The drive did not take long. At least it did not feel long to Reuben, he was too caught up in his thoughts to notice, too dog-tired to care. Before he knew it, they were out in the open country, flat dusty tracts of farmland in every direction. Rising forth from the flat expanse was a singular block of a building. Like a crag out at sea, it was a lone stone to spite the elements. Barbed wire fences and ditches surrounded it. Upon its grounds were pens for chickens and greenhouses for vegetables. Children were playing and mothers were tending to them. Standing atop the roof of the compound were bearded men with guns nestled in their arms and cowboy hats slumping over their brows.
“This is it son,” said Douglas as they pulled in. “Welcome to the Last Haven.”
“Billy Boy!!” came a warm friendly voice. A man dressed in black military attire with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder was idling over to welcome them.
“David!” greeted Douglas as he hopped out of the truck.
“All good at the safe house?” inquired David.
“Yeah, yeah, no one’s been screwing aroun’ with our shit. Picked up a few things to add to the itinerary. Picked up something else too.” He turned to Reuben who was cautiously getting out of the car. “This here is Reuben Conner. Reuben, this is my friend and associate, David Devereaux. David here was in the Marines so I can assure you that you are in good hands!”
“Pleasure to meet you, Mr Conner,” greeted David with a mandatory handshake. “Welcome to the Ark.”
“Ark? I thought it was the Last-”
“They’re one and the same really,” explained Douglas hurriedly. “David here is a fan of the Noah story.”
“Because like Noah we’re saving all the faithful people. And all the wicked are being condemned to the Flood,” expounded David with a zealous smile in his eyes. “This compound here is our Ark. We built it with our own hands this thing.”
“You built it? That was fast,” commented Reuben as he took in the towering scale of the structure. David and Douglas chuckled at that.
“No son, we built this over many long years,” said Douglas.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long long time,” added David with a hint of pride. “We’re what you might call preppers: devotees to the preparation for the end of days. We got enough guns to start World War Three and enough food to make Mogadishu the obesity capital of the world. We is here to wait out the Flood.”
“That’s good to hear,” responded Reuben with casual nervousness, not knowing quite what to make of this. Out of the corner of his eye he saw another man emerging from the front door of the complex. Unlike David and Douglas, he had a smoother, more refined look about him. His hair was short and tidy, his face clean-shaven and decorated with a set of glasses. He wore the type of shirt, tie, and slacks that one might expect to see on a lawyer or an accountant. Stiff as his appearance was, he waved over to them courteously and came forward with hand extended like a politician to greet the newcomer. Reuben once again obliged without thinking and shook the man’s hand.
“Howdy!” he said amiably, his accent every bit as thick as David’s and Douglas’. “See you brought us back a new addition to the family Billy.”
“You bet,” said Douglas with a smirk. “Reuben this is my oldest and dearest of friends, Bob Fisher.”
“‘Fisherman’ here is the brains behind the operation,” joked David as he boisterously put his arm around Fisher’s shoulder. Fisher chuckled jovially to his friend’s jostling.
“Douglas is the real brains,” conceded Fisher. “I just do the borin’ paperwork for this marvellous facility.”
“Ah I see,” said Reuben.
“Anyhow I think that’s enough introductions for one day,” wrapped up Douglas. “Why don’t we get you a room and a meal and get you sorted out eh? That sound good to you Reuben?” Before Reuben could even answer, his rescuer was hollering at the top of his lungs for the whole compound to hear. “Lily-Jean!!! Lily-Jean!!! Come on out here girl!!”
A woman appeared in the doorway with a cigarette caught between her fingers. She looked as though she were anything between sixteen and twenty-five. She had a head of blonde hair tied up in pigtails and wore a chequered red and blue shirt with jeans.
“I ain’t deaf Billy Boy!” she shouted as she came into view. “The Hell you want?” Douglas paternally patted Reuben on the shoulder.
“This here is our new guest, Reuben Conner,” said Douglas. “Will you please escort him inside and provide all the contours of southern hospitality to him?” Lily-Jean sighed, nodded, stamped out her cigarette and gestured for Reuben to follow her. Douglas returned his attention to Reuben. “You just follow Lily-Jean there now son, she’ll fill you in on all you need to know.”
Reuben gave no reply. He just sleep-walked forward. As he moved out of earshot, he faintly began to hear the three men get into a serious discussion, one which they no doubt did not intend for him to hear. Once inside the compound though he focused his attention on his new surroundings within the building. From what he could see, there was a communal living space with couches and pool tables, a spacious kitchen area, a pantry, and a walk-in freezer. Lily-Jean led him up to the next floor of the compound where he was met with a hallway flanked on either side with bedrooms, each one of them about the size of cabin one might find on a cruise ship. For every ten rooms he passed, only two showed any sign of being occupied, the rest were empty.
What initially appeared like a simple linear corridor suddenly branched off then into a maze of offshoot hallways, each and all of them flanked with bedrooms. Every turn of a corner revealed yet another row and another and another. From the outside, Reuben had thought this place capable of housing maybe a few dozen people, a hundred at most. Evidently, his eyes had deceived him. There were enough rooms here for over a thousand at least. An Ark this was indeed.
After what seemed an absurd amount of time for touring the compound, Lily-Jean finally settled on a room and waved her hand to Reuben.
“This is you,” she said. He shuffled past her into the tiny cupboard of a bedroom which sported nothing more than a bed and a small lamp on a set of drawers. The room had no windows. Once the door closed, he would be completely sealed off from the outside world. He had seen prison cells on T.V that were more commodious than this. “One of the girls will bring towels later. Showers are communal. As are all meals and just about everything else here. Everyone has breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, no exceptions. Everything we do here, we do as a community.” Lily-Jean stepped into the room and shut the door behind her. She signalled for Reuben to take a seat on the bed.
“I don’t know you, Reuben Conner,” she said frankly. “But if Billy brought you here then all I can say is that you’re meant to be here. And that means you ain’t leavin’. I’m figurin’ you’ve seen all sorts o’ shit out there and you ain’t in no hurry to see it again. Am I right?”
“Yes ma’am,” gulped Reuben tentatively. “I’m in no rush to see that again.”
“Okay then, well if you’re gonna stay, then you’ll need to know some ground rules.” Lily- Jean exhaled heavily and paused for a second to collect her thoughts before saying anything else. “First and foremost, do you have a mask?”
“Keep it if you like, but don’t you ever wear it here. Ain’t no one to wear a mask on this here premises. You understand me? Masks are for those spineless yankee commies. Only God wears a mask. You hear?”
Reuben held his silence before he gave his answer. Lily-Jean had just espoused the same worldview as Douglas had. That could only mean that everyone else in this place was also of the same mind. Indeed, of all the people he had seen here, not one of them was wearing a mask. It was as if the pandemic had never happened. He thought about what that meant and then he nodded in confirmation.
“Good,” continued Lily-Jean. “Now, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t no Christian. Billy would’ve left you for the flies elsewise. And I’m sure our dear Billy was real friendly and all with you, and David and Fisherman were all real nice to you too. But they ain’t your friends. They ain’t no one’s friends but their own. They run this place. They’re the Three Kings.”
“I’m sorry, hold on a sec, they’re kings?”
“Yeah so, Fisherman, he’s the Shield King. David, he’s the Brave King. And Billy, well he’s the king of kings, he’s the Holy King. You don’t address any of those three fellas except as by their sacred titles.”
Reuben once again had to keep his silence after that. For a moment he was so dumbfounded by what he had just heard that his mind went completely blank. Then he began to question his own sanity. What nutty little corner of the world had he just gotten himself into? Kings? Alarm bells were going off in his head. This was a cult. A cult. A crazy fundamentalist cult that was going to get him killed! But the counter-arguments streamed in and flooded his conscience. They had food enough to wait out the Federal blockade. And they had enough guns to blow any marauder group out of the water. That was more than he could hope for anywhere else. It was either this or back to the wasteland. To avail of it, all he had to do was nod and smile for a little while. And that’s what he did.
“I understand,” he said, with a nod, and then a smile.
“It’ll make more sense, the longer you’re here,” she assured him, evidently not completely convinced by his avowal of faith. “Last thing then, what were you involved in before all this? What was your deal? Your job? You a shooter? Farmer?”
“I was a consultant with-”
“Pen pusher!” she snapped. “That’s fine and dandy. Shield King’s always looking for another lean mean typing machine. I’ll pass you onto him. You earn your keep here with him.”
“Ah, ok,” tacitly accepted Reuben. It had been some time since he had done any real work. Two years of government subsidies and lockdown benefits had allowed him to enjoy two full years of sweet nothing. It would make a change to be productive once again, even if it was in the service of a cult.