: “Good day, Grand Shepherd.” To which our portly guide would place a hand on the top of their head and speak some word of comfort or greeting. It was enough to intrigue and worry me, but it did not seem out of place in those peaceful environs for the people to be happy and thankful to their chosen leader, so again, I said nothing.
A short time later we arrived in the town square. It was clear this place had once served as the town’s main avenue, but a lack of vehicles had reduced the need to maintain it for such. Instead, the streets were maintained only for foot traffic and large plant pots blockaded the main block, which had been converted into a market square of sorts. There were storefronts with doors thrown open and salvaged materials on display. Carts lined the sidewalks and streets where various foodstuffs were on display. People milled about, nearly two dozen, and they were exchanging foodstuffs and other crucial materials. I saw no money exchange, only goods.
The sound of deals brokered and struck filled the air with a faint thrum. It was the sound of over two dozen mouths all speaking at once. There was a faint smell of human body odor and spoiled vegetables, but that odor was mostly overpowered by the smell of fresh fruits and vegetables.
As we walked into the plaza, the same bellowing voice which had interrogated us through the gate now erupted from Alexander’s throat, calling for attention from all who could hear. “Citizens!”
Nearly instantly, the thrum of mercantilism faded and every head turned to regard our motley group, which still stood at the edge of the town square. All across the plaza, heads bowed low and many also dropped to one knee. Silence reigned throughout the plaza.
“Citizens!” He repeated. “May I have your attention!” He already had it. “I wish to present a few new faces to our midst.” He stepped back, pushing the three of us forward. “We have guests today, ones that we hope to join our community. They will not consider it if we do not show them the utmost of purity and propriety. Treat them well, Treat them as your own kin.” His expression was friendly, but serious as he continued. “Can I count on your support and friendship for our new friends?” His request was met with shouts and murmurs of agreement. “Remember, The Eye of God watches over all of us!”
“We are guided by his shepherd.” The throng chanted in response. Heads bowed lower, a few who had remained standing dropped to their knee. Then, as if a spell had been lifted, they all stood straight once more and returned to their business as if nothing had happened. Those few who were closest to our location continued to hold their heads low whenever their gazes drifted over to Alexander, but they continued their business of exchange.
I shot a glance at Rick and Bobbi. The former looked concerned, as if he were terrible uncomfortable. The latter looked as if she were beside herself with fear. Her expression belied an anxiety that I hadn’t ever seen in her. Bobbi locked her gaze with me, blinked a few times and opened her mouth to say something. All that came out was a faint croaking as she cut herself off. Her expression shifted to one that seemed only marginally uncomfortable and she smiled weakly, her gaze having shifted elsewhere. I glanced to the side, following her eyes and noticed that Alexander had been watching our unspoken exchange with a bemused expression.
“Jessica. Jacob. You are released. Go home to your families. Meal time is nearly upon us.” He waved his hand towards the market, where I noticed that the crowd had begun to thin, with streams of humanity heading back to nearby houses. Our two guards glanced at us, seeming uncertain if this would be wise, before nodding to Alexander and slowly walking away. They quickly disappeared into the trails and were gone, presumably returning to their homes.