Chapter 24 – At the Dinner Table
For eternal minutes, the only sound in that room was the distinct clinking of silverware on ceramic and tooth on food. No words were said, no grumbles uttered, nothing. My companions and I ate more than our fill. The hunger of slow and rationed starvation had taken its toll, even if our careful consumption had distracted us from our hunger. We ate and ate, until our bellies were full and our hunger more than sated. As our meal neared completion, Alexander leaned back and released a long content sigh. “Paradise. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Am I right? Or am I right?”
He patted his belly a few times, and my chewing slowed. It was quickly becoming clear how this man had grown so large in girth, if not stature. While we had each eaten large swaths through the table, it still paled in comparison to Alexander’s culinary conquest. I guessed he had eaten by himself as much as my companions and I combined and he had done this in even less time. He was happy though and his spirits high.
“We renamed this town for a reason, you see.” He chuckled, eyeing Anne lecherously. “It was a fine place before. A fine place, indeed. But, a paradise it was not. There was too much impurity, even here, corruption of the flock you see. Even before the devil’s own reached out and tainted this land.” I glanced at our host and noticed he was barely even looking at the three of us as he spoke, his words were intended as much for himself as they were for us.
“When the sky cracked and the eye of God returned to watch over our wayward world. The land was already corrupted and fought to stay. The skies had rained blood for days before that golden disk returned, a vicious storm of viscera blowing in from the Northeast, riding upon a gust of howling screams from the very bowels of hell itself.”
There was a long pause, broken by nothing more than breathing and the sounds of the slow eating of the sated. He looked at me, dead in the eye.
“I saw it. In your eyes the moment that those gates opened. You had seen it, the bizarre and harrowing array of terrible things. What was it girl? Demons? The skies turning black as pitch? Fires erupting from every direction? What was it? Your eyes,” He glanced at my companions, lingering especially long on Rick. “And the eyes of your friends, they speak of the terrors that you have seen. They are the same eyes that I have seen within the skulls of every man, woman and child in this city called Paradise.”
He stopped, waiting for my response. I glanced between my companions; getting only a shrug from each. I let out a slight sigh and nodded to him. “Yeah. We’ve seen stuff. Planes changing into birds, the walking dead, and a town full of floating jellyfish. Bizarre things, sure, but nothing demonic.” I shrugged dismissively.
“Be it devil or not, matters not. The Eye of God watches over us now, so it matters not what symptoms the cleansing wrought. That storm has abated, but has left us broken and forgotten in its wake. You see, we are the Stormborne! The children of a new world. The old world has been washed away, leaving only two kinds of people to survive in this strange, new place: those who remain Corrupt and the Pure.” He nodded to himself, certain of the truths he spoke and unconcerned with anyone’s interest or opinion.
“The Pure remain in the vision of God, you see, and remain completely human in every way. The Corrupt, their forms bear the scars of their corruption and sin. If they were broken and lifeless before, undead they become. If they were wrathful creatures, they became like the beasts they emulated. If they were wretched, they now wear their sins like a scar. Nothing in this world was left unchanged, except the Pure.” His eye almost seemed to pulse with some intense energy, like a strange and frightening fire that burned within. His passion seemed ready to consume everything he saw.
“The devil’s own can sense our purity and they hate us for it. They hunt us down. Kill us on sight. I could not allow that, you see. I had been running for so very long, never willing to stray from home, but afraid to return. Then, I looked up and saw the spinning disk of God’s Eye. It looked down upon me and gave me strength. Strength I used to reclaim this town from the corrupted and debased citizens that remained.”
“I gathered the others that had remained untainted and uncorrupt I could find and we dismantled that which we did not need and built the fence which so deterred your entrance earlier today. This place is a refuge, keeping the corrupted world outside these walls from destroying the last bastion of goodness left to this world. When the cleansing fires wash through the lands once more and God’s wrath falls upon us once more, this town shall be spared. Until then, we strive to make this New Eden from the clutches of the vile serpents that so wish to lead us astray.”
He paused, taking deep breaths as his tirade came to a close and he finally gave himself time to breathe. He stared at us, nothing but questions in his eyes. After a moment, of catching his breath, he looked up at each of us in turn. His one good eye pierced through our own, one at a time. “So. Will you join us? Living in peace and harmony as the world burns?”
I was stunned. My friends’ silence told me they were too. The meal lay forgotten on the table. I barely noticed the three wives had begun to clean up and take its remains from the room. We glanced to each other, mouths agape and eyes wide with surprise. We had expected a speech, some simple and crude type of recruitment, but an impromtu sermon had come as a surprise. My mouth worked, but no sound escaped from my lips. I could almost hear the gears in my friends’ heads grinding, as they too attempted to process such a sudden flood of information. Bobbi was the first to speak up.
“Uhm… I’m sorry, but really? Do you really…” I jabbed an elbow into her ribs, cutting her speech short with a grunt.
“I’m sorry. It’s just a lot to take in all at once.” I coughed slightly, hoping Bobbi would take the hint. “I mean, we weren’t expecting something of this magnitude to fall in our laps.” It was a carefully crafted lie. Not untrue, just misleading and occluding.
“I understand, my dear. Joining our flock is no small matter. I would have been concerned if any of you had accepted or declined on a reactionary moment. This bears consideration.” He waved dismissively to his wives with a smile. Without another word, they headed for the kitchen door. He waited impatiently for them to leave the room before continuing. “I have taken the liberty of having rooms prepared for you, not to worry. I had the womenfolk open up a few of the empty rooms in this big, old house.” He let loose a self-amused guffaw and leaned back in his chair.
When the three women returned, I stood and reached out to take a few of the serving trays and plates for myself, to help carry them to the kitchen. That simple gesture set off a frenzied response. The women began to shoo me, looking worried and concerned; attempting to convince me to sit down again. The little girl, in particular, seemed to almost plead with her eyes as she looked at me, imploring me not to help. This alone would have been surprise enough, but Alexander’s response was far more intimidating.
“Sit down, young lady.” His voice was cold and paternal, as if he were angrily telling off a rotten child. “You are a guest in this house and I will not have my guests strain themselves doing housework. If you are so eager to take part in the domestic arts, that can be arranged when you choose to stay with us. Until then, however, you are a guest in this town and you shall not interfere.” His voice never rose, remaining low and cold. It sent shivers down my spine, and I found myself slowly lowering myself back into my seat.
Sufficiently cowed, the three of us sat in silence as the table slowly emptied. I noticed Bobbi silently glaring at Alexander, but wisely said nothing. Rick seemed worried and kept watching the three women, particularly Anne. I barely noticed the world around me, I was trying to put together the pieces of my discomfort.
The more I considered the realities of what we had seen, the more I realized that something was fundamentally wrong.
These women were terrified of a portly old man with a missing eye. He was threatening and loud, certainly. He was the leader of the town, so he likely had some real power, but it seemed disproportionate to his actual ability to lead. Particularly when one considered the almost fevered loyalty of the people under him. It was certainly possible that he could have reached his position for his part in the founding of this place, particularly if there was a grain of truth in his claim as sole founder. I could tell there was something more to this, something I couldn’t yet identify.
Some inherent threat held these women in sway. Considering the unquestioned worship and obedience of the other townspeople, it was likely that he had a similar hold over the populace. Now, he wished for us to stay the night under his own roof. Between the prison like quality of this town and the unquestioned loyalty of its citizens, I had a feeling that we would not be allowed to leave of our own volition despite claims to the contrary.
For his part, Alexander cleaned his teeth and patted his belly with a lazy contentment. He idly stared out the window, his attention clearly elsewhere. After nearly ten minutes of awkward silence there came a loud clanging sound from somewhere else in the town. The sound was a clear and solid strike against what sounded like a church bell, but no follow up sound came. Instead the sound echoed and reverberated through the streets and windows of the town. I guessed it carried some message that I did not understand. Alexander understood and clearly this was the signal for which he had been waiting.
The man stood, his eyes remaining locked on whatever it was that he saw out the window. He did not even look at any of us as he muttered. “You shall remain here. You shall be shown to your rooms soon. The women know what to do.” With that he marched out the door without another word, the door slamming loudly behind him.
I glanced to my companions and saw the tension in their faces had faded somewhat with the departure of our aggressor, but I was still tense. I found the speed of his departure worrisome, moreso than his continued presence. I did not know if this event was normal, occurring around the same time every day, or if it were somehow connected with our presence. The women staying behind left only more questions unanswered. If this town were under the cult-like influence of Alexander and his lackey council, why were his wives allowed to stay behind? Or were they being forced? Either way it was a curious situation.
I found myself cursing the sun, Alexander’s ‘Eye of God’, for its unceasing presence. If the sun never set, the concept of day and night became arbitrary and difficult to define. Not to mention that the idea of exploring the town under cover of night was impossible. Doing so in daylight, even at ‘night,’ could prove suicidal. Unfortunately there was little I could learn about the town without leaving the premises. This left me with only one reasonable option: I had to try extracting my answers from the clammed-up wives of our host.