Reuben opened his eyes to find a man standing square in front of him. A sawn-off shotgun was couched in his arms. His unconcealed face was lightly bearded, burned pinkish red from the sun. A baseball cap was propped on his head, the type continental truckers wear. Most striking of all though were his eyes for they were a blueish grey. There was a ghostly hue to them. Reuben could almost feel them boring into him. The man extended his bare hand down to him. “Need a lift son,” he offered in an almost paternal fashion, his accent bearing a strong southern twang to it.
Reuben could not remember the last time he had taken a stranger’s hand in his own. The handshake had been made such an extinct custom, at least it was to him anyway who had been strenuously trying to avoid the virus. With so much paranoia and distrust and fear swarming all around him right now though, it was hard not to accept this one kind gesture of charity and good faith.
“I don’t see anyone else offering,” he said lightly as he took the stranger’s hand.
“You got that right,” chuckled the stranger as he lifted Reuben to his feet. He gestured to the road where he had parked his pick-up truck. “C’mon and hop on in. Time to get out of dodge city!” Reuben did as told of him without a second thought. Before he knew it, he was back inside the safe(r) confines of a vehicle again. An involuntary sigh of relief was let out of him as he collapsed into the passenger seat. The ignition turned and the truck revved into life. Within seconds they were cruising like safari tourists through the mayhem and slaughter.
“You’re not one of them, are you?” asked Reuben cautiously as they sped away.
“No son, I am not one of them,” he answered.
“Then why aren’t they shooting at us or trying to steal your truck?” The stranger looked over at Reuben with an all-knowing smile slashed across his face.
“God watches over me son, that’s why. Just like He watched over you back there.” Reuben gulped at that answer. Something was not right about the man. He could feel it. In a rapid few heartbeats he began to question himself on taking up this offer for a ride out of town. “He
heard your words son. He sent me to save you. By all rights of physics, you should be leakin’ bullet holes like a bird in duck season... but I saw you with my eyes... and I saw you in my dreams ... and I knew you were God’s own.” Reuben didn’t say anything to that. He had no clue what he could say. The stranger held out his hand again, this time for a genuine handshake. “Name is Bill Douglas.”
“Reuben Conner,” reciprocated Reuben.
“Pleased to meet you, Reuben Conner.” Douglas waved his finger at Reuben’s mask. “You don’t need that anymore here son.”
“We’re sitting next to each other,” reminded Reuben, thinking to himself that Douglas should also be wearing one given the proximity between them. Douglas just laughed it off though.
“That don’t matter, boy,” he said. “It’s like I said, God watches over me, and over you. If you truly believe in our Lord, then you’re already saved. Only those heathen sinner liberal communists wear masks. They wear them because they know they’re going down to the fire below when the virus gets them.... And they wanna turn every one of us into dirty commie sinners just like them. But they ain’t here now. Not in this state, and not in my truck... They ain’t here to judge you no more son. Take it off. The only real judge is God. Your prayers may be strong, but they’ll never be true when you’re praying through that thing.”
Reuben cursed to himself silently. He had a fairly good idea of what type of person this Bill Douglas was now. One moment of desperation, and this was his reward: being stuck with a crazy Bible-beating hillbilly. This wasn’t safe. He knew he should get out of the truck. If this care-free fool had the virus then he was dead.
But if he decided to leave, then where would he go? He took a fleeting glance at the world outside the window, the world he had been rescued from. Suburban neighbourhoods burned like matchsticks. Heaps of charred corpses littered the pavements. Crucified to an old plantation wall was a nurse. Covered from head to toe in protective medical gear she was, her hands outstretched like Christ on the cross. From her neck hung a simple placard with two chilling words scrawled across it:
He looked back at Bill Douglas.
No one had attacked them since they had started driving. No one at all. God or no God, whoever this man was, nobody was even daring to screw with him. Chances were too that he had a safe place to hide from all this lunacy. That was worth more than anything right now. A charitable lunatic had to be better than a psychopathic lunatic. Slowly and methodically, Reuben unhooked the mask from his face and shoved it into his pocket.
“So,” started Douglas, visibly more relaxed now that the mask was out of the equation. “What’s your story, Reuben Conner? How did a fine young buck like you end up on the side of the road like that? You ain’t from round here are ye?”
“No sir,” confirmed Reuben, easing himself into the seat a little as he resigned himself to whatever fate awaited him. “Came down this way about two years ago looking for work. First month on the job and the whole world goes to shit. Tried to make it home a couple of times
but when we weren’t in lockdown here they went into lockdown and when they were out of it, we were back in it.”
“Lockdowns,” snarled Douglas as he chewed on a piece of gum. “How many of those did we have again?”
“I forget,” said Reuben honestly. “Five? Six maybe?”
“Sounds about right,” agreed Douglas. “From what I reckon though, those days of lockdowns are over. We’re into the days of these here lockouts and lock-ins, whatever you wanna call it. Those yankee feds wanna save themselves by locking us up, let the virus do its thing. You make a run for the border?”
“Yeah,” sighed Reuben. “Me and my pal, Steve, we made a run for it. Got stuck in traffic on the 75, then on the 44 and then the 66. Last one was where the soldiers were...” He paused for a moment as the memory returned to him. This was the first opportunity he had had to process what had happened. “Some of the infected tried to break the checkpoint... Soldiers opened fire on everyone... Next thing there’s bullets flying and my friend’s dead next to me... I ran out of the car. Was running ever since then. Till you found me.”
“Real sorry to hear that son,” sympathised Douglas. “Those God damn commies don’t give two shits for human life.”
“And the Iron Klan? What about them?” questioned Reuben, deliberately wanting to challenge him.
“The Klan? Well heck, the Klan ain’t much better but see they ain’t pretendin’ to be something else like those cowardly mask-wearing Commie Feds are. This is the End of Days son, and at the End of Days the Devil is given his work to do... the Klan killin’ all these people, that’s the Devil’s work. They’re punishing the sinners of this world... only problem is, the Devil wants to punish everyone. God just wants to punish the wicked, and he’s doing a mighty fine job of it all on his own.”
“How has God punished them?”
“You see all this son?” said Douglas as he pointed out to the nightmare they were safely driving through. “This ain’t people. It may look that way. But its not. It’s God. It’s all God. Everything that’s ever happened was God... and this virus here, it’s God too. He sent it. Do you know what I mean?”
“No... I don’t.”
“It’s Coronavirus. Corona means crown, right? And what did Christ have on his head when he was on the Cross... a God damn, crown. And not any crown, a crown of thorns. That was a crown of judgement... and that’s what this is son, judgement. These commie liberals are going down, and they’re going down fast... the virus is only killing the unbelievers. This is the Apocalypse. And do you know what Apocalypse means son? It means revelation, it’s the great unveiling. That’s why these yankee liberals wear the mask, because they’re trying to cover up their sins. See, they fear the judgement in store for them when all is revealed, when the sickness gets them. But you and me, we don’t fear it. God can judge me, no questions asked, I ain’t got nothin’ to hide. No mask for me... the only one as far as I can see who can wear a mask in this whole damn world is God. Do you know why son? Because he works in mysterious ways’, you know? No one can truly know him, you dig?”
“So, you and I, we’re saved because we’re believers?” said Reuben just to clarify.
“Damn straight we are boy! All we gotta do is wait out the storm. And when it’s all over the wicked will be forsaken, and the world will be Christ’s own again.”
“Right,” cautiously stated Reuben. He would have to tread carefully here. Any progressive ideas, any liberal views on society, all of that had to be locked away for now. He had to keep his mouth shut. He didn’t want to know what would happen if Douglas learned of his upbringing, his education, his opinions on things. If he wanted to live, he had to, in effect, quarantine his own beliefs and opinions. However misguided or delusional this man was, he was a paragon of sanity compared to the death squads and their pyres. Principles were not a luxury one could afford to have in this world. “I think I can get with that,” he affirmed. “Where are we going?”
“You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see...”